Chuck Colson has begun a blog tour to support his new book, The Faith (and interestingly, this blog tour is actually modeled on the one I put together with the publicity team at Crossway after the release of my book). I was asked to participate in this tour and agreed to do so because I wanted to ask a question that would really get to the heart of this book. And while I had Colson’s ear, I wanted to ask a question that I’ve often struggled with as I’ve considered Christians who pursue greater unity with the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a question I would ask Colson if he and I were standing face-to-face. Here is my question and Colson’s response.
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?
It is true that Protestants have traditionally believed that justification by grace alone through faith alone through Christ alone (sola fide) is at the heart of the Christian faith, the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. It was also true that the Roman Catholic Church in Trent anathemized this position. This has been an unbridgeable divide.
In 1992, an informal group of Catholic and evangelical scholars began to meet in New York under the co-chairmanship of Richard Neuhaus and I. One of the items taken up in our consultation was justification by faith alone. And in 1997 we issued a document called “The Gift of Salvation.” You will find it referenced on page 113 of The Faith. It is a remarkable document in which both confessions agreed that we can now affirm what the Reformers meant by sola fide or faith alone.
Admittedly, this was an informal consultation; but Cardinal Cassidy from the Vatican took part in our final discussions, approved the document, and took it back to Rome where it was taught to the bishops in the synods prior to the millennium. Significantly, in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogues, similar agreements were reached, although not quite as explicitly tied to the Reformation. There is an historic shift taking place.
Simply because of its structure, the Roman Catholic Church moves much more slowly than evangelicals do. It will take a generation for these kinds of changes to be reflected in the Catholic catechism. But more and more Catholics are embracing the very doctrine that was at the heart of the Reformation.
Do not be misled here; there are many fundamental differences in how we view the church, methods of worship, baptism, the Eucharist, etc. We’re a long way from having unanimity of belief. We may never achieve it. But, the point of The Faith is that we can agree on the fundamentals laid out in the Nicene Creed, and as we work together and seek unity in a spirit of charity towards one another, it’s amazing how much genuine progress we can make, which eliminates some of the great barriers to the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.
At some point I would like to respond to this. But not today!
Here is where this blog tour has gone and is going…
March 5 – Acton Institute PowerBlog
March 5 – The Dawn Treader
March 6 – Reasoned Audacity
March 7 – Challies.com
March 10 – Adrian Warnock
March 11 – Tall Skinny Kiwi
March 12 – Mark D. Roberts
March 13 – Rebecca Writes
March 14 – Jolly Blogger