What Can Catholics Learn From Evangelicals?
Part Two: Recovering From Selective Amnesia
Back in 2002 I was invited to teach classes in Theology at the first Catholic college since the Reformation to be founded as part of an Evangelical Christian university: Trinity Western University in British Columbia. Teaching and living as part of that community of faith, we discovered, as Catholics, that there were all sorts of ways that we could actually become better Catholics by learning from our Evangelical brothers and sisters! Dr. Gordon Smith spoke about the “flip side” of this phenomena in Saskatoon in the spring of 2015 in his talk there on “What Evangelicals Can Learn from Catholics.” He cited, as an example, the fact that the great reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley all exhorted their followers to celebrate Holy Eucharist every Sunday, something widely forgotten in the Protestant world.
Over the years I have come to believe that every great Christian community of faith, including the Catholic Church, suffers from periods of selective amnesia — and one of the best things we can do for each other in ecumenical dialogue is to help wake each other up from life-giving aspects of our own heritage that we are forgetting, ignoring, or just plain failing-to-appreciate.
Let me briefly just give you four examples, four ways I believe (and I am far from alone in this belief) that Evangelicals can help Catholics become better Christians — indeed, better, more spiritually healthy Catholic Christians!
1) The Principle of the Primacy of Grace. This is the principle that in our relationship with God, His grace always takes the lead. The Catholic Tradition does not endorse the slogan of the Reformation that we are saved “by grace alone” (sola gratia), if that slogan is taken to mean that God’s saving grace over-rides or cancels out human “free-will” or “free consent” (as in, for example, the Calvinist doctrine of “irresistible grace”). Nor does Catholic Tradition encourage us to believe that God’s saving grace ordinarily can accomplish all of the necessary work for our salvation in a single “conversion experience” alone.
Nevertheless, what many Catholics forget, or overlook (or simply were never taught) is that our Tradition certainly upholds the doctrine of the primacy of grace in the process of salvation. This includes the following propositions:
• first, that in all our dealings with God, the initiative lies always with His grace; in other words, He must always freely and graciously take the first step toward us, for we are too lost or weak to reach out to him — and He always does;
• second, we can do nothing at all that in any way contributes to the process of our salvation without the prompting and assistance of divine grace — in other words, on our journey to heaven, His grace has to enable us to surrender to Him and follow Him, for there is nothing we can do toward salvation completely on our own;
• third, the grace of initial justification or initial salvation (by which we mean the initial gift of spiritual regeneration and rebirth, putting us in a life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ) is an absolutely free gift of God’s mercy that cannot be merited in any way; and
• fourth, the grace of final justification or final salvation (by which we mean perseverance in God’s friendship and grace to the very end of our lives) — that cannot be merited either, but only received as a completely free gift from God.
All of the teachings I just mentioned were taught at the western Council of Orange in 529 a.d., and the Ecumenical Council of Trent in the 16th century. I wonder how many of my Catholic brothers and sisters really know that their Church officially teaches this primacy of grace in the process of salvation?
It would be a caricature to say that most devout Catholics are complete Pelagians, hoping to be saved by their own works of piety and charity alone. They know they need the grace and help of Christ to do these good things, which is why they come to Mass every Sunday to receive Him in Holy Communion. But many fail to see that in the whole process of salvation, Jesus is not just our Coach, or our Helper or our co-Pilot; rather, He always takes the initiative with His grace to enable us radically to surrender to him as Lord and Savior on every step of our life journey. To use the crude, automotive metaphor: belonging to Christ does not just mean coming to the sacraments regularly (the filling station, so to speak) to fill your soul with His grace so that you can drive your life better. Rather, as the corny old song goes, it also means really letting Him take the wheel: surrendering to Him more and more as your Lord and your Savior.
I think one of the reasons that many of our Evangelical friends are often more cheerful and confident than Catholics is precisely because of their trustful surrender to God’s free and saving grace (such as they understand it, and lay hold of it). This is an invitation to Catholics as well, it seems to me, to rediscover “the primacy of grace” in our thinking and in our spiritual life — for it is a vital part of our heritage too.
2) The Privileged Expression of Divine Revelation in Holy Scripture. As I am sure you know, the Catholic Tradition does not endorse the sola scriptura slogan of the Reformers (that is, the belief that all that God has revealed to us can and must be proven from Scripture alone). We believe that the Bible can only be properly interpreted and comprehended in the light of the Sacred Tradition of the Church. This trustworthy Tradition, fashioned in the life of the Church by the Holy Spirit, so Catholics believe, is found principally in the consensus witness of the ancient Fathers and saints of the Church — those whose hearts were full-to-overflowing with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth — and in the guidance of the teaching authority of the Church, or “magisterium,” established (so we believe) by Jesus Christ Himself: that is, the apostles and their successors, the bishops, who are in union and communion with the leader of the apostolic band, St. Peter, and his successors, the bishops of Rome. To play with metaphor a bit: for Catholicism, Scripture and Tradition are like the two eyes with which we gaze on the same divine revelation: God’s revelation through Christ. If you cover over one eye, theoretically you could still have everything within your field of vision, and see everything with that eye alone — but not very clearly. The best way to see is with both eyes together, wide-open.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church officially holds (just as many Evangelical Christians do), that Holy Scripture is uniquely and completely inspired, and therefore without error in all that it asserts (taking into account, of course, the various literary genres utilized by the human authors of each of its books, and the audiences and concerns they were addressing). Moreover, it is not hard to demonstrate (several famous scholars have done so) that the consensus of the ancient Fathers held to what is technically called the doctrine of the “material sufficiency” of Scripture. This phrase—“the material sufficiency of Scripture” — means that every revealed truth necessary to be believed by the faithful can be found at least in some sense embedded or implied or alluded to in some way in the Scriptures. Some liturgical and devotional customs may arise from early, “unwritten” traditions alone. But material sufficiency, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, means that all of “sacra doctrina” (sacred doctrine), must have at least some root or touchstone in the Bible. Historians have also shown that this principle of the “material sufficiency” of Scripture was not rejected by the 16th century Council of Trent – nor by the Second Vatican Council, for that matter.
All of this means that Catholics are supposed to believe that God speaks to us in a unique, trustworthy and privileged way in the pages of the Bible. Many of our Evangelical friends expect to find the light, the active guidance, and the living voice of the Spirit of the Lord whenever they sincerely and prayerfully read its pages. We should foster a similar attitude to the Bible — an attitude that is very much a part of our heritage too as Catholics, for example, in our long tradition of “lectio divina”: a way of reading the Bible with the mind and heart wide open to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Sadly, You will still find too many lay Catholics who do not read their bibles very often — and other Catholics who believe that the Catholic Church believes and teaches divinely revealed doctrines (such as the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven) that allegedly do not have any root or touchstone in the Bible at all. Just for the record, that is NOT the historic teaching of the Catholic Church about the relationship between Church doctrine and the Bible. The Bible is uniquely authoritative, and everything we must believe as Catholics is supposed to have a root or touchstone somewhere in its inspired pages — including all of the doctrines about Mary.
To be continued….
Robert Stackpole, STD
©The Fellowship of Catholics and Evangelicals, 2016