by Emilio Antonio Nunez
In preparation for the writing of this paper, many missionary and national leaders who serve the evangelical church in Central America were consulted. Their opinions reflect, in general, the thinking of a large number of Latin American Christians on this important issue.
In preparation for the writing of this paper, many missionary and national leaders who serve the evangelical church in Central America were consulted. Their opinions reflect, in general, the thinking of a large number of Latin American Christians on this important issue. Special reading has also been done in the field of contemporary Roman Catholic theology, both in Protestant and Catholic works. To these sources of information the personal experience of the writer is added, because he is a representative of the thousands upon thousands of Latin Americans who have left the Roman Catholic Church as a result of their conversion to Christ.
Before dealing with some of the ways in which a danger may be avoided, it is necessary to say something of the danger itself. The subject of the present paper is based on the conviction that a real peril exists for evangelical Protestantism in the ecumenical overtures of the Roman Catholic Church.
It is a fact that the Protestant-Catholic dialogue may create confusion in the evangelical churches. As Rev. Arthur P. Johnston, chairman of the Evangelical Alliance Mission in France (TEAM), has said: "Converted Roman Catholics within the local Protestant churches would become confused regarding their separation and have difficulty witnessing of Christ to their unsaved families."1 It is natural for a convert from Roman Catholicism to ask: If the Roman Catholic Church is our sister church, why did you invite me to leave her and to become a Protestant?
The danger is also related to the evangelistic task. That a compromise with Romanism may dull the cutting edge of evangelism cannot be denied. Indifferentism and the discouraging of missionary vocations may be the consequence of a reconciling attitude toward Rome. If all Catholics are already Christians on the basis of their baptism, there is no need of preaching the Gospel to them.
Catholic ecumenism has proved to be divisive among conservative Protestants. Perhaps this is one of the greatest dangers of the ecumenical overtures by Catholics. In Latin America, for instance, evangelical Christians became closely united one to another in the face of persecution. Ecumenism is dividing them. This observation does not mean at all that persecution is indispensable to cultivate Christian unity, or that the writer is not grateful to God for the peace which has come to churches like those in Colombia, where so many believers sealed with their blood the testimony of the Gospel.
The danger is also theological. At the present time there seem to be three types of Roman Catholicism. First of all there is the traditional and unchangeable Church of Rome, which even after the aggiornamento of Vatican II remains inalterable in her theological foundations. Dogmas as the justification by faith plus works, the immaculate conception of Mary, and papal infallibility have not been revoked; and no intimation whatsoever is made by the Council of a possible change in the doctrinal framework of the Catholic Church. In this regard, Rome is always the same. John XXIII said that "the substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another."2 In other words, there may be changes in the form or expression of a particular dogma, but not in its essence.
There is also the so-called New Catholicism, represented by theologians like Karl Rahner, Hans Kung and Yves Congar, who leave been bold enough to suggest radical changes in the interpretation of the deposit of faith. According to G. C. Berkouwer, "the new theology has helped create the changed climate in the Roman Church."3
The third type of Catholicism is found in the documents of Vatican II, which some have regarded as "the open Council," although it was in reality an "ambivalent Council." In many respects the conciliar documents are a compromise between conservative and progressive theologians of the Roman Church. Both the traditional thinking of this church and the influence of the New Catholicism are evident in the declarations of the Council.
It is not easy to predict how far the Church of Rome will follow the theology of progressivism. Conservative Protestants are concerned by the fact that the avant garde theologians of Romanism seem to be moving themselves not toward evangelical Christianity, but in the opposite direction, toward liberalism. For instance, that the new Catholic theologians are in danger of embracing universalism is quite clear in the writings of Karl Rahner and others.4
Even in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church5 and in the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions6, the universalist danger is present. One of the most striking developments in the ecumenical movement is the Catholic-Marxist dialogue started about four years ago between a group of German-speaking Catholics, called the Paulus Society, and a group of Marxist intellectuals. In their eagerness to foster the unity of mankind, the representatives of the New Catholicism are willing to dialogue even with the Communists.
THE DANGER AVOIDED
To avoid the danger of ecumenical overtures by Catholics, the evangelical churches need, above all, to be grounded in the infallible Word of God. The apostolic injunction to Timothy, to proclaim the Word (2 Tim. 4:2 ), has special validity today, when so many churches seem to be at the crossroads in retard to ecumenism. The teaching ministry in the church leas to be fundamentally biblical. The man in the pulpit and the people in the pew must know the Word.
But the teaching ought to be relevant, as well. What the Scripture reveals of the past and the future is an admonition for the present. And to preach in a relevant way means to apply directly the divine message to contemporary needs and problems of the church and the world. It means also the frank and uncompromising denunciation of error wherever this may be found as a threat to the vitality of the church.
It is not suggested here, of course, that the people of God should consume all their energies and resources in an error-hunting crusade throughout the world. The primary concern of the church is the proclamation of the Good News of Christ. However, it is not without significance that the Lord Himself and His apostles were unhesitant to speak against falsehood whenever they considered it necessary to do so. The Lord Jesus Christ did not come "to dialogue" with Pharisees and Sadducees, but to invite them to repent. Paul did not exhort the Galatians "to dialogue" with the judaizers, bud to stand fast in the liberty which they had received in Christ (Gal. 5:1) . Even John, "the apostle of love," said: "If any one cometh unto you, and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not into your house, and give him no greeting: for lie that giveth him greeting partaketh in his evil works" (2 John 10-11).
If in the light of the Scriptures the Roman Catholic Church is theologically wrong, the foreign missionary and the national leader are morally obligated to explain to their constituency what the Romanist error is.
To be positive in the ministry does not mean to be compromising or a relativist in the face of doctrinal or moral error. There is enough relativism in the philosophical and religious world to confuse a spiritually undernourished Christian. The churches need real leadership, not just hazy declarations on ecumenism and other issues of the contemporary ecclesiastical scene. Consequently, a leader must know the way for himself and for his people; to know from where he comes, and to where he is going in theology and in all those matters related to the church’s life and ministry.
Beside a systematic and practical teaching of the Word, the evangelical churches need to be instructed in the theological nature of the so-called conciliar and post-conciliar Catholicism. An honest and impartial evaluation of Romanism cannot be limited to that whack this religious system was hundred years ago. In many respects the Church of Vatican I is different from that of Vatican II. The renewed interest in the Scriptures, the liturgical changes, the new attitude toward Protestantism, the ecumenical concern, the proclamation of religious freedom, and other characteristics of the post-Johannine Church are very well known to the civilized world, and cannot be denied on behalf of an out-of-date antiCatholicism. At the same time, it is possible to overemphasize these changes, and overlook the fact that the fundamentals of Catholic dogma are still the same.
The documents of Vatican II and the writings of progressive Catholic theologians should be the object of careful study on the part of evangelical leaders and seminarians; especially in those countries which have been traditionally Catholic. But this study must be made primarily in the light of the Word of God, not in a blind dependence on the interpretation of neo-Romanisrn provided by Protestant or Catholic theologians who pare dedicated to the ecumenical cause, and whose. wishful dunking and overoptimism are so evident in their commentaries on Vatican II. Extreme care should be exercised in selecting professors of contemporary theology in seminaries and Bible schools abroad.
There is a real need of producing more literature to analyze contemporary Romanism from a biblical and objective point of view. This literature should be presented in different levels, for different classes of people in the church. It is unfortunate that in Latin America very little has been done to meet this urgent need.
It is also necessary to teach the evangelical churches in Roman Catholic countries to appreciate their spiritual heritage, which represents the sufferings and sacrificial endeavors of missionary pioneers. To appeal to the testimony of history with the purpose of promoting loyalty to the Lord is biblical. In solemn occasions, as that in which Moses pronounced his farewell discourse before the nation, and especially in times of moral decay and apostasy, the Old Testament leaders made reference to the blessings of the past to encourage the people of Israel to serve the Lord, their Redeemer. The history of the nation was constantly repeated in the Hebrew homes.
The younger Christian generations should listen again and again to the history of the establishment of missionary work in their own countries. They should know at least the J names of those pioneers, both foreign and national, who in the midst of so many difficulties spread the Good News of the Gospel and planted the national evangelical church. The recognition that some of these pioneers were willing even to die for the Lord’s sake, may arouse in the hearts of the believers a desire to continue in the path of their predecessors, in faithfulness to Christ.
A matter of great concern should be the theological schools-here in North America and abroad-where the future leaders of the church are trained. The case of young people who are not mature enough to discriminate biblical from nonbiblical doctrines deserves special attention.
It is indispensable to expose the younger generations to new trends in theology. A theological education would be incomplete apart from this exposure. But the students need also a solid training in the Word of God to make the right doctrinal choices. It is undeniable that they will profit exceedingly from the influence of professors who are really committed to the truth of the Gospel. An open-minded and uncommitted teacher who is afraid to lead his students on the biblical way, is a serious threat to the integrity oï¿½ the faith. At this point the academic freedom becomes an academic cowardice, in matters that may concern the eternal destiny of men.
To avoid the danger of nonbiblical ecumenism, conservative Christians must know the real nature and purpose of the Catholic-Protestant dialogue, that the only objective of this dialogue is to promote "the cause of Christian unity." The one who enters into dialogue is professing, by his action, to have the desire of seeing the unity of all "Christians" expressed in a tangible way. At least this is the impression that he leaves in those who inside, or outside, the ecumenical circle observe him; although his real motivation may be different from that perceived by the people.
The wholehearted participation in the Catholic-Protestant dialogue implies the recognition that the Roman Catholic Church is a "sister church," and that sooner or later the reunion of Catholics and Protestants will take place in "the church of tomorrow." The actual form of this future church is unknown to the ecumenical leaders. They explain that ecumenism is not a return to Geneva nor Rome.8 But in view of the fact that, according to the Second Vatican Council the church of Christ subsists already in the Roman Catholic Church9, and that only in this church "the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained,"10 since "the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace,"11 it is natural to conclude that the basic structures of the Church of Rome will be preserved.12 In the documents of Vatican II there is no reference to a future disintegration of the Roman Church. Therefore, the future church may be a renewed Roman Catholic Church to which the other churches will be united.
The formal ecumenical dialogue is not intended to be an "evangelistic" meeting. Its aim is the exchange of ideas, not converts. In the ecumenical movement, both Catholics and Protestants seem to agree that the purpose of the dialogue is not to win converts to either Romanism or Protestantism. John Cogley, a prominent Catholic who formerly served as staff religion editor of the New York Times, indicates: "The ecumenist who tries to exploit the desire for Christian unity to make converts to his own faith is doomed to failure, on both counts."13 According to Robert McAfee Brown, a leading voice of ecumenical Protestantism,
It is now accepted by both groups (Catholics and Protestants) that baptism incorporates one into tie church of Jesus Christ . . . Surely in this situation the main thrust of conversion work on the part of both Catholic and Protestant should be directed to those who stand in no relationship whatsoever to the Body of Christ . . . The posture of Catholics and Protestants to one another, then, is not the posture of seeking to gain more converts from the other than one loses. It is not to engage in conversion work at all, although conversion may sometimes result.14
Any attempt to use dialogue as an opportunity "to win souls for Christ" would mean a lack of sincerity, or honesty, in the eyes of those whose only concern is to promote the unity of Christendom. At the very moment that one of the participants begins to "evangelize," dialogue comes to an end. The situation may become polemic, ‘since the evangelistic effort suggests that one oï¿½ the participants is nod yet accepted as a Christian. It should be remembered that dialogue started on the assumption that the participants belong already, in one way or another, to the Body of Christ.
Strictly speaking, formal ecumenical dialogue is in its very nature and purpose incompatible with any proselytizing effort; although some conversions, either to Catholicism or Protestantism, may have resulted from the Catholic-Protestant rapprochement.
Especially in Catholic countries, the ultimate results of dialogue may be negative rather than positive, from the stand point of the total evangelistic mission of the church. But to avoid ecumenical encounter does not mean necessarily to neglect the great opportunities that the evangelical churches have today to lead large numbers of Catholics to Christ. This missionary thought suggests the final point of the present paper.
One of the most effective ways to counteract the dangers involved in the ecumenical overtures of the Roman Catholic Church is to maintain alive the flame of evangelistic zeal in the heart of God’s people. If most of the believers are deeply convinced that the main task of the church is to announce the Gospel to every creature in the world, even to Catholics, and if the church is occupied in an unprecedented evangelistic effort everywhere, the ecumenical movement will not be a threat as great as it may now appear to be.
It is understood, of course, that such a revival of missionary zeal in the church can be produced only by the Spirit of God, in response to the submission of His people to the divine will. If He brings this revival, nothing else but the manifestation of His transforming power will be asked by many Christians who have been trusting in some poor substitutes for the work of the Spirit-as ecumenical dialogue and interfaith organizations-to solve the spiritual problem of man.
May the Lord help us to stand firm in the faith, and to depend only on His grace in these difficult times in which He has called us to fulfill our ministry!
1. Arthur P. Johnson, "Today’s Missionary and the New Catholicism," Christian Heritage, February, 1968, pp. 26-29.
2. John XXII, "Opening Speech to the Council," The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 715.
3. G. G. Berkouwer, The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, trans. Lewis B. Smedes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), p. 56.
4. Karl Rahner, The Church After the Council, trans. Davis C. Herron and Rodeline Albrecht ( New York: Herder and Herder, 1966 ), pp. 56-58. "Iglesia, iglesias y religiones," traps. Daniel Ruiz Bueno, Academia Teologica, ed. Karl Rahner y Otto Semmelroth ( Salamanca: Ediciones Sigueme, 1967 ), pp. 104-21. Hans Kung, That the World May Believe, traps. Cecily Hastings (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963), pp. 113-14. Eugene Hillman, The Church as Mission ( New York: Herder and Herder, 1965 ), pp. 87-92.
5. "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter lid. Abbott ( New York: Guild Press, 1966 ), pp. 34-35.
6. "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions," The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott ( New York: Guild Press, 1966), pp. 660-68.
7. Harvey Cox, "An Ecumenical Convergence," The Future of Belief Debate, ed. Gregory Baum (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967), pp. 115-29. Christopher S. Wren, "Can Christians Talk to Communists?" Look, May, 1967, pp. 36-40. Joseph Roddy, "The Vatican and the Kremlin Keep in Touch," Look, March, 1968, pp. 31-34.
8. In the opinion of Albert C. Outler, "the only way to the fullness of Christian community is forward-to some point of convergence toward which we are now being led by the still secret providence of God." Methodist Observer at the Vatican (New York: Newman Press, 1967), p. 19. Robert McAfee Brown hopes that "in the course of the ecumenical encounter the Catholic Church will be changed as well as the Protestant churches." The Ecumenical Revolution (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967) p. 80. Thomas F. Stransky, a Catholic scholar, affirms: "Although the Catholic Church has in no way abandoned its belief in its unique position among Christian communions, it is insisting on its own reformability . . . The imagery is not one of "return" or "surrender" but one of forward movement . . ."The Decree on Ecumenism," Vatican. II: An Interfaith Appraisal, ed. John M. Miller (New York: Association Press, 1966) pp. 384-85.
9. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" ( Art. 7 ), The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 23.
10. "Decree on Ecumenism" (Art. 3), The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 346.
11. Ibid., p. 348.
12. Johannes Feiner, a Catholic theologian, declares that it is not possible to know the future concrete form of the Catholic Church, but he adds that "Catholic faith is certain that this form should always be characterized by the ministry of the successors of the apostles and the Petrine office.)" "Commentary on the Decree on Ecumenism,)" trans. . A. Wilson, Vol. II: Commentar on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), p. 60.
13. John Cogley, "Ten Commandments for the Ecumenical Age," Living Room Dialogues, ed. William P. Greenspun and William A. Norgrep (Glen Rock, New Jersey: National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and Paulist Press, 1965 ), pp. 55-56.
14. Brown, pp. 82-83.
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