Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, is a longtime participant in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, an initiative that seeks common ground between these historically antagonistic traditions. He spoke with Christianity Today assistant editor Collin Hansen. For George's discussion of how "the greatest pope since the Reformation" changed evangelicalism, see his interview in Christianity Today.
For much of Protestant history, Catholics have been derided as "papists." The office of pope symbolized what was wrong with Catholicism. Now, with Pope John Paul II's death, you don't often hear that rhetoric in sermons. When did this begin to change?
I think it's a fairly recent phenomenon. If you go back to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, you have a watershed moment. You would find on the Protestant side a lot of anti-Catholic rhetoric and deep reservation. Just look at the newspapers and some of the sermons and read about the dangers that would happen if you elect a Catholic President who answers to Rome.
Certainly Vatican II is another watershed. In the sense that Vatican II falls far short of what evangelical Protestants would like to see, it does move significantly beyond where the Roman Catholic church was. Most notably for evangelicals is the role of the Bible, the fact that Roman Catholics now study the Scriptures with a new intensity and devotion that would not have always been the case prior to Vatican II. The stand on religious liberty that Vatican II takes is another example. Those are significant changes that, in some ways, we're just beginning to feel the impact of 40 or 50 years later.
But I would not underestimate the role of John Paul II's world historical significance. If there's one thing that evangelical Protestants were against in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, it was communism. Here comes along a Roman Catholic pope who, admittedly with the help of President Reagan and a few other people, was able to radically alter the geo-political landscape. Put Billy Graham in this realm too, in his preaching in the Soviet Union and so forth. So I think that softens some of these attitudes that we used to hear.
Other than Billy Graham, have there been other major evangelical figures who tried to bridge the historic divide with Catholicism?
Chuck Colson has to be put into that category. At another level I would say Francis Schaeffer, though he was a strait-laced Presbyterian. He recognized the importance of an alliance with Catholics on the issue of sanctity of life.
To some extent Carl Henry also fits. He was a member of the editorial board of First Things, for example, which is not strictly a Catholic magazine but has a lot of Catholic influence.
So are we living in historic times then? All these names are contemporary.
When you think back, whom would you think of? In some ways I would say D. L. Moody. Moody is the forerunner. Moody was the first person, in his 1893 Chicago campaigncalled campaigns back then because the Civil War had campaigns. He was a chaplain in the Civil War. Billy Graham, coming out of World War II, had crusades.
But in the 1893 campaign in Chicago, Moody was the first evangelical preacher that I know of who invited Roman Catholic prelates, priests, and bishops to share his platform. And they did. This was well before Billy Graham would actually begin to do it in the '50s.
Moody also took up money and helped build a Roman Catholic church in his hometown of Northfield, Massachusetts. So he was very friendly to Catholics. But in some ways Moody was not able to make the kind of sweeping changes that Billy Graham was able to make, because he was limited by the polarized context of his era. Catholicism was so entrenched in his day. We're talking about Vatican I Catholicism. We're talking about Pius IX and those who succeeded him. The doctrine of papal infallibility had just been announced. There was not a good ecumenical spirit flowing back and forth, which in some ways makes Moody all the more interesting in that he stood out against that divide.
We're in the flow and flux of it all. It's really hard to evaluate where we are or how historians will look at our times. But there is a sea change that has happened, particularly among evangelicals and Catholics. I think the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement is evidence of that. Clearly something momentous is afoot. Evangelicals are not Roman Catholics. But we are Catholics in that we affirm the historic orthodox faith. And we want to call the Roman Catholic Church, as we call ourselves, to a further reformation on the basis of the Word of God. That's what we ought to be about.
Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom have just written a book called Is The Reformation Over? In my endorsement I said, "The Reformation is over only in the sense that to some extent it has succeeded." Which is to say that Roman Catholicism has taken on many, but not all, of the main emphases that come out of Luther. There's a clear movement in that direction, and I think evangelicals can celebrate that and see our commonalities.
Certainly the Protestantism of Martin Luther was quite different from that of Jonathan Edwards. Martin Luther did not intend to start a new church. By Edwards's time, it's taken for granted that the bishop of Rome is the Antichrist.
Exactly. He's writing a couple of hundred years later, and you've got the hardening of the arteries that has set in on both sides. He's not just reacting against the pope in Luther's day, he's reacting against the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation. And that makes it all the more remarkable that we've been able, as it were, in the last 30, 40, 50 years, to find some way to reach out across this great chasm.
Collin Hansen is assistant editor for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See our full coverage area on Pope John Paul II.
Recent Christianity Today articles on Pope John Paul II include:
Pope Gave Evangelicals the Moral Impetus We Didn't Have | Timothy George discusses how "the greatest pope since the Reformation" changed evangelicalism without us knowing. (April 06, 2005)
Pope 'Broadened the Way' for Evangelicals and Catholics | Theologian Tom Oden sees continued cooperation ahead. (April 05, 2005)
Pope Saw His Final Pain as Public Suffering | John Paul II embodied the "culture of life." (April 05, 2005)
How the Pope Turned Me Into An Evangelical | A Christianity Today associate editor recalls growing up Catholic in John Paul II's Poland. (April 04, 2005)
Pope John Paul II and Evangelicals | Protestants admired his lifelong admonition to "Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!" An interview with George Weigel. (April 04, 2005)
He Was my Pope, Too | Now that John Paul II is gone, I am even more of an orphan than the Christians in the Roman church. (April 04, 2005)
Protestants Laud Pope for Ecumenical, Social Stands | He was 'unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years,' says Billy Graham. (April 04, 2005)
Pope John Paul II, Leader of World's 1 Billion Roman Catholics, Is Dead at 84 | Third-longest papacy marked by a passion to evangelize the whole world. (April 04, 2005)
'Hymn for Easter Day' | Charles Wesley's 'Christ the Lord Is Risen Today' brings alleluia's historical significance to modern audiences. (March 24, 2005)
The Jewishness of the Nicene Creed | It was the Bible, not Greek philosophy, that shaped the theology of the Nicene bishops. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Still Fighting over Nicaea | The Anglican Communion dusts off and debates some of the Council of Nicaea's forgotten canons. (Feb. 18, 2005)
Dostoyevsky's Disregarded Prophecy | The famous Russian author shows us what's to fear in a world without God. (Feb. 11, 2005)
Losing Jesus' Language | The Assyrians, Iraq's main Christian population, struggle to keep their heritage and their ancient language. (Feb. 04, 2005)
Tsunami Catastrophe: 'Let My Heart Be Broken ' | World Vision has changed much over the years, but the vision and compassion of its founder, Bob Pierce, continues to give it heart and soul. (Jan. 28, 2005)
Football's Pious Pioneer | Amos Alonzo Stagg instilled in football Christian values that remain apparent today. (Jan. 14, 2005)
The Doctrine Doctor | Jaroslav Pelikan has written a history of the Christian tradition on a scale no one else has attempted in the twentieth century. (Dec. 30, 2004)
The Real Twelve Days of Christmas | Celebrating Christ's birth with saints of the faith during the actual Christmas season. (Dec. 23, 2004)
Compassionate in War, Christian in Vision | The man behind the Geneva Conventions knew the heights of success and the depths of failure. (Dec. 16, 2004)