The relationship between evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism is back on the agenda. Just consider "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium," the reconciliatory statement produced earlier this year by a number of leading evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders, including Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus. (See "Why I Signed It," by J. I. Packer, in this issue.) If this controversial document is any indication, there is every reason to think that there is a lessening of suspicion on both sides of the evangelical-Catholic gulf and a growing awareness of the possibilities for working together, as well as the dangers of not doing so.

The commonalities between evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism are substantial, particularly in this present "post-Christian" age. Both are major presences in the modern Christian world. (In fact, a leading German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, predicts that the next century will have room for only three major Christian groups - Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and evangelicalism.) Both are alarmed at the growth in secularism and materialism in Western society, and the dangers posed to Christians throughout the world by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Both are concerned about the increasing moral chaos in the West, at both the individual and social levels.

At the same time, both sides are aware of the growing tensions in Latin America as evangelicalism continues to make deep inroads into areas traditionally dominated by Roman Catholicism. Theological disagreements can too easily explode into violence, and, without question, nobody wants Latin America to go the way of Northern Ireland. (I write as someone who spent his first 18 years of life growing up in the troubled city of Belfast.)

In light of these diverse factors, the recent publication of the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori Publications [and other publishers], 803 pp.; $19.95, paper), takes on added significance, for evangelicals as well as Catholics. Delayed in its English debut due to snags in its translation from the original French, this monumental document represents a definitive statement concerning Roman Catholic teaching on every issue of importance and thus provides a major reference point for evangelicals wanting to assess the possibilities for collaboration, as well as potential difficulties. In short, this volume must be in the hands of every person concerned with the future of evangelical relations with Roman Catholicism.

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The first thing that strikes the reader about the English translation of the catechism is that, apart from the Virgin Mary, the document studiously - and quite needlessly - ignores the existence of women. Here, Christianity is for men. Only men are saved. The gospel is preached only to men. Only men are in the church. At first sight, this might seem like old-fashioned male chauvinism. However, a closer inspection shows that men are given a hard time at several points. For instance, only men are condemned, and only men go to hell.

The problem is that the catechism uses the term men generically to denote humankind. For example, consider the following statement: "In order to reveal himself to men, in the condescension of his goodness God speaks to them in human words: indeed, the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language."

There is some very good theology here - but it could be expressed just as well by replacing "men" with "men and women." It would no doubt be reassuring to the catechism's female readers to know that they, too, can be saved.

Encouragingly, the catechism is unequivocal in its endorsement of the leading themes of traditional orthodox Christian doctrine. Indeed, there are excellent reasons for thinking that this document reflects the public defeat of more liberal trends within Roman Catholicism. For example, Holy Scripture is unequivocally recognized as the inspired Word of God:

In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, but as what it really is, the word of God. In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them. … For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.

The extensive use of Scripture, especially in the sections of the catechism dealing with the profession of baptismal faith, reinforces this impression of a church that takes Scripture seriously.

Similarly, the catechism vigorously defends the divinity of Jesus Christ, the uniqueness of his person, and the reality of his resurrection and future judgment. Salvation is only possible through the cross of Christ. The doctrine of the Trinity is forcefully defended against its Unitarian critics.

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The Pelagian heresy - the view that we are justified on the basis of our works rather than by the grace of God - is dismissed: Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.

This is a particularly important point in view of the persistent tendency of some Protestant critics of the Roman Catholic Church, who charge it with teaching justification by works. Roman Catholicism, from the Council of Trent in 1547 onwards, has unequivocally rejected this doctrine.

The catechism's robust and committed defense of orthodoxy will be a major consideration for evangelicals as they reconsider their attitude to Roman Catholicism. It indicates that an important ally could be at hand in the struggle for the restoration of doctrinal orthodoxy to the mainline denominations.

The document's insistence on the importance of the missionary role of the church also suggests that evangelicals and Roman Catholics will find a degree of convergence on the vital role of evangelism in the modern world, in the face of criticisms from the vociferous fundamentalists of the Left who dismiss evangelism as cultural genocide or destruction of personal integrity. The catechism here reflects the broad commitment to evangelism that has been typical of Roman Catholicism of late, and distinguished it from the outdated and limpid liberalism of mainline Protestantism.

It is no accident that some evangelicals, especially those within mainline churches, have chosen to become Roman Catholics, sensing that there is an institutionalized orthodoxy over a series of vital issues that mainline Protestantism has betrayed. Maybe, they reason, it is easier to be an evangelical inside the Catholic church, which defends all the vital Christian doctrines yet adds on a few more, than to remain inside some mainline Protestant denominations, which seem bent on denying or deforming the basic tenets of Christianity itself.

While Roman Catholics and evangelicals agree on many matters of critical importance, the catechism also serves to remind us that the agenda of the Reformation remains an essential, living reality for modern evangelical Christians. Time and time again, the controversies of the sixteenth century come to mind as a result of reading this document. There are unavoidable differences between the evangelical and Catholic faiths. So how important are these disagreements today? Any exploration of this question must begin by looking at the doctrine of justification by faith, a central concern of the sixteenth-century Reformers.

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The European Reformation of the sixteenth century saw the battle lines drawn between Roman Catholics and Protestants over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For the Protestant Reformers, the doctrine of justification was the article by which the church stands or falls, and the Roman Catholic Church, in their view, had fallen on this point and thus lost its credibility as a genuinely Christian church. For the Reformers, this more than adequately justified breaking away from the medieval church in order to return to the authentic teaching of Scripture.

We have already observed that today's Catholic church does, indeed, uphold the principle of salvation on the basis of God's grace. But what were the differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant teachings on the matter in the sixteenth century?

We can make an immediate distinction between two types of differences: those that were actually misunderstandings (where both sides were saying more or less the same thing, but misunderstood each other); and those that were disagreements (where each side understood precisely what the other was saying and regarded it as unacceptable).


Although their discussion of them was confused by some difficulties, it is clear that both Protestants and Roman Catholics agreed on the following:

1. We cannot take the initiative in beginning the Christian life - it is God who moves first. Original sin prevents our finding our way back to God unaided by grace. Popular Catholic religion in the later Middle Ages was obsessed with the doctrine of justification by works, however, pointing to a radical divergence between what theologians officially taught and what the common people believed. Although some evangelicals continue to insist that the Roman Catholic church officially teaches justification by works, this is not true.

2. The foundation of the Christian life is the work of Christ, and not anything that we ourselves can do. Once more, popular Catholic piety tended to lay considerable emphasis upon merit and showed an obsessional interest in the various ways in which this merit could be gained and stored, rather like funds in a bank account.

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3. Although the Christian life is not begun on the basis of good works, good works are the natural result and expression of genuine Christian faith.

4. The Christian life takes place at the communal, and not just the individual, level. By beginning the Christian life, the believer finds himself or herself within a community of faith.

None of these points was the subject of dispute between responsible, informed theologians in the sixteenth century - the difficulties arose primarily in relation to how these points were expressed.

An excellent example of these snags in expression is provided by the term justification itself. Following Augustine, the Council of Trent (Catholicism's official response to the Reformation) defined justification in terms of "making righteous." Trent's comprehensive definition of justification makes it clear that it includes both the initiation and the subsequent development of the Christian life, as the believer grows in holiness and righteousness. Augustine interpreted the Latin word iustificare (to justify) to mean iustum facere (to make righteous). On the basis of advances in philology in the early sixteenth century, Reformers such as Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin recognized that the verb "to justify" was forensic, meaning "to declare or pronounce to be righteous," and not to make righteous. Although the Reformers had a great respect for Augustine, they had no hesitation in criticizing him when the direct study of the Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture showed him to be wrong - and Augustine's definition of what justification itself actually was came to be recognized as a classic case of an error arising from the use of Scripture in Latin rather than in its original languages.

The Reformers therefore rejected the tradition hitherto predominant within the Western church concerning the meaning of the term justification - and by doing so added considerably to the difficulties of the sixteenth-century debates on the subject. For the Protestant, justification refers to God's external pronouncement that the sinner is regarded as righteous in his sight, thus marking the beginning of the Christian life. For the Roman Catholic - who, in this matter, continues the common teaching of the Western church deriving from Augustine - justification means both the event by which the Christian life is initiated and the process by which the believer is regenerated. In other words, the Catholic understands by justification what the Protestant understands by justification and sanctification taken together. Thus, theologically, Protestants and Roman Catholics, more or less, believe the same things regarding God's active role in both initiating and sustaining the Christian life; however, this convergence is obscured by the different understandings of the word justification. It was this semantic difference that led to the enormous confusion in the sixteenth century, as it still does today.

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Alongside the real, if obscured, agreements between Protestants and Roman Catholics were genuine disagreements, where each side understood perfectly well what the other was saying and took exception to it. It is here that the real focus of the Reformation controversies is to be found. Two matters regarded as being of central importance at the time were:

1. The nature of justifying righteousness, also referred to in the period between 1575 and 1700 as the formal cause of justification.

2. The question of assurance, which is closely linked with the nature of justifying righteousness.

The present space only permits a consideration of the first of these two issues, although their close connection needs to be noted.

Luther insisted that justifying righteousness was a righteousness that was extrinsic to believers, covering them protectively in much the same way as a mother hen might cover her chicks with her wing. This position was held by both Lutheran and Reformed theologians. God effects our justification from outside us, prior to effecting our renewal within us. The righteousness of justification was perfect and imputed, whereas that of sanctification was imperfect and inherent. The point that the Reformers wished to emphasize was that the righteousness of the saints was permanently imperfect, and therefore could not function as the basis of the divine verdict of justification. We are accepted on the basis of an other righteousness - the righteousness of Christ.

The Council of Trent insisted that the single formal cause of justification was an inherent righteousness, a righteousness within the believer. Although stressing that this righteousness was provided by God, Trent equally insisted that it was located within the believer as part of his or her person. The Reformers found this idea inconsistent: If God's verdict of justification was not to be a legal fiction, it would have to be based upon a perfect righteousness - and if this righteousness was inherent to believers, how could Trent speak of believers growing in righteousness when they already possessed a perfect righteousness? It seemed to the Reformers that any inherent righteousness was, by its very nature, imperfect and in need of supplementation - and the imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ dealt with this difficulty.

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For the Reformers, it was necessary to know that one was a Christian, that the Christian life had indeed begun, and that one had been forgiven and accepted by God. On the basis of these convictions, the living of the Christian life, with all its opportunities, responsibilities, and challenges could proceed. Being justified on the basis of the external righteousness of Christ meant that all that needed to be done for an individual's justification had been done by God - and so the believer could rest assured that he or she had been accepted and forgiven. The Reformers could not see how Trent ensured that individual believers were accepted, despite being sinners.

Here, then, is an area where there was genuine and apparently insurmountable disagreement between Trent and the Reformers. Hence, any attempt to engage with the real differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics over the doctrine of justification must be addressed to these two questions. There is little to be gained from recapitulating what was agreed upon in the sixteenth century unless it can be shown that these two issues are no longer of any importance.

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