In 1994, 40 Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants signed a controversial document titled, “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” It affirmed agreement on basic articles of the Christian faith and urged cooperation in world evangelization and on social issues, like fighting abortion. Charles Colson (founder of Prison Fellowship), Bill Bright (founder of Campus Crusade for Christ) and James I. Packer (theologian) signed it. Mark Noll’s book, Is the Reformation Over? (Baker Academic, 2005), brought the movement back into the spotlight. Biola Connections spoke with Robert Saucy, Biola University’s distinguished professor of systematic theology, to learn more.
What do you think of the document?
I think it’s good for Catholics and evangelicals to talk together, but not in terms of making statements to the extent that we have “common witness.” It makes the two messages — Catholic and Protestant — look more similar than they are. For example, it states that both groups affirm that “salvation is by grace through faith,” but explicitly doesn’t say “by faith alone,” which is an essential Protestant doctrine. So, I think the wording is little misleading to the average layman
Are you concerned about the document?
I’m concerned that it might cause many Protestant laypeople to become Roman Catholics. Various aspects of Roman Catholicism are attractive to many Protestants, like its aesthetic parts or its claim to be the true church down through the ages. I admire the Roman Catholic Church’s academic achievements and its scholarly writings. The last two Supreme Court justices were both very intelligent Catholics, and you see a lot of Catholics in those types of high positions. That’s attractive to many Protestants. So, if some Protestants’ only holdout from becoming Roman Catholic has been theological — and if they see noted evangelicals signing a document that says we, basically, believe salvation the same way — then their last obstacle to becoming Roman Catholic is gone.
What are the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants?
They’re the same as they were at the Reformation. There are three significant ones. First is the question of final authority. Protestants hold to sola scriptura [Scripture as their final authority]. For Catholics, the final authority is Scripture as interpreted by the church, that is, the magisterium (the pope and bishops). That’s where Catholicism gets its teachings that can’t be found in Scripture, like veneration of Mary, indulgences and purgatory. Second, Catholics view the church as an extension of Christ’s incarnation. For them, the church is divine as Christ was divine. One result of this is the Catholic proclamation: “Come to the church for salvation, for faith in the church and faith in Christ are one act of faith.” That leads to the third difference: salvation. The Catholic catechism makes it very clear that you are born again and justified through baptism. That means faith plus a certain rite — which is administered by the church — is necessary for salvation. So, the church essentially grants salvation. Although this salvation is “by faith,” additional grace enables us “to work” to attain eternal life. And that’s the problem with saying we speak the same gospel. One of them is clear: Christ did it; we can’t add anything to that. The other one is: Christ did it, but to actually avail yourself of what Christ did you have to do this and this.
What’s your perspective on Pope Benedict XVI?
Obviously, you have to respect his intelligence. He was the theologian for Pope John Paul II. It’s really eye-opening to read the catechism that came out under John Paul II, especially its ecumenism. This catechism seems to suggest that every monotheist — including Jews and Muslims — worship the same God that Christians do. Pope Benedict even prayed toward Mecca recently. Of course, there are a lot of good things about that catechism, particularly regarding social issues. But when you get down to what the real gospel is, it suggests that people who worship Allah are actually worshipping the same God we do. I have problems with that.
Robert Saucy, Th.D. has taught in Biola’s seminary, Talbot School of Theology, for 45 years. He’s a past president of the Evangelical Theological Society and author of several books, including Scripture: Its Authority, Power and Relevance (Word, 2001).