Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue Part 2

Yesterday I posted here about my years-long involvements in Catholic-Evangelical dialogues. This past weekend I participated in another one. I was very glad to be invited and enjoyed all of it and benefited from it. I applaud those who provide the impetus for it and organize it.

Now, looking back over this one and many others I’ve participated in, I’d like to share some ideas about how to improve them.

First, right off the bat, at the very beginning of every weekend session and in the printed material given to participants, define “evangelical.” The term is so broad as to be useless unless it is defined by the person using it. When I hear (or read) “evangelical” from someone I don’t know well, I have no idea what they mean unless they follow it with at least a brief paragraph defining their use of the term.

As I wrote in my The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology there are at least six distinct meanings of “evangelical.” They include the journalistic meaning (politically conservative Christian), the European meaning (Protestant) and the post-WW2 meaning of a post-fundamentalist but basically theologically conservative Protestant who also believes authentic Christianity includes a decision for Christ and a personal relationship with Jesus.

“Evangelical” in Braaten’s and Jenson’s Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology meant “Protestant.” The same was true in the Munich dialogues led by Pannenberg. However, I have the sense that it means something more specific than just Protestant in the on-going colloquium a part of which I attended and participated in this past weekend. A leading evangelical seminary president was the moderator. One of the organizers is a well-known evangelical theologian who teaches at a well-known evangelical school in Canada. But it was unclear to me what the organizers mean by “evangelical” beyond just “Protestant.” I’m quite sure they mean something more specific, but what remains unclear (at least to me). (Some of the Protestant participants are people I have heard distance themselves from the concept “evangelical” in the past.)

Second, invite more than just Lutheran and Reformed theologians to represent the evangelical side of the dialogue. Braaten and Jenson did invite a denominational diverse group of Protestants to their ecumenical dialogues, but most (I would say I was the only exception) were either some kind of Lutheran or some kind of Reformed in terms of theological orientation. The same seemed to me to be the case in this past weekend’s events. I did see a couple of folks there that would probably not identify as either Lutheran or Reformed (e.g., Stanley Hauerwas and some of his students and proteges). However, as the discussions unfolded it seemed that most of the participants were speaking either as Catholics or Reformed Protestants. Occasionally someone spoke up on behalf of a kind of Hauerwasian perspective that can sometimes sound Anabaptist but at other times more Catholic. (I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to describe the Yoderian-Barthian perspective held by Hauerwas and his disciples/followers). My point is, about all these dialogues–where are the Methodists and offshoots of Methodism? Where are the Wesleyan voices? That leads to my third point.

Third, it would be helpful in these dialogues to make sure that the “evangelical” side of the dialogue is represented by more than just magisterial Protestants and especially by some from the Arminian-Wesleyan traditions. We represent a huge portion of evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism and yet our theological perspective seems to get overlooked. Both last year and this year (as in the Braaten-Jenson dialogue events) I had to speak up for Wesley and point out that Wesley is a kind of bridge between magisterial Protestantism (Luther-Calvin-Anglican) and Catholicism insofar as he advocated a salvation that is more than forensic and is truly transformative (inward grace). He believed in deification and sacraments, etc. He also believed in forensic justification but never divorced from inward transformation. It seemed to me that the underlying assumption of all these Catholic-Evangelical dialogues is that the gulf to be overcome is between Catholic and Lutheran-Reformed doctrines of nature and grace and justification. But many evangelicals (including many in the Arminian-Wesleyan traditions) hold a view that combines both nature and grace and forensic and transformative salvation in a way that is neither extrincicist or intrincicist.

Fourth, it would be helpful to tell the presenters to say something about how their papers relate to Catholic-Evangelical differences and possible mutual understanding if not outright agreement. And they should not assume that the non-Catholics in the room are with Luther or Calvin on the issues. The discussions always seem to come down to what Luther would say or what Calvin would say as if they were the only reformers that mattered.

Fifth, it would be helpful strictly to avoid comparing apples to oranges. I have noticed a tendency among the participants in these dialogues to use “evangelical” to refer to American Protestant folk religion and especially overly individualized, pietistic “Jesus and me” Christianity. While that may be true of many grassroots evangelicals, it’s not the historical or prevailing contemporary meaning of evangelical among evangelical theologians. Pitted against that is often the official theology of Catholicism or Catholic scholarship and theological reflection. That’s simply not fair. IF we’re going to ridicule and deride evangelical folk religion, then let’s at least compare it with, say, the folk religion of untutored Catholic lay people and not with the magisterium or Rahner or even Augustine and Aquinas. As you can tell, this tendency irritates me very much.

Sixth, it would be helpful in these events for the Catholic presenters to at least say something good about evangelical Christianity and for the evangelical presenters and participants to stop apologizing for being evangelical and do something other than reach out to the Catholics to enrich our evangelicalism. In all the Catholic-Evangelical dialogues I’ve participated in I’ve noticed a common tendency. It seems to me the Catholic presenters are there to evangelize the evangelicals and the evangelicals are there to learn from the Catholics and appropriate Catholic theology and liturgy and practices to enrich our evangelical way of believing, worshiping and living. This was certainly NOT the case with Hauerwas’s plenary address at this weekend’s dialogue event, but it seemed to me that the one evangelical paper attempted to show how a belief usually associated with Catholic (or Orthodox) theology can be appreciated by evangelicals and enrich us while the Catholic papers dealt with aspects of Catholic theology evangelicals can learn from.

Of course, part of the problem is that Catholics do have a magisterium and a catechism; evangelicals don’t. (We just have people who want to be pope of all evangelicals and books that implicitly pretend to be “the” evangelical catechism such as the new one edited by D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller entitled “The Gospel as Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices.”) So it’s always unclear to me to what extent the Catholics in these dialogues CAN appropriate Protestant or evangelical insights. Protestants/evangelicals always can appropriate Catholic insights (depending on their ecclesiastical affiliations, I suppose). So it tends to happen that the evangelicals at these dialogue events seem hungry to soak up Catholic theology while the Catholics seem anxious to convince the evangelicals they need Catholic theology to become respectable.

Seventh, it would be helpful for these dialogue events to focus on issues that really do tend to divide Catholics and evangelicals. This weekend’s topic was Creation. I don’t think there is any evangelical doctrine of creation or even of the relationship between nature and grace. True, the Lutheran and Reformed scholastics tended to treat nature as not open to grace so that grace had to come as sheer miracle totally unanticipated by nature. (This is what was behind the Barth-Brunner debate of the 1930s.)  (The idea of the imago dei is involved there. But there is no “evangelical view” of the imago dei.) I think the effort would be better put forth focusing on something like salvation that does tend to divide Catholics and evangelicals (e.g., whether merit is involved). This may have been the theme of last year’s event. I wasn’t an invited participant, so I don’t know.

All-in-all, in spite of these suggestions, I value and enjoy all the dialogues I have participated in. (Up until I was dropped from Braaten’s and Jenson’s dialogue events because I said Baptists would never accept a formal episcopacy.) I just think a few steps could be taken to improve their clarity. I’ll be very blunt here. My impression of the two Catholic papers was that they were written for other Catholics and not for evangelicals. They focused on very fine points of Catholic history and doctrine and, to the best of my interpretation, did not really advance Catholic-evangelical mutual understanding. I didn’t catch anything in either of them that even remotely related to Catholic-evangelical theological disagreement or agreement. Most evangelical theologians are already Augustinian and wide open to at least the 20th century Catholic views of nature and grace (against extrincicism and intrincicism). Both of those papers seemed to be more addressed to the Catholic participants than to the evangelicals in the room. Or they were just informative to both Catholics and evangelicals about Catholic debates and theological points. However, as this was a Catholic-Evangelical dialogue event I assume the Catholic presenters intended the evangelical listeners to learn from them.

Here would be my ideal Catholic-Evangelical dialogue event. Start out by being clear about what “evangelical” means. Invite Catholic scholars who are very knowledgeable about evangelical theology and evangelical scholars who are already knowledgeable about Catholic theology. Instruct everyone to please stick to discussing theology and not bashing folk religion (whether Catholic or evangelical). Ask the presenters to talk about points of possible agreement in spite of historical or apparent contemporary disagreement between Catholic theology and evangelical theology (neither folk religion nor one particular strand of evangelical theology like Reformed). Have respondents to the papers. After a Catholic paper, have an evangelical respondent and vice versa. Then, somewhere during the event, have both a Catholic worship service AND a traditional evangelical worship service for all the participants.


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  • Greg Milford

    Great report!

    I love the framework you outline, and would suggest that you and Frank Beckwith host a form and set that framework in place, hosted at Baylor! I think I would have to drive down from St. Louis if such an event took place. Catholic converts and reverts from different Protestant denominations would be better able to stick to these parameters. Peter Kreeft, Scott Hahn from presbyterianism, maybe Mark Shea or Steve Ray from Baptists, and Allen Hunt from Methodism would be a good start from the Catholic side. I’ll leave the Protestant invites to you (nice of me huh?).

    My desire for such a dialog is out of a fervent desire to see interior conversion of the heart be understood, preached, and experienced widely within the Catholic Church in such a way that (with Beckwith) Catholics would embrace the label (for lack of a better term) of Evangelical and our protestant brothers and sisters wouldn’t wince. (I know this begs the question or task of defining evangelical, but in my reading of Beckwith, one can be Catholic and Evangelical without stripping the label of its essential properties).

    Just let me know when I can buy my ticket! 🙂

    • rogereolson

      I’m sure Frank and I would be happy to host such a dialogue if we had the money! These things cost a lot. 🙂

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,

    Thank you for sharing your story and thoughts. It is curious that the Catholics come to the discussion largely as one voice (or did they disagree amongst each other?). However, the Protestant/Evangelical half of the discussion have so many variations – and they would more readily disagree amongst each other. You called for more of a diversity (better cross-section of voices among the varied traditions) on the Protestant/Evangelical side, and I see wisdom in that. For myself, I’d be looking most for areas of agreement and common ground among the groups; and beyond that, simple clarity to clear away misconceptions.

  • “I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to describe the Yoderian-Barthian perspective held by Hauerwas and his disciples/followers.”

    I suspect part of the difficulty is trying to describe these views as one monolithic perspective. Though there are certain commonalities, I think you would also find some significant differences between each of the following:

    (1) Barth
    (2) Yoder
    (3) Hauerwas
    (4) Hauerwas’ disciples/followers

    You might view them as as four rings of a Venn Diagram. Barth and Yoder overlap in certain ways; Yoder and Hauerwas overlap in others; Hauerwas and Barth overlap in yet others; Hauerwas and certain of his followers overlap in yet others; and Hauerwas’s followers overlap with Yoder and Barth in yet other ways. (Interestingly, some of Hauerwas’s followers are actually more “Yoderian” than “Hauerwasian.”) The difficulty is pointing to just what it is in that little space where all four rings overlap. It can’t be pacifism because Barth wasn’t one (see Yoder’s book, Karl Barth and the Problem of War). It can’t be Free Church per se, because Barth and Hauerwas differ markedly from Yoder on that point (believer’s baptism, etc.). It might be something like “Confessing Church,” but that term has a pretty specific history relative to Nazi Germany. You might be able to say something like “Radical Evangelical,” but then you would have to use “evangelical” in one of those idiosyncratic ways. Perhaps “Radically Christocentric”?

    • rogereolson

      I think “radically Christocentric” might be it, but, of course, lots of other folks claim to be that, too. Perhaps it’s something about the Christian’s relationship to the state? Barth was rightly suspicious of all ideologies (even those his own sympathies lay with socialism) and therefore of all governments. Only Jesus is Lord (as Barmen declared). Hauerwas interprets that as meaning that Christians must be strangers and aliens in any country. So a certain tension between Christ and culture?

      • Maybe “Politically Christocentric” then? Yes, they do all point to some tension between allegiance to state and church/Christ. I would be cautious about using the Christ and Culture categories for a couple reasons, though:

        (1) Yoder explicitly rejected Niebuhr’s typology. See, e.g., his essay, “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned” in Stassen, ed., Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture. (Cf. Craig Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture.)

        (2) Even with the church/state question, there are differences among these folks. For example, after Hauerwas wrote his book Against the Nations, Yoder not so subtly titled his last book For the Nations! Some of Yoder’s other books, such as Christian Witness to the State, show a strong concern for the church’s public witness. Arguably Barth and Hauerwas are a bit more antithetical, though sometimes their polemics are overblown a bit.

        • rogereolson

          So far as I can tell Hauerwas also believes in the church’s public witness to the state. He helped write and promotes a declaration for the abolition of war. (See War and the American Differnce.) I think he just doesn’t believe in church-state alliances or Christians compromising Christian values such as peace for the sake of being part of the government.

          • Yes, War and the American Difference definitely challenges the idea that Hauerwas is “against the nations,” though he does argue there that the church’s role is to be the church so that the world can see that it’s the world. But I think you’ve probably hit the nail on the head in terms of what might be the difference that distinguishes the Barth-Yoder-Hauerwas-Hauerwas’s followers approach from mainstream theology: no compromising Christian values for the sake of the state. (Again, there’s some question about Barth there, but he only thought participating in war was an option if it was somehow dictate from above by God.)

  • Rob

    Catholics should definitely avoid taking cheap shots at Evangelical theology by ridiculing evangelical folk religion. Upon comparison with the folk religion of an every-day Catholic in Latin America, ours will look sophisticated.

  • Great points! Regarding your fifth point: reminds me of when I re-posted on Facebook a “then and now” music comparison which had intricate lyrics from Frank Sinatra juxtaposed to insipid lyrics from Justin Bieber. A friend responded with “What about Sinatra’s shallow lyrics like ‘Scooby-dooby do, do do do do do…’
    I told my friend, “It’s like comparative religion, you pick the best of yours to compare with the worst of theirs!”

  • James Petticrew

    Been to a similar if much less academic ecumenical meeting it did not feel like dialogue to me, it felt like the underlying purpose was for evangelicals to self critique and for the Catholics to explain how Protestants could return to the true church. In frustration I asked the main catholic presenter if there was anything he thought Catholicism could learn from evangelicals, “your ability to raise money” was the reply 🙁

    • rogereolson


  • Roger, I really appreciate these two posts on evangelical-Catholic dialogue. I wonder if you have seen what John Armstrong has been doing in these regards? He is hosting a conversation with Cardinal George at Wheaton College later this month. You should check it out:

    Armstrong used to be more firmly in the neo-Calvinist camp, but he has in recent years articulated a “missional-ecumenism” that I think is very suggestive and fruitful.

    • rogereolson

      Greg, I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you. I’m on sabbatical and rarely go to my office so I didn’t hear your voice mail message until it was too late. I respect John and the path he is taking. It sounds like a good event at Wheaton.

      • No problem, Roger. Thanks for the good words on John. I would love to talk with you at some point about some broader Pentecostalism/apostolic issues at your convenience. Blessings.

  • Calvin Chen

    Great thoughts.

    How would you define a traditional evangelical worship service though?

    I think a “traditional Baptist” or “traditional Methodist” or even “traditional Pentecostal” service could be defined — but would “traditional evangelical” be just the stereotypical “band – preaching – band” type service?

    • rogereolson

      Certainly not. That’s “contemporary worship” which you can find almost everywhere. Traditional evangelical worship includes (not exclusively): singing, scripture reading, prayer, proclamation and invitation. Occasionally also baptism and/or the Lord’s Supper. It differs from traditional Catholic worship in not being just a prelude to the Eucharist. These days, of course, things are all mixed up. I visited a Catholic cathedral on a Saturday evening. The service was a “mariachi mass” with dancing and hand clapping and hands raised in the air and even speaking in tongues. And I’ve visited evangelical services that were centered entirely around the Lord’s Supper. So, “traditional” does not mean “what most are doing now.”

  • Dr. Olson

    “But many evangelicals (including many in the Arminian-Wesleyan traditions) hold a view that combines both nature and grace and forensic and transformative salvation in a way that is neither extrincicist or intrincicist.”
    My seminary training didn’t cover a bunch of stuff. I got Luther’s forensic justification as the crux of theology and pillar of the church. I know that sanctification is not forensic but paternal / filial. Puritans and Pietists are right to urge us to pursue a transformative salvation.
    Could you expound on the “extrincicist” and “intrincicist” portion of your blog. I don’t seem to have a clue as to what you are referring.
    Thanks as always!

    • Roger Olson

      These are mainly Catholic categories. But I don’t see any reason why Protestants can’t borrow them. Extrinsic grace is outside of us–God’s forgiving and justifying favor. Instrinsic grace is inside of us–God’s transforming power. Luther affirmed both in “Two Kinds of Righteousness.”