Evangelicals And Catholics Together: A Post-Mortem

When the essay first appeared, the controversy over Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) was still relatively fresh. Reformed leaders (e.g., Mike Horton, R. C. Sproul, James M. Boice, and W. Robert Godfrey, et al.) had responded to ECT by forming the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Together they published the Cambridge Declaration (1996). It was a forthright re-statement of classic Reformation convictions against the sentimentalism which undergirded the sloppy ecumenism of ECT.

Today, however, as the culture has gone in directions that few foresaw in 1996, evangelicals are predictably even less interested in Reformation truths and more invested in preserving their place in the culture and in making religious alliances for the sake of the culture war, the impulse which lay behind the ECT movement in the first place.

Nevertheless, Christians who still value the truths recovered by the Reformation have every reason to learn or re-learn them. It seems unlikely that the coming years will see an exodus out of broad evangelicalism and into the Reformation-based churches. As the West descends further into post-Christian darkness, evangelicals more anxious to maintain their social status than to preserve the doctrine of free justification with God will be tempted to flee to Rome as a safeguard against the collapse of the Empire, as it were.

It seems likely that those holding out for the Reformation truths (justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone) will be asked to give an account as to why we are so fixed on them, so stubborn. Consider this essay and the attached resources a contribution toward an answer to the question: why is this so important?


Since the 1994 publication of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), the evangelical body has been convulsed periodically over the doctrine of justification. The patient—to strain a metaphor—sustained a second attack in 1998 with the publication of ECT II or The Gift of Salvation. Those were followed by an attempted remedy in the June 1999 publication in Christianity Today of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration.” Not to be upstaged, the mainline Lutherans also signed a pact with Roman Catholics in 2000 known as the “Joint Declaration.”

This series of events has puzzled some Reformed Christians. After all, it had seemed to many Reformed folk over the last 50 years that the evangelicals were our friends. We had an arrangement: the Calvinists wrote the books and the enthusiastic evangelicals did the legwork. In that period, we had made common cause with the evangelicals on the doctrine of the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture. One had only to think of the founder of Christianity Today, Carl Henry, author of a massive series of works defending the Scriptures, to see the strength of the movement. Yes, we said, we have our differences (e.g., on the church and sacraments) but these evangelicals are our friends.

There were warning signals however. Decades ago, Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Seminary had warned that the Reformed are not really “evangelicals” at all, and that despite the appearance of family relations, there were deep-seated differences. We Reformed, Van Til said, begin with the triune God, with divine revelation and the objective work of Christ for sinners. The evangelicals, he warned, begin with religious experience.

In 1990, Robert Brow published his now infamous essay in Christianity Today, “Evangelical Megashift,” in which he proved Van Til right and signaled a sharp departure from what had long been regarded as evangelical theological norms. One of megashifts touched the doctrine of justification. We need, he said, to leave the cold courtroom metaphor for justification for a warm family analogy to describe our relations with God. We should not think of him as a judge, but as a Father. Sin is not a judicial problem, it is a family problem. God no more excludes people from his family on account of sin than a father throws out his children because they err.

It is not hard to see the fallacies of Brow’s reasoning and the danger of his assumptions. The same God who has judged our sins in the death of Christ has become, for the sake of his justice, our Father (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 26; Rom 8:15-17).

Brow was touting as new nothing more than an elixir made of evangelical pietism and old-fashioned liberal universalism, with a dash of Roman Catholic moralism added for flavor. Condemned by many as a seducer, it turns out that Brow was a prophet of a new wave of baby-boomer evangelicals, tired not only of their father’s Oldsmobile, but of the Reformed doctrine of justification.

Why were the evangelicals megashifting? According to some historians of American religion, evangelicals have been since the 18th century, not transformers of culture, nor in antithesis to it, but the products of it. They live in symbiosis with it. As the culture slid into the televised abyss of narcissism, they had to adapt or die. If the culture absolutely rejects a transcendent God or objective reality, the evangelicals had to reject the old Reformed religion in favor of a more marketable commodity. Hence the rise of ECT (1994). Threatened by apparent social decay which could not be halted by Promise Keepers rallies or revivals promised by Campus Crusade for Christ, the evangelicals turned and lifted their eyes to the hills whence comes their help. In this case, they turned not to the sovereign God of the Scriptures but to Rome, the single largest institutional religious presence in American culture. If the evangelicals could sign a detente with Rome, then perhaps they could not only continue to surf the American cultural wave but perhaps even turn the tide. Father Richard John Neuhaus, a relatively recent convert from mainline Lutheranism to Rome was happy to oblige them.

Neuhaus held a series of high level meetings, chiefly with evangelical leader and former Nixon aide, Charles “Chuck” Colson. The two of them developed ECT, a document which purported to end the 400 year old war between Rome and Protestants. What it actually did was ignite a fire storm of protest led by confessional Calvinists.

Prominent evangelical co-signers such as J. I. Packer defended the document. When asked to explain how—having defended stoutly the Reformation doctrines of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—he could apparently give them all away, Packer responded with an answer which can only be described as the equivalent of saying, “It seemed like the thing to do at the time.”

Still stinging from rebukes by the likes of Michael Horton and R. C. Sproul, the ECT crowd tried once more to get it right in The Gift of Salvation (1998). This time, they addressed directly the matter of justification. They found even more common ground between evangelicals and Rome. Whereas it seemed clear to most that the evangelicals had given up too much in ECT, in The Gift of Salvation, the evangelicals appeared to win the better of it. The Gift of Salvation declared that justification “is not earned by any good works or merits of our own.” It continued, “We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).” It even used the expression, “justified sinners,” something to which some felt no honest Roman Catholic could ever subscribe.

The list of signatories was truly impressive. Among them were Harold O. J. Brown, Os Guinness, Richard Mouw, Mark Noll and, of course J. I. Packer. There was, however, ambiguity in the statement. One part of the document seemed to create the impression of a Roman Catholic capitulation to the Protestant doctrine, but a later passage asserts that there continues to be questions about “the historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness.”

Confessional Reformed folk were also troubled by key omissions. For example, though one paragraph emphasizes that we are just before God on the basis of “Christ’s righteousness alone” by virtue of God’s declaration, the statement does not use the language of imputation. Since Rome has always believed that salvation is by God’s transforming grace (Council of Trent 6.7), this is a significant omission. Indeed, the language of imputation occurs only in a section of denials. What the Roman signatories (chief among them Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, papal legate to the evangelicals) gave with one hand, they took away with the other. In effect, they said that they retain the right to hold their traditional Tridentine doctrine of justification by sanctification. This was no evangelical victory, rather it only proves that, given the promise of increased social influence, Roman Cardinals can get anxious evangelicals to sign almost anything.

Though the ECT documents may have brought the evangelicals a step closer to Rome, they created a rift between those who signed and those who would not. Into this breach comes The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration. Drafted by evangelical notables such as Don Carson, Harold Myra, J. I. Packer and R. C. Sproul, this document deserves our attention.

If only because it gets right the decisive matter of imputation, Celebration is vastly superior to the two ECT documents. According to Celebration, God justifies sinners by “imputing (reckoning, crediting, counting, accounting) righteousness to them” which benefit they receive “through faith in Christ alone.” It makes clear that sanctification is the fruit of justification and not the ground or instrument of it. The document has a fairly distinctly Reformed tint. For example, it affirms the absolute necessity of teaching the imputation of the active obedience of Christ as part of the Biblical gospel and it rejects categorically the doctrine of the imparting or infusion of justice as the ground of justification.

Perhaps one of the most encouraging signs about this document is the reaction by some evangelicals who feel left out. In Books and Culture, Robert H. Gundry of Westmont College lamented not only that not only was he not invited to sign Celebration but also that he would not because it was too Reformed.

There are some weaknesses in Celebration, however. For example, the statement says that it is through the Gospel that we learn, in effect, the greatness of our sin and misery. This, of course, is not correct. We learn of our fallen estate through the Law (HC Q. 3; Rom 3:20). We learn of God’s saving and justifying work for us in Christ through the preaching of the Holy Gospel (HC Q. 65; Rom 10:17). This confusion of Law and Gospel is hard to overlook in a document which seeks to establish for all evangelicals what the Gospel is.

The evangelical convulsions over justification mean this: Van Til was correct. The fundamental principle of the evangelicals, at least in the Modern period, is religious enthusiasm. Because this is so, religious experience trumps truth every time. We, on the other hand, are not revivalists or enthusiasts. That is to say, we are not evangelicals.

It is clear to me that, after hearing and reading the explanations of some of the participants in the ECT process, and after talking to others who were at the negotiating table, it is common religious experience, not Biblical and confessional truth, which drives them.

Of the writing of books there is no end, nor it seems, is there an end in sight to attempts to unify evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Reformed Christians, however, should not feel left out. The leading lights of the largest segment of evangelicalism, the Arminians are abandoning historic Christianity, including the doctrine of divine foreknowledge. They have always been uneasy with the Reformation. Perhaps the onset of illness in 1994 was really the result some old errors.

As for us and our households, let us confess the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort and leave the signing of endless compromises to the revivalists. The clear Biblical teaching as summarized in all the Canons, in Confession Articles 22-24 and Catechism Q. 60 is unchanged: The sole ground of our righteousness before God is the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience (Rom 3:27-28; 4:3; Col 2:13-15). The sole instrument of our justification is saving faith, which is the gift of God, which looks to Christ and his righteousness alone (Rom 1:17; 3:22; Eph 2:8-10). This is what we mean by our solas, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. About these things there must be no doubt in confessional Reformed churches. The evangelical uncertainty about the gospel and the continuing quest for social influence through alliances with Rome should serve as a reminder not to hold these treasures casually.

This essay originally appeared in print in 2001 and later online, on the Heidelblog.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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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. I was raised in the Roman Catholic church before the Council, which makes a big difference. Before 1965, the differences between the Catholics and the Reformed were stark and strong. However, the Council muddied the waters beyond repair. It is very hard to say just what the Catholic church teaches these days–as we’ve seen the Popes veer around from Paul VI (very pro-Vatican II) to John Paul II and Benedict XVI (trying their best to pretend the Council never happened) to Francis, who is again enthusiastially implementing the very vague schemata of Vatican II.

    In order to say that evangelicals and Catholics have anything at all in common, we first have to understand what Catholics believe. And that has been a very moving target since the close of the Council in 1965.

  2. This article, one article you wrote on the lordship controversy, and Heidelberg 30 cause me to wonder: how many evangelicals would be considered as holding the catholic*, evangelical* faith?

    *I am not referring to the contemporary meaning of these words

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