Somewhere in Pope Francis’s office is a document that could alter the course of Christian history. It declares an end to hostilities between Catholics and Evangelicals and says the two traditions are now “united in mission because we are declaring the same Gospel”. The Holy Father is thinking of signing the text in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, alongside Evangelical leaders representing roughly one in four Christians in the world today.
Francis is convinced that the Reformation is already over. He believes it ended in 1999, the year the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a joint declaration on justification, the doctrine at the heart of Luther’s protest.
The German firebrand had accused the Catholic Church of teaching that man was saved by faith and good works, rather than “by faith alone”.
In 1999, after extensive talks, Catholic and Lutheran theologians concluded that the two communions now shared “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ”.
In 2006, the World Methodist Council also adopted the declaration. But not one major leader of “born-again” Christians has publicly endorsed the text. So most of the world’s 600 million Evangelicals don’t realise that the protest is over. From the shantytowns of São Paulo to the high-rises of Seoul, Evangelicals and Catholics still eye each other warily.
Many of the former are reluctant even to describe Catholics as Christians, while the latter often dismiss Evangelical groups as “sects”.
But not everyone is resigned to enmity. As far back as 1984, an influential Charismatic magazine published an essay entitled “Three Streams, One River?” The author, Richard Lovelace, argued that Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism were three tributaries forming one great torrent of Christianity. (Many observers would count Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism as a single stream, given that most Pentecostals are Evangelicals.)
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