A Tale of Two Ecumenisms

Reflections on Evangelicals and Catholics Together

There are thus two questions which we can raise here, one systematic and theological, the other ecumenical and practical. The systematic question is this: Can one sustain orthodox Protestant soteriology in the long term if one abandons the classical theism and Trinitarianism which underpinned it? To put this another way: Can evangelicals consistently maintain their understanding of the Reformation gospel, given their frequent indifference to the catholic (and thus Reformation) doctrine of God?

 

Over twenty years on, the practical impact of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together is not hard to discern. Positively, it was part of a larger collaboration that gave us the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and other related volumes. It also helped to foster the culture which surrounds First Things, perhaps the most articulate organ for the expression of conservative religious voices in the current cultural climate. Negatively, it shattered friendships and bred suspicion. Most notably, it served to rupture the relationship between J. I. Packer and leading Calvinistic evangelicals such as John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul.

In reflecting on ECT, I do not wish to rehash old conflicts. Rather, I want to draw attention to the fact that ecumenism can take a number of forms, and that this might well shape how we think about ECT on its twentieth anniversary.

First, a little scholarly background. Research in my own field of sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestantism over the last thirty years has shown that Protestantism represented only a partial break with medieval Catholicism. Put simply, the doctrine of God is something Protestantism assumed from medieval Catholicism; the notions of authority and ecclesiology were fundamentally transformed; and soteriology exhibited both continuities (e.g., anti-Pelagian understandings of predestination) and discontinuities (e.g., faith as the instrument of justification in which Christ’s righteousness was imputed, not imparted).

When we take this into account for ecumenism, we can see that ecumenical dialogue in the present therefore faces an interesting dilemma which has, as far as I can tell, been little noted: How do we establish the relative priorities of, say, the doctrine of God and the doctrine of salvation?

The question becomes more pressing when we note that much of the best work on classical theism and Trinitarianism of the last thirty years has been done by Roman Catholic theologians. One thinks, for example, of the work of Brian Davies, Khaled Anatolios, Lewis Ayres, Gilles Emery, Thomas Weinandy and Matthew Levering. Evangelical work in the same field has tended to be less rigorous or, worse still, to deviate from classical orthodox notions of God and Trinity. Immutability, impassibility, and doctrines such as the eternal generation of the Son have been abandoned or reduced in importance by large sections of the evangelical world.

By way of contrast, much of the best work on soteriology—biblical and systematic—has remained within the bounds set by Reformation Protestantism. One thinks of the commentaries by men such as Douglas Moo, Thomas Schreiner, and Greg Beale. Justification by grace through faith, consisting of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, remains basic to many Protestants’ understanding of the Gospel, including my own confessional Presbyterian tradition.

There are thus two questions which we can raise here, one systematic and theological, the other ecumenical and practical. The systematic question is this: Can one sustain orthodox Protestant soteriology in the long term if one abandons the classical theism and Trinitarianism which underpinned it? To put this another way: Can evangelicals consistently maintain their understanding of the Reformation gospel, given their frequent indifference to the catholic (and thus Reformation) doctrine of God?

That question is crucial. The evangelical imagination is very much in thrall to the idea that tinkering with the doctrine of scripture is lethal in the long run for orthodoxy, but history indicates that tinkering with the doctrine of God is just as devastating. New England Puritanism did not degenerate into moralistic Unitarianism because of the impact of Higher Criticism.

This then raises the ecumenical practical question: Why do evangelicals see agreement on soteriology, and not on the doctrine of God, as the necessary precondition for ecumenism?

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