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New evangelical-Catholic statement called inconsistent, unofficial

ATLANTA (BP)–While a new joint statement by a group of evangelicals and Catholics has been heralded by some as historic in its acknowledgement that salvation is by faith alone, others have characterized it as inconsistent and unofficial.
“(The statement) was a coup for the evangelicals in which instead of winning they lose,” said Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
“On the one hand, it was an achievement to get the Catholic signers to affix their signatures to a statement this lucid on justification by faith,” Patterson said. “On the other hand, Baptist evangelicals don’t have any business signing any doctrinal consensus papers with Rome until Rome disassociates itself from the Council of Trent,” he said, referring to the watershed meeting of 1545-64 which played a key role in defining Catholic doctrine.
The six-page statement, titled “The Gift of Salvation,” was developed by a loose-knit group of Roman Catholic and evangelical theologians including three Southern Baptists, Charles Colson, president of Prison Fellowship, and Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School At Samford University, Birmingham, Ala. One of the document’s original signers, Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, however, has since removed his endorsement.
The document was released Nov. 12 with assurances from the signers that “for the first time in 450 years, evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics have publicly agreed to a common understanding of salvation.” Several leading Southern Baptist theologians disagreed.
“The document appears to be inherently inconsistent,” said Phil Roberts, director of interfaith witness for the North American Mission Board. “The basic agreements regarding salvation appear to be nullified by the questions which the document says require further exploration. How is it that sacramental grace is still an outstanding question which salvation by faith alone is affirmed by the document?” Roberts questioned.
Mark Coppenger, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Mo., agreed. “I loved most of what I read in this document, both the content and the spirit,” Coppenger told Baptist Press. “But I could not sign it, for it seems to me that what the Catholics say in (one) paragraph, they hedge in (another),” Coppenger said. “How can those matters (of a sacramental system and purgatory) be open when the matter of ‘faith alone’ is settled?”
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., said, “Justification by faith alone, if genuinely affirmed by Catholics and evangelicals, would require repudiation of baptismal regeneration, purgatory, indulgences and many other issues presently affirmed by Roman Catholic doctrine.”
Mohler said the contradictions appear to lie in definition of terms. “Regretfully, I must conclude that the Catholics and evangelicals really do not define faith the same,” Mohler said.
The only Catholic official to comment on the document so far agreed. “In any conversation, you have to start with a definition of terms,” said Jeff Gros of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. “I believe this document is quite consistent if you understand our definition of faith.” Gros said the statement was “useful” and “a good contribution” but not official.
The unofficial nature of the document is part of what concerned the Southern Baptist theologians.
Roberts pointed out, “No presiding bishop or member of the Ecumenical Secretariat nor representative of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops signed the document. … It should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.”
Patterson said one thing he has learned from the SBC’s formal meetings with Catholics theologians is that “unless one of the ecumenical councils decreed it or unless the Pope decreed it to be official dogma, no other Catholic signatures on a document makes any difference and hence are gratuitous.”
Roberts cautioned the document does not represent those meetings which his office has coordinated the past two years. Although George and Land are members of the SBC conversation team, “This document is in no way, shape or form related to the Southern Baptist-Roman Catholic conversations. It in no way reflects upon the work of our Southern Baptist group and was done without the awareness of most of the members,” Roberts said.
None of the Catholic signers are representatives to the SBC-Catholic meetings, although Patterson, Coppenger, Mohler and Roberts are members.
Mohler told Baptist Press he believes the evangelicals who signed the statement must have done so “in a spirit of hopefulness which was willing to overlook the contradictions. They are most capable and faithful theologians, and I do not question their integrity. But I could not sign it with the contradictions unresolved. Presently, I do not see that hope realized.”

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  • Martin King