To answer this question I must draw from my own personal experience with evangelical Protestants. Before we go one step further, though, I want to clarify something. “Evangelical Protestants” is not a proper name. I prefer to use “evangelical Christians,” or just “evangelicals,” because I am talking about people who are first and foremost followers of Christ, not protestors, and as a result of their discipleship, are of necessity evangelical.
Now to continue: what about my experience with evangelicals? It has shown me that Catholics have much to learn from and about evangelicals. First of all, evangelicals do not have to be Protestant to be evangelical. Secondly, evangelicals, though derived from many different Protestant denominations traditionally, are bound together by Scripture. Thirdly, evangelicals are extremely missionary-oriented by nature and have a high percentage of actual missionaries in their ranks. Fourthly, evangelicals are separated by spirit from other facets of Protestantism more so than from Catholicism. Fifthly, evangelicals are much less aware of their affinity to Catholicism than they could be because of a traditional yet understandable enmity and fear. Sixthly, evangelicals, though bound to their own peculiar traditions, have a simplicity of faith and practice which has much to say for itself. There are many other facets which I could enumerate, but for now let us look at those I have mentioned.
The Meaning Of “Evangelical”
I am an evangelical, yet I am a Catholic by denomination. To most of us the concept of a Catholic’s being an evangelical is new. Why, evangelicals are fundamentalists, Bible Christians, and consequently out of step with modern time! Is this really the true picture? Let me speak from experience.
I first came in contact with evangelicals in the summer of 1966 when I was attending the Summer Institute of Linguistics at the University of Oklahoma. The Summer Institute of Linguistics is the academic arm of Wycliffe Bible Translators, a vibrant Bible translation group doing work the world over. The tone of this summer and the following summer, as the linguistic course is of two summers’ duration, was one of concentrated study, community life, and a dominant religious atmosphere. It was here that I learned about the real, vital faith of Christians of many Protestant denominations—the type of faith that answers the why and wherefore of lives. It was here that I found avenues for the expression of the faith I had and wanted to increase. It was not difficult to take the step into evangelical life, because I found that my Catholic beliefs were identical in the basic, meaningful context which centered around Christ alone. I found the strangeness of this new religious “culture” unnerving at first; but with the help of my wife, who had been a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators and who belongs denominationally to the Salvation Army, and the tremendous love of the Christians whom I encountered, it was no time before I considered myself an evangelical.
Over the last three and a half years I have come to know Christians of every conceivable denomination: Presbyterian, Lutheran, Mennonite, Baptist, Salvation Army, Wesleyan, Plymouth Brethren, and many more. Yet it did not really matter for the most part that their denominations differed because all had the Bible to bind them together. Some quibbled over the interpretation of certain texts since there exist theological differences even among evangelicals. (There is a long-standing theological debate between Arminians and Calvinists.) Yet for the majority it was the overall spirit of the Scriptures which was the fuel for their Christian lives.
The spirit, Christ’s Spirit set down in human writing, has led many evangelicals to the mission field—at home and overseas. It is that same spirit which has led me and my wife to do Bible translation for an Indian tribe in Colombia. Once I overcame my worldly prejudices and sophisticated doubts about the validity of faith, once I was able to accept divine communication as a fact without becoming anti-intellectual, once I was caught up in the vortex of God’s Spirit, I had to give my life in some area—there were many—of missionary service. For me it is the simplest beauty of faith in the Lord’s all-seeing love that has led me to Colombia. For many evangelical friends it is the same, and for thousands of evangelicals whom I do not know, I am convinced that the same motivation prevails.
So Close, Yet So Far
Yet there are some facets of Protestantism that are not evangelical. I have found that I, as a Catholic, am much closer to evangelical Christianity than to so-called “liberal Protestantism.” Liberal Protestantism has many stimulating impulses, but by and large they are the impulses of men of reason more than the impulses of men of faith. I am the first to admit that evangelicals have a tendency to be anti-faith. Evangelicals, likewise, have tended to suspect Catholics of this latter tendency, the tendency to place human speculation above divine revelation. Historically there is good reason for this suspicion since the Reformation was certainly, in part, a reaction to the theologizing and sometimes confusing efforts of many churchmen. The problem is that this suspicion still lingers even today when many of the historical reasons have disappeared. (I say many but not all. The area of Marian veneration is the number-one point of dispute that evangelicals have with Catholicism. If Catholics were willing to forget their “deification” of Mary, understanding would come a long way. I have found myself agreeing with many evangelical arguments against the Catholic Mariological stand [especially as it is manifested in Latin America] for the simple reason that it often has no scriptural basis. Terms like “mediatrix of all graces” and “co-redemptrix” certainly strike a sour note in the light of First Timothy’s clear reference to Christ’s being the only mediator between God and man [1 Tim. 2:5].) Evangelicals must be aware of the fact that the Church is becoming fully alive to the Word of God. In my opinion Christian brotherliness and willingness to share mutual faith on the part of Catholic laymen is the solution to the problem.
Nevertheless, evangelicals are beginning to see the desire of Catholics to test the basic Christianity of all their beliefs through Scripture. They are beginning to suspect something about Catholicism that they never thought possible. The suspicion is phrased something like this: “Perhaps the Lord is raising up the Catholic Church as a force in world evangelism.” Perhaps we as Catholics do not appreciate this apparently condescending statement, but it means that understanding has come a long way. On the other hand, evangelicals increasingly criticize liberal Protestantism, which constantly wanders farther and farther away from Scripture into the maze of human theorizing. As more and more personal theologies arise among liberal Protestants, more and more Scripture theologians enter the Catholic picture. It certainly is a strange case of evolution. The fear and misunderstanding of Catholics is disappearing because Catholics have chosen to become more open or rather because the Spirit of Truth is more active than ever among Catholics. The mutual religious misunderstandings which I and my wife revealed to each other utterly amazed us—something which only convinces me more of the need for openness.
Yet, evangelicals have a right to complain too. They have been misunderstood by Catholics for the same reason Catholics have been misjudged by them. Contrary to some people’s opinion, evangelical Christianity has had its traditions and peculiar practices. Perhaps they are not as developed, either historically or artistically, as Catholic ones, but they have existed. And being different they have been misunderstood. Strict and unquestioning adherence to the literal meaning of the Bible is the most important characteristic of fundamentalism. But I have known many evangelicals whose approach to the Word is anything but simplistic—faithful, yes, but also exegetical and scholarly. But the Bible has more than textbook appeal to evangelicals; it is the Book of Life in all its vitality.
A Simple Outlook: Preach The Gospel
Evangelicals are not greatly involved in the missionary field of social betterment, but invariably their missionary endeavors enter this area out of sheer necessity. While preaching the Gospel or translating the Bible, there is no escaping the necessity of first helping in a physical way those to whom the message is preached. While it may seem to many Catholics a fruitless task to be so “fanatical” about spreading the written word, I have found more than adequate justification for pursuing this basic course in Christianization. To preach the Word we cannot ignore it in any part. We accomplish only part of the task by simply acting out Christian love—important as that is—and not imparting its inspired and inspiring content. A basic work like translating the Bible for small or large indigenous tribes throughout the world seems inscrutable only if we do not take seriously the command to preach the Good News to all corners of the world. I hope to find more and more Catholic laymen becoming aware of this essential element of evangelization as the Bible becomes more widely read and studied.
I must say here that I have found evangelical missionizing to be surprisingly (to Catholics) anthropologically based. There is little of the odious proselytizing for which missionaries in general are known. The approach of evangelization is by and large respectful of the culture and in fact aids in the development of the people into a mature cultural unit. There is good reason for this professional approach toward culture for a fair percentage of Protestant missionaries have had anthropological or linguistic training if not both.
Needless to say, evangelicals are not all foreign missionaries. But the missionary spirit at home is just as vital. It is not just a matter of active projects (though these are numerous among church groups) but of constant witnessing. The church member, from the youngest to the oldest, is charged with the mission to preach Christ in season and out of season. The people are not seminary-trained, but no matter. The message is simple and lends itself to many ways of imparting it. Nothing has irked me more concerning large Catholic parishes and some ecclesiastical structures in the United States and Latin America than the legalistic and almost morbid sense of church membership which encourages passivism and mediocrity if not unconcern and aversion toward the evangelical commission.
What Can We Learn?
I believe that we Catholics can find in fundamental Christianity a purity and freshness that many of us have lost perhaps because we are victims of the Church’s long and tumultuous theological and political history but also perhaps because we have lost sight of the narrow, yet deep, way of faith in Christ. At any rate I have learned that there is only one truth that can motivate man simply through life: Christ. Before we can consider ourselves Christians we must have believed in Christ and accepted all the consequences of a radically altered life. Without this first basic commitment, growth in Christ through any church structure is impossible.
Paul W. Witte, a Catholic, and his wife, a Salvationist, are living among the Andoque Indians of Colombia in preparation for translating the Bible into the Andoques’ language. This article first appeared in the November, 1970, issue of “Catholic World” and is used here by permission.
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