What is evangelical catholicism?

The term evangelical catholic suggests a certain approach to Christian faith that attempts to be both gospel-centred and rooted in the historic tradition of the church.  On the one hand, it may refer to Catholics who are keen to maintain a focus on the task of the proclamation of the gospel.  On the other hand, it may refer to protestants who want to recover a stress on the importance of tradition in shaping the claims of Christian faith.

One way to find out what contemporary evangelical catholicism is about would be to look at the work of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, and its journal, Pro Ecclesia.  This centre was founded by Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten, two Lutheran scholars who have attempted to emphasize “the catholicity of the Reformation.”   Among their basic convictions is the claim that “The Reformers did not set out to create a new church.  They aimed to reform a church that lived in continuity with the church the Creed calls “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”” (The Catholicity of the Reformation, vii).

They would be keen to argue that, although many protestant groups have shun the term “catholic,” there have always been evangelical catholic movements within the protestant churches.  As they state on the CCET website, their goal is “theology that is catholic and evangelical, obedient to Holy Scripture and committed to the dogmatic, liturgical, ethical and institutional continuity of the Church.”

The idea of “evangelical catholicity,” however, is not limited to a small group of scholars associated with this particular centre and its journal.  The late Donald Bloesch, who leaned slightly more towards the evangelical side of the spectrum than many who would identify themselves with evangelical catholicism today, nevertheless shared similar convictions.   His two volume Essentials of Evangelical Theology concludes with a section entitled “Toward a Catholic Evangelicalism,” which argues:

In constructing a fresh theology for our day, we need to regain continuity with the historical roots of the faith as well as renew our fidelity to the biblical and evangelical witness.  This means an opening to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as well as new appreciation for the Reformation and the post-Reformation movements of spiritual purification, Pietism and Puritanism…The theological options today are liberalism or modernism (whether in the guise of neo-Protestantism or neo-Catholicism), a reactionary evangelicalism or fundamentalism, and a catholic evangelicalism, which alone is truly evangelical and biblical (Essentials of Evangelical Theology, vol. 2: 283).

Bloesch was writing in 1979.  But fifteen years before that, Albert Outler was using these two adjectives together as a way of describing John Wesley’s distinctive theological voice, and recommending it for our consideration as a viable option for today.

Outler describes Wesley as

…one who had glimpsed the underlying unity of Christian truth in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions and who had turned this recognition to the services of a great popular religious reform and renewal.  In the name of a Christianity both Biblical and patristic, he managed to transcend the stark doctrinal disjunctions which had spilled so much ink and blood since Augsburg and Trent.  In their stead, he proceeded to develop a theological fusion of faith and good works, Scripture and tradition, revelation and reason, God’s sovereignty and human freedom, universal redemption and conditional election, Christian liberty and an ordered polity, the assurance of pardon and the risks of “falling from grace,” original sin and Chrisitian perfection.  In each of these conjunctions, as he insisted almost tediously, the initiative is with God, the response with man.

One might apply a faintly fuzzy label to this distinctive doctrinal perspective: evangelical catholicism.  Its most important immediate source in Wesley’s thought was the Anglican theological literature in which he had steeped himself at Oxford and in Georgia.  Its deeper wellspring was the Bible and its interpretation by the ancient Fathers of the Church.  From his great mentors in piety (Jeremy Taylor, Thomas a Kempis, William Law, Henry Scougal) he learned that faith is either in dead earnest or just dead.   From the great scholars of the seventeenth-century revival of patristic studies (William Beveridge, Robert Nelson) he learned the intimate correlation of Christian doctrine and Christian spirituality.  From the “latitudinarians” (Edward Stillingfleet, Gilbert Burnet) he learned that the church’s polity is more validly measured by its efficacy that its rigid, dogmatic “purity.”  To all these shaping forces he added the decisive influence of his own sustained immersion in the piety and wisdom of the early Christian fathers: Ignatius, Clement, Macarius, Ephraem Syrus, and others.  His theological reading and reflection scarcely slowed over the span of six decades – but it was constantly controlled and guided by his practical concerns.  He was always striving to clarify his message and to communicate it to the people of his day and age.  The result is a distinctive theological perspective, that merits serious consideration, even in another age and atmosphere (in the Preface to John Wesley (Library of Protestant Thought), New York: Oxford University Press, 1964: iv-v).

(My friend and colleague Andy Edwards told me that he thinks this is the first time the term “evangelical catholicism” was used.)

I consider myself to be an evangelical catholic, or at least that’s what I aspire to be.  Evangelical theology, if it is not nourished by the deep roots of historic orthodoxy, can end up going off in all sorts of strange directions.  At the same time, there are important insights from the Reformers, the Pietists, the Purtians, the Great Awakenings, and later evangelicals, which need to be preserved and upheld.   A catholicity which is not evangelical risks becoming triumphalistic; an evangelicalism which is not catholic risks repeating the errors of history.

The irony for me personally is that I did not come to these theological convictions through being raised in a Wesleyan church (which I was), but though the influence of my own teachers in theology at Wycliffe College (one of whom is the current editor of Pro Ecclesia).   It is only now, looking back as someone who has come to see the value of the historic faith and practices of the church through the centuries, that I can appreciate John Wesley as a fellow evangelical catholic, from whom I still have much to learn.

Methodism as religious society-become-church

Continuing on the theme I posted last week: In the quote below, Albert Outler reflects on the origins of Methodism as a religious society, with a view to the way this has evolved in Methodist history.  As with many such renewal movements, Methodism became a sort of hybrid of “movement” and “church,” and its peculiar structures, practices, and culture reflect this inherited tension.  While the tension can be fruitful, it sometimes produces a certain amount of confusion regarding the nature of the movement-church, both for the membership of the movement-church and for their fellow Christians.

It is interesting that this text comes from the same time as the Rupp essay on Wesley as prophet.  In the wake of Vatican II, there was great optimism regarding the possibilities of visible Christian union.  Both Rupp and Outler are keen to stress Wesley’s insistence on Methodism’s ecclesial location as a movement within the Church of England, raised up in “extraordinary” circumstances to meet a particular need.   From the perspective of “ecclesial charisms,” the vocation to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land” through the “irregular” ministry of lay preachers could be seen as the particular Methodist charism.

What happens when the specialized movement takes on the character of a “church”?  The original charism and vocation cannot help but be hampered, because the Methodists are now focused on doing all the things that the church does, rather than the specific vocation around which they were formed.  The church at large also suffers the impoverishment of being cut off from the ministry of those with the particular Methodist charism.   Again, with Rupp, he wants to stress that Wesley only broke with the Church of England because it was necessary for the provision of the mission of the Church in America.

Here is the quote, from That the World May Believe: a study of Christian unity and what it means for Methodists (New York: Board of Missions of the Methodist Church, 1966), pp. 59-63.

Methodism is a religious society that became a church without the complete loss of its character as a religious society.  Methodists are not always mindful – and many non-Methodists are not even aware –  of this dual inheritance from both the Catholic and Protestant traditions in the Christian community, an experiment in the fusion of “justification by faith alone” with a disciplined ethic of “faith working by love.”  The history of this society-become-church is often confusing both to ourselves and to our neighbours.  We are usually reckoned among the pietists – but no typically pietist group ever had anything like our General Rules and Discipline.  We classify ourselves as Protestants, but none of the classical traditions of continental Protestantism had anything like the Wesleyan ideal of “Christian perfection” and the Wesleyan concept of evangelical morality.   And yet, if the quintessential formula for ecumenism is something like “consensus in faith, community in worship, unity in mission,” then it would be true to say that Methodism has been ecumenical from the beginning.  John Wesley was a rebel and a church reformer, a critic of the standing order, and a rude disturber of the false peace of Zion.  Because he was convinced that the regular ministries of the Church of England were failing in their mission to the nation, he felt authorized by the Holy Spirit to raise up an irregular ministry of gospel proclamation and to organize a network of religious societies in England, Wales, Ireland – and later, America.  To these he gave a distinctive set of “General Rules,” a peculiar pattern of organization (classes, bands, etc.), a novel principle of lay-leadership, and a communal ethos that marked off the Methodists from the Non-conformists as well as from the “High Churchmen.”

Despite all this, Wesley was no separatist. He never lifted a finger to overthrow the power structure of the Established Church nor even to invade it.  The Methodists were ill-treated, but Wesley held them in the church and kept them loyal to the sacraments.  The Anglican bishops reacted in varying degrees of distaste and bafflement, but they wisely refrained from any resort to formal excommunication in dealing with these Wesleyan irregulars.

This self-image of an evangelical order within an inclusive church was not effaced even when the Methodist societies developed into separate churches with sacramental ministries of their own.   Thus we learned – or might have learned – that wide diversity within an inclusive fellowship is not only tolerable but can actually be a vital service to the cause of authentic unity.  The early Methodists deliberately retained their distinct ties with the ancient and universal community but, quite as deliberately, they insisted on their freedom in Christian mission and nurture.  Wesley had no qualms in his use of laymen as preachers in the Revival and as leaders of the societies.  At the same time, he refused, on principle, to allow these laymen to administer the sacraments which were available in the Church of England.  He even forbade Methodist preaching services to be scheduled in competition with “church hours.”  Given the violent and divisive spirit of the age, this uneasy maintenance of the Methodist societies within the unity of “Mother Church” is one of the most remarkable incidents in Protestant church history.  When, however, the American Revolution had deprived the Methodists in the new republic of any ordained ministry for the sacraments, Wesley proceeded – by his ordinations of Richard Whatcoat, Thomas Vasey, and Thomas Coke – to remedy this defect himself rather than to approve the pattern of sectarian self-ordination by laymen begun by Philip Gatch and others at the Fluvanna Conference of 1779.

Where was Outler going with this?  His phrase at the start of the last paragraph is telling, where he speaks of Methodist “self-image” as that of “an evangelical order within an inclusive church.”   I believe Outler longed for this to be recaptured in some way, although he was clear that this would be costly: “We are, or ought to be, willing to risk our life as a separate church and to face death as a denomination in the sure and lively hope of our resurrection in the true community of the whole people of God” (p. 75).

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements: Conclusion

To recap, I’ve been presenting a series of posts on charismatic movements, outlining a typology of views, as follows:

  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional (Leonardo Boff).

While this survey shows that there is a significant body of literature on the theology of charisms and charismatic movements (and a wide divergence of viewpoints), I would argue that numerous questions remain which need to be addressed.

Significantly, for the most part, the literature on charisms has not been significantly incorporated into discussions of unity and diversity.   Of course, Cullman’s argument attempts to do this, but I would argue that he has disassociated the biblical idea of charisms from its original vocational context and applied it too liberally to all confessions, thereby inappropriately justifying continued separation across the board.  Also, it is apparent throughout his argument that his major concerns are with the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and magisterial protestant traditions, but he offers no criteria by which we should distinguish these separations as “legitimate” as compared with more recent protestant schisms.  Would he support, for example, the continual splintering of pentecostal and independent charismatic churches on the grounds of protecting their particular charism?

Further, his model suggests that there is a charismatic gift at the root of all church divisions.  While I believe there are many confessions or denominations in the Church today that began with such a misapprehension of charisms, this is certainly not the case in every situation.  It seems nonsensical to speak of the English reformation, for example, being rooted an unrecognized charism.  We might speak of Anglican charisms that developed in the subsequent history of Anglicanism, but if the separation of the Church of England from Rome was not rooted in a charism, we must question the validity of using such post-division gifts as a reason for continued structural separation.

Other uses of the idea of “gifts” as a way of discussing diversity in ecumenical documents have not delved into the biblical theology of charisms, nor asked questions about the appropriateness of applying the term to traditions / denominations / confessions.  Though the idea of “complementary gifts” has been a helpful way to build ecumenical bridges, it should not be used to construct a positive vision for ecclesial unity which justifies continued “separation.”

Where the idea of charisms has been incorporated in a more sustained way into a vision of the unity of the Church is in Catholic literature on the religious life, but little work has been done in attempting to apply the insights of this perspective to protestant reform movements. The comparison has sometimes been made, but not explored in much theological depth (See, for example, Outler’s remarks on Methodism as an “order,” in That the World may Believe, 54).

The weakness of some Catholic approaches, especially those which stress the complementarity of charism and institution, is that they are not helpful in interpreting the divisive history of renewal and reform movements in the life of the Church.  The question is of paramount importance, particularly for the many evangelical protestant denominations which began as reform, renewal, or missionary movements, with no intention of starting new “churches.”  In evangelical circles, partly because of the prevalence of free church ecclesiology, the tendency has been to emphasize the significance of the movements and downplay the importance of historical continuity.

All this is to say that I think significant work needs to be done on the topic of  “group” charisms, and how this concept  fits into the larger discussion about the limits of legitimate diversity in the Church.