The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
The EAUK has published “A statement for the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation”. It analyses the theological impact of the reformers and the relationship between evangelical Christians and Roman Catholicism.
In the midst of the worlwide commemoration of the 500th anniversay of the Reformation, the Evangelical Alliance United Kingdom (EAUK) has issued a statement looking at relationships between evangelical Christians and the Roman Catholic Church.
According to the statement (read here), the Reformation “was not so much an innovation as a recovery – a recovery of the essential content of the 'evangel' or 'good news' of salvation proclaimed by Jesus Christ himself, and by his apostles.”
“That work of recovery is evidently reflected in our designation as 'evangelicals'”, it adds, stating that they “owe a great deal of our doctrinal, spiritual and cultural identity to the Reformation.”
4 AIMS OF THE STATEMENT
With this document, the EAUK aims to:
- Demonstrate the enduring importance of the Reformation for evangelical Christians, as well as Christians more generally.
- Outline the core theological emphases of the Reformation, and the vital recovery of authentic gospel Christianity that they represented.
- Highlight the divergences between evangelical and Roman Catholic faith and practice that are rooted in the Reformation, and which persist today.
- Trace and assess the attempts that have been made, especially in recent decades, to promote greater understanding, convergence and common action between evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
LUTHER WANTED TO “REFORM THE CHURCH FROM WITHIN”
The EAUK explains that “Luther and other early Reformers sought to re-emphasise key aspects of basic, gospel Christianity that they felt had been neglected or abused by the Roman Catholic Church during the medieval and Renaissance periods.”
“As the word ‘Reformation’ itself suggests, their initial purpose was to reform the church of Rome from within, rather than establish a new church or set of denominations. In time, however, rejection of their proposals led to divergence, separation and the development of Protestantism as a discrete phenomenon.”
THE BIBLE'S AUTHORITY
The statement recalls that “the Reformers sought to recover the primary authority of the Bible as distinct from ecclesiastical tradition.” In fact, “this concern for biblical primacy in the determination of Christian doctrine and practice was key to Luther’s protest against indulgences in 1517.”
Indulgences were granted by the church to mitigate the punishment due from God, either to themselves, their loved ones, or others in purgatory. Luther argued that they “contradicted the teaching of scripture, and that since scripture must guide the church’s teaching, they must be rejected.”
To reaffirm his commitment to biblical authority, “Luther translated the Bible into his native German, thus making it accessible to the mass of ordinary people, whereas previously the Latin Vulgate was the only authorised version, which was seldom read or understood beyond the clerical elite”, the EAUK points out.
GRACE AND WORKS
The document explains that “Rome had taught that righteousness could be accumulated through ever-more assiduous acts of ritual penance and devotion.”
And “Grace might be given through baptism and might inhere in the six other sacraments it had defined, but to be truly justified or made right with God required additional works of holiness prescribed by the church.”
However, “for the Reformers, justification was sola fide and sola gratia – dependent purely on a saving faith which was itself a free gift, or grace, of God, secured by Jesus’ substitutionary death for sinners on the cross”.
“This liberating idea has been central to evangelical preaching, teaching and witness”, it concludes.
CATHOLICS AND PROTESTANTS
“Significant attempts have been made over the past hundred years or so to improve mutual understanding between Catholics and Protestants, and much of this work has centred on the legacy of the Reformation”, the statement says.
“The ecumenical movement has been prominent in this, and although the Roman Catholic church has not formally joined the World Council of Churches (WCC), it has interacted closely with it”, it adds.
The EAUK “acknowledges that among our members in the UK Alliance, some will regard these initiatives more positively than others. Indeed, in this respect it is important to note that more distinctively evangelical interactions with Roman Catholics over the past 40 years or so have been careful to reiterate continuing points of divergence rooted in the Reformation, even while seeking to bring shared convictions and concerns more to the fore.”
The statement notes other points of divergence around:
- The nature and authority of the Church: “We do not accept that the Church is expressed definitively by the church of Rome and that evangelicals and others are classed less definitively as 'ecclesial communities'.”
- The papacy and papal infallibility: “While some evangelicals belong to churches led by bishops, we reject the narrative of papal supremacy and Petrine succession as without biblical warrant.”
- Sacraments: “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper or Communion were promoted by Luther and the Reformers, who in doing so rejected the Roman Catholic teaching that there were five further sacraments. Evangelicals would disavow Catholic teaching on Communion as a Eucharistic sacrifice.”
- Mariology: “there is much that we can glean from Mary's life and witness; yet on biblical grounds we nonetheless regard her, like us, as a pilgrim sinner and we find no basis for her own immaculate conception or assumption. Nor do we find any biblical grounds for the common Roman Catholic construal of Mary as one through whom we should pray.”
THERE IS ALSO COMMON GROUND
The EAUK also identifies some points of convergence:
- Creeds: “Although not all evangelical churches recite or formally subscribe to the key ecumenical creeds of the early Church, we do share with Roman Catholics the substantive doctrines affirmed by those creeds. Hence the creation and sustaining of the cosmos by God, the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the deity of Christ and his uniqueness for salvation, his conception by the Spirit and birth of the Virgin Mary, his atoning death, bodily resurrection, ascension, universal rule and promised return to judge humanity and usher in a new and eternal order – all are held by evangelicals and Catholics alike.”
- Evangelism and renewal: “From its earliest days the Evangelical Alliance has promoted religious liberty, and this has included support for the right of evangelicals to persuade Catholics of the evangelical understanding of the gospel. In the past century, however, there has been growing mutual understanding and effort between Catholics and evangelicals in the work of evangelism. Significant numbers of evangelicals and Catholics since the 1960s have also found new depths of fellowship as they have explored the gifts, work and life of the Holy Spirit together.”
- Social and medical ethics, and the common good: “In the 1990s, Evangelicals and Catholics Together crystallized a good deal of earlier joint action by each community on ethical issues related to the start and end of life, as well as on the classical Christian understanding of marriage and family. Joint work on abortion, euthanasia and marriage is born out of a shared conviction about the sanctity of human life as created in God's image, and the sovereignty of God over life and death, family life and relationships.”
“LUTHER'S WITNESS SHAPE OUR IDENTITY”
“It is clear that many of the core distinctions that developed between Luther’s understanding and that of the Roman Catholic Church remain between modern-day evangelicals and Catholics”, the statement says.
But, “in certain areas, there have been significant attempts to foster deeper understanding of the theological and ecclesiastical differences that distinguish each tradition, and to develop this understanding in a less conflictual way.”
“We give thanks that Luther’s witness to the primacy of biblical authority and the centrality of justification by grace through faith did so much to shape our identity as evangelicals, and we pray for God’s guidance as we bear out that heritage in our work and witness as evangelicals today, both on our own account and in relation to others, including Roman Catholics”, the EAUK concludes.