Should I Sign A Reforming Catholic Confession?

A friend writes:

I am confused and maybe I have jumped to conclusions about the Catholic Confession of Faith issue. But, it sounds like we, as conservatives, are tying to come together with Catholics. Is that the way I am to take it? Or, am I wrong? I certainly hope that isn’t what this is all about.

Friend, it’s humble of you to ask rather than jumping to conclusions. The thing is, you’re wrong and right to be suspicious.

Here’s where I think you’d do better to be happy with what you see, and try to quell your suspicions: taken by itself the “Reforming Catholic Confession” is not Roman Catholic, and is not attempting unity with Roman Catholics in any way I can perceive. It is insistently Protestant. It’s whole point is to bring together Protestants and confess what we believe together after 500 years in which one might start to wonder whether we’re really on any of the same pages. And it’s good stuff. It’s precious, gospel stuff. Their use of the word “catholic” in this case is actually a jab against the Roman Catholic Church; the confession is saying that we are the “catholic” church—that the church with the gospel is the one true, holy, apostolic, and universal church. “Catholic,” of course, just means “universal.” To use “catholic” as often as this statement does is not a play on words, an attempt to be coy, or an attempt to confuse. It’s making an essential point. As Vanhoozer and the other framers write in their explanation,

What protests the Reformers made were ultimately lodged on behalf of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

Reformation Protestantism is more consistent with the early church in our hold on the gospel than is the Roman Catholic Church of Trent or today. That’s the claim behind the use of the word “catholic” in this confession.

And note what Vanhoozer says in the Logos Academic Blog interview,

We want to argue that the Protestant Reformation was all about reforming the Catholic Church, not starting a new one. There is only one church. So we are reforming catholic theologians. We believe the substance of the faith with the church fathers, with the medieval theologians, but we’re not Roman. We think “Roman” limits catholicity, and we actually feel we have a wider and more universal catholicity.

I read the confession as soon as it came out, and the explanation, and I was very pleased with both. Vanhoozer is an elegant writer and a knowledgeable theologian. I’ve since read the confession again. I think I need to read it yet again in finer detail, this time on the lookout for 1) what’s missing that could/should(?) be there and 2) what’s there that really distinguishes Protestants from Catholics. Systematic Theology is not my specialty, so I’m sure that sharper-eyed friends will have a few things to point out. But my alma mater itself has survived as a non-denominational institution because it had a minimalist Protestant creed (recited every day in chapel), and so I’ve seen the value of “mere Protestant” confessions.

I particularly liked Vanhoozer’s repeated point that differences don’t equal divisions.

Not every denominational or doctrinal difference is a division, certainly not an insurmountable one…. We acknowledge that Protestants have not always handled doctrinal and interpretive differences in a spirit of charity and humility, but in making common confession, as we here do, we challenge the idea that every difference or denominational distinction necessarily leads to division.

I’m not really divided from conservative Presbyterians the way I’m divided from liberal Methodists or Roman Catholics, for example. I’ve always been the kind of fundamentalist who believes that the existence of evangelicalism is a good thing: it’s isolationist fundamentalism to forget or (worse) deny that there really are people in other Christian groups who are brothers and sisters in Christ—many, many of them. In fact, there are far more Christian outside our little slice of the church than inside. And they have good gifts to give to the other parts of the church, including ours. Even if I must disagree with them over some important details, I stand united with them in important substance. I stand with some egalitarian evangelicals, for example, on things more important than gender. I stand with paedobaptist evangelicals on things more important than baptism. Taken by itself, I believe I could sign the statement—I’d want to go over it with a finer-toothed comb first, but two read-throughs haven’t raised any big red flags.

Here’s my concern as I consider signing, however, and here’s where I think your instinctive concern is warranted: some of the progenitors and signatories of the document have written and said and done problematic things. Kevin Vanhoozer and Timothy George have been part of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (though both are very smart guys worth listening to). Michael Bird and Wesley Hill take views on inerrancy and homosexuality, respectively, that I find seriously objectionable (though both are very smart guys worth listening to). (And Will Willimon weirds me out—he’s a mainline Protestant who’s wistful about the loss of evangelical belief in his United Methodist Church… I’ve never been able to understand the guy; I admit I just haven’t read enough of him.) I believe all of these people I’ve named signed the statement in good faith. But I’d have to really think about what signing the statement along with them means before doing it. Would I be implying to a watching world (and is anybody out there in that world watching obscure redheaded non-KJV-Only fundamentalists?) that I’m for the kind of Protestantism that is happy to find common cause with the Roman Catholic Church over salvation and Scripture, the kind of Protestantism that’s cool with calling inerrancy a merely American obsession or calling celibate men with SSA “gay Christians”?

Many people I respect, such as Wayne Grudem and Bruce Riley Ashford, have not felt that I would be implying these things by signing—or they wouldn’t have signed. There has to be room for distinguishing central truths from less central ones, because Jesus (Matt 23:23) and Paul (Rom 14) both did so. The key question seems to be whether I’m required to consider the views of those alongside me on the signatory list before signing. Are they part of the message I send by signing?

It’s easier, given my total obscurity, to simply avoid signing—which is probably what most people like me will do. No one will care or notice that I’m absent. But I do believe it’s important to recognize the existence of C.S. Lewis’ “hallway” from the beginning of Mere Christianity. And the basic idea of affirming “mere Christianity,” and “mere Protestant Christianity” during this 500th anniversary of the Reformation is fundamentally sound. I think non-KJV-Only fundamentalists (my favored term for my slice of Christianity nowadays—if I get to explain what I mean by “fundamentalism”) owe it to their fellow believers to give careful consideration to signing on—and to have well-articulated reasons if they choose not to do so. I’m praying about and considering signing. I don’t have to sign everything I agree with just because I agree with it, of course; but this is a serious effort by serious Christians during a momentous year to aim at a unity Jesus prayed for. I want whatever unity I can achieve without spending truth to get it. I shouldn’t just ignore this statement.

Fundamentalists cannot ignore something else: the information-rich culture we live in makes it very easy for people to believe that Protestantism is doomed to “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” There may have been a day when our young people were simply unaware that other Christian groups existed until they went to college or into the workforce; that day was gone before I was out of junior high. Even kids sometimes must face the question, “How come there are so many different denominations?” The thought threatens the trust we naturally have for the truth claims of our parents and pastors. And Vanhoozer in this confession (which he didn’t write by himself but sent through committee discussions) and in a book of his I’m reading tackles this very problem. As he says in the Logos Academic Blog interview,

We’re trying to make this as robust as possible, but we’re trying to show that the Reformation didn’t give birth to simply a plethora of conflicting opinions. Some people think that the Protestant church is an experiment that has failed dramatically. It split the church. That’s not the way we’re viewing it. We’re trying to show, on the eve of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, that Protestants from different churches, different denominations, different local churches can come together and agree about the substance of the faith—the faith delivered once for all to the saints and recovered, we think, at the Reformation. That’s the main purpose of our confession; it’s not to displace anybody else’s. We’re not starting a new church. We’re simply trying to disprove the prevailing narrative that Protestants can’t state their beliefs together, that the doctrine always divides. We’re trying to show that these doctrines, the essential doctrines, actually unite Protestants.

This is theologically and pastorally important. It is balm for my own personal soul. Doctrinally careful efforts at Protestant unity ought to be welcome to those of us who believe that the church stands or falls on doctrine, and who are struck hard by the existential challenge in all that interpretive pluralism out there. Claiming that “Baptists aren’t Protestants” (which is wrong to do) won’t save you from the charge inside “How come Christians differ so much?”—because even Baptists differ over Bible interpretation.

I find it very interesting that this confession was started by an Arminian and a Calvinist. By working together they are making the same point that BJU fundamentalism has always implicitly tried to make by herding those same two groups of cats together: there is such a thing as gospel unity despite important differences.

I’m nervous, frankly, posting first among my friends. I’m sure there are things I’m missing, especially because I’m not a systematics guy. I also am not familiar enough with the contents of the ECT documents Vanhoozer signed (he didn’t sign them all) to interpret this confession in their light. I’d like to hear from Bauder, Collins, Olinger, and the Theologyin3D guys—I’m calling you out.

Humbly yours, and here I stand for correction, I can do no other,

Mark

 

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

6 thoughts on “Should I Sign A Reforming Catholic Confession?”

  1. I did note the openness of the statement about the fate of the unevangelized, as one of those commenters did. But what it said, strictly speaking, I agree with. There are other things I would say, of course.

  2. I’m not sure what the practical value of this confession is, or what the framers actually hope to accomplish with it. I understand their stated goals (I read their explanation), but I fail to see how this meager confession accomplishes any of those goals. I, too, can agree with the basic content, but so what? As I mentioned at SI, it seems like an academic vanity project to me. I expect it to be completely forgotten on November 1, 2017. I see little practical value for ordinary Christians.

  3. Tyler, I getcha. I do. I just can’t bring myself to be so skeptical of someone who is helping me so much—that charge against Protestants that we abet “pervasive interpretive pluralism” is strong, and I have long felt I needed more help answering it. Vanhoozer is helping me, both in his recent book and in this confession.

    And I have a feeling laypeople would look at SI and call it a “pastoral vanity project”—why all this chatter? I disagree with them: pastors need to chatter among themselves. And so do academics. I stand on the border between the two groups (pastors and academics), and I think A Reforming Catholic Confession is a benefit to academics, pastors, and laypeople—even if I ultimately don’t sign because of my fundamentalist scruples! I want—I need—there to be something called Protestantism. At the very least, a lot of smart people I respect didn’t think it was a waste of time.

    I won’t deny, however, that I think you could be write. I felt more like you regarding the Manhattan Declaration. “Declaration” felt more self-important, too, than “Confession.”

  4. My impressions on this so far are similar to yours, Mark, but I need to re-read as well.

    I guess the thing that’s most puzzling about this, is that we Protestants have typically used confessions to divide, not to unite. Or at least, that’s often the effect, even if it’s not always the intent.

  5. I would have prefer the section on Holy Scriptures to have included something about inerrancy. But then, quite a few evangelicals would not be able to sign this confession.

Leave a Reply