Evangelicalism & “Mere Christianity”
by Timothy George
We are gathered at a conference entitled, “Christian Unity and the Divisions We Must Sustain,” and subtitled, “A Gathering of Traditional Christians.” It is sponsored by Touchstone, a periodical that describes itself as “a journal of mere Christianity.” Touchstone further describes itself as “a Christian journal, conservative in doctrine and eclectic in content, with editors and readers from each of the three great divisions of Christendom—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox.” The mission of the journal is “to provide a place where Christians of various backgrounds can speak with one another on the basis of shared belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the church.”
For some time now, many of us have recognized that we are living through a great realignment within the worldwide Christian movement. As Robert Wuthnow and others have shown, basic theological differences within denominations are frequently more pronounced than the traditional differences between denominations. This is not altogether a new insight. J. Gresham Machen was engaged in a gigantic struggle between what he called Christianity and liberalism. Machen was a conservative Protestant of a distinctively Presbyterian stripe, and he knew very well the depth of the historic divide between Roman Catholicism and his own Protestant confessional tradition. And yet, in the context of resurgent unbelief and the evacuation of historic Christian truth claims, he was able to say that the gulf between Rome and Geneva (and in his case Edinburgh and Princeton) was negligible compared to the gaping chasm—he used the word abyss—separating mere Christians from those who eviscerated the historic Christian faith.
What Machen said was true in the 1920s and is even more evident today. Not long ago, I was sitting with Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright at a theological conference. After listening to a particularly bad presentation, he whispered to me, “Timothy, there are only two kinds of theologians in the world anymore: those of us who believe in something, and the others, who don’t.” So here we are, a conclave of mere Christians, successors of J. Gresham Machen and G. K. Chesterton, of Georges Florovsky and Jean Daniélou, of Karl Barth and Christopher Dawson, of John Meyendorff and Carl F. H. Henry. It’s a pretty strange group. Eclectic, to borrow that word from the Touchstone masthead, would seem to fit us well.
Perhaps some of you are asking, why should an Evangelical be interested in a conference like this, at least a card-carrying Evangelical of the Wheaton College, Christianity Today, Billy Graham type? I can assure you that some of my fellow Evangelical and fundamentalist fellow travelers are asking that same question! And it is a good question to ask. I want to try to get at this question in three ways. First, to offer a brief definition of Evangelicalism; second, to examine the concept of “mere Christianity”; and third, to ask what mere Christians who happen to be Evangelicals bring to our common quest for Christian unity.
What Is Evangelicalism?
Wolfhart Pannenberg has said that Evangelicals, along with Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers, constitute one of the three ascendant, most resilient forces within world Christianity as it enters the third millennium. But who are these Evangelicals? Taxonomies and definitions abound, including this one drawn largely from a recent article by Alister McGrath: Evangelicals are a worldwide fellowship of Bible-believing Christians whose faith and life emphasize four things: (1) the authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture, the only normative rule of faith and practice for all true believers; (2) the uniqueness of redemption through the death of Christ upon the cross, the benefits of which are imputed to believers who are justified by faith alone; (3) the necessity of personal conversion, wrought by the Holy Spirit through personal repentance and faith and issuing in a life of obedience and growth in Christ; and (4) the priority and urgency of evangelism and missions in fulfillment of the Great Commission of Christ himself.1
It is possible, of course, to define Evangelicalism in other ways as well: sociologically, demographically, or even anecdotally, as in Dr. Bob Jones, Sr.’s famous quip that an Evangelical is a person who says to a liberal, “I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll call me a scholar!” Jerry Falwell has said that a fundamentalist is just an Evangelical who is mad at somebody. It is relatively easy to say who a Roman Catholic is: A Roman Catholic is a person who belongs to a church whose bishop is in communion with the bishop of Rome. Likewise, Orthodox believers can be fairly easily recognized by certain creedal commitments and liturgical practices, as well as by national and ethnic loyalties.
But Evangelicalism is a movement of bewildering diversity, made up of congregations, denominations, and para-church movements whose shared identity is not tied to a particular view of church polity or ministerial orders. Evangelicalism has been fed by many diverse rivulets and tributaries, including Puritanism, Pietism, and, most vigorously in the last hundred years, Pentecostalism. For our present purposes, however, I would like to propose a new definition: Evangelicalism is a renewal movement within historic Christian orthodoxy, a movement that has been shaped synchronically by four historical complexes or “moments,” which continue to shape Evangelical theology and identity today.
The Trinitarian & Christological Consensus of the Early Church
Evangelicals accept without hesitation what Anglican theologians used to refer to (perhaps some still do) as the consensus quinquesaecularis. That is to say, we worship and adore the one and only and true and living God, who has forever known himself as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We further believe that this triune God of love and holiness became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Man of the four canonical Gospels. We confess that Jesus Christ is the one and only Lord of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God, Light from Light, true God from true God. This one, we say, who is the Lord of the Church, was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the blessed virgin Mary; he lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial and substitutionary death on the cross, was buried, is risen, and ascended; and he is coming again as the King and Judge of all who are, ever were, or ever shall be. Evangelicals, no less than Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers, stand in fundamental continuity with the 318 fathers of Nicaea, the 150 fathers of the First Council of Constantinople, and the canons of Ephesus, including the affirmation of the Theotokos and the condemnation of Pelagianism, as well as the Definition of Chalcedon.
From time to time Evangelicals have explicitly stated their agreement with the historic creeds of the Church. For example, there is an English Baptist confession, known as “The Orthodox Creed,” published in 1679—and an Arminian one at that—which reproduced the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds en toto, commending all three as worthy to be thoroughly
received and believed . . . for they may be proved by most undoubted authority of Holy Scripture and are necessary to be understood of all Christians; and to be instructed in the knowledge of them by the ministers of Christ, according to the analogy of faith, recorded in sacred Scriptures, upon which these creeds are grounded and catachistically opened and expounded in all Christian families, for the edification of young and old, which might be a means to prevent heresy in doctrine and practice. These creeds containing all things in a brief manner that are necessary to be known, fundamentally, in order to our salvation.
So much for the hypothesis that Baptists are not a creedal people! More recently, at the opening meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in London in 1905, Dr. Alexander Maclaren asked the entire assembly to rise and confess in unison the Apostles’ Creed, as a way of expressing Baptist solidarity with the orthodox
Christian faith. And just three years ago, some 12,000 Evangelical Christians from 210 countries around the world—more than belong to the United Nations—gathered in Amsterdam at the invitation of Dr. Billy Graham to pray, reflect, and renew their commitment to world evangelization. Out of this assembly emerged “The Amsterdam Declaration,” which again echoes the language of the Trinitarian Christological faith of the Church:
God in his own being is a community of three co-equal and co-eternal persons, who are revealed to us in the Bible as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Together they are involved in an unvarying cooperative pattern in all God’s relationships to and within this world. God is the Lord of history, where he blesses his own people, overcomes and judges human and angelic rebels against his rule, and will finally renew the whole created order.
The Protestant Reformation
Evangelicals are also Reformational Christians in that we affirm both the formal and material principles of the Protestant Reformers. The formal principle, sometimes referred to by the slogan sola scriptura, was set forth with clarity by Martin Luther in his famous debate with Johann Eck at Leipzig in 1519 and reiterated in classic form ten years later at the Second Diet of Speyer, which also gave us the word Protestant, understood not in the later sense of “protest against,” but rather, “witness on behalf of” (pro-testantes).
We are determined by God’s grace and aid to abide by God’s Word alone, the holy Gospel contained in the biblical books of the Old and New Testaments. This word alone should be preached, and nothing that is contrary to it. It is the only Truth. It is the sure rule of all Christian doctrine and conduct. It can never fail us or deceive us. Who so builds and abides on this foundation shall stand against all the gates of hell, while all merely human editions and vanities set up against it must fall before the presence of God.2
As I have argued elsewhere, neither Luther nor any other of the mainline Reformers read Scripture in isolation from the community of faith. For them, sola scriptura did not mean nuda scriptura. Overwhelmingly, the Reformers saw themselves as part of the ongoing Catholic tradition, indeed as the legitimate bearers of it. They read the Bible in dialogue with the exegetical tradition of the Church. That is to say, the Scriptures were seen as the book given to the Church, gathered and guided by the Holy Spirit. While the Reformers could never accept what the Council of Trent seemed to say (though some recent Catholic theologians have challenged this interpretation)—namely, that Scripture and Tradition were two separate and equable sources of divine revelation, or as Vatican II would later say in a somewhat softened form, “Both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” (Dei Verbum 9), the Reformers did believe in the coinherence of Scripture and Tradition. Over the past several years, we have wrestled with this highly charged and divisive issue in our Evangelicals and Catholics Together discussions. In a new ECT statement, “Your Word Is Truth,” we have been able to say together something that is faithful to the formal principle of the Reformation and yet recognizes a proper Evangelical awareness of tradition:
Together we affirm that Scripture is the divinely inspired and uniquely authoritative written revelation of God; as such, it is normative for the teaching and life of the church. And we also affirm that Tradition, rightly understood, is the faithful transmission of the truth of the Gospel from generation to generation through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Evangelicals and Catholics fully committed to our respective heritages, we affirm together the coinherence of Scripture and Tradition: Tradition is not a second source of revelation alongside the Bible but must ever be corrected and informed by it, and Scripture itself is not understood in a vacuum apart from the historical existence and life of the community of faith. Faithful believers in every generation live by the memories and hopes of the actus tradendi of the Holy Spirit: This is true whenever and wherever the Word of God is faithfully translated, sincerely believed, and truly preached.
Evangelicals also embrace justification by faith alone as the logical and necessary consequence of the ecumenical orthodoxy affirmed by Catholics and Protestants alike. Philip Melanchthon cited references to sola fides in patristic sources, while others claimed to find the essence, if not the exact wording, of the Reformation doctrine of justification in the liturgy of the church and the prayers of the saints, especially those of Bernard of Clairvaux, a favorite writer of both Luther and Calvin. In the early twentieth century, the Lutheran New Testament theologian, Adolf Schlatter, claimed that Jesus himself was the creator of the formula sola fides, as it was he who said, “Only believe”!3 While Schlatter’s exegesis may be debatable, there is no doubt that these men saw themselves in doctrinal continuity with the early Church when they set forth the material principle of the Reformation. Jaroslav Pelikan has summarized well the essence of their argument:
If the Holy Trinity was as holy as the Trinitarian dogma taught; if original sin was as virulent as the Augustinian tradition said it was; and if Christ was as necessary as the Christological dogma implied—then the only way to treat justification in a manner faithful to the best of Catholic tradition was to teach justification by faith.4
While the patristic and Reformational roots of Evangelicalism are more often assumed than explicitly acknowledged, the spiritual awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries produced many of the forms and modalities of Evangelicalism we still recognize today. The Awakenings were international, transatlantic movements of ecclesial and spiritual renewal embracing pietism in Germany, Methodism in Great Britain, and revivalism in the American Colonies. Only in the light of these various awakenings can we understand what historian Timothy L. Smith has called “the kaleidoscopic diversity of our histories, our organizational structures, and our doctrinal emphases.”
Not only did the Awakenings bring new life into some of the older denominational structures—producing, for example, New Light Congregationalists, New Side Presbyterians, and New Connection Baptists—it also produced a variety of new movements, including Adventist, Holiness, Restorationist, and Pentecostal churches. Looking back from the perspective of two centuries, we can see that the Awakenings decisively shaped the future of Evangelicalism in three important ways.
First, they fostered a kind of interdenominational cooperation based on a distinctively Evangelical version of mere Christianity. Without ever denying the doctrinal fundaments of the wider Catholic and Reformational heritage (except in some bizarre cases, as when a few Baptists became Universalists), Evangelicals put primary emphasis on the preaching of the gospel and the call to personal conversion. In other words, they emphasized the inward work of the Holy Spirit to bring about new birth and to transform the regenerate into the likeness of Christ. They taught the necessity of personal repentance and faith in Christ, and they understood the Church as the universal Body of Christ, which incorporates all true believers, and all of whose members are called to ministry—“the priesthood of all believers.”
This emphasis led to the blurring of old denominational alignments and even some theological distinctives. Two quotations from the two leading lights of this period, John Wesley and George Whitefield, illustrate this point. The two men disagreed sharply on the controverted doctrine of predestination, Wesley following a more Arminian approach, and Whitefield adhering to the Calvinist understanding. Despite this difference, the two men remained friends and worked together in their revival efforts. On one occasion, Wesley said this:
I . . . refuse to be distinguished from other men by any but the common principles of Christianity. . . . I renounce and detest all other marks of distinction. But from real Christians, of whatever denomination, I earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all. . . . Doest thou love and fear God? It is enough! I give thee the right hand of fellowship.5
On another occasion, Whitefield, while preaching from a balcony in Philadelphia, looked up to heaven and cried out these words:
Father Abraham, whom have you in heaven? Any Episcopalians? No! Any Presbyterians? No! Any Independents or Methodists? No, No, No! Whom have you there? ‘We don’t know those names here. All who are here are Christians. . . .’ Oh, is this the case? Then God help us to forget party names and to become Christians in deed and truth.6
This kind of mere Christian appeal spawned a host of interdenominational ministries, including orphanages, Bible societies, publication boards, colleges and academies, and above all, an Evangelical missionary movement of global proportions.
The world Protestant missionary movement began humbly enough, when an English Baptist shoemaker turned small-town pastor, William Carey, encouraged his fellow Calvinistic Baptists to establish a society for “the propagation of the gospel among the heathens.” By 1793 Carey had arrived in India to begin his remarkable career, which included the planting of churches, the building of schools, the organization of an agricultural society, the establishment of India’s first newspaper, and the translation of the Scriptures into some forty languages and dialects. Carey was a Baptist, indeed a rather strict one, but from the beginning of his mission work in India, he saw the importance of working closely with non-Baptist Evangelicals including the Anglican missionary Henry Martyn. The school he established at Serampore was interdenominational, although all professors were required to embrace the essential Evangelical doctrines, such as the deity of Christ and his substitutionary atonement. And in what has been called the “most startling missionary proposal of all time,” he called for a coordinated strategy for world evangelization:
Would it not be possible to have a general association of all denominations of Christians, from the four quarters of the world, held once in about ten years? I earnestly recommend this plan, let the first meeting be in the year 1810, or 1812 at the furthest. I have no doubt but that it would be attended with many important effects.7
Precisely one hundred years after Carey had proposed such a gathering, the first international mission conference convened in Edinburgh in 1910.
The Awakenings also gave rise to numerous Evangelical movements for social reform, including, in England, a call for the end of the slave trade, and on this side of the Atlantic, the abolition of slavery itself. In recent years, Evangelicals have joined forces with Roman Catholics and other persons of faith to uphold the sanctity of human life and oppose the culture of death. In doing so, they stand in a worthy Evangelical lineage with those who, from Carey onward, have prayed and worked for justice and peace in an admittedly fallen and even desperately lost world.
The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy
It is impossible to understand contemporary Evangelicalism, especially in North America, without reference to the seismic divide between fundamentalists and modernists that took place in the first three decades of the twentieth century. By my reading, the key leader of post-fundamentalist Evangelicalism par excellence was Harold John Ockenga. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Ockenga single-handedly “invented” Evangelicalism. It was he who helped to organize the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942; who persuaded evangelist Charles Fuller to found Fuller Theological Seminary and then served as its first president (albeit in absentia much of the time), who promoted Billy Graham and encouraged him and his father-in-law, L. Nelson Bell, to found Christianity Today as a counter-voice to the Christian Century; and who fought tirelessly to position conservative Protestant Christians in North America over against compromising liberalism on the one hand and separatistic fundamentalism on the other.
At the heart of Ockenga’s agenda was a commitment to mere Christianity: He wanted to affirm the classic fundamentals of the faith while transcending the intellectual ghettoization and cultural disengagement that had befallen much of conservative Protestantism between J. Gresham Machen and Carl F. H. Henry. The original motto for the National Association of Evangelicals was “Cooperation without compromise.” From time to time Evangelicals debate among themselves as to whether or not it is possible to be faithful to the gospel, faithful to the fundamentals, and still practice the kind of cooperation Ockenga called for and Billy Graham has modeled.
The late James Montgomery Boice was one of the foot soldiers in that effort, and shortly before his recent and untimely death, he expressed to me his sense of disillusionment of a dream gone awry. More recently, Iain Murray has made a similar case with reference to British Evangelicalism, sharply criticizing Billy Graham, John Stott, and J. I. Packer. Although he does not put it this way, Iain Murray might agree with those who say that it is precisely the Evangelical preoccupation with “mere Christianity” that has led to a compromise of the gospel and a kind of inclusivism not far distant from the kind of attenuated, liberal Christianity from which true Evangelicals must always distance themselves.
The Concept of Mere Christianity
We are now ready to look a bit more closely at the concept of mere Christianity itself. The editors of Touchstone acknowledge that they borrowed this term from C. S. Lewis, whose book of that title has to be included among the most influential religious volumes of the past hundred years. Now, Lewis is surely the closest thing we have to an Evangelical icon, despite the fact that he smoked a pipe, imbibed more than a few pints at his favorite pub, and went to worship at a rather high-church Anglo-Catholic parish. None of these habits, of course, would warm the cockles of American Evangelical hearts!
Lewis himself, of course, did not invent this term, but borrowed it from the Puritan divine Richard Baxter. Baxter did not want to be called an Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, but rather a mere Christian, or as he also referred to himself, a mere Catholic. He saw with prescient clarity the connection between the desire for Christian unity and the evangelization of the lost. If Christians lived in the kind of love and unity Jesus called them to show forth, they would do wonders in converting sinners and enlarging the church of Jesus Christ. “Do not your hearts bleed to look upon the state of England?”, he asked, “and to think how few towns or cities there be (where is any forwardness in religion) that are not cut into shreds, and crumbled as to dust by separations and divisions?”
But Baxter’s “mere Christianity” was not “mere” Christianity in the weak, attenuated sense of the word mere. Both Lewis and Baxter used the word mere in what is today a—regrettably—obsolete sense, meaning “nothing less than,” “absolute,” “sure,” “unqualified,” as opposed to today’s weakened sense of “only this,” “nothing more than,” “such and no more,” “barely,” “hardly.” Our contemporary meaning of the word mere corresponds to the Latin vix; the classical, Baxterian usage corresponds to the Latin vere, “truly,” “really,” “indeed.”
Baxter had no use for a substanceless, colorless homogeneity bought at the expense of the true catholic faith. No, he had his own list of non-negotiable fundamentals, including belief in one triune God; in one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, the eternal Word, God incarnate; in the Holy Spirit; in the gifts of God present to his covenanted people in baptism and holy communion; and in a life of obedience, holiness, and growth in Christ.
We are indebted to Baxter not only for coining the phrase picked up by C. S. Lewis (and Touchstone) but also for conveying to us that oft-quoted maxim used by, among others, Pope John XXIII in his convocation of the Second Vatican Council: In necessariis unitas, in non necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas—“In things essential, unity; in things secondary, liberty; and in all things, charity.” Baxter gave currency to this expression, which he found in the writings of an obscure Lutheran theologian of the seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius.
Meldenius lived in the age of the great confessional struggles between the Lutheran and Reformed churches of the Reformation. As a good Lutheran, he himself strongly supported the Formula of Concord (1577) and did not contemplate a formal union between the churches of his confession and those of the Reformed tradition. But he believed nonetheless that the spirit in which such inter-confessional battles were conducted, the infamous odium theologicum, was hurting the witness of believers in both communions. In his work entitled, Paranesis votiva pro pace ecclesiae, Meldenius surveyed the faults of his own Lutheran church, those of pastors as well as theologians, and contrasted the faults he discovered with the opposing virtues of humility, moderation, and peacefulness. There is enough scientia, he said, but a great lack of caritas. He admitted that there are occasions when theological struggle cannot be avoided, but even then, such combat should be conducted with gentleness, not rancor, although he makes clear that gentleness does not mean passivity to the point of compromise. We should fight only about essentials, Meldenius counseled.
The Essentials of the Faith
And what are such essentials? Those principles which refer directly to the articles of faith, such as were held by the early Church and can clearly be established from Scripture, and on which all orthodox theologians agree. In things essential, unity; in things secondary, liberty; and in all things, charity. Meldenius concludes his treatise by exclaiming: “Serva nos domine, alioquin perimus”—“Save us, O Lord, or else we perish.”
Meldenius, remember, lived in an age when confessional differences were not only fought over with words and pens, but also with swords and shields, with cannon and armies. All secularizing interpretations of early modern history notwithstanding, it would be as foolish for us to remove the religious dimension from those bloody conflicts as it is for some analyst to mitigate the religious dimension in the jihad waged by some followers of Islam against the West.
What shall we make of these appeals for a kind of mere Christianity? Actually, neither Baxter nor Meldenius was an innovator on this score, for the principle is enshrined in Holy Scripture itself. Jesus himself, in his condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, accuses them of having neglected “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” They were preoccupied with the precise measurement of the tithe of their spices—mint, dill, and cumin. Jesus does not condemn them for giving attention to such matters. Nothing in the law of God is dispensable or trifling. But there were weightier matters, Jesus said. Now, as then, we must give priority to these weightier matters lest we fall under our Lord’s stricture of having strained at a gnat while swallowing a camel (Matt. 23: 23–24).
We do not have to argue for “a canon within the canon” to recognize that Scripture itself distinguishes various levels of cruciality and urgency in setting forth the whole counsel of God. For example, Jude says to his readers, “Although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once and for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). The faith (with a definite article) that Jude writes about is nothing less than the depositum fidei, that is, the apostolic witness to the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ, fides quae, not fides qua. This is the same thing Paul refers to as “the truth” when he declares that “the church of the living God is the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Jude says that there is something about “the faith” in this sense that takes precedence even over the personal appropriation of faith and the enjoyment of salvation.
On the negative side, 1 John declares that to deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is far worse than to hold an erroneous opinion. To embrace such a docetic Christology is to imbibe “the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 4:1–3). Paul, too, is an advocate of mere Christianity. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he declares in chapter one (v. 17) that he had not been sent to Corinth to baptize, but to preach the gospel. By no means does this imply that baptism is of minor importance or that it can be detached from the proper preaching of the gospel. But clearly, in Paul’s mind, the latter takes precedence over the former, and Paul even thanks God that he had baptized only one or two of the Corinthian believers, although he had preached the gospel to all of them. Near the end of this same letter, he reminds them again of “the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved.” And then he says, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures.”
This is the heart of the gospel, and for Paul, it was important to recognize that it held a preeminent place in the hierarchy of divine revelation. Again, this is not to say that the many other issues Paul addresses in this letter—speaking in tongues, feminine fashions in church, women preachers, spiritual gifts, church discipline, divorce and remarriage, and so forth—are trivial or unimportant. But when it comes to the gospel, this is of first importance!
As J. N. D. Kelly and other scholars have shown, the early Christian formulation of creeds and confessions of faith served both the unity of the Church and its defense against pernicious heresies. Indeed, the very concept of the canonization of Holy Scripture, understood as the inspired crystallization of the apostolic witness, and thus the standard by which all subsequent tradition was to be judged, was itself a measure (kanon) of those teachings which the Spirit confirmed to the Church as “merely Christian” and hence the only sufficient rule for faith and practice.
The Reformers of the sixteenth century did not shy away from applying the concept of mere Christianity in their own troubled times. It is well known that Calvin abhorred schism and frequently quoted the famous statement of Cyprian, that he who does not have the Church for his Mother cannot have God for his Father. He also liked the statement of St. Augustine, who, in the context of his struggle with the Donatists, said, “They will only cease to be our brothers when they cease to say ‘our Father.’” Calvin recognized, as some of his spiritual descendents do not, that true visible churches of Christ could be found even within Roman obedience—though one might have to look hard for them!
Early in his career, Calvin himself had engaged in discussions with Roman Catholic theologians over the doctrine of justification by faith, and as late as 1560 he was still urging a general council that he hoped would end the existing divisions of Christianity. He was even more concerned about the proliferation of intra-Protestant divisions, all of which seemed to him to fulfill the prophecy of the radical reformer Casper Schwenckfeld, who in the early years of the Reformation had exclaimed that on the basis of the Bible, the Lutherans damned the Zwinglians, the Zwinglians damned the Anabaptists, and the Anabaptists damned all the others! How could God be honored with so many divisions? Calvin asked.
Commitment, Temptation & Reservation
We’ve talked about Evangelicalism; we’ve talked about the term “mere Christianity.” To conclude, I want to do three things: first, point to a common commitment shared by all mere Christians; second, refer to an Evangelical temptation with regard to mere Christianity; and third, point out an Evangelical reservation.
First, we’re here at this conference entitled, “Christian Unity and the Divisions We Must Sustain.” Both of these elements are critically important. But so, I suggest, is the order in which they are given. We could be at a conference entitled, “Christians Divided and the Unity We Seek.” But it was put the other way, and I think the emphasis is rightly put on Christian unity, not neglecting the divisions we must sustain.
And we’ve heard, in every presentation I think, the importance of the kind of unity we seek as a unity in truth—the truth of Christ, the truth of the Scriptures, the truth of the gospel. No other kind of unity is worth having. That’s the presupposition we share in all of our struggles and in all of our work together.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus mentioned the encyclical Dominus Iesus. When this document was released, I wrote a brief statement saying I welcomed it as representing the kind of ecumenism we ought to be engaged in. I think I must have been the only person in the world who said anything good about that document. It was blasted by just about everyone, within Catholicism as well as without. And I thought it was a good, honest statement; I was not offended by it; I appreciated it. One day I was surprised to find in my mail a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger, who said he had read my statement and appreciated that I had understood him correctly. In my comment, I said this:
We do no service to the cause of Christ by smudging the serious theological differences that still divide our two traditions. From an Evangelical perspective, we must say to the Church of Rome the same thing that this document says to non-Catholic Christians. Serious defects remain in Catholic teaching and piety, and we call the Church of Rome as we call our own churches to further reformation on the basis of the Word of God.
This is the kind of serious, theological engagement that we ought to be involved in, and not the attenuated ecumenism of the kind represented in the most recent book by John Shelby Spong, entitled, A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born— with chapter titles like this: “Jesus Beyond Incarnation,” “Original Sin Is Out,” “Father God and Mother Church Will Disappear,” and “Beyond Evangelism and World Missions into Post-Theistic Universalism.” This will get us nowhere. I go with Ratzinger over Spong any day.
Now, the Evangelical temptation: The temptation that Evangelicals are likely to succumb to is to make mere Christianity minimal Christianity. Let me say clearly: Mere does not mean “minimal”; mere means “more.” It means “truly,” “very,” not vix. Yet this is a temptation that Evangelicals face in a particular way. It may be partly because we’re better at saying what we’re against than what we’re for. There is a contrarian impulse in our genetics: To be a Protestant meant not to be a Catholic; to be a Methodist meant not to be a formalist; to be a fundamentalist meant not to be a modernist. All those are good and important things not to be; it’s important to say what you’re against as well as what you’re for.
But this has also led to reductionism. One telling example: The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) was founded in the late 1940s, and it had one article of faith to which every member must annually subscribe: to confess the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Now we believe that the Holy Scriptures are without error; we have to sign that. Well, about ten years ago we discovered that we had people like Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to join ETS because they believed in inerrancy, too. So a few years ago, we decided to add the Trinity. So now there are two articles in the ETS that you have to confess; you have to believe in the inerrancy of Holy Scripture and in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Now, that’s progress. We might get around to Christology and the Holy Spirit and some other things along the way, but this illustrates what I’m talking about here.
Now my third point, the Evangelical reservation: I agree with what Steven Hutchens said in his response regarding an Evangelical reservation that we have to bring to this kind of discussion. It has to do with the fact that Evangelicals do not understand the visible Church as a body composed of a succession of duly appointed, ordained, apostolic ministers; rather we understand apostolicity in terms of the succession of the truth of the gospel itself, a succession of apostolic teaching.
When Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, he was not saying that any local congregation or any denominational body would be guaranteed unbroken permanence or perpetuity. Evangelicals do not define the apostolicity of the Church in terms of this literal, linear succession of duly ordained bishops—which is not to say that there isn’t a place for bishops; in fact, even Baptists have bishops in some places in the world, especially in Eastern Europe—but point rather to the enscripturated witness of the apostles and the succession of apostolic proclamation. This is why failure to be faithful to the gospel is not a minor offense, to be lightly passed over, but rather a life-threatening disorder to be constantly on guard against.
Sometimes, then, the true church cannot be so readily and easily defined in its visibility here on earth; sometimes it is what Luther called it: Ecclesia latens, hidden. It doesn’t mean that it’s absent, but it may be hidden from sight; it may in fact go underground. Sometimes, as Calvin said in the preface to the Institutes, in the letter to Francis I (1536), the face of the church might completely disappear from the earth.
Now, I want to suggest that Evangelicals can learn something here from the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that Mary can indeed be Mater Ecclesiae for Evangelicals no less than for Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians in this way: Mary received the word of annunciation in faith—Luther said she would not have conceived had she not believed—and she was at the center of those faithful few who stood vigil under the Cross while others scurried for cover. There, Mary is indeed an example for the Church, not in a glorious, exalted, ascended form, but in the form of obedience to Christ, in the form of vigilance under the Cross, sub cruce. This is where we must continue to seek the unity of the Church even while we sustain the divisions that we must in the interest of truth, and in love.
1. Alister McGrath, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993), p. 183. J. I. Packer has given a more expansive list of Evangelical essentials in seven points. See his “Crosscurrents among evangelicals,” in Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, eds. Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995), pp. 150–152. For a recent analysis and lament over “the changing face of Western Evangelicalism,” see D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).
Timothy George is the founding dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. He has written many books, including Theology of the Reformers, widely used as a textbook in divinity schools and seminaries; Galatians, volume 30 in The New American Commentary series (Broadman & Holman); and Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? (Zondervan). He is an executive editor of Christianity Today and serves on the editorial boards of First Things, Books and Culture, and Harvard Theological Review. A version of this paper was originally presented at the Touchstone conference, “Christian Unity & the Divisions We Must Sustain,” in November 2001 at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University (www.samford.edu) and an executive editor of Christianity Today (www.christianitytoday.com). A different version of this essay is appearing in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology, edited by Sung Wook Chung, forthcoming from Baker Academic.
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