Not All Evangelicals and Catholics Together
An InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter can look very different in the fall than it did the previous spring. But the chapter at George Washington University (GWU) in the nation's capital is dealing with change of a more uncomfortable kind than absent graduates and incoming freshmen.
Shortly before students left for summer vacation, the D.C. chapter split when all ten student leaders resigned to form a new campus ministry called University Christian Fellowship. More than half of the chapter's roughly 100 students joined them. At issue was student leaders' worry that the national ministry confuses the gospel by cooperating with Roman Catholics, and has a mission statement that Catholics could sign without violating church teaching on the doctrine of justification—how sinners are declared righteous before God.
Over the past decade, justification has become one of the most hotly debated doctrines at conservative Protestant theology conferences and in the catalogs of highbrow Christian publishers. But it has almost entirely stayed in the academy and a handful of churches and denominations. The GWU clash suggests the debate may divide parachurch ministries and reshape evangelicals' relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.
Jolt of Intensity
The long debate over how Protestants should view the Roman Catholic Church has received several jolts of intensity in the past 15 years. The group Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) touted a 1994 statement, "The Gift of Salvation," in which several prominent Roman Catholics affirmed "justification by faith alone." The unofficial statement predated an official agreement between the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, called "The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification." The church allowed that anathemas the Council of Trent delivered in the mid-1500s do not apply to Protestants who agree with the joint declaration.
But Protestants' internal disagreement over justification has complicated matters. A Presbyterian Church in America committee reported in 2007 that reformulations of justification (especially two views known as the Federal Vision and the New Perspective on Paul) fall outside the bounds of historic Presbyterian confessions.
The committee's study of the New Perspective focused largely on N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham and a prolific biblical scholar. This year Wright published Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. The book counters his critics, especially John Piper, who published The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright in 2007. (See "The Justification Debate: A Primer," CT, June 2009.)
Another bombshell hit in May 2007, when Francis Beckwith, then president of the Evangelical Theological Society, reverted to Catholicism. The Baylor University philosopher has since published an account of his journey, titled Return to Rome.
"I have no doubt that the New Perspective and Federal Vision have had an effect on the Protestant-Catholic debate," Beckwith told Christianity Today. "I have met several former evangelical Protestants who have told me that Wright's work in particular helped them to better appreciate the Catholic view of grace."
Taylor Marshall went even further. Now a Ph.D. philosophy student at the University of Dallas, he started reading Wright while attending Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He said Wright's work shifted his assumptions so he could understand the Council of Trent's position. Marshall does not believe Wright holds to the full Catholic view. But he said Wright's critique led him to conclude that the Reformers departed from Scripture by teaching "forensic justification through the imputed alien righteousness of Christ."