When EvangelicaIs and Catholics Get Together, Where Do Reformed Believers Fit?

One of the most noteworthy events in American religion over the past five years has been the emergence of the movement dubbed “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Though not sponsored by any organized church, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” has been promoted by many prominent leaders from Evangelical and Catholic circles. The movement has produced two major statements and has provoked a great deal of literature by supporters and opponents alike. Though its statements confess that a number of unresolved issues remain between the Evangelical and Catholic participants, these participants have pledged to work together on social issues and world evangelism, and have also penned a statement (entitled “The Gift of Salvation”) onto every sign of being alive and well, and could certainly be a major factor in shaping American — and even world — religious life in the next century.

Reformed believers, who are sometimes called “Evangelicals” and sometimes distinguished from them, may wonder what exactly to make of this movement. This essay will discuss the relationship between Catholics, Evangelicals, and Reformed. I offer this to the reader not as a definitive analysis, but as grist for reflection stemming from my opportunities to study theology at a Reformed seminary, an Evangelical seminary, and now at a Catholic university. I will propose that Catholic and Evangelical theologies show many important similarities, and that the Reformed tradition presents a distinct alternative to both. In light of the many commonalities between Evangelicals and Catholics, I will suggest that Reformed Christians should not be surprised to find people from these two camps discovering that they can agree on so many issues. Nor should they not be surprised if these ecumenical dialogues not only continue, but gain strength in the years to come. I will also suggest to Evanelicals who are uncomfortable with these eumenical dialogues, that they will find in the Reformed tradition a more clear and vital alternative to the Catholic tradition than they can find in most current Evangelicalism.

A brief note before we proceed: This essay will be making many generalizations about the theology and practices of the various traditions. There are many, and sometimes serious, differences within these traditions themselves, and, hence, I will have to speak mostly about broad trends. It is particularly important for readers to note that some people whom we ordinarily identify as “Evangelicals” bear more resemblance to those whom this essay calls “Reformed.” “Evangelical” will be used to designate the diverse community of conservative Protestants who do not belong to one of the confessional Protestant traditions (such as Lutheran or Reformed/Presbyterian).


There are many ways in which this analysis could be structured, but here is how we will proceed: We will first describe the important divergences between Catholic and Reformed theologies on the relationship between nature and grace, and then suggest that many Evan~ gelicals adopt positions which tend, at many points, to resemble more the Catholic than the Reformed position. To begin, let us briefly survey the general Catholic and Reformed views on nature and grace.

Traditional Roman Catholic theology views the natural state of man as deficient in some way. It teaches that, even before the fall into sin, Adam needed a gift of grace super-added to his natural state if he was to live a perfect life, without succumbing to the lusts of the flesh. As part of the punishment for the fall, then, God stripped Adam of this gift. Adam, left in his natural state, was seriously weakened though not completely helpless. The work of God’s grace in restoring the human race involves healing the wounds in man’s nature caused by sin, and elevating and crowning the good things that remain in fallen human nature. The phrase “grace perfects nature” is often used to describe this perspective. Reformed theologians have adopted a different view of the relationship between nature and grace. The Reformed tradition teaches that the natural condition of humanity, as created by God, is one of holiness and righteousness, lacking in nothing in its ability to please and obey God. Though some Reformed theologians speak of God’s “grace” before the fall in order to capture the great truth that God was richly benevolent in creating Adam in such a state, it is my opinion that it is better not to speak of grace before the fall, given our affirmation that the nature of created man had no need of any super-added gift in order to be perfectly righteous. The Reformed tradition has a higher view of human nature before the fall than does the Catholic tradition — but it has a lower view of human nature after the fall. Not simply wounded, man’s nature has been thrown into bondage and death. Hence, grace acts not to perfect nature by building on what good remains, but to bring in a new order of things. True, the identity of the individual person does not change with the influx of grace, but Reformed theology has stressed the fact that the saving work of grace gives believers a new heart, liberation from slavery, and resurrection from the dead.




Perhaps these disagreements between Catholics and Reformed on nature and grace seem minor or technical. In fact, it would be difficult to exaggerate the number of differences between the two traditions which stem from the divergence on this foundational matter. Let us now look at some of these specific Reformed/Catholic differences and investigate where the Evangelical community tends to fall in these debates.

Human Sin and Cooperation with Grace

First, and perhaps most obviously, there is the matter of natural human ability to do good. As we described above, Catholicism teaches that one result of the fall was that God stripped humanity of the super-added gift of grace that had given natural man the ability to fully please God. Nature now inevitably commits many sins, yet it is not wholly prone to evil. Many virtues remain which may be developed in impressive and God-honoring ways. Reformed Christianity has countered by asserting that human nature has been corrupted in all its parts. Though people may continue to perform outwardly good deeds, their natural hearts are opposed to God in everything and thus they are unable to do anything that is truly pleasing to God. A second, and closely related point, involves the question of human cooperation in salvation. Both Catholics and Reformed agree that salvation requires God’s grace. But recall the differences we have described on the nature-grace relationship. Because Catholics view grace as perfecting nature, they believe that grace must always work hand in hand with nature, and never override it. Hence, it is necessary that nature cooperate with the work of grace by accepting what is offered through its own free decision. The Reformed view is, of course, much different. Because nature is wholly corrupted, it is unable to cooperate with grace. Grace does not come seeking cooperation with human nature, but to change human nature, to make human nature something new, to give the sinner some· thing he did not previously possess. On these first two points, it seems accurate to say that the larger part of the Evangelical community has adopted a position more resembling the Catholic than the Reformed. Though the great Reformers like Luther and Calvin clearly taught the total depravity of man and the inability of his sinful nature to cooperate with grace, there have always been Protestant dissenters from this position. Approximately a century after the beginning of the Reformation, a Dutchman named James Arminius became most prominently associated with many of the views of these dissenters. Though what has come to be known as “Arminianism” has been expressed in different ways in the following centuries, its main lines are clear: Humanity’s fall into sin does not ultimately entail an inability to choose whether to accept or reject the offer of God’s grace. It can be little doubted that this principal tenet of Arminianism is taught in most Evangelical churches. It is expressed in various ways, through defense of free will, through emphasis upon “decisions” for Christ, and even through the emotional ap· peals made in the altar calls performed by some Evangelical preachers. In going this route, is it not the case that Evangelicals walk closer to Catholic theology than to Reformed theology?

Missions and Evangelism

Another point at which the Reformed/Catholic differences on nature and grace have important con· sequences is on the issue of missions and evangelism. As many Protestants know, when Catholicism makes its way into new cultures, it usually takes on a distinct local flavor. Very often Catholic practices are blended with the habits of the native religions to form a synthesis which differs from the syntheses developed in other lands. Undoubtedly these syntheses are tolerated — and perhaps even encouraged — as a result of the Catholic teaching on nature and grace. Because grace is supposed to build upon nature, healing and elevating it, it is no surprise that Catholics would not want to supplant native religious practices with their own practices so much as retain the good in the native practices and perfect them through combining them with Catholic rites. Reformed missionaries have followed a different route. They believe that human beings, as they live by nature, can devise no religious practices that are pleasing to God, but, as Calvin said, have hearts that are idol-factories. Hence they do not seek to build upon native religion, but to present a stark alternative. Here again, for the Reformed, grace does not crown nature, but ushers in something new.

As with the previous points, certain Evangelical approaches to reaching unbelievers seem to resemble the Catholic perspective more than the Reformed perspective. Perhaps this can be best seen in some practices advocated by what is often called “seeker-sensitive” ministry, which has been quite popular in Evangelical circles in recent years. To reach non-Christians, emphasis is placed upon making them feel comfortable in church, which means playing the kind of music they like and developing a low-pressure environment in which to teach them about Christianity. As with Catholic missions, such Evangelical evangelism tends to present the Gospel not as something radically challenging the beliefs and lifestyle of the unbeliever, but as something which can take the good of what is already there (e.g. popular contemporary music) and build up on it toward perfection.Much of what characterizes the non-Christian way of viewing the world does not need to be challenged, but can be effectively used as a steppingstone for bringing the elevating message of the Gospel. Does not such an approach, again, more resemble Catholicism than Calvinism?


Though there are other points we could also discuss, the final area that we will deal with in this section is spirituality. Catholicism teaches that the Christian life is built upon the good life attainable apart from knowing Christ. Catholic moral theology distinguishes between the “acquired virtues” and the “infused virtues,” the former consisting of moderation, courage, justice, and prudence, and the latter of faith, hope, and love. The acquired virtues were recognized by the ancient Greek philosophers, and are attainable apart from the revelation of the Gospel. The infused virtues are known through revelation, and build upon and perfect the acquired virtues. The ultimate goal of the moral and spiritual life of the Catholic is the beatific vision, the seeing of God in eternity. Christ is a key possession of Catholic spirituality, but there is not necessarily explicit communion with Him until a good way down the road of spiritual advancement. Again, grace perfects the good which nature can achieve. The Reformed view takes exception to the idea that moral and spiritual progress can be made apart from a conscious relationship with Christ. To the Reformed be liever, all attempts to reach toward the good and to God Himself are vain until one puts his faith in Christ. Once Christ is grasped, spiritual progress is inevitable, but until He is known, no progress is possible. Human nature itself is helpless to begin a journey to God; the grace of Christ is the heart of Reformed spirituality from first to last.

Spirituality is something necessarily difficult to describe because of its subjective and personal character. Yet it seems accurate to point out some similarities between certain strains of Evangelical spirituality and the Catholic understanding of the moral life which we have just set forth. Certainly Evangelicals view Christ as their Savior, with whom they look forward to eternal fellowship. But it also appears true that many Evangelical preachers do not believe that all genuine spiritual progress requires an explicit Christological basis. This is evident in much of their preaching, especially from the Old Testament. It is common to hear moral truths extracted from the various stories and prophecies of the texts, without hearing how the moral life must be grounded in the saving work of Christ and in our status as Christ’s redeemed people. Ethical examples are frequently taken from the stories of Scripture without simultaneously showing of how Christ is the center of all Scripture, including its moral teaching. To the extent that Evangelical preaching and Evangelical laity accept the validity of such a spirituality, does not their vision of the Christian life concur with the Catholic position — that universally known virtues, apart from a explicit basis in Christ, can serve as legitimate steps on the ladder leading to spiritual maturity?


In response to what has just been written, some might claim that even if Evangelicals share these similarities with Catholics, there remains a fundamental gap between them on two crucial issues, justification and the sole authority of Scripture. While it is my judgment that these issues were and remain great doctrinal dividers of the Catholic and Reformation worlds, I also wonder whether most of the Evangelical community really understands these doctrines in the same way as did the Reformers, and, therefore, whether these issues will really be iron-clad barriers against future “Catholic-Evangelical togetherness.”

Readers should not think that the doctrine of justification by faith alone — often called by Protestant theologians, the “article by which the church stands or falls” — is a matter understood in exactly the same way by all conservative Protestants. The heated debates that have arisen between conservative Protestants as a result of “The Gift of Salvation” document may be proof of this point. Calvin and Luther — and the Reformed and Lutheran traditions which followed them — both affirmed strongly that justification entails not only the forgiveness of our sins on account of the sufferings of Christ, but also the imputation of the righteous obedience of Christ to us. That is, the Reformers recognized, as did the Catholics, that one must possess righteousness if one is to be justified. The Catholics affirmed that the righteousness which justifies is our own; the Reformers countered that the righteousness which justifies is Christ’s, judicially credited to us by God’s grace. The difference is basic; yet how many Evangelicals understand this, and how much teaching emanating from Evangelical leaders clearly makes this distinction? I hope that I am wrong on this point, but I suspect the answer is: not many and not much. And if a large part of the Evangelical community does not recognize the most basic point of controversy about justification — the point at which the Catholic and Reformation perspectives are seen in their clearest contrast — then should Reformed believers be surprised if Evangelicals and Catholics continue their dialogues on salvation and continue discovering essential agreement rather than essential disagreement on what the Gospel is? If this indeed happens, perhaps we should not expect the doctrine of justification to serve as an uncompromisable issue for many Evangelicals.

The other doctrine often seen as uncompromisable for Evangelicals is that of sola scriptura, the conviction that Scripture is the sole ultimate authority for Christian faith and life. There is also reason to wonder whether this doctrine will serve as an effective line in the sand between Evangelicals and Catholics. Such a claim may seem strange, as it sometimes appears that Evangelicals have an even greater sense of the sole authority of Scripture than do the Reformed. Reformed communities have their creeds, confessions and catechisms, as well as clearly-defined church governments and authoritative teaching and ruling offices. To many Evangelicals these seem like compromises with the idea that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is our standard. It is indeed difficult to see how Evangelicals who hold such views could ever make much ecumenical progress with Catholics. What we might wonder, however, is how many Evangelicals would actually hold firm if seriously engaged by Catholics on this point. “No Creed but Christ” Christianity is indefensible. The Bible itself teaches that there are to be authoritative church offices. And simply because the Bible is our only standard for faith and life does not mean that we do not need to learn from the great teachers of the past. As someone like Calvin recognized, no individual ought to be so arrogant as to think himself capable of harvesting the manifold riches of Scripture all alone. Our Christian ancestors did not speak inerrantly, but they remain necessary for us as guides and as partners in dialogue, In recent years, many Evangelicals have come to appreciate these facts — and have converted to Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church undeniably offers a sense of identity, of history, of authority. Perhaps Reformed believers should not be surprised if, in the years to come, many more Evangelicals who are challenged by Catholics on the issue of authority will find resistance difficult and jump, from a Reformed perspective, from one extreme to the other.


I have suggested that believers in the Reformed tradition should not be shocked to find intensified dialogues between Evangelicals and Catholics, nor to find them discovering more and more similarities with each other. There should be little shock because there are many similarities. We as Reformed believers ought to be aware of this if we are to properly respond to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement, and respond we must, because it is potentially too important to ignore. But it is also my plea to readers in Evangelical circles that they think about the course which they are on, and the theological choices which are before them. Perhaps some will see the Evangelical similarities with Catholicism and wish to head toward Rome. But perhaps many will recognize that the Reformed tradition offers the most distinct and powerful alternative to Catholicism, and choose to join us in our witness to Jesus Christ in the third millennium.