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.