News Articles

Southern Seminary journal examines evangelical-Catholic dialogue

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Unity between evangelicals and Roman Catholics must not compromise central biblical doctrines such as justification by faith alone, essayists conclude in the latest edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.

The latest SBJT (Volume 5, No. 4), titled “Reflections on the Evangelical-Catholic Dialogue” and published by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., examines issues of unity and disunity between evangelicals and Catholics.

The issue of Catholic and evangelical unity rose to prominence in 1994 when several evangelical and Catholic leaders signed a document of “unity” called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (also called “ECT”).

Though prominent evangelicals such as cultural commentator Chuck Colson, a Southern Baptist, and Anglican theologian J.I. Packer backed the accord, others received it with less enthusiasm. Evangelical opponents viewed the ECT document as a compromise of the doctrine of justification by faith alone — the central issue of the Protestant Reformation.

Mark A. Seifrid, associate professor of New Testament at Southern Seminary, examines the issue of justification by faith in relation to works. Roman Catholics hold that one is justified by faith alongside works, while historic Protestants adhere to justification by faith alone.

“The Reformers … came to understand that believers shall stand at the final judgment by a righteousness given to faith alone as a gift,” Seifrid writes. “In other words, the righteousness that saves us is found outside us in Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified, and risen.

“In taking this position, the Reformers were making a conscious break with traditional (Roman Catholic) understandings of justification, according to which the initial gift of justification had to increase and grow internally in order for the believer to attain salvation.”

SBJT editor Thomas R. Schreiner grew up in a Roman Catholic home and attended parochial school for nine years. He came to faith in Christ at age 17 when the woman who would later become his wife gave him a Bible to read.

In the Scriptures, he discovered the teaching that persons are saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone — the very doctrine recaptured by the Reformation.

Schreiner concludes that a true unity based upon theological conviction is not likely because it would require evangelicals to abandon the gospel or would force the Catholic church to completely overhaul its central dogmas.

“We must not compromise on sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), or sola gratia (grace alone),” he writes. “Though God can do all things, it is hard to imagine how we can be united with Roman Catholics: They would have to surrender their teaching on Mary, on the sacraments, on the primacy of the Pope, on the role of tradition, and revise their official teaching on justification.

“It is clear that the official Roman Catholic teaching on all these matters is not taught in the Scriptures. Perhaps I lack even a mustard seed of faith regarding the prospect for unity. It is difficult to conceive of Roman Catholics changing their teaching on such central matters, especially since tradition is venerated by Roman Catholics.”

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Seminary, agrees with Schreiner, and asserts that evangelicals and Catholics can serve as allies on social issues — such as abortion — but a theological consensus is less attainable because it involves critical fundamental issues of belief.

“Many evangelicals,” Mohler writes, “myself included, remain unconvinced that any consensus on salvation now exists between those who hold to the teachings of the Reformers and those who hold to the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.”

Mohler goes on to write that the Catholic church’s embrace of the inclusivist model of salvation at Vatican II has only widened the distance between evangelical and Catholic doctrine.

“We claim the name of Christ,” he writes. “We claim a purchase on the Great Tradition of authentic Christianity. Each of our traditions claims to be normative Christianity. These claims are incommensurate and necessarily involve conflict. These claims do not necessarily prevent cooperation in the cultural arena.

“In the sovereign providence of God, we face a great cultural challenge. We must be unembarrassed co-belligerents in this battle. Human rights, human dignity, and human happiness hang in the balance. Standing together, we work with each other. Standing apart, we witness to each other. Nothing less will do.”

Russell D. Moore, instructor of theology at Southern Seminary, explores the theological implications of ECT for evangelicalism. In his essay, Moore demonstrates how, in some ways, many evangelicals have inched closer to the traditional Catholic view of salvation and away from the Reformation teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

Moore concludes that the ECT statements are able to gain a consensus largely because evangelicals hold a muddled understanding of their own doctrine of salvation — by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone — as set forth by the Protestant Reformation.

“… Roman Catholics and confessional Protestants are affirming the same language about justification, without touching the centuries-old anathemas each communion has placed on the other.”

That is, they are using the same language without its historic meaning.

Other essayists include Don Sweeting, senior pastor of Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Englewood, Colo.; C. Ben Mitchell professor at Trinity International Divinity School and consultant for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; and Kevin Offner, staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

The SBJT forum tackles “Key Points in the ECT Debate” and includes Thomas J. Nettles, Mark Dever, John Armstrong and James R. White in a question-and-answer format.

The journal includes book reviews of Bruce A. Ware’s “God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism,” and “World Christian Encyclopedia,” edited by David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson.

For information on purchasing the SBJT, call 1-800-626-5525, ext. 4413.

    About the Author

  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

    Read All by Jeff Robinson ›