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.”
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.