A Catholic Assessment of Gregg Allison’s Critique of the “Hermeneutics of Catholicism”

Aug 17th, 2015 | By Guest Author | Category: Featured Articles

This is a guest article by Eduardo Echeverria. Eduardo was born in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, in 1950. His family immigrated to Manhattan, NY, in 1952. He was raised Roman Catholic, but only responded to the Gospel in the summer of 1970 through the ministry of L’Abri Fellowship,  founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer, and located in the small Alpine village of Huémoz, Switzerland. His journey home to the Catholic Church took him from Evangelical Protestantism to Reformed Christianity (particularly, Dutch neo-Calvinism), on to Anglican Catholicism and from there ahead to Catholicism. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, and an S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas, the Angelicum, Rome, Italy. He is the author of dozens of articles and several books, most recently, Berkouwer and Catholicism: Disputed Questions (Brill, 2013), and Pope Francis. The Legacy of Vatican II (Lectio Publishing, 2015). He is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology, Graduate School of Theology, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, MI, and a Fellow in the Faculty of Theology, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. He is also a member of the American ecumenical initiative, Evangelicals and Catholics Together.  – Eds.

Our thoughts about the future of the Church must come out of tensions in the present, tensions that must creatively produce watchfulness, prayer, faith, and commitment, love for truth and unity, love for unity and truth. — G.C. Berkouwer[1]

Eduardo Echeverria

I write this article on Gregg Allison’s new book[2] on Catholic theology and practice as a Catholic theologian with roots in the Evangelical and Reformed traditions. I am a member of the twenty-year-old American ecumenical initiative, Evangelicals and Catholics Together. My commitment to ecumenical dialogue with both traditions is evident from many of my writings, most recently my book, Berkouwer and Catholicism.[3] I very much appreciate the good will Allison exhibits as well as his commitment to engage in a more adequate understanding of Catholic teaching as expressed in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (hereafter CCC). It is no small task he undertook to present in an almost five hundred page book the full range of teaching in the CCC, as well as express common ground and critique between Evangelicals (varied as that term is in his book, given its use in reference to several confessional traditions) and Catholics.[4] I highly commend him for his work. All of this work is done in the spirit of being faithful to the pursuance of truth. Still, I think Allison’s book is fundamentally weak for two reasons: one, on ecumenism, and two, on a hermeneutics of Catholicism.


First, Allison’s book is flawed from an ecumenical perspective because his book does not encourage the reader to participate in the already substantial dialogue between Protestants from varied confessional traditions (Methodist, Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican) and Catholics, striving for reconciliation in the biblical faith. Allison pays no real attention to ecumenism and an evangelical perspective on John 17:21 in which Christ calls all his disciples to unity. Absent that perspective in his book, Allison is prevented from substantially advancing the discussion between Catholics and evangelicals. He is stuck in an a priori stance towards the Catholic Church on the traditional issues that have alienated Evangelicals and Catholics, and consequently is unable “to engage in a fresh constructive and critical evaluation both of the contemporary teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church and of the classical controverted issues” (see stance 3 below). Given Allison’s “own long-term familiarity with the Church” (18-19), why is his stance toward Catholicism finally one of “intrigue” when he speaks of “the book’s appreciation of and thanksgiving for many commonalities between Catholic and evangelical theology” (28)?

The word “intrigue” makes Allison sound like an outsider rather than one, like Berkouwer, who holds that all Christians share responsibility, as Berkouwer wrote, for “the Church as it is now, with its tensions and problems, its guilt and dividedness.” Allison shows no evidence that he is committed to the ecumenical imperative of the Christian faith as it is paradigmatically expressed by Christ in the Gospel of John 17:20-26. This shared responsibility for realizing “the unity of the Church will have meaning for our time,” says Berkouwer, “only when the question of unity is both honestly and stubbornly faced as the important issue.” Berkouwer continues: “New Testament eschatology—pointing as it does to the Church’s final victory—is charged with a sense of urgency as it calls us to do for the Church, here and now, what our hands find to do. It is no accident that Christ’s prayer for the unity of the Church in John 17 [20–23] includes a prayer that the Church may be kept from the Evil One [17:15].”[5] Lead us not into the temptation of regarding our disunity as normal, rather than as scandal and wound, but deliver us from the evil of our divisions. Berkouwer makes an ecumenically decisive point here, namely, it is no longer possible to remain divided because in willing the Church, God willed unity as a gift and task, “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).

Allison has interacted with Catholics for many years, yet he appears reticent to move to the stance of receptive ecumenism, namely, the conviction, as St. John Paul II expressed it, that “ecumenical dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an ‘exchange of gifts’,” indeed, a “dialogue of love” between fellow Christians.[6] Although Allison identifies “with fascination and appreciation the commonalities between Catholic and [his own version of] evangelical theology” (18), there is no evidence in his book that he thinks evangelicals who share his theological convictions may learn from Catholics, particularly with respect to the issues that have divided them.

So, although Allison’s book is, indeed, a good first step to understanding the Catholic tradition, his study appears more apologetical than ecumenical, — and hence does not represent a significant shift in stance toward Roman Catholicism by a well-known Evangelical Protestant theologian who is a confessional Baptist.

There are three possible stances that Evangelical and Reformed Christians have taken toward Roman Catholicism. In the report of the second phase of the ecumenical conversations between the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (1984-1990), three contemporary Reformed and Evangelical attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church are distinguished:

There are within the Reformed [and Evangelical] family those whose attitude to the Roman Catholic Church remains essentially negative: [1] some because they remain to be convinced that the modern developments of the Roman Catholic Church has really addressed the issues of the Reformation, and [2] others because they have been largely untouched by the ecumenical exchanges of recent times and have therefore not been challenged or encouraged to reconsider their traditional stance. But this is only one part of the picture. [3] Others in the Reformed [and Evangelical] tradition have sought to engage in a fresh constructive and critical evaluation both of the contemporary teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church and of the classical controverted issues.[7]

Allison’s book clearly exhibits the second stance in his evangelical assessment of the Catechism, in particular, the classical controverted issues that have divided Protestants and Catholics.[8] For example, this book appears uninformed by the results of the last half-century of bi-lateral ecumenical dialogues on the Trinity and Christology, salvation, justification, and sanctification, on ecclesiology, sacramentology, and Mary between the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the various confessional traditions of Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed on precisely the classical controverted issues listed above.[9] Allison’s book is also uninformed by the bilateral dialogues of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission from 1971-2014 (Parts I-III) on authority in the Church, the sacraments, salvation, the moral life in Christ, and Mary. In addition, his work is uninformed by the the French-speaking ecumenists, Le Groupe des Dombes, comprised of Roman Catholic and Reformed scholars/pastors, who since 1937 until the present have written on the question of Christian Unity, the teaching authority of the Church, ordained ministry, Mary’s Place in the Plan of God, and others.

Yet for Christians from varied confessional traditions interested in pursuing ecumenical dialogue, knowledge of these documents is imperative. Why? Christ calls all his disciples to unity. Hence, as John Paul II pointedly asks, “How is it possible to remain divided, if we have been “buried” through Baptism in the Lord’s death, in the very act by which God, through the death of his Son, has broken down the walls of division?”

For this reason he sent his Son, so that by dying and rising for us he might bestow on us the Spirit of love. On the eve of his sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus himself prayed to the Father for his disciples and for all those who believe in him, that they might be one, a living communion. This is the basis not only of the duty, but also of the responsibility before God and his plan, which falls to those who through Baptism become members of the Body of Christ, a Body in which the fullness of reconciliation and communion must be made present. Division “openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the Good News to every creature.”[10]

Not that Allison needed to discuss all these documents in his study of the CCC. Rather, his study should at least have shown some familiarity with documents that are the fruits of years of ecumenical dialogue. Thus his discussion of the classical controverted issues is unable “to engage in a fresh constructive and critical evaluation both of the contemporary teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church and of the classical controverted issues.”[11]

For instance, in his discussion on the doctrine of justification, there isn’t even a reference to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, by the World Federation of Lutherans and the Catholic Church. Such an influential text on a topic that still alienates some Protestants and Catholics should inform one’s theological analysis. The same can be said for the classical controverted issue of Scripture and Tradition. Allison shows no awareness that the “two source” theory of revelation—the dominant theory between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries in Catholic theology—has undergone severe criticism within the Catholic theological tradition. These Catholic critics argue for the integration of the uniquely normative character of Scripture, as the supreme rule of faith, as Dei Verbum calls Scripture, or the highest authority in matters of faith (norma normans non normata), in an intrinsically and necessarily related way to tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God. On this view, Scripture must be interpreted in the concrete life of the Church, her liv­ing tradition, through the teaching authority of the ecclesiastical magis­terium, which is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Arguably, then, when the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum §10 affirms a necessary and intrinsic relatedness of tradition and the Church to Scripture, it also affirms a prima scriptura (§§21-25).

Consider briefly also the ecclesiological question concerning the unity of the Church, namely, the relationship of the Catholic Church to separated brethren. Allison says, “Catholicism’s position that evangelical ecclesial communities are not even churches does nothing to overcome the problem of disunity” (172). Although Allison recognizes (162) that Lumen Gentium, Unitatis redintegratio, and, I would add, Ut unum sint, affirm that there are many elements of truth and sanctification outside the visible boundaries of the Church, he nowhere sees the significant implications this affirmation has: separated brethren are in real, albeit imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. In other words, Christians—Protestants and Catholics alike—are brothers and sisters in Christ. Furthermore, Allison nowhere acknowledges that this affirmation contributes to overcoming the problem of disunity. Those many elements, John Paul II claimed, do not exist in an “ecclesial vacuum,”[12] because there is ecclesial reality, however fragmented, and to greater or lesser degrees, outside the visible boundaries of the Church that “participate in the Church of Christ in a qualified but real way” (to quote Thomas Guarino). Catholic ecclesiology rejects the following dilemma: either affirming that the Church of Christ fully and totally exists in the Catholic Church and implausibly denying that Orthodoxy and the historic churches of the Reformation are churches in any real sense whatsoever; or else accepting that they are churches but then accepting ecclesiological relativism.[13] Much dialogue has been had and ink spilt in the last half-century discussing this dilemma in Catholic ecclesiology striving to resolve the question of ecclesial unity in order to be faithful to the mark of the Church, credo unam ecclesiam. None of the fruits of these dialogues inform Allison’s approach in this book.

Moreover, his study lacks any reference to the master of dogmatic and ecumenical theology, Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996), who discusses the development of Catholic theology in general but also, in particular, the issue of Scripture and tradition in his 1965 work, The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism.[14] In this study on Vatican Council II, which Reformed theologian Heiko Oberman (1930–2001) called “breathtakingly important,” Berkouwer gives a Reformed theological assessment of the influence of the nouvelle théologie on the council. This work of Berkouwer is necessary reading for anyone, particularly an evangelical theologian, who is attempting to come to terms with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is the fruit of the Second Vatican Council. There is also no sign that Allison is informed by the debates leading up the Council in the writings of, for example, J.R. Geiselmann and Joseph Ratzinger, and after the Council in the writings of, for example, the French Catholic theologian Yves Congar, Tradition and traditions, and the Meaning of Tradition.

Moreover Allison makes no reference to the work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together on this topic: Your Word is Truth. In this collection, his fellow evangelicals, such as Timothy George, J.I. Packer, and John Woodbridge (all of whom belong to Evangelical and Catholics Together), enter into a discussion of the issue of Scripture and Tradition.[15]

One last piece of evidence, perhaps the most crucial, that Allison’s theological work lacks an ecumenical dimension but also that his understanding of the way that Christians should live Christianity lacks an encouragement to respond to Jesus’s ecumenical imperative is the last chapter. This chapter is not entitled “ecumenical ministry with Catholics,” but rather “evangelical ministry with Catholics.” This says a great deal about Allison’s stance towards the question of Christian unity between Evangelicals and Catholics. Apparently, Catholics as such need to be evangelized, given their rejection of “Protestant principles of sola Scriptura and justification by grace alone through faith alone” (172). Furthermore, evangelical Protestant theology cannot agree with the hermeneutics of Catholicism, meaning thereby “the axioms of the nature-grace interdependence and the Christ-Church interconnection” of Catholicism. Hence Allison does not call evangelical Protestants to engage in ecumenical dialogue with Catholics with the aim of restoring visible communion between these divided brethren. This move “should [not] even be pursued,” indeed, stronger, it is “not permissible” (172).

For such a move to take place Allison would need to affirm that the Catholic Church and Evangelicals are indeed together in Christ, having a common cause in the gospel, in this ecumenical journey. The journey of ecumenical dialogue is thus an ongoing “dialogue of conversion,” on both sides, trusting in the reconciling power of the truth which is Christ to overcome the obstacles to unity. The ground motive of this dialogue for reconciliation is “common prayer with our brothers and sisters who seek unity in Christ and in His Church.”[16] “Prayer is the ‘soul’ of the ecumenical renewal and of the yearning for unity,” adds John Paul II. In short, it is the basis and support for everything the [Second Vatican Ecumenical] Council defines as ‘dialogue.[17] Sometimes dialogue is made more difficult, indeed, impossible, when our words, judgments, and actions manifest a failure to deal with each other with understanding, truthfully and fairly. “When undertaking dialogue, each side must presuppose in the other a desire for reconciliation, for unity in truth.”[18]

A necessary sign of this dialogue is that we have passed from “antagonism and conflict to a situation where each party recognizes the other as a partner.”[19] Allison is stuck at intrigue, but has not yet developed a stance towards Catholics that I described above as stance 3. This stance is where an authentic inter-confessional dialogue is made possible because each confessional interlocutor recognizes the other as an ecumenical partner, as a fellow-believer in Christ, in the common cause of the Gospel, especially regarding the question of the visible unity of the Church. In short, the ecumenism of conversion embodies the conviction that “dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an ‘exchange of gifts’,” indeed, a “dialogue of love.”[20] This is receptive ecumenism at its best, and it is sorely missing in Allison’s work.

On this view, the Church’s vision of visible unity “takes account of all the demands of revealed truth.” John Paul II correctly writes, “Love for the truth is the deepest dimension of any authentic quest for full communion between Christians.” Therefore, she seeks to avoid all those assumptions that sometimes plague ecumenical dialogue: forms of reductionism, such as doctrinal minimalism, or facile agreement, false irenicism, indifference to the Church’s teaching, and common-denominator ecumenicity.[21] Inter-confessional dialogue as such between Evangelical and Reformed Protestants, on the one hand, and Catholics, on the other, is often taken to be a “sign of weakness.” Berkouwer disagrees, and I think he is right. He insists that concern for the visible unity of the Body of Christ does not mean the levelling out of all genuine differences between Catholics and Evangelical/Reformed Christians. That is because an ecumenism based on anything else than truth—an ecumenism of conviction—is empty. Berkouwer correctly understands that “‘dialogue’ . . . does not signify a priori a relativizing approach to ecumenism.”[22] He adds, “Many Protestants suspect that by taking these confrontations seriously, we may water down the differences and lose some of the old convictions of the struggle.” On the contrary, argues Berkouwer, “Responsible encounter is not a sign of weakness; it is rather recognition of the seriousness of the division of the Church.”[23] Hence, he concludes, “the question of the gospel and unity in Christ must be both honestly and stubbornly faced as the important issue.”[24]

In sum, then, I have two objections to Allison’s apparent indifference to ecumenism. First, for Christians from varied confessional traditions interested in pursuing ecumenical dialogue, knowledge of the documents that are the fruits of half-century of dialogue is imperative if they are to advance the discussion regarding the quest for visible communion among Christians. Second, Allison’s insouciance regarding these ecumenical dialogues between various confessional traditions and the Catholic Church stems from a failure to take biblically and theologically serious the ecumenical imperative grounded in John 17:21.

Hermeneutics of Catholicism

In the second place, perhaps the most fundamental weakness in Allison’s study is his uncritical dependence on Leonardo De Chirico’s 2003 study on the hermeneutics of post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism from an Evangelical theological perspective.[25] I have great respect for De Chirico himself and his work, even though I reject his interpretation and conclusions about Catholicism. De Chirico claims to provide a hermeneutics of Catholicism as a coherent, all-encompassing system that is grounded in two first principles. Allison shares De Chirico’s hermeneutics that identifies these first principles: “the nature-grace interdependence, that is, a strong continuity between nature and grace; and the Christ-Church interconnection, that is, an ecclesiology . . . that views the Catholic Church as the ongoing incarnation of Jesus Christ” (31). This hermeneutics deserves far more critical attention than I can give here. So my critical comments on each of the first principles will be brief.

Nature and Grace

How are we to understand the distinction and relation of nature and grace? How should we understand the impact that the fall has had upon human nature? In what follows, I distinguish Position I and Position II in Allison’s theology of nature and grace. Position I is the stance he takes when criticizing Catholicism. Position II qualifies that stance and comes within the orbit of a Catholic theology of nature and grace.

Regarding Position I, Allison claims that Catholicism denies that “original sin impacts every aspect of human nature” (129). He explains: “Nature and grace are the two constitutive elements of the Catholic system, with sin as a serious yet not devastating secondary element. Nature, while wounded by sin, retains a capacity for grace [i.e., to receive, transmit, and cooperate with grace, he says elsewhere], and grace elevates or perfects nature. The two continue to operate interdependently” (47). By contrast, according to Allison:

[E]vangelical theology has three poles: creation, fall/sin, and redemption/grace. In this system, sin is taken more seriously, and its corrupting impact on the creation is not mitigated by its being part of nature. . . . Indeed, evangelical theology has three constitutive elements, with the fall or sin a primary, rather than secondary element of its system. Because of the devastatingly deep impact of sin on creation, the notion of nature as possessing some capacity for grace is nonsensical in the evangelical system   . . . . For Catholic theology, nature and grace are interdependent; for evangelical theology, nature and grace are at odds because of the devastating impact of sin on nature. . . . According to evangelical theology, [consequently] grace has nothing [emphasis added] to work with in nature because creation has been devastatingly tainted by sin (48-49).

First, Gregg claims that evangelical theology holds that human nature is fallen and devastatingly tainted by sin in the sense of being obliterated and, consequently, irreclaimable. Such a view however would suggest that post-fall human nature is simply a corrupt vessel needing to be replaced by something altogether new. Such a position seems inevitable if Allison denies that there exists any continuity whatsoever between nature and grace in view of the fall/sin. This emphasis on discontinuity between nature and grace reflects pessimism about nature after the Fall. This, too, is De Chirico’s view upon which Allison demonstrates an uncritical over-reliance. In the post-lapsarian situation, De Chirico says, the “protological status” of the structures of creation “has radically changed . . . into a sin-driven, and utterly corrupted reality.” Again, he says, “Creation is therefore a fallen creation which has irreversibly lost its primordial prerogatives and exists in a state of separation from God.”[26] Concurring again with De Chirico, Allison says that “grace has nothing to work with in nature because creation has been devastatingly tainted by sin.” Throughout the book he repeats this view that Evangelical theology rejects the “Catholic system’s axiom of the nature grace interdependence, specifically . . . grace must be embodied in nature” (253), or “that grace be manifested concretely in nature” (194; 170). So there is no sense whatsoever in which we can say that grace builds upon nature. Yet this would mean that grace has no point of contact whatsoever with nature (read: enduring structures of created reality). This position seems more Barthian than evangelical because it, for example, rejects natural theology. Here, too, Allison acknowledges that there does not exist unanimity among evangelicals concerning theistic arguments (76). Given the diversity of views among evangelicals, with some, like William Lane Craig,[27] sharing Catholicism’s affirmation of the legitimacy of natural theology, it isn’t clear why he identifies his view as evangelical and antithetical to Catholicism.

Be that as it may, Allison rejects the CCC’s support for natural theology because the “deceitfulness and destructiveness of sin . . . extends to human rationality and corrupts its ability to gain sure knowledge of God through the created order” (77). His reasoning is this: given human nature’s total corruption, then, human rationality, as an integral part of human nature, is grossly unreliable as an even subordinate source of knowledge of God’s general revelation and the enduring structures of creation, natural law, and hence cannot be of much service to the gospel. Allison, then, claims that given Catholicism’s view of a “nature-grace continuum” and hence its inadequate attention to human rationality being “thoroughly devastated by sin” (77), the CCC has a “rather hopeful attitude toward general revelation” (76). Hopeful in the sense, he claims, that for Catholicism general revelation is “enough for salvation to take place” and hence “the mere knowledge of the existence of God […] sufficient for a personal relationship with him” (76).

Furthermore, Allison repeats the same—as I will argue, faulty—argument in the context of the knowledge of the natural law. He acknowledges that Catholic theology affirms not only the noetic influences of sin upon man’s knowledge of natural law principles but also that man needs grace and revelation to overcome these influences. But then he draws the bewildering conclusion that for Catholicism “humanity’s problem is . . . just an epistemological one—the failure to know natural law’s precepts.” Allison insists, however, that man’s “plight is moral—the culpable failure to obey those precepts” (427).

But Allison couldn’t be further from the mark on both counts. Regarding man’s plight as allegedly merely epistemic, Allison offers no evidence that the failure to grasp natural law precepts is, according to Catholicism, the source of man’s alienation from God. He has reversed the order: man’s alienation from God is not merely noetic—even of the natural law—but religious because of sin. It is sin that is man’s plight. CCC states: “He freely sinned. By refusing God’s plan of love, he deceived himself and became a slave to sin. This first alienation engendered a multitude of others. From its outset, human history attests the wretchedness and oppression born of the human heart in consequence of the abuse of freedom” (§1739). CCC explains:

Sin is present in human history; any attempt to ignore it or to give this dark reality other names would be futile. To try to understand what sin is, one must first recognize the profound relation of man to God, for only in this relationship is the evil of sin unmasked in its true identity as humanity’s rejection of God and opposition to him, even as it continues to weigh heavy on human life and history [including man’s epistemic grasp of natural law precepts]. Only the light of divine Revelation clarifies the reality of sin and particularly of the sin committed at mankind’s origins [i.e., original sin]. Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another (§§386-387).

In sum, pace Allison, it is divine revelation, not the natural law, which illuminates the reality of sin by disclosing that man’s plight is his alienation from God. CCC states, “But this ‘intimate and vital bond of man to God’ (GS 19 # 1) can be forgotten, overlooked, or even explicitly rejected by man. Such attitudes can have different causes: revolt against evil in the world; religious ignorance or indifference; the cares and riches of this world; the scandal of bad example on the part of believers; currents of thought hostile to religion; finally, that attitude of sinful man which makes him hide from God out of fear and flee his call” (§29). Clearly, Allison’s interpretation of Catholicism on this point is reductionist and is not born out by what CCC actually says.

Now, regarding natural theology, what sets Allison off in the wrong direction is his misinterpretation of CCC’s statement:

Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man, and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. (so) the proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason (§35).

In addition to his inaccurate claim that general revelation discloses to us a saving knowledge of God, Allison claims that CCC affirms that general revelation “dispose nonbelievers to faith.” But how is this possible “when they [nonbelievers] so steadily and completely reject general revelation” (76; emphasis added)? Allison’s answer to this question returns him to the “nature-grace interdependence, one of the axioms of the Catholic theological system” in which “while sin has seriously influenced nature, it has not so corrupted it that a positive human response to general revelation is precluded” (76; emphasis added).

Although Allison underscores his conviction that “Evangelical theology strongly dissents from this position,” he would be more accurate that his version of evangelical theology strongly dissents. For instance, because of God’s common grace, Dutch neo-Calvinists like Kuyper and Herman Bavinck find truth and goodness in pagan religions.[28] Also, the Canons of Dort (1619) states: “There remains, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior.”[29] So, even according to the Reformed tradition, clearly man does not completely reject general revelation but also there is a positive human response, albeit non-salvific one, to that revelation.

Furthermore, Allison misunderstands the role of theistic arguments concerning faith’s knowledge of God. CCC says such arguments predispose one to faith in the sense of showing that “faith is not opposed to reason.” Does Allison deny this claim? I can’t imagine that he denies that faith is reasonable in that sense. Moreover, CCC doesn’t claim that theistic arguments, although available, are necessary to come to knowledge of God’s existence. Indeed, it says the very opposite. “In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone.” It follows up this claim by quoting Pius XII in Humani generis, where he emphasizes, among other obstacles to gaining a natural knowledge of God, the noetic influences of sin:

Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. the human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.

CCC concludes reiterating the point it made in §35 that “for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man, and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith.” Thus, it adds, “This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also ‘about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error’” (§§37-38).[30] And again, CCC states: “there is another order of knowledge, which man cannot possibly arrive at by his own powers: the order of divine Revelation. Through an utterly free decision, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. This he does by revealing the mystery, his plan of loving goodness, formed from all eternity in Christ, for the benefit of all men. God has fully revealed this plan by sending us his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.” Allison inexplicably overlooks all these passages from CCC. Be that as it may, the Catholic tradition agrees with Allison that the knowledge of God by means of general revelation is insufficient to give us a saving knowledge of God. He is right: “general revelation was not designed to foster a personal relationship with God; special revelation serves that role” (76).

Now, it isn’t that Allison rejects God’s general revelation. He affirms God’s objective revelation of himself in and through the works of creation. This general revelation still persists despite the fall into sin. But no sooner does he affirm general revelation than he claims that we have no reliable access via natural reason’s grasps of the works of God (75-76) to certain knowledge of him. This means a rejection of natural theology, theistic arguments, or reasons for belief in God. Allison acknowledges that this conclusion is not unanimously held by all evangelicals (76). Why, then, does he take an antithetical stance only toward Catholicism?

Moreover, according to the Catholic tradition, the knowledge of God that is in principle possible to gain through general revelation is inadequate, distorted, incomplete, non-salvific knowledge, but nonetheless true. The noetic influences of sin suppress and impede the functioning of natural reason capacity to acquire knowledge of God through general revelation. Significantly, this knowledge of all such truth “must ultimately be disciplined by, and incorporated into, the revelatory narrative [of creation, fall, and redemption]. Athens, whatever its own insights into truth, must ultimately be chastened by Jerusalem”[31] if it is to be of any service in deepening our intimate knowledge of the Trinity.

I call Allison’s view “epistemic supernaturalism” because the sole source, not just the ultimate or primary source—which, in contrast, the Catechism teaches—of our reliable knowledge of God is special revelation. I return to this point in the next paragraph. For now, let us take note that at the root of this so-called “hopeful attitude” (76) concerning natural theology’s ability to grasp God through general revelation is, according to Allison, “the Catholic system’s axiom of a nature-grace continuum that is not thoroughly devastated by sin” (77; emphasis added). What, then, is grace restoring? On Allision unqualified view of the relation between nature and grace, there is nothing to restore because human nature in its fallen condition is, says Allison, “thoroughly devastated by sin” (77), and hence is essentially, irreclaimable. Human nature is just a corrupt vessel as a consequence of the fall into sin and hence it needs replacing by something entirely new by God’s grace. On this view, human nature is taken to be completely closed to God and hence as capable of nothing but sin, with the accompanying loss or destruction of natural reason’s response to the enduring structures of creation and general revelation.

In this connection, Allison’s epistemic supernaturalism appears to be a corollary of his understanding of sola Scriptura. He assures us that the principle of sola Scriptura does not mean Scripture alone, that is, scriptura nuda, “naked Scripture,” and hence it is not an anti-tradition or anti-creedal principle, but rather that “Scripture enjoys primary authority,” but “is not the only authority—indeed, the principle is not a rejection of other authorities” (92). Notwithstanding Allison’s claim about sola Scriptura, Scripture alone actually functions for him as a self-sufficient authority for Christian faith and thought. Of course, pace Allison, in fact, it isn’t Scripture alone that he uses as the standard of theological judgment, it is “Scripture and evangelical theology” (18; emphasis added), the latter refracted at times through, for example, a congregationalist ecclesiology (182, 192), Zwinglian sacramental theology (230; 243), and a particular understanding of the relation between grace and freedom (404n75).

Such an ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and understanding of grace and freedom are not held by all evangelicals. Evangelicals that are Lutheran or Reformed (or Catholic!) have either an episcopal or synodical/presbyterian form of church governance, take the universal church to be a visible, concrete, actual reality (170), rather than only local churches that are autonomous and self-governing congregations. These, adds Allison, “local churches are divinely designed to be the [only] instruments of salvation as their parents and members proclaim the gospel, disciple, worship, baptize, celebrate the Lord’s Supper, pray, educate, fellowship, provide care, exercise spiritual gifts, and the like” (169). Allison thinks that episcopal forms of church governance lead to the papacy and hence “departs from the sufficiency of Scripture because it is dependent on developments in the following centuries for its justification” (182). Of course, Presbyterian, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox—not to say, Catholic—would disagree that the only divinely designed instrument of salvation is the local church. The principle of sola Scriptura hasn’t overcome the theological differences on ecclesiology.

Furthermore, regarding Zwinglian sacramentology, as to the question of, not whether but how the sacraments are means of grace the Catholic tradition agrees with Calvin that the sacraments are the “pillars of our faith.”[32] Indeed, there is much that Reformed and Catholic theologies have in common when it comes to the doctrine of the sacraments. They agree that the sacraments are means of grace, rather than merely outward and empty signs.[33] In short, they agree that God really does impart his grace by sacramental means. They also agree, as Bavinck states, that God alone is the author, initiator, and efficient cause[34] of the sacraments.[35] On this question, according to Kuyper, “The Reformed stand with Rome, Luther, and Calvin against Zwingli in their adherence to a divine working of grace in the sacraments.”[36] Briefly, here, too, Allison acknowledges that “While one large segment of Protestant theology continued to embrace the sacraments as means of grace, another large segment moved to a view far removed from any notion of means of grace. Evangelical theology, therefore, encompasses these two positions” (243).

On the matter of grace and freedom, Allison acknowledges that “Evangelical theology embraces a number of views of human freedom, including libertarian freedom, dovetailing with indeterminism and with much overlap with Catholic theology’s position, and compatibilistic freedom, dovetailing with (soft) determinism” (404n75).

Clearly, the diversity of Evangelical positions on these matters and others is not, according to Allison, fellowship-dividing issues between Evangelicals. Conceding that point, however, makes it obvious that sola Scriptura does not settle the question of justified theological interpretations of these matters briefly sketched above.

Yet such a view – a perennial problem for any Protestant interpretation of Scripture –conflicts with one of the “solas” of Protestantism: “sola Scriptura (only Scripture), not Scripture and Tradition” (44). Be that as it may, evidence of my claim that Allison’s position on sola Scriptura is indistinguishable from scriptura nuda is clear from his judgment that Part III of the CCC that deals with the moral life in Christ, theological anthropology, moral theology, social and political dimensions of that life, the natural law, and much more, cannot be considered “definitive and binding.” Why? Because the claims made in Part III are “neither explicitly biblical nor explicitly unbiblical” (412; see also 404). Yes, Allison affirms that the views expressed there “may be welcomed as a possible contribution to discussions on corporate dimensions of human existence” (412). But that’s all they are being unable to be justified by Scripture alone. His “epistemic supernaturalism” is at work here. It is reflected in his ambivalence about the enduring structures of creation and about the reality of general revelation, which all these reflections purport to be grounded in. This is evident from his judgment that CCC’s teaching on the moral life in Christ is flawed because it lacks attention to “any explicit role of Scripture for Christian living.” This “criticism reflects what evangelical theology is known for –the Word of God and its authority, sufficiency, and necessity for life in Christ” (408). But Allison’s claim that the CCC’s teaching on the moral life in Christ lacks attention to “any explicit role of Scripture for Christian living” is inaccurate, not to say, false. Indeed, I am bewildered by his claim since CCC, Part III, Section Two, The Ten Commandments, devotes several hundred paragraphs (2052-2557) on the explicit role of Scripture for Christian living. Furthermore, CCC, Part I, Chapter Two, Article 3, recapitulates the teaching of Dei Verbum §§21-25 on the nature, scope, and necessity of biblical authority—prima Scriptura—in the Christian life.

Secondly, I turn now to Position II on Allison’s theology of nature and grace. Having opposed “the” evangelical theological view of nature and grace by insisting that it has been “thoroughly devastated by sin” and all that this claim entails about an unqualified opposition between nature and grace, Allison qualifies his claim about the discontinuity between nature and grace (48n36) by adding references to common grace and the distinction between structure and direction. He derives this idea of qualifying the discontinuity from De Chirico, which De Chirico himself gets from the Canadian neo-Calvinist theologian Albert Wolters, who posits and develops this distinction in his well-known book, Creation Regained (1985, 1st edition). The upshot of these distinctions is to limit the impact of the fall/sin upon nature (i.e., the structures of reality) such that the fall/sin disorders human nature but human nature itself, its deepest foundations, remained in place after the fall/sin. In other words, metaphysically speaking, what human nature lost because of the fall/sin was accidental, not substantial or essential to being a human being, for the fall/sin did not literally turn the human being into a different kind of creature. The distinction here is between substance/accident. Paul Helm appeals to this very distinction: “So there are essential features of being a human being–whatever they are–and also accidental features, those lost in the fall, and those restored in Christ.”[37] Indeed, Calvin himself appeals to this very distinction in his response to Albert Pighius, found in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will.[38] And this distinction is traceable to Augustine’s City of God, Book XIV, Chapter XI, which is applied by the CCC. Augustine writes: “The natures in which evil exists, in so far as they are natures, are good. And evil is removed, not by removing any nature, or part of a nature but by healing and correcting that which had been vitiated and depraved.” So, the essential feature of human nature remains the same, being primary, and hence sin is a secondary element (to use the language of De Chirico) such that it is accidental to human nature. Pace De Chirico, in this Augustinian perspective, the “negative effects [of sin] are therefore relativized.”[39] In sum, as Berkouwer argues:

Reformed theology has been particularly inclined to walk this road [of distinguishing substance and accident]. Calvin, for example, in his commentary on 2 Peter 3:10, distinguishes between substance and quality. The cleansing of heaven and earth ‘so that they may be fit for the kingdom of Christ’ is not a matter of annihilation, but a judgment in which something will remain. The things will be consumed ‘only in order to receive a new quality, while their substance remains the same’. According to Bavinck, the annihilation of substance is an impossibility, but the world, her appearance laid waste by sin, will vanish. There will not be a new, second creation, but a re-creation of what exists, a renaissance. Substantially, nothing will be lost.[40]

In a passage worth quoting in full from volume 4 of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, he succinctly describes this consummation and its substantial continuity with the original creation. This, too, is the position of the Catholic Church, as expressed in CCC.

All that is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable in the whole of creation, in heaven and on earth, is gathered up in the future city of God—renewed, re-created, boosted to its highest glory. The substance [of the city of God] is present in the creation. Just as the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, as carbon is converted into diamond, as the grain of wheat upon dying in the ground produces other grains of wheat, as all of nature revives in the spring and dresses up in celebrative clothing, as the believing community is formed out of Adam’s fallen race, as the resurrection body is raised from the body that is dead and buried in the earth, so too, by the re-creating power of Christ, the new heaven and the new earth will one day emerge from the fire-purged elements of this world, radiant in enduring glory and forever set free from the “bondage to decay” … [Rom. 8:21]. More glorious than this beautiful earth, more glorious than the earthly Jerusalem, more glorious even than paradise will be the glory of the new Jerusalem, whose architect and builder is God himself. The state of glory (status gloriae) will be no mere restoration (restauratie) of the state of nature (status naturae), but a re-formation that, thanks to the power of Christ, transforms all matter … into form, all potency into actuality (potential, actus), and presents the entire creation before the face of God, brilliant in unfading splendor and blossoming in a springtime of eternal youth. Sustantially nothing is lost.[41]

De Chirico and Allison are obliged to revise their thinking on the Church’s understanding of nature and grace in view of the similarities between the Reformed and Catholic tradition. For both traditions grace neither abolishes nature nor leave it untouched but rather transforms it from within its own order; and grace presupposes nature because it is “the very material through which grace works and for whose ultimate perfection grace itself exists.”[42]

What I just described above in my second point as Allison’s qualified view of the nature-grace continuum is, ironically, the position of the Catholic Church. Significantly, Allison does not bring his critique of the Catholic system’s axiom of a nature-grace continuum to bear on CCC’s exposition of marriage. Consider CCC 29, 400, 405, 407 where fall/sins impact upon the totality of human nature is described. Consider also CCC 1601-1605, where marriage is considered from the perspective of creation, fall/sin, and redemption, with redemption/grace restoring and renewing the fallen creation from within. By nature CCC understands the deepest foundations of human nature that remain in place after the fall, a nature that has been savagely wounded or seriously disturbed by the fall/sin, but still remains what God originally made them to be. In this light, we can easily understand the teaching of CCC on the relation between sin and nature:

According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully [in marriage] does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. . . . Nevertheless, the order of creation [of marriage] persists, though seriously disturbed. . . . In his mercy God has not forsaken sinful man. . . . After the fall, marriage helps to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one’s own pleasure, to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving.

De Chirico is right, according to CCC, that the fallen creation is “incapable of restoring the relationship [with God] in its own strength, nor is it even willing to do so.”[43] Furthermore, “In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original [i.e., creational, from the order of nature] meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning. . . . By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, [Jesus] himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God” (CCC, §1603, §§§1606-9, §§1614-15). Grace restores nature to function properly according to its divinely intended ends.

Marriage and family are, then, grounded in the order of creation, seriously disrupted by the fall into sin, integrally redeemed by salvation in Christ, and attain the fullness of redemption in Christ when creation reaches its final goal. Within this comprehensive scope is the Thomistic in­sight that grace restores nature rather than abolishes or leaves it untouched and hence that grace presupposes nature in order to build on it being the “very material in which grace works and for whose ultimate perfection grace itself exists.”[44] But also, forasmuch as grace’s restoration is not a mere recovery of the deepest foundations of created reality, in some sense those foundations are raised to a “higher level” in the eschatological consummation of God’s plan of salvation for the whole creation. The exact sense in which “the redemption by grace of created reality, the reforma­tion of nature, is not merely repristination, but raises the natural to a higher level than it originally occupied” is a hotly disputed matter, especially in Reformed and Catholic thought.[45] Berkouwer summarizes the disputed issue clearly:

The meaning and extent of redemption are the heart of the issue. Is God’s Kingdom something more than just a restoration of what has been lost? Is not the deepest meaning of the eschatological mystery this, that it will supersede and transcend the original created nature of man?… It is as if according to God’s intention the glory of creatureliness sets up certain boundaries that cannot be transgressed, and any effort to attribute something more to man in the eschaton runs against these boundaries. Those who defy these boundaries need to be reminded that it “does not yet appear what we shall be” (1 John 3:2). This remark by John sets the limit to our penetration of the eschatological mystery. When we speak of that mystery, then, we cannot, in the very nature of the case make a simple identification of end-time and original time.[46]

In this light, we can understand Henri de Lubac’s point about the essence of Christianity:

The supernatural does not merely elevate nature (this traditional term is correct, but it is inadequate by itself); it does not penetrate nature merely to help it prolong its momentum … and bring it to a successful conclusion. It transforms it.… ‘Behold, I make all things news!’ (Rev. 21:4). Christianity is ‘a doctrine of transformation because the Spirit of Christ comes to permeate the first creation and make of it a ‘new creature’.[47]

Thus, Allison and hence De Chirico are criticizing a straw man concerning the relationship between nature and grace. Their criticism of Catholicism from the standpoint (Position I) of an unqualified emphasis on sin and hence a discontinuity between nature and grace brings with it problems that I have critically discussed. But the qualification made by them (Position II) concerning the nature-grace continuum brings their position within the orbit of a Catholic theology of nature and grace, and consequently of CCC.

Christ-Church Interconnection: Prolonging the Incarnation

I turn now to the second principle of De Chirico’s hermeneutics of Catholicism: the Christ-Church interconnection concerning the unity of Christ and the Church in a single body such that the Catholic Church is the continuation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ (56). Hans Urs von Balthasar expresses this view: “The Church, in this perspective, is the broadest ‘incarnation [of the Logos] . . . since she has as her goal leading all of humanity to God’.”[48] Accordingly, says Allison, “the Church is a prolongation of the incarnation of the Son of God, mediating the grace of God to the world as the incarnate Christ mediated the divine grace to the world” (58). De Chirico calls the Christ-Church interconnection, with the Church’s role being that of a mediating agent, the “law of Incarnation.” Unlike Allison, De Chirico makes clear that the evangelical objection is not to this law as such. Indeed, he says,

A broadly defined law of Incarnation is something that belongs to every classic and orthodox form of Christianity and not exclusively to Roman Catholicism. While it is true that each tradition articulates differently its understanding of this law, the significance of the incarnation of the Son of God is generally thought of as being a divine-human act which is not reducible to a merely historical event. It is rather envisaged as the pattern for the Church to accomplish her mission so that the Christian gospel may be witnessed and practiced in concrete, embodied forms in real situations. Even the less sacramentally oriented Evangelical tradition would strongly uphold some kind of law of Incarnation resulting in a corresponding theology of mediation, even though it would interpret it in an utterly different way from Roman Catholicism.[49]

Although Allison neither explicitly refers to this important passage from De Chirico nor gives an endorsement of a “law of Incarnation,” something like it is evident from his claim “that the salvation accomplished by Christ, revealed through the gospel, is and must be applied in a continuous fashion is certainly true” (230). So, it isn’t clear at all why De Chirico and Allison object to the “law of Incarnation.” The Incarnation is about the Word of God, the eternal Son of the Father, becoming man. The “teleology of the Incarnation” (to borrow a term from Robert Sokolowski) moves to the sacrificial Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ. As De Chirico rightly notes in the above passage, this work of God is not an event that recedes into the past because it was meant to transform creation and history, indeed, the whole of life. Where then is their objection to the Catholic teleology of the Incarnation?

The crux of the objection is rooted in “the hermeneutic of the Ascension for the self-understanding of the Church.”[50] In other words, their interpretation of Christ’s ascension into heaven sees, according to De Chirico: “[A] stronger element of discontinuity between the pre-ascension enactment of the law associated with the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ and its post-ascension prolongation within the life of the Church. . . . So, the ascension is the Christological locus from which the two ecclesiological perspectives depart, developing into two divergent systems.” He explains:

The theological hermeneutic of the ascension has therefore a systemic value for it decides the paramount questions: what kind of embodiment of the law of Incarnation comes to an end with the departing of Jesus Christ from the earth and what kind of embodiment of the same law continues in the Church even after His departure? The Roman Catholic system looks at the ascension within the continuity of the pattern established with the Incarnation, even though it recognizes the newness of the post-ascension period of the same law. . . . The Evangelical system tends to view the ascension in more abrupt, radical ways in that it conceives it as the coming to an end of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ which cannot be extended or prolonged in any form because of its uniqueness within the economy of salvation and its once and for all soteriological significance.[51]

I think it is important here to see that the nature-grace interconnection and the Christ-Church interconnection are corollaries. Allison and De Chirico reject the latter because they reject the former. The latter is connected to the former in the following way. Allison quotes De Chirico: “Between the orders of nature and grace, a mediating subject is needed to represent nature to grace and grace to nature, so that nature will progressively and more fully be graced and grace will eventually achieve its final goal of elevating nature. That mediation is the theological raison d’etre . . . of the Roman Catholic Church and the chief role of the Church within the wider Roman Catholic system.”[52] Since I have already criticized their view of nature and grace above I won’t repeat my criticism here except to say that their view of the Ascension reinforces the discontinuity between nature and grace, resulting in their rejection of the Church as a mediator of grace.

Pared down for my purpose here, I’d like to concentrate on Allison’s total rejection of the idea that the Church is “the mediatorial agent between the grace of God and the world of nature (57; 194). This is not De Chirico’s view. He qualifies the rejection of “mediation” because there is, he says, “the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments.”[53] But insofar as De Chirico grants that grace comes to us through the meditation of the Church and through the preaching of the Word and the sacraments, he has no ground for making an in-principle objection to the Catholic doctrine of the “law of the Incarnation.” Still, he nevertheless rejects the ecclesiological claim of the Catholic Church that she is “the mediating agency between nature and grace.”[54] He adds, “The Roman Catholic Church stands in continuity with the Incarnation and is the new enactment of the law of Incarnation, being the post-ascension mediating agent which embodies the aspirations of nature to which the mission of grace is entrusted.”[55] Now, aside from Allison’s explicit rejection of Vatican II’s basic claim that the Catholic Church possesses “the fullness of the means of salvation” (175), the only other reason that I can see why he rejects the idea that the Church mediates grace is because he, like De Chirico, is deeply distressed by the tendency of substituting “‘the church in the place of its absent Lord’” (Michael Horton cited by Allison, 65).[56] But ecclesial mediation is, according to CCC, analogical and participatory, and hence not the primary source of grace, not even when it comes to the sacraments, but only an instrumental means of grace. As Berkouwer rightly understands, “God is the cause of grace, as causa principalis, and . . . he is this causa principalis in the sacraments as causa instrumentalis. . . . Ultimately God, as causa principalis, is the worker of grace.”[57] De Chirico completely ignores this distinction between causes and the fundamental point that the sacraments do not communicate grace in themselves and apart from God. Although he pays some attention to “analogy,” he doesn’t take seriously CCC’s understanding of the Church’s Christological consciousness, in other words, her awareness that the Catholic Church is the Church “of Christ”: Lumen gentium cum sit Christus” (LG §1). As Marc Cardinal Ouellet explains the teaching of Lumen Gentium and hence of CCC:

The light of nations [lumen gentium] is Christ and not the Church, but this light shines on the Church’s countenance. This Christological consciousness is expressed in the first paragraph of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, when it uses the term “sacramentum” to express the relationship between the visible reality of the Church and the invisible mystery–“mysterion”—of God in Christ: “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (LG §1).[58]

Furthermore, their emphasis on discontinuity between Christ and the Church, Christ and the world, raises the question of how to maintain the dialectic between Christ’s presence and absence in the Church given his Ascension, and, with it, the proper relation between the Church and the world, Christ and culture, and, in consequence, nature and grace. The following brevity of my critical comments, are intended only to begin the ecumenical conversation of addressing these questions.

The Catholic tradition agrees that “since the Ascension God’s plan [of salvation] has entered into its fulfillment” (CCC, §670). The teleology of the Incarnation, of God’s plan of salvation, comes to fulfillment in the Ascension of Jesus Christ because by the “irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory” (CCC, §659), his Ascension not only “truly affirms our humanity in Christ,” but also “completes the formation of man and perfects his image in man. In bearing our humanity home to the Father, Jesus brings human nature as such to its true end and to its fullest potential in the Holy Spirit.”[59] Furthermore, the Ascension of Jesus Christ invites us to consider that “Christ’s Ascension into heaven signifies his participation, in his humanity, in God’s power and authority.” That is, “Jesus Christ is Lord: he possesses all power in heaven and earth. He is ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion’, for the Father has put all things under his feet’ [Eph 1:20-22]. Christ is the Lord of the cosmos and of history. In him human history and indeed all creation are ‘set forth’ and transcendently fulfilled [Eph 1:10; cf. Eph 4:10; 1 Cor 15:24, 27-28]” (CCC, §668). When Allison and De Chirico are criticizing Catholicism from the standpoint of a unqualified emphasis on sin and hence a discontinuity between nature and grace, they miss out theologically on this understanding of the Ascension. By contrast, their qualified view is open to this interpretation. The Catholic view of nature and grace as I sketched it above fits well with this understanding of the Ascension. For the understanding of nature and grace presupposed in this view is none other than Aquinas’s teaching that grace perfects nature, neither abolishing nor suppressing nature, or leaving it untouched, but rather elevating as well as perfecting or completing it from within its own order.

Moreover, the Catholic view is that the teleology of the Incarnation involves the prolongation of the Incarnation, not only in the words of Sacred Scripture, God’s verbal revelation, and in its proclamation, but also in the sacramental actions of the Church because those actions are, as Allison rightly sees but categorically rejects, “instruments of grace that operate concretely through these visible means” (230; 245). This is a result of the influence of Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) on Allison; Zwingli sees the sacraments as a mere outward or empty sign (nudum signum), implying the exclusion of grace from the sacrament. Bavinck describes the position of Zwinglians, “True, the sacraments visibly represent the benefits that believers have received from God, but they do this as confessions of our faith and do not impart grace.”[60] I qualify the confessional roots of Zwingli’s rejection of the sacraments as means of grace because, as Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper rightly noted: “The Reformed stand with Rome, Luther, and Calvin against Zwingli in their adherence to a divine working of grace in the sacraments.”[61] Allison recognizes this difference between himself as an Evangelical Zwinglian and “one large segment of Protestant theology” (243), but he appears uninterested in taking up the convergence between Rome and the Reformed tradition as an opportunity for ecumenical dialogue and for a new perspective in the Rome/Reformation controversy regarding the sacraments. Berkouwer, for one, took up this ecumenical challenge in his 1954 extraordinary work, The Sacraments, as do the last half-century of bi-lateral ecumenical dialogues between the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the various confessional traditions of Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed. Given the complex nature of sacramental theology, I can only highlight a couple of the most significant aspects of the fruits of this ecumenical dialogue that Allison would have benefited from in his evangelical assessment of Catholic theology.

For instance, Allison emphasizes that, according to Catholic sacramental theology, the sacramental efficacy of grace, in fact, “the ground of its validity . . . of the sacraments” is “ex opere operato” (244), which literally means “by the very fact of the action’s being performed. “Their validity is completely attached to their sign, which is virtuous or powerful in and of itself” (244). Given Allison’s Zwinglian sacramental theology, he rejects the Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic teaching that sacraments confer divine grace, but also holds “the question of their validity ex opere operato [to be] a moot one” (245).

Allison is wrong here on several counts regarding the dissimilarity between the Reformed theology of the sacraments and Catholic sacramental theology (244-245). First, Berkouwer argues that the Reformed objection to ex opere operato (“by the work performed” or “by force of the action itself”) should not be posed in term of sacramental efficacy. The question is not whether the sacraments are objectively efficacious but rather how they exercise their efficacy.[62] This, too, is Bavinck’s view, and, arguably, the view of Calvin and Luther. If so, therefore, the difference between Reformed and Catholic sacramentology is not at all over the real, objective efficacy of the sacraments, wherein the visible sign is not only expressive but also effective in communicating grace. But rather it is over, says Berkouwer, “a totally different understanding of what efficacy is.”[63]

Second, Allison misinterprets ex opere operato as leading to a view of the sacraments “as being mechanical, impersonal, and effective apart from faith and obedience” (245). His misreading stems from ignoring the explicitly stated Christological foundation of ex opere operato in CCC. Christ’s primary role in the sacraments is foundational: “They [sacraments] are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. . . . This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato . . . by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all” (§§1127-1128). Allison cites §1127 but fails to see its meaning for properly understanding ex opere operato.

Furthermore, because Allison confuses the crucial difference between principle cause and instrumental cause, with God as the ultimate cause of grace, such that in themselves and apart from God they would not communicate grace, he separates “the power working in the sacraments from their primary fountain, and looked upon them as working of themselves.”[64] No wonder that readings, such as Allison’s, lead to the charge that Catholic sacramentology suffers from sacramental automaton, ritualism, juridicism, cheap grace, a deistic view of “ex opere operato,” such that the sacraments are divorced from their Christological foundation, that is, “from their proper and sole source, namely from Christ, the true and only giver of grace, and gives them an independent status.”[65] In this light, we can understand why even Edward Schillebeeckx speaks of the very view that Allison rejects as “the headless corpse of sacramentalism,” [66] meaning thereby that the sacraments have been severed from the “Christological foundation of the ex opere operato efficacy.”[67]

Third, returning now to the teleology of the Incarnation in the sacramental actions of the Church and the bearing of the Ascension, in particular, upon the Eucharist, the Catholic teaching is that this teleology is “completed in the Eucharistic continuation of the presence of Christ in the world. The Eucharist is the sacramental extension of the Incarnation.”[68] Eucharistic Presence, the Catholic teaching that Christ is “truly, really, and substantially present” in the Eucharist, is rejected by Allison because it is “grounded on the axiom of the Christ-Church interconnection,” and this axiom presupposes “a defective view of the ascension” (317). If Christ is ascended into heaven, how could it be meaningfully said that he is present “body and blood, soul and divinity” under the species of bread and wine in the Eucharist? He can’t really be present, according to Allison, except symbolically and spiritually.

Given the limitations of this article, I can’t enter here into Berkouwer’s critique of the specious dilemma of symbol or reality in Reformed sacramentology. Berkouwer defends Reformed version of “Real Presence” in the Eucharist, affirms the sacramental significance of the signs of bread and wine and the connection between them and that which is signified, namely, the body and blood of Christ, resulting then in the defense of “sacramental realism.” This results in his definitive rejection of understanding Christ’s presence as merely a spiritual presence. Allison ignores Berkouwer on this matter of Catholic sacramentology and his ecumenical dialogue from the standpoint of a Reformed sacramentology. In particular, Berkouwer—unlike Allison—takes seriously the fundamental question that informs Berkouwer’s dialogue with Catholics: what “grounds the conjunction between the sign and the signified firmly in the acts of God.” Berkouwer’s answer to this question advances the discussion between Catholics and Reformed Christians by moving beyond the place where Allison is still stuck. Says Berkouwer, “This is to reject the automatic conjunction which depersonalizes the sacrament, but also to reject the notion of the mere sign in itself, for through the Spirit because of its institution by God the sign is full of efficacy with respect to faith. That is why the per sacramentum and the cum sacramentum can be accepted simultaneously without involving us in contradictions.”[69]

Furthermore, Berkouwer advances the ecumenical dialogue on sacramentology, particularly, the fundamental matter of Eucharistic presence because he understands that the crux of the matter between Catholic and Reformed sacramentology “is not a difference between praesentia realis or not, but a difference regarding the mode of this presence.”[70] Allison overlooks this matter. This is particularly the case in regard to Allison’s criticism that Catholics have a defective view of the Ascension. In particular, Berkouwer argues against views like those of Allison that the eschatological expectation of the return of Christ is not obscured by this presence already realized. Berkouwer writes,

It is no exaggeration to say that the controversy about the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper ultimately comes down to a different insight into the significance of the return of Christ and the significance of the eschatological orientation of faith. This does not mean that speaking of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper automatically implies a danger to eschatological expectation, to the “not yet.” If that were the case, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed would agree on this point, for they all speak of a presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Hence everything depends on the manner of Christ’s presence in the Supper.[71]

Pace Allison, what this means is that the Eucharistic mode of Christ’s presence is itself eschatological, the “already” of the promised presence in absence, which is the “not yet” of the future still to come.

Finally, I conclude by returning briefly to the understanding of nature and grace that Allison and De Chirico defend in the contrast they make with the alleged nature-grace interconnection in Catholicism. Recall that they emphasize discontinuity between nature and grace because of sin, and hence they seem left with a rupture between Christ and the Church, Christ and the world, and hence nature and grace. Their presuppositions, arguably, are incompatible with the “substantial conversion” of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Eucharistic presence cannot be thought of without a real and, in this sense, ontological change of bread and wine in a sacramental form. As Edward Schillebeeckx put it, “The affirmation of the Eucharistic presence is so closely bound up with the affirmation of a real change of bread and wine that the affirmation of this change is the concrete content of the dogmatic statement—the real Tridentine dogma as an affirmation of reality.”[72] Of course the Aristotelian-Thomist concepts of substance and accidents do not belong to the content of faith, and neither the Church in general or Trent in particular claims that it does.

Although Christ’s Real Presence has been affirmed through the ages when the Church spoke of a real or substantial change of the bread and wine in connection with the Eucharist, this does not preclude a certain dogmatic development of Eucharistic doctrine between the Patristics and the Mediaevals, such as Aquinas, on the nature of real presence. This development includes the concept of transubstantiation that entered the dogmatic discussion with the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, an account of the mode of Christ’s Eucharistic presence that was later fully developed by Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae III, written in 1272, and then affirmed by the Council of Trent.

I cannot enter here into a critique of Allison claims concerning the concept of transubstantiation (316-319) except to say that just as the development of Trinitarian dogma’s introduction of the concept of homoousios (“of the same substance”) was controversial when used by the Council of Nicea to define the oneness of being of the Son with the Father, so too the concept of transubstantiation has generated conflict in the attempt to safeguard the Church’s faith in the Eucharistic presence. That is, Christ is truly, really, and substantially present, in the sacramental giving of himself, such that he identified himself, his person, and hence also his body and blood, in the change the Church calls transubstantiation, with the signs of bread and wine, rather than taking the latter to be mere tokens of his sacrificial death. As Sokolowski puts it,

This fact [of identification] is brought out by a remarkable comment of St. Thomas, who observes that in the Eucharistic Prayer Christ is quoted not as saying, ‘This bread is my body’, but ‘This is my body’. If Christ had said ‘this bread” was his body, then the thing referred to would still be bread, but the simple demonstrative pronoun ‘this’ without a noun implies that it is not bread any longer.[73]

Denying this substantial change entails the denial of the bodily presence of the glorified Christ and hence of Christ’s sacramental presence. Furthermore, pace Allison, rightly understood, transubstantiation is an eschatological concept—a sacramental parousia because the fallen creation “already shares in the eschatological situation of the glorified corporeality [of the body and blood of Christ].” Schillebeeckx continues:

But we are still in the ‘already now’ and ‘not yet’ that characterizes the period of salvation between the resurrection and the parousia, and the consecrated bread and wine therefore still belong, in their new meaning as ‘new creation’ of the order of salvation, to ‘this old world’ also. For this reason, transubstantiation contains two dimensions—a change of being of the bread and wine (in which Christ’s glorified body is really offered through the Holy Spirit), but within the terrestrial, but now (through this change of being) sacramental form of bread and wine, which remain subject, in this secular world, to the terrestrial laws of corporeality. Transubstantiation thus has two dimensions of one and the same undivided reality. This is the essential meaning of the dogma.”[74]

The Eucharist is, of its very nature, an event of the period between the resurrection and the Parousia, a period during which earthly realities become historical manifestations of the gift of grace here and now and—in the sacramental liturgy, within the mystery of the Church’s community of grace led by its office; that is, especially in the Eucharist—are withdrawn from their secular independence, their “being themselves,” to the extent of becoming the sacramental form in which the heavenly bodiliness of Christ himself—that is, of his real presence for me—appears. . . . It is, of course, a sacramental earthly presence, due to Christ’s real act of making himself present in the gift of holy bread placed at the disposal of all who wish to approach this sacrament in faith. For this reason, the true reality in the Eucharist is no longer bread, but simply the body and blood of Christ in a sacramental form.[75]

In conclusion, aside from Schillebeeckx’s attempt to deflect the criticism that the dogma of transubstantiation presupposes a defective view of the Ascension, we also get a glimpse here into the argument that transubstantiation presupposes the concept of grace transforming and fulfilling nature, with Christ’s real presence being a foretaste of the new creation. What then is essential to the dogma of Eucharistic presence is an ontological depth or density in which the substantial conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ “introduces within creation the principle of a radical change,” according to Benedict XVI, “a sort of ‘nuclear fission’, to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all.”[76]

I began this article emphasizing the importance of the ecumenical imperative. I conclude then with a word from Berkouwer, the Reformed master of dogmatics and ecumenical theology in the twentieth-century: “The very mystery of the Church invites, rather compels us, to ask about the perspective ahead for the difficult way of estrangement and rapprochement, of dialogue, contact, controversy, and for the ecumenical striving to overcome the divisions of the Church.”[77]

[1] Vatikaans Concilie en Nieuwe Theologie (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1964). ET: The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, Translated by Lewis Smedes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 250.

[2] Roman Catholic Theology & Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014), Pp. 493.

[3] Eduardo Echeverria, Berkouwer and Catholicism, Disputed Questions (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2013). Studies in Reformed Theology, Vol. 24.

[4] Indeed, Allison does “not claim to speak for all evangelicals or to represent the many versions of evangelical theology; given the expansive nature of evangelicalism, no one person and no one particular theological swath can accomplish that task” (18). Yet, despite his disclaimer, Allison persists in speaking for “evangelical theology” throughout his book.

[5] Berkouwer, The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, 254.

[6] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, 1995, Ut unum sint, §§28, 47, respectively.

[7] “Towards a Common Understanding of the Church,” in Deepening Communion, International Documents with Roman Catholic Participation, Edited by William G. Rusch and Jeffrey Gros (Washington, D.C.: United State Catholic Conference, 1998), 179-229, and at 187.

[8] John Paul II, Ut unum sint, §79, gives the following as examples of issues that need further ecumenical dialogue: “1) the relationship between Sacred Scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and Sacred Tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God; 2) the Eucharist, as the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, an offering of praise to the Father, the sacrificial memorial and Real Presence of Christ and the sanctifying outpouring of the Holy Spirit; 3) Ordination, as a Sacrament, to the threefold ministry of the episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate; 4) the Magisterium of the Church, entrusted to the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him, understood as a responsibility and an authority exercised in the name of Christ for teaching and safeguarding the faith; [and] 5) the Virgin Mary, as Mother of God and Icon of the Church, the spiritual Mother who intercedes for Christ’s disciples and for all humanity.”

[9] I think the same must be said of the little study of Leonardo De Chirico, Papacy, Its Origin and Role in the 21st Century (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2015). On the fruits of these dialogues, see the study by Walter Cardinal Kasper, Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue (London: Bloomsbury, 2009).

[10] John Paul II, Ut unum sint, §6. The quote within the quote is from the Decree on Ecumenism, §1.

[11] “Towards a Common Understanding of the Church,” 187.

[12] John Paul II, Ut unum sint, §13.

[13] I am grateful to Fr. Thomas Guarino, Seton Hall University, for helping me to formulate this dilemma. I consider a solution to this dilemma—again, with his help—in my recent book, Pope Francis. The Legacy of Vatican II (Lectio Publishing, 2015), 145-181.

[14] There is also a chapter on Dei Verbum in G. C. Berkouwer, Nabetrachting op het Concilie (Kampen: Kok, 1968). This is Berkouwer’s second book on Vatican II, but it remains untranslated.

[15] Furthermore, see Aidan Nichols, O.P., two volume commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church: The Splendour of Doctrine, I, On Christian Believing; The Service of Glory, II, On Worship, Ethics, Spirituality (T&T Clark, 1995, 1997, respectively).

[16] John Paul II, Ut unum sint, §24.

[17] John Paul II, Ut unum sint, §28.

[18] John Paul II, Ut unum sint, §29.

[19] John Paul II, Ut unum sint, §41.

[20] John Paul II, Ut unum sint, §§28, 47, respectively.

[21] John Paul II, Ut unum sint, §84.

[22] G.C. Berkouwer, De Kerk, Vol. I, Eenheid en Katholiciteit (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1970, 91n130. ET: The Church, Translated by James E. Davidson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 74n71.

[23] Berkouwer, The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, 30.

[24] Berkouwer, The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, 254.

[25] Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003). Vol. 19, Religions and Discourse, Edited by James M.M. Francis.

[26] De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives, 237.

[27] For example, William Lane Craig, “God is not Dead Yet: How current philosophers argue for his existence,” Christianity Today, Jul3, 2008, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/july/13.22.html.

[28] Encyclopaedie der Heilige Godgeleerdheid, II, 254-255; see also 227, 231. ET: Principles of Sacred Theology, 301-302; see also 275, 279. Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, I, 290-291. ET: Reformed Dogmatics, I, 318-319.

[29] The Canons of Dort (1618-1619), in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, Vol. 4, 1600-1693, Complied with Introduction by James T. Dennision Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 120-153, and at 135, Article 4, Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine.

[30] CCC cites in the note attached to this quotation from Pius XII, references to Vatican I, Dei Filius 2; Vatican II, Dei Verbum 6, and St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, I, I. For an in depth study of the issues raised here, see Echeverria, Berkouwer and Catholicism, 110-272.

[31] Thomas Guarino, Foundations of Systematic Theology (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 269.

[32] Calvin, Institutes, IV, XIV, 6: “We might refer to other similitudes, by which sacraments are more plainly designated, as when they are called the pillars of our faith. For just as a building stands and leans on its foundation, and yet is rendered more stable when supported by pillars, so faith leans on the word of God as its proper foundation, and yet when sacraments are added leans more firmly, as if resting on pillars. Or we may call them mirrors, in which we may contemplate the riches of the grace which God bestows upon us. For then, as has been said, he manifests himself to us in as far as our dullness can enable us to recognize him, and testifies his love and kindness to us more expressly than by word.”

[33] The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) sees the sacraments as a mere outward or empty sign (nudum signum), implying the exclusion of grace from the sacrament. Bavinck describes the position of Zwinglians, “True, the sacraments visibly represent the benefits that believers have received from God, but they do this as confessions of our faith and do not impart grace” (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek IV, 448 [470]. For Luther’s rejection of Zwinglians or Anabatists, as he also called them, see his The Large Catechism, Translated by Robert H. Fischer (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), Fourth Part: Baptism, 80-101.

[34] God is the principal efficient cause and the sacraments are examples of instrumental efficient causality. On this distinction and its sacramental import, see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q. 62, a. 1, ad 1, ad 2; and q. 62, a. 5.

[35] Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek IV, 451 [474].

[36] Cited by Berkouwer, De Sacramenten (Kampen: J.H.Kok, 1954), 101-102. Translated by Hugo Bekker as The Sacraments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 84.

[37] Faith, Form, and Fashion, Classical reformed Theology and its Postmodern Critics (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 28.

[38] See Bondage and Liberation of the Will, 2.263 (at n. 58), 264 (at nn. 63, 65), 284 (at n. 213), 290 (at n. 259); 4.331 (at n. 45); 5.361 (at n. 100); 6.381 (at n. 59). Wederkomst van Christus, I [Kampen: Kok, 1961], 279. Translated by James van Oosterom as The Return of Christ [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972], 225).

[39] De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives, 236.

[40] G. C. Berkouwer, Wederkomst van Christus, I (Kampen: Kok, 1961), 279. Translated by James van Oosterom as The Return of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 225.

[41] Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 4 (Kampen: Kok, 1901), 702. ET: John Bolt, ed., Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 720, see also editor’s note, 697.

[42] In the words of the Anglican Thomist, E.L. Mascall, The Openness of Being, Natural Theology Today, Gifford Lectures, 1970-1971 (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 1971), 153.

[43] De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives, 237.

[44] Mascall, The Openness of Being, 153.

[45] For this quote, see Jan Veenhof, “Nature and Grace in Bavinck,” Pro Rege June 2006, 10–31, and at 22; see also Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 4 (Kampen: Kok, 1901), 702. ET: John Bolt, ed., Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 720, see also editor’s note, 697.

[46] G.C. Berkouwer, Wederkomst van Christus, II, 267–68; ET: 449-450.

[47] Henri de Lubac, A Brief Catechesis on Nature & Grace (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 81.

[48] H. U. von Balthasar, Parole et mystère chez Origène (Paris: Cerf, 1957), 51, as cited by Marc Cardinal Ouellet, Mystery and Sacrament of Love, Translated by Michelle K. Borras and Adrian J. Walker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 27.

[49] De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives, 250.

[50] De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives, 275.

[51] De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives, 275-276. See also, Allison, 64-65.

[52] De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives, 249. See also, Allison, 56.

[53] De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives, 248.

[54] De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives, 249.

[55] De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives, 249.

[56] I engage Michael Horton on claims like this and others that he makes against Catholicism in my article, “Revelation, Faith, and Tradition: Catholic Ecumenical Dialogue,” Calvin Theological Journal 49 (2014): 25-62.

[57] Berkouwer, De Sacramenten; ET: 65.

[58] Marc Cardinal Ouellet, Mystery and Sacrament of Love, 24.

[59] Douglas Farrow, Ascension Theology (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2011), xii, 122.

[60] Gereformeerde Dogmatiek IV, 448 [ET: 470]. For Luther’s rejection of Zwinglians or Anabaptists, as he also called them, see his The Large Catechism, Fourth Part: Baptism, 80-101.

[61] Cited by Berkouwer, The Sacraments , 84.

[62] For Berkouwer’s defense of sacramental efficacy but not ex opere operato, see The Sacraments, 13-26, 56-89. See also, G.C. Berkouwer, “Ex Opere Operato,” Part I, Gereformeerd Theologisch Tijdschrift 53 (No. 3-1953): 78-88; idem., “Ex Opere Operato,” Part II, Gereformeerd Theologisch Tijdschrift 53 (No. 4-1953): 93-103. So, too, Herman Bavinck, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 19 (2008; [1887]): 127-142, and at 132: “With this objective view of the sacrament, Calvin stands decidedly on the side of Rome and the Lutherans. . . . [Calvin] can hardly find words strong enough to express his conviction concerning the real, essential, genuine presence of Christ’s own flesh and of his own blood in the Lord’s Supper. He declares explicitly that the issue between him and his Roman Catholic and Lutheran opponents involves only the manner of that presence” (132).

[63] Berkouwer, The Sacraments, 62.

[64] Johann Adam Möhler, Symbolism, Translated by J.B. Robertson (New York: Crossroad Herder Book, 1997 [1832]), 218n2.

[65] Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism, Translated by Dom Justin McCann, O.S.B. (Steubenville, Ohio: Franciscan University Press, 1996 [1929]), 27.

[66] Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., Christus Sacrament van de Godsontmoeting, Achtste druk (Bilthoven: H. Nelissen, 1966 [1959]). Translated by Paul Barrett, O.P., et al, as Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (Oxford/Toronto: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1963). Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God, 88n60. This note, indeed, the whole appendix, “St. Thomas’ Christological Interpretation of Sacramental Ex Opere Operato Causality” (82-89), is not present in the original Dutch edition.

[67] Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God, 85.

[68] Robert Sokolowski, “Phenomenology and the Eucharist,” in Christian Faith & Human Understanding (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2006), 72. Hans Urs von Balthasar echoes this Catholic point: “Only the Eucharist really completes the Incarnation” (Theo-Drama, IV, Translated by Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994 [1980]), 338-351, and at 348).

[69] Berkouwer, The Sacraments, 87-88.

[70] Berkouwer, The Sacraments, 223.

[71] Berkouwer, The Sacraments, 236.

[72] The Eucharist, translated by N.D. Smith [New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968], 75-76.

[73] Sokolowski, “The Eucharist and Transubstantiation,” in Christian Faith & Human Understanding, 105-106.

[74] The Eucharist, 83.

[75] The Eucharist, 84-85.

[76] Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, February 22, 2007, Sacramentum caritatis, §11.

[77] The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, 249.


Tags: Ecclesiology, Ecumenicism, Grace, Reformed Theology, Sacraments, Unity

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  1. The purpose of Allison’s book wasn’t to forward the a false unity that is presented in ECT, it was to go through the Catechism and expose the faulty axioms of Roam Catholicism. He puts forward his arguments in a winsome respectful way. But if you expected this book to be a rubber stamp on Catholic doctrine, it is a criticism of it.

  2. Kevin,

    Eduardo acknowledged that Allison’s book was more an excercise in Protestant apologetics than an attempt to find [more] common ground with Catholics. His criticisms of Allison are not founded on the supposition that the latter was supposed to “rubber stamp” Catholic doctrine. Rather, the main problems, on my reading of this article, are that Allison fails to engage the budding ecumenical aspect of Catholic–Protestant relations and that he significantly misunderstands or overlooks actual Catholic doctrine regarding the relation between (1) nature and grace and (2) Christ and the Church.

  3. Hi Andrew, hope you are well, yes I would say that Eduardo was even handed in His assessment and I do agree that Allison’s book was more of a critique on Roman Catholic doctrine than an attempt to find more common ground. Although, i read it and I would say it was more of a straight forward distinction about two different religions. I really believe that the best way to find common ground with Catholics is to be honest with them, or we should be honest with each other. You know Andrew tolerance can tolerate everything but intolerance. False teaching in whatever discipline always cries disunity and intolerance. For Protestants, and I think Allison’s book is a step toward this, we must tell Catholics that we believe their system can’t save them and make the arguments why in love. After ECT, Protestants I believe finally realize that either we approach Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ and co laborers, or as a mission field. For me its simple, Roman Catholicism is a false Christianity and those who follow that system aren’t saved. It comes down to this, are Christ’s merits applied to us through faith alone, or do we merit the merit of Christ. They ain’t the same. I agree with Horton that Catholics are saying the merits of Christ aren’t sufficient, we must smuggle our character into God’s work of grace. The gospel isn’t ” go out and do your part”. We can see this in the Lord’s supper. Either its a gift of God, a commemoration, and a remembrance of the one sacrifice that is a blanket across history, or its a place where we go to merit increase of grace and justice. Im sure you would agree Andrew they aint the same. Either a sacrament is free grace for the weak thru faith, or merit for the strong, not the same. Thats I look at Allison’s book as a loving gesture to Catholics by lovingly drawing distinctions. I thought his best argument was Passover, the Jews deserved exactly what the Egyptians got, but God passed over them, forensic, they didn’t know about sanctifying grace or it wasn’t a renovation project to be justified. Anyway, do you agree Andrew that we should be forthright about our differences? I thought Eduardo was, although I disagree with most all His points. Allison said when man sinned creation, was corrupted and fallen. Adam got kicked out of the garden, Jesus came to His own and they rejected Him, and someday God will destroy fallen creation. Grace isn’t embodied in nature, but comes from heaven supernaturally. We are called new creations. I look forward to your response and I hope all those at Called to communion are well. God bless Kevin

  4. Kevin,

    I have not read Allison’s book, so I’ll not comment on it. Suffice to say, criticisms of other positions can be helpful if pursued in the proper spirit, informed by facts and evidence, and conducted according to reason. (After all, the above article is quite critical of Allison’s book, and this website features many other posts criticizing various aspect of Protestantism.) As to your own comments and questions, my thoughts are:

    1. Whether one thinks that Catholic–Protestant interaction ought to be primarily or even exclusively either evangelistic or ecumenical, it is vitally important to understand and accurately present the other position, especially on points where there is disagreement, the temptation being, in such cases, to set up straw men. For example: As much as possible, one should present his interlocutors position in the words the interlocutor himself has used to describe his position, not substituting glosses in scare quotes and the like.

    2. Regarding the Catholic position on merit, see the article “The Doctrine of Merit: Feingold, Calvin, and the Church Fathers” for some explanation.

    3. Regarding the Catholic doctrine of justification, see the articles under that topic on this website, here (you’ll have to scroll down just a bit to the subsection “Justification”).

    4. For further discussion on grace and nature, in addition to Eduardo’s remarks in the above article, see Lawrence Feingold’s lectures and Bryan’s accompanying outlines on the same, collected on this website following the “Justification” subsection of our Index.

    Of course, I do not expect you to read / listen to all that all at once. These are mentioned as resources and forums for understanding and further discussion, as time allows and opportunity arises.

    Finally, I agree with the author of this article that Protestant–Catholic dialogue, according to principles accepted by both parties, ought to be fundamentally a dialogue of love, therefore having an ecumenical dimension whose end is unity in truth, whatever else may be the case. I do agree that we should be forthright about our differences, so long as “forthright” is compatible with and subservient to the overarching goal of unity in truth motivated by, pursued in, and culminating with charity (1 Corinthians 13).

  5. Dear Kevin, My remarks to your second response will be brief. First, I think you need to read carefully the section on the nature and grace relationship (as well as my discussion of the Christ-Church relationship and the import of the Ascension). I don’t think you understand the Catholic position on that relationship. I argued that Allison really supports two positions. Position I: when he criticizes what he alleges is the Catholic view, he emphasizes the discontinuity between nature and grace such that nature (the structures of reality, including man) is simply a corrupt vessel that needs to be replace altogether by something new. So, on this position, grace has nothing to work with in nature because of its corruptness. So, on this view grace doesn’t restore or renew nature from within according to its divinely intended ends. I don’t think you understand the implications of this view given that you say “someday God will destroy creation.” I don’t think that is biblical, and certainly not the historic Reformed and Evangelical teaching–which I make clear in my article. Actually, neither does Allison (and De Chirico) think so since he qualifies the impact of the fall upon nature by appealing to common grace and the distinction between structure and direction. I argued that this second position comes within the orbit of a Catholic theology of nature and grace. May I respectfully suggest that you read that section over again carefully. Furthermore, concerning your point that Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism (which version of evangelicalism since even Allison holds that there are differences among evangelicals on grace and freedom, the sacraments, ecclesiology, and I showed that in my article) are different religions, well, not even Allison holds that view since he knows that Catholics and evangelicals hold the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds in common. So, I don’t know what you mean by “two different religions.” Yes, there are differences on the question pertaining to the relationship between justification and sanctification, but even there ecumenical dialogues between the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and Protestant traditions, such as Methodist, Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans for the last fifty years have made progress in convergence on this question. In fact, my criticism of Allison is that he completely ignores these authentic ecumenical dialogues and their fruits in documents. This brings me to my last point: the only worthy ecumenism is an ecumenism of conviction, not a common denominator ecumenicity. “Authentic ecumenism is a gift at the service of truth,” said John Paul II. By the way, the Catholic Church holds that Jesus Christ is the full and sufficient cause of our salvation–so not a system, whatever that means. May God bless you in Christ, my brother in Christ.

  6. Eduardo, thanks for your careful response. Just one question , you said my statement ” sone day God will destroy creation” isn’t biblical. Are you saying that God will not destroy the present world by fire? Will He not bring a new heavens and new earth? Will He not send unredeemed people to hell? Please explain. Certainly your not making the argument that creation hasn’t fallen and isn’t corrupted. We are no longer in the garden? Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden and the gates were guarded by fire and cherubim if I’m not mistaken. Creation was creation was altered forever. So the fact that God’s grace flows through created things is false. Grace comes from heaven through the Spirit of God. It is a person offered, not a derivative off that person. We are incorporated into Christ’s body through the Spirit, not the flesh. Rome’s brand of incarnationalism was considered idolatry in the early church. Let me thank you ahead of time Eduardo for a good discussion in love. Ill await your response. K

  7. Thanks, Kevin. My response this time will be even more brief. The Book of Revelation (21:5) tells us that Jesus Christ, since it is he who sits upon the throne, says, “I am making everything new.” My position as to what this means is the same as the Dutch Reformed theologian of the late 19th and early 20th century, the great Herman Bavinck: “All that is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable in the whole of creation, in heaven and on earth, is gathered up in the future city of God—renewed, re-created, boosted to its highest glory. The substance [of the city of God] is present in the creation. Just as the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, as carbon is converted into diamond, as the grain of wheat upon dying in the ground produces other grains of wheat, as all of nature revives in the spring and dresses up in celebrative clothing, as the believing community is formed out of Adam’s fallen race, as the resurrection body is raised from the body that is dead and buried in the earth, so too, by the re-creating power of Christ, the new heaven and the new earth will one day emerge from the fire-purged elements of this world, radiant in enduring glory and forever set free from the “bondage to decay” … [Rom. 8:21]. More glorious than this beautiful earth, more glorious than the earthly Jerusalem, more glorious even than paradise will be the glory of the new Jerusalem, whose architect and builder is God himself. The state of glory (status gloriae) will be no mere restoration (restauratie) of the state of nature (status naturae), but a re-formation that, thanks to the power of Christ, transforms all matter … into form, all potency into actuality (potential, actus), and presents the entire creation before the face of God, brilliant in unfading splendor and blossoming in a springtime of eternal youth. Sustantially nothing is lost.” I judge this to be the biblical view of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation; and this is not only the Reformed view but also the Catholic view. Hence, the Catholic view is not the position I discussed in my article as Position I, but it is more like Allison’s Position II. Read those sections of my article where I discuss these matters. Of course God’s grace flows through the fallen structures in the sense of renewing, restoring, redirecting, transforming, fulfilling, perfecting, and so forth. The enduring structures of creation–post-fall–are the material through which grace flows. The creation itself is not the source of that grace; that source is God. Why you would think the Catholic view holds otherwise is not clear to me. By the way, “Rome’s brand of incarnationalism,” to use your words, was used by Irenaeus to argue against the Gnostics, and the Word became flesh, indeed, because whatever is not assumed by the Word is not saved, according to the Cappadocian’s soteriological principle. So, although you don’t say what is “Rome’s brand,” on its face, Catholic incarnational theology is essential to the Christian faith to affirm the creation and redemption. Also, I didn’t say anything about hell or the final judgment. So, I have nothing to say about those fundamental matters here and now in this context. Let me thank you for you response, but also urge you to read my article more carefully, but also Allison because I don’t think you understand him well either. I mean that respectfully. All the best.

  8. Eduardo, thanks again for your response. Ill take your comment that I didn’t understand Allison as your fallible opinion. lol I have one question for you since I noticed that you didn’t address the fact that we are incorporated into Christ’s body the the Spirit, and not the flesh? Here is my question , are we not called to a spiritual relationship with Christ, correct? Worship Him in Spirit and truth. All His energies, all the victory spoils of Christ are communicated through the Spirit not the flesh, agree? And incidentally, I direct you to an article by Tim Kauffman ” Novel Antiquity” in response to adding created things and how the early church considered that idolatry. Again we are called to a spiritual relationship with Christ, He says as much in John 6. Eduardo have a great weekend, Ill give you the last word and God bless you. Kevin.

  9. Thanks, Kevin. I have nothing to add to what I’ve already said. All the best.

  10. Greetings Eduardo,
    “Indeed, there is much that Reformed and Catholic theologies have in common when it comes to the doctrine of the sacraments. They agree that the sacraments are means of grace, rather than merely outward and empty signs.[33] In short, they agree that God really does impart his grace by sacramental means. ”

    Although I am Catholic, I must agree with Mr Failoni that we mustn’t be too hasty to downplay some important issues.
    The quotation above is right as far as is goes but it leaves out one major point; for the Reformed, the Sacraments are means of grace for the elect and the elect only.
    I hate to be a wet blanket but that undoes any common ground one may think exists.

    In support of your position I will say that if nature is as corrupted as our Reformed friends say, grace according to the Catholic position, is impossible. Why?
    Because while we do speak of “created grace”, sanctifying grace is not actually created but educed from the soul’s natural capacity for inexhaustible knowing and loving. If our natural capacities are corrupt, how can grace be educed?

  11. Hi Jim, thanks for your comments. Just one point: I didn’t say that the Reformed and Catholic traditions have the same understanding of the nature and purpose of the sacraments. What I said is that Lutherans, Reformed stand with Catholics overagainst Zwinglians, like Allison, concerning the matter that sacraments are not empty and outward signs but means of grace. I also said that Berkouwer’s magnificent book, The Sacraments, provides a basis for reconsidering some of the differences between Catholics and Evangelicals on the nature of the sacraments. Allison does not avail himself of this important opportunity provided by Berkouwer (and Bavinck). Thanks again.

  12. Eduardo,
    Thanks for responding.
    I share you concern in promoting ecumenism and read your critique of Allison’s book with interest.
    Yesterday I took part in a demonstration outside of Planned Parenthood in Portland, Oregon. Hundreds of Catholics and Protestants, in spite of being committed to their particular faith traditions, were of one mind and heart in opposing an evil that dwarfs misunderstandings and old animosities.
    That’s not to say the theological issues raised by De Chirico’s are to be swept under the rug. Not at all. It’s just that when faced with a looming danger like the culture of death, one should know which issues take priority and which can be put on the bag burner until they can be charitably and honestly addressed.

  13. So what did Allison get wrong about Roman Catholic theology? The review doesn’t address what the book tries to do — explain RC doctrine.

    All the review does is fault Allison for not taking ecumenical perspectives and discussions into account.

    But so what? Does the review then mean that ecumenical discussions change Roman Catholic doctrine? That somehow you need to understand Roman Catholicism more by ecumenical discussions than the catechism?

    If so, that justifies the impression that ecumenical dialogue always compromises religious convictions.

  14. DG,

    In the second half of the article (“Hermeneutics of Catholicism”), Eduardo explains what Allison gets wrong about Catholic theology. It is therefore not accurate to say that the review only faults Allison for not taking ecumenical perspectives and discussions into account.

  15. Thank you, DG, but, respectfully, you are mistaken. The bulk of my article critically examines the Allison/DeChirico critique of the “hermeneutics of Catholicism”: the nature-grace interdependence, that is, a strong continuity between nature and grace; and the Christ-Church interconnection, that is, an ecclesiology . . . that views the Catholic Church as the ongoing incarnation of Jesus Christ.” I don’t know how you missed that part of my article. So, Andrew is right: “Eduardo explains what Allison gets wrong about Catholic theology. It is therefore not accurate to say that the review only faults Allison for not taking ecumenical perspectives and discussions into account.”

  16. Eduardo and Andrew,

    The review suffers from critiquing a point the book was not addressing. Allison was not writing about RC ecumenical theology. He was explicating the Catechism.

  17. Respectfully, DG, you couldn’t be more mistaken. My article gives a critical assessment of Allison’s critique of Roman Catholic Theology. That assessment takes up the bulk of the article. I also criticize his book because it lacks an ecumenical dimension and hence his book does not encourage a reconsideration of the issues that have traditionally divided Catholics and Protestants. He ignores the half century of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and Methodists, Reformed, Anglicans, Lutherans, and even ignores the writings of Berkouwer, etc. DG, I explicitly engage his interpretation of the Catechism. Inexplicably, you ignore my assessment. I have nothing more to say on this matter.

  18. Dear Mr. Echeverria,

    I sincerely appreciate your article, and I thank you for your long involved commitment to dialog with both Reformed and Evangelical Protestants.

    I began reading and discovering about the Catholic Church three years ago, and as I believed myself to be under the authority of my Reformed pastors, I felt that I should not only tell my pastors about what I was going on with me, but also inform them about some of what I was learning. I was sure that what I was learning was true, and I didn’t know how my pastors could deny what I myself couldn’t help but believe. In my mind, there were two explanation for this; that they had received a deficient theological education; that is, one not open to a full-orbed theology; and/or they , as you said, had an “a prior stance towards the Catholic Church” and on that bias, would not venture into what they perceive as enemy territory.

    I remember being very angry and scared( because I was going through the search alone) that here I was under their authority and tutelage, yet I’m out digging and discovering doctrines that were clearly derived from scripture, however I was not suppose to allow them to inform me because they are “Roman Catholic”. And I’m speaking primarily of a few verses that bespeak of our faith’s Marian doctrines. This was not the way to “do” theology. Though I asked for a Reformed exegesis of those particular scriptural passages, there didn’t seem to be anything written or available from, at least, the Dutch Reformed Tradition, or if there is, my former pastors were unaware. That there was no positive teaching around those passages was a clue to me that scripture wasn’t being allowed to fully speak within the Reformed tradition. I use the word “clue” with the epistemological assumption that is permissible to investigate different traditions while being on the lookout for which one is true.
    I don’t remember what I first brought to their(my pastor’s) attention, but it wasn’t very far into our communication that I brought up the The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The response that I received was that the Reformed aren’t very interested in ecumenism. Unless there was more to our division than what I knew( and it had been drilled into me that the doctrine of justification was prime), I did not understand why we would not want to try to seek unity, because it was also drilled into me was that we closer to Catholicism than we were to the Evangelicals. I was never given a reason for the complete dismissal of any progress in ecumenism that Reformed Christians, especially Lutherans, had achieved with Catholics, and so I began to see the lack of desire for unity to be more local to individual Reformed churches rather that to Reformed doctrines as a whole. If the denomination that claims to be the heir of the man who started the Reformation could make strides and if that doctrine that caused the split initially could be mutually discussed and agreement found, then I saw no good reason to object over peripheral( and later)issues.

    I hope that my comment hasn’t harmed dialogue with other Christians, I just wanted to share a little of what I’ve heard and experienced in regards to hermeneutics and ecumenism from the Reformed group of which I was a member. Currently, I am the only Catholic in a family of Reformed and Evangelical Christians, and because of Christ’s love we are able to live together pretty harmoniously now. I pray for unity with my family as well as with my former church family, as well as with all people around the globe.

    If I may be permitted ,as much as it relates to the article( maybe it fits under a different topic on this site), I have a question that I would like addressed, please.
    If the Reformed consider themselves to be both traditionalists as well as deriving authority from the scriptures to be authentic messengers of the Gospel and ministers of word and sacrament, would the phenomenon of the Evangelical community adopting the same derivative authority upon themselves to also be preachers of the word and ministers of the sacrament be well received by the Reformed community? I guess what I am asking is, without apostolic succession and holy orders would it be fair to see the Reformed( even though they believe that grace is bestowed from sacraments) as the sixteenth century precursor of the Emergent phenomenon?

    Thank you! Psalm 133


  19. Dear Susan,
    I’m glad you liked my article. Thank you for sharing part of your journey into the Catholic Church. Although not all Evangelical and Reformed Christians lack an ecumenical dimension to the way they understand and practice Christianity–indeed, I am a member of the ecumenical initiative, Evangelicals and Catholics Together–some do. Furthermore, there is variety here, as I said in my article, indeed, there are three possible stances that Evangelical and Reformed Christians have taken toward Roman Catholicism. “There are within the Reformed [and Evangelical] family those whose attitude to the Roman Catholic Church remains essentially negative: [1] some because they remain to be convinced that the modern developments of the Roman Catholic Church has really addressed the issues of the Reformation, and [2] others because they have been largely untouched by the ecumenical exchanges of recent times and have therefore not been challenged or encouraged to reconsider their traditional stance. But this is only one part of the picture. [3] Others in the Reformed [and Evangelical] tradition have sought to engage in a fresh constructive and critical evaluation both of the contemporary teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church and of the classical controverted issues.” The Reformed pastors you mentioned probably belong to group 2. I meet many who are in the second group and others who belong to group 3. Nevertheless, I continue to do ecumenical theology, striving to realize the imperative of unity laid down by Jesus in his high-priestly prayer of John 17:21, “that they all may be one.” Honestly, I find that the more I understand, say, the Reformed tradition the better I am able to engage in ecumenical dialogue with Reformed Christians because the better I understand the Catholic faith. Regarding your question about the so-called “Emergent Church,” I think Reformed Christians that strive to be faithful not only to the Scriptures but also to the creeds and confessions of the Reformed tradition, namely, the 3-forms of unity, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession of Faith, and the Canons of Dort, resist mightily the move to being “emergent.” A good examples of this is the work by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, Why we’re not Emergent (By Two Guys who Should be), Moody Publishers, 2008). I think you would profit from reading this book. All the best, Susan. In Christ, Eduardo

  20. Dear Eduardo,

    Thank you for the response. I agree with your assessment that that there are 3 stances among Protestants, and I would agree too that my former pastors fall under #2.
    The only exception that I would note is that those communities that had their own people leave in order to become Catholic no longer remain “untouched” and so, move into a different category. Hopefully, they will feel it imperative in light of the Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, to become more open to learn of modern developments in ecumenism in order to be able to reconsider their traditional stance. I grant them that this isn’t easy, but when one is begins to commune with the other walls are broken down.
    Currently, my family and I attend a small Lutheran community where the pastor knows that I am Catholic but has graciously welcomed me, as his ” sister in the Western Church”. I continue to go to Holy Mass either during vigil or in the morning, and the pastor is aware that I cannot receive communion with them, however because of his ecumenical heart my family and I are still able to worship together on Sunday. This was very important to me since our youngest is only 14. I wish more Reformed were open to this.
    His ministry is modeled on “personalism” as drawn from the writings of Pope John Paul II. This is wonderful because we are able to share ideas. Once, after he found out I was interested in phenomenology he to mentioned to me that he thought of me and how I would enjoy reading Edith Stein; I think I surprised him when I smiled and told him that I took her name as my confirmation name!

    There is more I could say, and I do have more questions, but I’m out of time right now. Perhaps I can follow-up in the near future.

    God Bless!

  21. Good to hear from you, Susan. Please follow up anytime you’d like. In Christ, Eduardo

  22. Dr. Echeverria–

    I am a Reformed evangelical who finds your openness to ecumenism refreshing. Most of my experience on this website has centered around polemics rather than the finding of common ground. We must never forget that we are under divine command to seek unity.

    We must, however, seek it without compromising our conscience’s integrity or truth’s purity.

    Personally, I think you should have left Berkouwer out of the mix. His latent Neo-Orthodoxy leaves him outside of conservative Calvinistic circles. Stick with ecumenizing with one group at a time! Stick with Jim Packer or Timothy George or Richard Mouw or Os Guinness…or Charles Hodge, for that matter. (JDDJ, negotiated as it was with the liberal Lutheran Federation, is likewise completely irrelevant.)

    I happen to think we need both ECT participants and ECT naysayers (like Horton and Sproul and MacArthur) to lead us lovingingly forward but keep us carefully faithful at the same time.

  23. Dear Eric, Thank you for your general comments. Respectfully, I don’t think we can understand ecumenism to be just about finding common ground–a common denominator ecumenicity is a dead end if we truly seek to find unity. Yes, I think we will find common ground amidst differences, but we must not stop there. Real ecumenical engagement begins precisely at the point where we recognize real differences, and such engagements include ecumenical apologetics (polemics, as it were). My article review of Allison’s book on Catholic theology is an example of just such ecumenical engagement. All in all, authentic ecumenism is a gift at the service of truth (John Paul II).

    In my judgment, Berkouwer is a master of dogmatic and ecumenical theology. See my book, Berkouwer and Catholicism (Brill, 2013). His first book on Vatican II is “breathtakingly important” (to cite Heiko Oberman) for evangelical and Reformed Christians to be encouraged “to engage in a fresh constructive and critical evaluation both of the contemporary teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church and of the classical controverted issues.” Have you read my article, “The Accidental Protestant” (First Things, February 2014): http://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/02/the-accidental-protestant.

    By the way, Timothy George is a member of ECT, as will be this time around when we meet for two years, Richard Mouw. If you are truly interested in ecumenical dialogue, you can’t just dismiss JDDJ as “completely irrelevant.” Although it is not a perfect document, it is certainly a starting-point for Catholics and evangelical/reformed Christians for discussing the doctrine of justification.

    Thanks again.
    In Christ,
    Dr. Echeverria

  24. Dr. Echeverria–

    Ecumenism is to me a venture that leaves one exposed and vulnerable: the certainty of high risk joined to an ever so slight potential for reward. (I must admit, however, that I have been genuinely impressed by the progress displayed by ECT.)

    Unless called to it–which, of course, we are–we would be foolhardy to attempt it. It is not a settling for the least common denominator, but it must begin with common ground and proceed from there. And I disgree that it should be (attitudinally, at least) either adversarial or polemical. We must humbly and uncompromisingly search for the absolute truth in each matter of controversy as compatriots on a quest rather than as advocates for a particular “side” (although, obviously, conviction should not be jetisoned nor strenuous argument evaded).

    Heiko Oberman is a fabulous Reformational scholar, but unless I am seriously mistaken, he is neither evangelical nor Reformed. Mark Noll may accept JDDJ and consider the Reformation effectively over, but most card-carrying evangelicals consider him incredibly naive. At the time it was signed, both the Missouri-Synod and Wisconsin-Synod Lutherans repudiated the agreement in no uncertain terms.

    I do not doubt that there are insights contained therein whjch might be beneficial for evangelicals to consider, but JDDJ was the fruit of a negotiation between Rome and mainstream Protestantism … which evangelicals tend to see as more apostate than Rome! Ecumenical discussions with such a group strikes us as a fool’s errand. You should be praying for their conversion to the faith rather than exploring inconsequential points of contact.

    Thanks for the link to the First Things article. Clearly, there is much methodological wisdom to be gleaned from the study of Berkouwer’s ecumenical endeavors.

    (I tend to view everything to the left of mainstream Evangelicalism, including postconservatives such as the pomo Emergent Movement, as well as postliberals and the Neo-Orthodox, as inexorably drifting toward apostasy. Few of them ever return “home,” as it were, whereas many of them end up leaving the faith altogether.)

  25. Dr. Echeverria–

    I should know better than to neglect to check facts of which I am uncertain. (I blame it on this dagnabbit abscessed tooth I’m suffering through at the moment.)

    As a native Dutchman, obviously Professor Oberman was Reformed! (But he was NOT evangelical … at least I got that right.) It’s not as if I didn’t know he was Dutch either. I don’t know where my mind was.

    At any rate, please excuse my stupidity ….

  26. Dr. Echeverria,

    Thanks for your post. I’m not sure I was able to track with your entire argument, but the one thing I am very thankful for is your commendation of Berkouwer. He epitomizes high-level scholarship and an ecumenical spirit. More Catholic (and many, many many more Reformed) should read Berkouwer!

  27. Dear Eric, I apologize for not responding sooner. The semester started yesterday for me at the seminary. Actually, I wrote a reply earlier this afternoon but for some reason it didn’t take to the website. So, this is my second time around replying to your last comment.

    Here goes. In a theology of ecumenical dialogue, the notion of the “hierarchy of truths” plays a fundamental role. 1) Such a theology doesn’t begin with doctrinal differences but rather with the basis of common ground in the fundamental Christological and Trinitarian statements of faith. 2) It attempts then to understand existing theological differences better in light of and in connection with those fundamental statements in order to recognize possible convergences beneath the theological differences. We must keep our focus on the relation of a stated teaching to the foundation, showing the sense in which it derives its justification from the foundation. 3) Accordingly, Canadian ecumenist, the later George Vandervelde, a student of Berkouwer’s, rightly notes, “the discussion of differences must remain open and move toward greater agreement concerning the core of faith.” He adds, “Precisely such a notion as the ‘hierarchy of truths’ can help maintain the ecumenical dynamic in the face of differences. This notion can break through a static fixation of ‘basic differences’ by constantly forcing dialogue partners to the unity that is to be found in the ‘foundation of faith’, while at the same time opening up the possibility of articulating the confessional expression of that unity.” For example, consider my discussion above in the third section of my article where I briefly attend to the standard Evangelical misunderstanding of the notion of “ex opere operato” found in the recent study of Gregg Allison on Catholic theology, in particular, sacramentology.

    Thus far, you have made general comments concerning ecumenism, but you haven’t really made any specific comments about substantive issues my article raises, particularly regarding the Allison/De Chirico assessment of the so-called “hermeneutics of Catholicism.” Perhaps if you find the time, you can hereafter make specific comments about my critique of their assessment. Otherwise, I don’t really have anything more to say.

    All the best.
    In Christ,

  28. Dr. Echeverria–

    I am pretty much in full agreement with your paragraph above on ecumenical dialogue. My previous critique was not so much an attack on Berkouwer’s ecumenical insights as on Berkouwer himself as a legitimate dialogue partner. For if Roman Catholics have enough in common to dialogue with the Neo-Orthodox, then perhaps they do not have enough in common to dialogue with evangelicals.

    I haven’t addressed Allison much because quite honestly much of your critique was well taken. He probably doesn’t understand Roman sacramentology very well.

    Of course, traditional Calvinistic Eucharistic theology (before much of it devolved into basic Zwinglianism) was indeed a valid mode of the Real (Corporeal) Presence of Christ in the Supper. Furthermore, it effectively dealt with the problems of eschatology and the Ascension by having the believer spiritually transported to heaven in the Sursum Corda. Christ does not prematurely descend to us prior to his Second Coming. Conversely, we, through the mediating power of the Spirit, ascend to him.

    I don’t have a huge problem with “ex opere operato” in and of itself. In Transubstantiation, the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ is still mediated spiritually. In general, there is no crass physicalism. He is not literally chewed with the teeth. What bothers me is that some of the Eucharistic miracles signify an acceptance of such a physicalism. And, from what I understand, the accidents of the substances of Christ’s body and blood are actually present but veiled from sight (in Roman dogma). It almost feels like the whole thing has never quite been consistently worked out.

    I have serious difficulties with Eucharistic Adoration even though intellectually it has far less of the appearance of idolatry than hyperdulia. (Obviously, if Jesus is actually present, what would be the harm in worshiping him?)

    Notwithstanding, EA utterly messes with my conscience. It simply feels very, very wrong. (And I have exposed myself to very little anti-Catholic literature or teaching.)

    Be that as it may, it seems there should be room for productive dialogue on the Sacraments between Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Catholics.

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