One-on-One with David Dockery on the Reforming Catholic Confession that Celebrates the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
Ed: What is the new Reforming Catholic Confession and why was it released at this time?
David Dockery: The Reforming Catholic Confession is a statement released to commemorate and celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The statement is an attempt to show that Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Nazarenes, Wesleyans, Anglicans, Anabaptists, Pentecostals, non-denominational evangelicals, and other faithful Protestants continue to share many basic Christian beliefs in spite of our very real denominational differences.
It is a statement that represents both conviction and unity while pointing us toward a shared commitment articulated in the 4th century in the Nicene Creed, which describes the church as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”
The statement is a timely one, not only because it coincides with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but because it encourages the heirs of the Reformation to emphasize truth and love, holiness and unity.
Ed: People know what the Reformation is, and they know who Catholics are, so why a Reforming Catholic Confession?
David: The Reformation was a call for renewal of the church, for catholic unity grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ under the authority of Holy Scripture. The word ‘catholic’ is a word that means ‘unity’ or ‘universal’. Many Protestants confess and affirm the Nicene Creed on a regular basis which, as noted earlier, describes the church as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” It is important to make a distinction between the universal or catholic (small “c”) church and the Roman Catholic Church.
Some have claimed that this new statement is “catholic, but not Roman.” The desire of those who put this statement together, as well as those from across the numerous Protestant traditions around the globe, is to show that despite our denominational distinctives, distinctions, and differences, which are very real, there is also a substantial doctrinal consensus that unites us as faithful Protestants who are heirs of the shaping vision of the 16th century Reformers.
Ed: I saw the draft and some of the challenges. What were the hardest issues to make work?
David: My colleague at Trinity, Professor Kevin Vanhoozer, was asked to provide the initial draft of the statement, which was then presented to all the members of the Drafting Committee as well as several of us who served on the Steering Committee. Dr. Vanhoozer worked on the statement for 8 to 10 weeks. Each person was asked to respond to the draft. I think the responses totaled about 30 pages from this group of careful thinkers and capable theologians who represented the various traditions across the Protestant landscape.
The process itself was a learning exercise for each person. The humility represented, not only by Dr. Vanhoozer but by each participant, was exemplary and commendable. The spirit of unity that was evident throughout the process in many ways reflected what the statement was about. Everyone had to recognize that the statement could not say everything, nor could every difference among us be reflected in some way—although the differences concerning the different views of the ordinances/sacraments are noted in the document.
Wesleyans and Calvinists, premillennialists and amillennialists joined with Lutherans and Pentecostals to work together toward the statement. Baptists and Anglicans worked together with Presbyterians and those representing non-denominational evangelicalism. Every item in the confession went through several drafts to help move us toward the final statement. It truly was a blessed and Holy Spirit-enabled process.
Ed: That’s quite a list of signers, so obviously you worked hard to get them. Why does it matter that people from so many traditions signed?
David: The list of people among the initial 250 signatories represents more than 25 countries, numerous Protestant denominations, various kinds of churches, and more than 100 different institutions or Christian organizations. Most of the time, we tend to function in rather isolated ways. It seems that often we are hardly aware that many of these denominations or institutions or groups even exist.
We are even less aware of who provides leadership for these significant Christian ministries or the good work that is taking place among them. The process of connecting with the various people who initially offered support for the statement was heartening and encouraging on many levels. It really did provide connections and opened doors of friendship and gospel partnership.
The breadth of people who were involved in some small way points toward a sense of basic unity across the Global Church. We trust that the statement is a first step toward renewal. Looking back to the best aspects of the Reformation is not intended to be a nostalgic moment, but it is an effort to retrieve and reclaim the best of the Christian tradition for the purposes of renewal and revitalization among God’s people.
Ed: Do doctrinal statements like this still matter in the age of non-denominationalism?
David: Yes, I think they do. The statement is not only about spiritual unity, but about doctrinal consensus. Likewise, the statement recognizes that denominational and convictional differences still exist. Yet, it points to areas of shared confession without trying to say everything.
There is real substance to the confession, which includes sections on Scripture, the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, salvation and the Christian life, the church, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Kingdom of God.
Any call for spiritual unity that is not theologically shaped and focused will be vacuous and empty. It is important to remember that even the important sections on Christian unity in Scripture, including such passages as John 17 and Ephesians 4, are grounded in truth.
Hopefully, the statement reminds us that God’s oneness defines the oneness of the Body of Christ. As God is one in three, so the believing community is made up of different parts with a variety of expressions; yet the body is one. All of us need to hear afresh that visible unity grounded in truth is God’s expectation for us. I pray that the statement will be a first step toward renewal and unity in our theological commitments, our worship, our fellowship, our educational efforts, our shared service and cultural engagement, and ultimately our gospel proclamation.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.