Welcome to this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday.” For today’s installment, we’re revisiting a post that was originally published back on September 19th, 2015 and has been slightly revised.
Evangelicals & Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission
Charles Colson, Richard John Neuhaus, editors
Word Publishing, 1995, 236 pages
Before I begin discussing this book, I’d like to provide a little background. In the late 1970s, influential evangelical theologian, Francis Schaeffer, challenged American pastors and para-church leaders to enter the political arena in order to “reclaim America for Jesus!” Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and other popular figures picked up the gauntlet, determined to stem the tide of “secular humanism.” Evangelicals soon found themselves as co-belligerents with conservative Roman Catholics in culture and morality battles. Predictably, political alliances paved the way for religious accommodation and compromise. Irreconcilable doctrinal distinctives were overlooked and some evangelicals began to accept unabashed salvation-by-merit Catholics as “brothers in Christ.”
Bombastic Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority eventually flamed out, but another evangelical would soon carry the ecumenical torch. Chuck Colson had been Special Counsel to President Nixon, but his involvement in the Watergate scandal landed him in prison where he claimed to have had a born-again experience. His 1975 memoir, “Born Again,” was a national bestseller and launched Colson’s new career as a popular para-church leader. Taking his cue from C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” ecumenism became increasingly dear to Colson’s heart.*
In 1994, Colson and Catholic priest, Richard John Neuhaus, began “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT), an ecumenical project calling for evangelicals and Catholics to unite in the battle against secular humanism and to recognize each other as Christians. The organization’s 1994 declaration was signed by a number of influential evangelicals and Catholics. However, a number of other evangelical leaders voiced their strong opposition to the declaration, which embraced works-righteousness Catholicism as a Christian entity and called for an end to evangelizing Catholics.
This book, “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission,” was published in 1995 to explain and defend the controversial ECT declaration. The evangelical contributors were Colson, Mark Noll, and J. I. Packer, and the Roman Catholic contributors were George Weigel and priests Avery Dulles and Neuhaus.
I really don’t care to expend too much energy reviewing the details of this book. In my view it’s a tragedy from the first page to the last. The three evangelicals who participated flagrantly accommodate error and compromise the truth. What is the Gospel? For genuine evangelicals faithful to God’s Word, the Gospel is salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. In contrast, the Catholic gospel is salvation by sacramental grace and merit. The two views are irreconcilable and cannot be bridged. Colson and Noll heard Catholics concede that “salvation is by (sacramental) grace through faith” and eagerly jumped the gun, declaring, “Close enough,” yet also knowing full well that Catholics actually adhere to “cooperation with grace,” aka merit or works, as an essential component in their salvation system. Packer? He correctly writes that if any Catholics are saved, they are saved IN SPITE of their church’s standard theology, but he’s willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
“And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” – Romans 11:6
ECT went on to publish several additional declarations over the years (via Neuhaus’ conservative Catholic and ecumenical journal, “First Things”), although it faded from view after the deaths of Neuhaus in 2009 and Colson in 2012. But, regrettably, Colson did accomplish some of what he set out to do. He would be pleased that works-righteousness Catholicism has been embraced as a Christian entity by a large number of Gospel-compromising evangelical pastors and their followers.
*I’m speculating that Chuck Colson’s great desire to unite evangelicals and Catholics was at least partially motivated by his 48-year marriage to Patty Hughes Colson, a “devout” Roman Catholic. Colson regularly attended mass with his Catholic wife. To see more on Colson’s proclivity for Roman error, see here.