Colson Continues to Defend ECT

Chuck Colson is on a blog tour. Tim Challies put to him a brilliant question, indeed, as far as I’m concerned, the ONLY question and he did it very well.

Protestants have traditionally held that justification by grace alone through faith alone is at the heart of the Christian faith and thus a non-negotiable doctrine for anyone who considers himself a Christian. Yet this is anathema within the Roman Catholic Church. This would seem to be an unbridgeable divide when seeking communion between the two traditions. Is justification by grace alone through faith alone a doctrine fundamental to the faith? What theological distinctives are non-negotiable in determining who belongs to the Body of Jesus Christ?

Colson replied by saying that he believes that in the ECT documents achieved a fundamental agreement and that it is is the precursor to substantive doctrinal change in the Roman Communion. He argues that “more and more Catholics are embracing the very doctrine that was at the heart of the Reformation.”

Some responses.

First, for an overview of the whole ECT process see “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A Post-Mortem” which I’m also posting to the HB.

Second, Colson is still appealing to the fact that Cardinal Cassidy attended the talks and took the document back to Rome. This is a red herring. Evidently by this he intends to try to color the documents with some authority within the Roman communion. There are essentially three sources of dogma in the Roman communion: the magisterium (e.g. the Congregation for Sacred Doctrine or a Council) but I believe that even doctrine promulgated by these bodies must be approved by the papacy; the papacy itself; and Scripture/tradition. Colson seems to be implying that ECT is just ahead of the curve and that one day we’ll see that these informal documents will have dogmatic authority in the Roman communion.

To this I respond by saying that Chuck continues to ignore the history of the church. This very business of equivocating on justification was attempted in the 1540s and it failed then and it has failed again in our time. On this see this popular essay on Regensburg and this academic essay on double justification where I discuss Regensburg at length.

It is asking a great deal of confessional Protestants to ignore the existence of the fact that, in Council of Trent, the Roman communion deliberately and unequivocally condemned eternally the gospel of justification sola gratia et sola fide. It is also hard to ignore that it was under the leadership of then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) that the Roman communion adopted the new catechism which reaffirms unequivocally the validity of the anathemas at Trent. These are facts. Colson is selling us a future that doesn’t exist for which there is no good reason to hope.

It is also clear that the ECT documents equivocated on justification, as at Regensburg, allowing Cardinal Cassidy to reaffirm the Roman doctrine of justification through sanctification and allowing the evangelicals to think they had won a great victory. In point of fact, one of the delegates to ECT II told me after the meeting that “You confessionalists have to get beyond this legal, forensic doctrine of justification. Justification is a relationship not a judicial verdict.” Sounds like the evangelicals really pulled one over on the Romanists in New York!

Third, part of what happened at ECT was that Evangelicals, who had been raised to think of Roman Catholicism in a narrow and bigoted way, found them to be gracious, bible-reading, pious folk, and even some (e.g. Cardinal Cassidy) who professed to have a “born again” experience. Pietiest love nothing more than piety and when they found such heart-warmed and warming piety their own hearts melted.

The problem is that piety was never the issue. The monks invented the quiet time after all! What is at issue is church dogma. I think the evangelicals also struggled with this because they don’t have a doctrine of the church and they really don’t understand what church dogma is. I think they failed to comprehend what Trent means because American evangelicals don’t really care about history (count number of serious historical articles in JETS). They care about the Bible and piety. Well, they found both from the Roman legates to ETC. For honest-to-goodness confessional Protestants, the conflict with Rome has never been fundamentally about piety but about righteousness with God. I honestly don’t believe that Colson gets this yet.

Finally, I know that we’re all about “talking” and “dialogue” now. Fine. Tim’s question put the issue quite well. We confessional Protestants, in statu confessionis, still confess justification sola gratia et sola fide. Rome, on the other hand, still defines grace as an infused substance with which we must cooperate in order to become sanctified and eventually deified (!), to be eventually justified. We categorically reject that. The first step in any dialogue is the tell the truth. Equivocating about Luther (by making him into a moralist) or the gospel is not telling the truth. Apparent agreement is not real agreement. Private conversations are not the same as churchly dogma.

There is non-negotiable Protestant dogma. There is non-negotiable Roman dogma. That’s the status quaestionis.

If Rome wants to repent of her gross errors, we confessional Protestants stand ready to her her confession and to pronounce the gospel of absolution to all who believe in Christ and in his finished work alone for justification. Now that would be a dialogue worth having.

UPDATE 15 Mar 2008: There is discussion and dialogue over this post at the breakpoint blog.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Scott
    You remember that this same ‘ pietistic ‘appeal was at the center of Richard Mouw’s glowing endorsement of Robert Millet, the Mormon professor from BYU and author of the book, ‘Another Jesus?’ which was published by Eerdmans and carried a foreword and Afterword by Mouw.

  2. I appreciate this response greatly. I am a former Roman Catholic, and I cringe when I see differences between confessional Protestants and Rome minimized:

    With regard to the deification issue, is this doctrine a throw-back to Athanasius (cf. (point number 7)

    Thank you!

  3. ECT = American Evangelicals and American Papist period. It has nothing to do with Geneva and Rome. The only thing it has to do with Rome is that the Am. E-cals are ignorantly being sucked into popery by its harlotry nature. And as we can see the harlot is easily doing this with an open cleavage exposure.

  4. Excellent, why does this subject which has been exposed numerous times keeping popping it’s ugly head.

    Do we evangelicals have such a short memory that we are willing to embrace the very doctrines our predecessors in the faith paid such a high price for rejecting.

  5. Unless you are removing James from the Bible, the Catholic view and the Protestant view are not so far apart… We Catholics consider Faith without Love to be useless except to give a chance that the sinner might repent. When we hear “sola fides”, we are hearing “faith without works”, which is of course “dead”, according to James. As to the anathema, remember that Luther _added_ the term “alone” to his translation of Romans and said that James was an “epistle of straw”, so that at Trent the assumption was that he really did mean that Faith without Love (and Hope, for that matter) could save. I am certainly no expert on Lutheran theology, so I can’t tell you whether that assumption is correct, but the assumption is what brought about the anathema. Catholic moral theology would hold that a person guilty of a mortal sin loses all supernatural Love in his soul, but retains his Faith and Hope, unless he has sinned directly against those virtues.

    The problem seems to be that Romans tends to use the term “faith” to mean “Faith formed by Love”, while James uses the term in the current Catholic sense. The point is that we have to understand one another, then determine where there is commonality and difference, rather than simply attacking. Christ wanted us to be one (John 17), and we have to try to understand to make that possible.

  6. Well Mark, do you assume that the 16th and 17th-century Protestants were unaware of these options or that they did not address these questions? See Calvin’s lecture/commentary on James in which he argues at length that Dikaioo in James 2 does not mean “to make righteous” (the Roman view) or even “to declare righteous” but rather that James 2 and Paul have different audiences in view. Paul, e.g. in Romans, has in view righteous with God and James has righteousness “before men” in view. On this see my essay on double justification in Protestant theology in Westminster Confession into the 21st Century vol 2.

    Second, Luther modified his appraisal of James in his later preface.

    Yes, Luther added “allein” to his transl. of Galatians and defended that translation quite eloquently!

    What the protestants rejected and continue to reject is justification by love or justification through sanctification. Rome teaches exactly what we reject.

    If you follow the Protestant relation of justification to sanctification (that justification is a legal declaration by God that results in sanctification) rather than the Roman arrangement (sanctification leads to justification) then Paul and James make perfect sense.

    James is saying, “You people claim to have faith but I see no evidence.” He’s preaching the law to them to show them the greatness of their sin and to drive them to trusting in Christ and in his finished work. Paul is proclaiming the gospel of free righteousness with God through trusting in Christ and in his finished work which righteousness necessarily produces sanctity in those who believe.

  7. Not assuming that the Protestants were unaware, but rather that Catholics and Protestants spend more time yelling at one another than listening.

    Most places in the Bible, “faith” seems to refer to an intellectual agreement with the truths revealed by God, without reference to how those are put into practice in life. Paul himself differentiates faith, hope and love, and declares that love is the greatest of these. Catholics don’t teach justification through love alone, but through faith informed by love. Indeed, in Catholic theology, it is impossible to have theological love without faith.

    As you point out, there are still large differences in Catholic and Protestant theology. This was made very clear after the Joint Declaration on Justification, to which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith added a statement about the Catholic understanding of the terms of the declaration, so as to avoid any false ideas that the problems of the Reformation had been totally overcome. My point is that the two positions are closer than one might imagine by the anathema for “sola fides”.

    As you are aware, the Catholic position has sanctifying grace infused into the soul at Baptism. This brings with it the three theological virtues, whose exercise is the spiritual life. The initial grace of conversion is a free gift of God and cannot be earned in any way.

    If we are to obey the wish of Christ “that they be one”, we all need to listen to one another with respect and try to work through the theological differences to come to the truth that Christ revealed to us.

  8. Mark,

    The question, in recent years, hasn’t been listening to each other respectfully, the question has been whether “evangelicals” and other alleged Protestants (e.g. Lutheran World Federation) will be faithful to the Protestant understanding of Scripture. My first beef here isn’t with Rome. She is what she is. Cardinal Cassidy has been doing his job, trying to get those (in Rome’s view) wayward evangelicals to come back “home.”

    My job is the same as Cassidy’s, trying to get those wayward evangelicals who ware much too impressed with Cassidy’s personal religious experience to come back home to the Reformation.

    As to pisteuo in the NT we shall have to agree to disagree. Even some contemporary Roman commentators agree with Luther and Calvin and the Protestant confessions that Paul in Rom 3-4, as he interprets Gen 15, does not define faith as an infused virtue. It is more like the “certain knowledge and hearty trust” of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) or “receiving and resting” of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) than it is the Roman virtue.

    Abraham was not justified with God because he was sanctified! That would be a bizarre reading of the life of Abraham. Indeed, none of the patriarchs was particularly sanctified. Yet Paul calls unsanctified Abraham the faith of all who believe. How is that? He believed God and his faith was imputed to him for righteousness.

    One other thing to think about. It’s not as if Rome has never taught a doctrine of imputation.

    We confessional Protestants teach that Christ’s perfect, actual, condign righteousness and merits are imputed to us. We have a real basis for the divine declaration of justification.

    Rome recognizes that your sanctity will never be sufficient hence the doctrine of congruent merit, which Thomas taught quite plainly. Meritum de congruo nothing but a doctrine of imputation but it has no real basis. More recently, Pius X, in Ad Deim Illum Laetissimum, para. 14 re-affirmed a doctrine of meritum de congruo (in reference to merits of the BVM!) in 1904.

    So, the question is not whether merit will be imputed but rather the question is whose merit and on what basis.

  9. Mark Polo: going one step further, here is the real point:

    “The idea of an immediate divine imputation [of justification/Christ’s righteousness] renders superfluous the entire Catholic system of priestly mediation of grace by the Church.” (Bruce McCormack, “What’s at Stake in the Current Debates over Justification,” from a book of that title by Husbands and Treier, pg. 82).

    This is why Justification is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. It is a question of Protestant freedom vs. the requirement (“indispensable minimums”) to practice an entire system of idolatrous accretion, presented in the name (and place) of the real Christ.

    I say this as an individual who grew up as a cradle Catholic, who left the church and then re-converted based on arguments such as the one you presented above. But the point is, there is a difference, and it is the ultimate difference.

  10. As a converted drunk and dedicated witness for Christ these 53 years, I grimace at the thought of dialogue with Rome. In reading (ex or still priest) Peter De Rosa’s “Vicars Of Christ” he describes the Pope as a man imprisoned by his forebears. The hypocrisy of endeavoring to maintain a lie just because a predecessor has invented it, or has written encyclicals or bulls on it, keeps an incumbent pope on his toes. De Rosa says that because of this: “All pontiffs drive by the rearview mirror. A past long dead, often called tradition, dictates the road into the future. One dead Pope is more powerful than a thousand living Bishops.” He goes on to say that ,”In any papal encyclical, for every Biblical quotation, there are likely to be up to a dozen references to earlier Popes.” Thus it is easy to see why the error has been perpetuated. They are imprisoned by the fact that they claim for themselves infallibility, and infallibility demands consistency, which cannot be maintained without making their forebears out to be liars and in fact rank pagans. Why debate with a wall. Truth that is a half truth is no tyruth at all.

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