From the beginning it was apparent that the cart driving the theological horse in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) negotiations (which continue!) is the pressure to form a “common front” against neo-paganism, secularism, materialism, and other forms of fallout from late modernity.
We are not alone. British evangelicals faced the same sorts of pressures in the 1960s and Jim Packer was involved in discussions then that pre-figured the ECT discussions in the ’90s in North America (see McGrath’s biography of Packer on this). In that case conservative British Christians were beginning to feel the need form a common front against the inroads of modernity into the church and society. Conservative Anglicans (Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals) needed to form a sort of union against the “the liberals.” If justification got in the way, well the culture war was more important.
If one reads the defenses of ECT and especially if one reads the reaction to the criticisms of ECT by confessional types it becomes clear (at least it has become so to me) that what drives the ECT process is the need to find grounds for some sort of union of conservative Christians over against liberals of various sorts (and materialism and the other modernist isms of the age). If one presumes that, in order to cooperate on a social level, Christians must form some sort of nominal theological union, then the sort of open equivocation on justification represented by ECT becomes necessary. This is the best explanation for ECT. Yes, I’m aware the Chuck Colson believes that one day we’ll all see that he was a visionary and that the private assurances of Cardinal Cassidy will bear fruit in a theological Reformation of the Roman Communion (prompted by a Baptist layman and a lapsed LCMS Lutheran minister turned Roman priest). Well, forgive me for sounding a little cynical but that’s a historian’s prerogative.
More to the point it’s not necessary! If both sides, and especially the “evangelical” side in these negotiations would only recognize that Christ rules sovereignly over creation and all nations but administers that sovereign rule in two distinct ways the need to equivocate on justification (i.e. to say two things at the same time using the same words) would vanish. Evangelicals (and there were some Reformed folk who also signed the first two ECT documents) don’t need to agree with Rome on soteriology, the church, the sacraments, Mary, the saints, eschatology, or virtually any other such theological question in order to cooperate with them in social questions. Indeed, given the two kingdoms, we don’t have to agree with Mitt Romney on any theological questions either. We can even cooperate with Muslims, Hindus, and agnostics (e.g. Nat Hentoff) who share certain basic convictions about civil life. To cooperate we need only agree that there are certain fixed, embedded laws in creation. We need only agree that “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The fundamental point that evangelicals (and many Reformed folk) need to recognize is that there are two kingdoms in this world, spiritual and civil. The spiritual kingdom is represented by the visible, institutional church. In that kingdom there is no compromise on the means and the message of the kingdom. In worship we live by the regulative principle. In the Christian life we live by the law of God in the grace of God by faith. We are righteous with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The power and authority of the visible church is spiritual and it touches spiritual ends: faith and sanctity and its means are spiritual: Word, sacrament, and discipline. The civil kingdom is also ruled by Christ but administered quite differently. Its power is more than persuasion. Its means are not spiritual but coercive. Its principle is not grace but works and law. To be sure the spiritual kingdom preaches the law and administers it (e.g. in the pedagogical use, the elenctic use, and in discipline) but it does so to spiritual ends. The civil magistrate may and should exercise forbearance or mercy but not grace. The civil magistrate does not always bring to bear the full weight of the law but this is in the interests of justice, not grace. The basic stuff of the civil kingdom is law and that law is revealed in nature, in the human conscience, and is universally known by humans and has been used by civil entities since creation. Christians, who live in both kingdoms simultaneously, may cooperate as members of the civil kingdom toward common ends without agreeing on the sorts of issues entailed in ECT.
In the two-kingdoms scheme, the sorts of negotiations and compromises built into the ECT process are unnecessary. I don’t need to agree with Father Neuhaus on anything but the existence and basic tenets of natural law to oppose the inroads of statism or whatever else needs attention in the civil kingdom.As a member of the civil kingdom I recognize fellow citizens as image-bearers, as persons with dignity, and I owe them charity. There is no reason why I must agree with my Roman neighbors on justification in order to sign CCRs when I buy my house. There’s no reason I have to agree with the theology of my Mormon neighbors when we sign the same petition to oppose homosexual marriage. There’s no reason why I have to agree theologically with my Muslim neighbor about the authority of Mohammed in order to agree that children do not belong to the state but to parents. We may well send our children to different schools but we drive the same roads and pay taxes to the same civil entities and submit to the same common laws that bind our outward, civil behavior.
In ECT it appears that both the evangelicals and Romanists and agreed on too much and too little. They’ve agreed on too much when it comes to soteriology. They both seem to assume a sort of one-kingdom model. The discussions that should have happened in ECT should have focussed (and perhaps they have at some point) on whether there is one kingdom in this world or two and how those two ought to relate. When it comes to civil matters it is irrelevant whether Cardinal Cassidy is born again. What matters is whether he believes there is a fixed law to which even the magistrate is bound.
This is not to say that ecclesiastical (not private) negotiation with representatives of the Roman communion is not important, it is important. It is useful but the evangelical side of the ECT negotiations was not ecclesiastical. It was a bunch of private cats with no ecclesiastical standing and, in some cases, little preparation for such discussions. Further, the evangelicals seem to think that negotiation entails giving away the farm. We should call Rome to repent of her condemnation of the gospel and we should repent of our too often nasty and bigoted caricatures of Roman theology, piety, and practice. Honest discussions would admit that the great difference still exists. Either we are justified sola gratia et sola fide and either the authority of the church is sola scriptura or it isn’t. These two sides are antithetical. There is no Hegelian synthesis here and there’s no need to confuse the two kingdoms.