Friday, October 30, 2009
Evangelicals and Catholics
Over at CT is a piece by Colin Hansen entitled, Not All Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which points to a division among the IVCF chapter at George Washington University over whether Catholics can hold positions of leadership in an IVCF chapter.
Part of the article suggests that N.T. Wright is responsible for driving evangelicals to Rome. I had a big on-line exchange with Dan Wallace about his remark on a book blurb that "in some respects" there is "hardly" any difference between N.T. Wright's doctrines on justification and that of Rome [In fairness to Wallace this was a remark from a book blurb, for a fuller word from Wallace about N.T. Wright see here]. Now I confess that I don't want to get a reputation for being an apologist for N.T. Wright (though it might be too late for that). Although I greatly admire his work, I have some genuine criticisms that I have voiced in an excursus in SROG, and I gave John Piper some feedback on his manuscript The Future of Justification on what I think are the weaker nodes of Wright's arguments. But the attempt to make Wright look like John Henry Newman in an evangelical garb is a bit too much. Wright has criticized Anglo-Catholic views of the afterlife re: purgatory, he holds to a forensic justification as his critics even admit, and his view of grace is different from catholic sacramental theology. Contra Francis Beckwith who is cited in the article, I simply don't know how Wright can give someone an appreciation of a Catholic view of grace that is somehow different from a protestant view of grace. Part of the problem is that some folks want to reduce the debate to "Geneva" versus "Rome" as if they are the only two games in town: they are not! For a start, there is a lot of diversity among the residents of Geneva. The Westminster and Augsburg confessions disagree on what is imputed, Melanchthon and Luther disagreed on whether good works are necessary for salvation, John Calvin was also able to hold together justification and sanctification through union with Christ in a unique way, Martin Bucer held to a two-fold imputation for the impious and the pious, the Puritans weren't exactly monolithic on justification either as a comparison of Richard Baxter and John Owen shows, I think it was George Joye (like Ambrosiaster from the Church Fathers) who saw God's righteousness as his faithfulness rather than as a righteousness imputed from God, etc. Then look at Rome. Yes, we have Trent that was reactive and heavy-handed, and therefore, given to a theology born out of polemics. But read some modern Catholic commentators like Joseph Fitzmyer and I remain confused as to how his Romans commentary which is sooo protestantesque in places was ever granted nihil obstat. D.A. Carson tells a story of how he asked Joseph Fitzmyer what did he believe: his Romans commentary or the 1993 catechism which is solidly tridentine when it came to justification? Then there's a guy like Scott Hahn who is a better and more consistent covenant theologian than some Presbyterians I know. Then what about the Barthians who have a more christocentric approach to the matter that is speaking a different language altogether? Hans Kung saw in Karl Barth a bridge between Protestants and Rome. Not forgetting the post-Bultmann Lutherans like Ernst Kasemann and Peter Stuhlmacher who don't fit neatly into any precise camp with their view of justification as transformative in the sense of God both declaring and making the sinners righteous. Then go east young man with the Orthodox theologians who can integrate justification closely to their leitmotif of theosis. Now suddenly the multiple-choice theology of Geneva or Rome seems highly simplistic doesn't it? Wright's critique of Reformed interpretation, overstated and full of generalization I often find it!, can only cause folk to go to Rome if they are caught in this Geneva or Rome dichotomy. In other words, if you ingrain into people that Geneva (or one suburb of Geneva) and Rome (= Trent) are the only two options, once they question some of their Reformed heritage, you haven't left them with any other option.
In my mind, the most analogous antecedent figure to N.T. Wright is Martin Bucer. Bucer regarded "works of the law" as Jewish ceremonies (which is kinda like boundary markers) and he wanted to integrate the Spirit into the process of the Christian life and saw a second justifying work in the life of the Christ. I think a good project for some brave soul would be to compare Bucer and Wright on Romans 2 and Galatians 4-5 to see where they agree and disagree. I would add that perhaps some affinities with Richard Baxter (see Paul Helm) can be made as well. If I had time to read-up further, I'd say a little bit of Ulrich Zwingli on regeneration and Richard Hooker on the sacraments might be a good comparison with N.T. Wright as well. In other words, Wright is clearly "in" the broad Reformed camp, even though he has some camping gear that I don't like.
I genuinely believe that good progress has been made in Catholic-Protestant relations since the Reformation. This is evidenced by the Evangelicals and Catholics Together as well as the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification which were positive moves forward (see Richard Mouw's quotation from Charles Spurgeon on Spurgeon's trip to a Catholic Church). I can honestly say that I'd rather worship and pray with an Orthodox Catholic than with a Liberal Protestant. I believe in the Reformation and yet recognize that the definition of a Christian in Rom 10:9-10 is broader than my own doctrinal statement. Still, at the end of the day there remains several incommensurable and irreconcilable differences between evangelicals and Catholics over the distinction between justification and sanctification, the nature of Christian assurance, the eucharist, the papacy, doctrines of Mary, and priestly celibacy. In the end, rediscovering covenant as a unifying theological category, experiencing the blessings of liturgy, digesting the church fathers in a serious way, and seeking transformation rather than transcendence, should be a means of enriching our own theological tradition rather than a reason for running to Rome. What is more, resources to do these things actually are available in the Reformed tradition if you look far and deep enough.
Update: Note the response from Wright via Trevin Wax.