Evangelicals Often Rediscover Catholic Teachings

Some time back I wrote a little piece called “Discovering Wales” in which I noted that, because Evangelicals are serious about discipleship and oriented toward truth, they tend to keep stumbling upon Catholic doctrines, since those doctrines are, in fact, a map of reality.  Sez I:

I have thought more than once that it might be handy to compile a Catholic/Evangelical phrasebook that would allow both parties to speak to each other.  Evangelicals have a profoundly pragmatic approach to the faith which tends to overwhelm their own professed doctrines by sheer confrontation with reality.  So try as they might, they tend to adopt Catholic ideas under other names, because Catholic theology describes reality.

For instance, Evangelical jargon has long employed notions like “once saved, always saved” and espoused a vague notion that if you have once asked Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior, then you “can’t lose your salvation.” A Catholic can argue the flaws of this theology, of course (and there are plenty of flaws to point out).  But the interesting thing to note is that Evangelicals are, themselves, bumping up against hard reality and recognizing the futility of calling Jesus “Lord” but not obeying Him.  And so, as the impulse toward what Catholics call “formation” and Evangelicals call “discipleship” grows (under the inspiration of the Spirit) Evangelicals discover by experience a truth taught by the Catholic Church since the beginning: “justification” means we are to be changed into the image and likeness of Christ and not merely “declared righteous” while remaining the sinners we were.  This does not mean Evangelicals necessarily realize they are discovering a Catholic truth, any more than my friend’s charismatic companion realized she was stumbling on the Cult of the Saints.  But it is true, nonetheless.  An Evangelical who sports a bumper sticker reading “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet” has adopted, whether he realizes it or not, a soteriology that is much closer to the teaching of the Catholic Church than to any of the “faith alone” or “once saved, always saved” jargon of Protestantism.

In similar ways, Evangelicals can often adopt an essentially Catholic view of sin while not realizing it.  For example, while residual anti-Roman rhetoric may linger on in the Evangelical mouth, so that Evangelicals can still be found denouncing the Romish doctrine of mortal and venial sin, what you will often find is that once the need for polemics goes away, Evangelicals on their own turf essentially embrace the idea of degrees of sin.  How?  Usually by adopting a different terminology whereby venial sin is referred to as “stumbling” and grave or mortal sin is called “backsliding”.

I hasten to emphasize that it is a mistake for Catholics to regard this as dishonest or a conscious subterfuge.  It is, rather, a product of a culture that really did believe Catholics cooked up the distinction between mortal sins and venial sins in order to “get away” with something (an understandable misperception, given some of the more tiresome moral ingenuities we sometimes encounter from skilled Catholic sophists). But once polemics is gone and Evangelicals set about the hard work of living out the pastoral realities of everyday life, they are forced by the School of Hard Knocks to relearn what Catholic theology describes.  And so, when Billy goes off to school and loses his temper at a fellow student, Evangelicals assure Billy that he “stumbled” but that, though a righteous man falleth seven times, he riseth up (Proverbs 24:16). On the other hand, if Billy goes to off to college, abandons his faith, starts sleeping around, dealing drugs, and winds up in jail for murder, he hasn’t “stumbled”: he’s “backslidden”. There is a clear understanding that the gravity of these two manifestations of sin is not the same and that the grace necessary to cure them, while all from Christ, is not the same sort of grace.  Once again, the Evangelical drive toward reality overwhelms the vestigial anti-Roman rhetoric and the Evangelical winds up embracing essentially Catholic ideas, albeit using different jargon.

A final example of this curious phenomenon can be found in the Catholic concept of “temporal punishment for forgiven sin” which plays such an important role the Catholic understanding of salvation.  Here again, Evangelicals tend to hear something the Church is not saying: namely, that after Jesus has borne our sin on the cross and paid 50% of the Atonement Fee, it is necessary for Catholics to pay the other 50% and help make up for Jesus’ inadequate attempt at redemption.

Not surprisingly, Evangelicals reject this theology (as, of course, do Catholics).  But then they head out into the real world in the attempt to live biblically.  And what they find is that, like it or not, suffering comes to forgiven disciples of Jesus, often as the result of sins of the past.  Christian converts on death row get executed for crimes they committed before they became believers.  Christian drug addicts have to struggle with addiction.  Converts who once beat their wife or child are faced with divorce or jail despite the fact that they have repented and their sins are forgiven by God.  Forgiveness does not cancel back taxes.  And so, as a pastoral reality, the Evangelical has only two choices, regard this suffering as meaningless junk that just happens for no reason or regard it, in the words of Hebrews 12:5 as the “discipline of the Lord” which now turns the pain of our sins into a vehicle of grace to transform us into the image of Christ. If he opts for the latter, the Evangelical has once again embraced the basics of Catholic teaching about “temporal punishment for sin”. He just doesn’t realize it.

I think about that phenomenon as I notice that, once again, Evangelicals are stumbling over the reality mapped by Catholic teaching.  Here, for instance, is Evangelical Greg Laurie arguing that the dead are aware of us and know what’s happening on earth (pretty much all you need in order to likewise argue that the dead pray for those on earth–and then you are off and running with that whole “communion of saints” thing that Catholics are on about).

Likewise, Christianity Today has recently begun to question whether artificial contraception is really all that great and to revisit possibility that cooperating with, rather than thwarting, the intention of God in making nature is biblical or even smart.

Catholics should rejoice whenever non-Catholics discover some truth described by Catholic teaching and help them integrate their discoveries into the whole weave of Catholic faith, teaching and practice.  It’s what Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos and it still sound today.

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  • Sam Wood

    Mark, this was a hard lesson for me to learn after I converted to the Catholic Faith. As a former protestant minister, I tried to get people, namely my wife, but others as well, to adopt or accept Catholic terminology, identifying that they have in some ways already the principles of them.. Their developed bias against the faith prevented them to do so. I spent many angry hours trying to convince and cajole them that they already think like Catholics….they just need to accept the terms. I found out this to be complete futility. However, by experience, I saw that IF I just, like, SHUT UP and be satisfied with the fact that they already think Catholicly in some ways, that they’ll come around. However, if not, they are still living out many Catholic principles. Thanks for confirming this idea I’ve had in a much more cogent manner.

  • Marthe Lépine

    “I have thought more than once that it might be handy to compile a Catholic/Evangelical phrasebook that would allow both parties to speak to each other.”
    This is an excellent idea, not only for Catholics and Evangelicals. IMHO there is also a need for such a phrasebook to allow both Catholic factions in the US to speak to each other (I mean Conservatives and Progressives). In that way they might find what they do have in common and start working together on what they agree on instead of constantly working against each other… Both sides do have good points, but nothing will change in your country’s political climate as long as abortion remains the one and only issue. In fact, as I keep reading various blogs, I am getting a clear impression that the issue of abortion is used by both main political parties to keep Catholics arguing among each other, thus leaving the politicians free to do anything they want without having to worry about any coordinated reaction from them and making irrelevant much of what the largest Christian denomination in the US could accomplish.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’d love to replace “abortion for the sake of the life of the mother” with “triage”

  • “This does not mean Evangelicals necessarily realize they are discovering a Catholic truth…”

    In the spirit of using different words for the same concept, I’d have said they were discovering a Christian truth.

  • Rachel K

    “Likewise, Christianity Today has recently begun to question whether artificial contraception is really all that great and to revisit possibility that cooperating with, rather than thwarting, the intention of God in making nature is biblical or even smart.”

    Others have pointed this out, but I honestly think the HHS mandate is the best publicity that Humanae Vitae and theology of the body have ever gotten. Our evangelical brothers and sisters, God bless them, have been rallying in support of the Church on this issue, and that’s been causing some re-examination of why exactly contraception is such a big deal to us.

  • Marthe Lépine

    It seems to me that the Lord is using crisis situations to bring more unity among Christians. While, as Mark says, the current problem with that HHS mandate is causing some evangelicals to re-examine the matter of contraception, the crisis about gay “marriage” seems to have been the turning point for many Anglicans and members of the Church of England to turn to the Catholic church. To me this means many reasons to hope, in spite of the threat of persecution.

  • The reality is that some evangelicals are reverting back to a more historical Protestant faith (and the Reformation was a work in progress), and insofar as this includes Scriptural truths Jews and or Catholics hold to, then that is a good thing, while overall both Catholic and Protestant faiths are in decline, and evangelical declension can be seen as concomitant with compromising in adopting certain extraBiblical Catholic practices.

    Historically Evangelicals have been marked as being foremost defenders of commonly held core truths we both assent to and contending against those who deny them (cults), in addition to opposing extraBiblical doctrines , which usually result from making the church the ultimate supreme authority, which cults also effectively do.

    One researcher went so far as to say, “Recent research on the Reformation entitles us to sharpen it and say that the Reformation began because the reformers were too catholic in the midst of a church that had forgotten its catholicity…” — Jaroslav Pelikan, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (New York: Abingdon Press, 1959, p. 46)

    Thus the response by Manning:

    “It was the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity. But the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine.”

    When you infallibly declare that you are infallible, then you have this solution, rather than needing to establish what is Divine by conformity in word and in power with Scripture as the only transcendent authority that is wholly inspired by God. (2Cor. 4:2; 2Tim. 3:16)

  • However, it is good to see evangelicals awakening to the immorality of contraceptives which can cause abortions, and the lack of faith involved in the general use of them, and contrariness to the Biblical principle of pleasure and responsibility.

  • Reminds me of the time one of my students told me about the discussions she was having with her soon to be husband on purgatory. My student was raised Lutheran and her husband to be was raised Catholic. I asked my student if she believed that one had to be totally free of sin in order to live in heaven with Jesus. She said yes. I told her that one could view purgatory as the process that Our Lord uses to cleanse us of sin so that we are able to be in the presence of Our Lord for all eternity. She then said…”Well why didn’t they just explain it to me like that, I can believe that.”

  • You could do worse than linking evangelical and catholic concepts in Wikipedia. You would first have to write a “reliable source” article or two and then others could use those pieces to justify linking them in Wikipedia and Wiktionary.

  • The need for cleansing and holiness in order to dwell with God does sound good and necessary, and thus the good news of the gospel preaches that, “that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins,” “giving them the Holy Ghost” and “purifying their hearts by faith,” (Acts 10:43; 15:8,9) that being counted for righteousness, (Rm. 4:5) and being “accepted in the Beloved”, baptized by the Spirit into the one body of Christ, “translated into the kingdom of Christ,” and made to sit together in heavenly places. (Eph. 1:6; 2:6; 1Cor. 12:13; Col. 1:13)

    But which is a faith which effects practical holiness in obedience towards its Object, characteristically practicing righteousness in heart and deed, thus justifying one has salvific faith, (1Thes. 1:4-10; Heb. 5:9; 6:9; 12:14; Ja. 2:18) that one has eternal life. (1Jn. 5:13)

    However, this does not mean one must attain practical perfection (maturity) to dwell with God, though that is to be a longing for believers who are all called “saints,” as the reason that God must and justify the unGodly (Rm. 4:5) in the first place is because they are no more able be holy enough to be with God than the criminal on the cross, but who looked in contrite faith to the crucified Christ, and who thus went to be with his Lord. (Lk. 21:39-43) For “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. ” (Psalms 34:18) and whose faith is not in their merits of that their church, but the sinless shed blood of Christ. (Rm. 3:23-25ff)

    Likewise if the Lord had returned during the lifetime of those in the early church, including Corinthian believers, then they would all go to be with the Lord, and henceforth ever be with Him. (1Thes 4:17) And indeed, wherever the postmortem location of believers is manifestly dealt with then it is with the Lord. ( Jn. 14:13; Acts 7:59; 2Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23) Those attempting to defend the Roman tradition of purgatory, and in which the tradition-based Orthodox dissent from, must resort to texts which do not speak clearly as to the subjects and or the place of chastisement, or clearly do not apply to what they want to prove.

    To be sure, there are consequences for the works of believers, which reveals the faith one has, and which is the suffering of loss of rewards and the grievous and fearful disapproval of the Lord, the judge of all, but which takes place at His return and “the resurrection of life,” (Jn. 5:9; cf. Rv. 20:6) that being when every believer shall be recompensed for their manner of workmanship in building the body of Christ. (1Cor. 13:8-15; Mt. 25:31-40; Mk. 8:38; 1Cor. 4:5; 13:8-15; 1Thes. 2:19; 4:16,17; 2Tim. 4:8; 1Pt. 1:7; 5:4; Rv. 11:18)

    [And who then go to fight with the Lord in the battle of Armageddon, (Jude 1:14; Rv. 19:11-16) and to reign with Him for a thousand years, (Rv. 20:6) and be part of the judgment of the lost. (1Cor. 6:3)]

    Moreover, the Scriptures testify that it is in this life, with its temptations that the faith of believers is tried and they grow in practical purity and grace, and undergo the chastening which effects holiness. (Heb. 12; 1 Peter 1:6-7: 5:9,10; Rv. 2.7,10,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21) For it is promised that here, “in the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33) And thus it was here in this world that even the Son of God was tried and “perfected,” (Heb. 5:9) in the sense of being temped in all points as we are, (Heb. 4:15) and overcoming.