Review: Getting the Gospel Right

getting the gospel right

Getting the Gospel RightR. C. Sproul. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017 (repackaged edition, originally published 1999).

Summary: A critical discussion of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement “The Gift of Salvation” (1997) centering on what it sees as an inadequate understanding of justification by faith alone, accompanied by a discussion of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ,” a statement by evangelicals in response.

“…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)

Many Christians, surveying the landscape of a church riven through history by schism and division, believe this is a scandal that undermines witness to an unbelieving world. They find support for this idea in the prayer of Jesus for his followers, connecting their oneness to the world believing that the Father sent the Son. And this has moved some to come together with other believers from other parts of the church to see if they might articulate a common basis for a shared witness to the one Lord they believe in. In 1994, Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson convened a group of evangelical and Catholic leaders to see if this might be possible. Over the years this group has released a series of statements on various, often controverted, issues including justification, Scripture, the communion of the saints, Mary, the sanctity of life, religious freedom, and in 2015, a statement of marriage. The statements have explored both what might be affirmed in common, and what differences remain, while focusing on common witness to the risen Lord.

Needless to say, such efforts have come in for harsh criticism from evangelicals and Catholics alike. R.C. Sproul’s book, recently released in “repackaged” form represents an example of the criticism these statements have faced, focused here around the second of the statements, released in 1997, “The Gift of Salvation,” that addresses the matter of justification and the Reformers’ commitment to sola fide (justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone), a major fault line between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic church.

On its face, Sproul contends that “The Gift of Salvation” appears to be a statement evangelicals could embrace and a breakthrough affirmation by Catholics. In particular the statement affirms:

  1. Justification is received through faith,
  2. Justification is not earned by good works or merits of our own,
  3. Justification is entirely God’s gift,
  4. In justification God declares us to be his friends on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, and
  5. Faith is not mere intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, issuing in a changed life.

(Summary quoted from “An Appeal to Evangelicals” but essentially the same as Sproul).

Sproul finds that while, in the words of the statement “this agrees with sola fide,” it fails to affirm key ideas of what the Reformers meant by sola fide. In particular, these statements fail to deal with a crucial difference in how Christians are declared righteous friends of God. For Reformed believers, this has involved the believe in imputation–that our sins were imputed to Christ on the Christ and his righteousness imputed to us, apart from any work or merit on our part. The Catholic understands that while we are saved by grace through faith, this is assisted by God’s infusing of a person with a saving righteousness, with which it is important to cooperate in order to be justified. These and other differences are, in fact acknowledged in the statement as matters for further study and dialogue. For Sproul, the lack of agreement at this point undermines common witness, and in fact he contends that these are in fact different gospels.

The first part of the book discusses “The Gift of Salvation” with a statement by statement critical review. Sproul concedes the evangelical bona fides of the evangelicals who signed the statement and the good will of the signers but believes that the infelicities (at very least) or worse, the “studied ambiguities” that conveyed an apparent unity through the use of imprecise language that could be understood differently by each party are dangerous because they reflect a dangerous departure from sola fide.

The second part of the book begins with a statement drafted in response to “The Gift of Salvation” titled “The Gospel of Jesus Christ.” This statement summarizes a Reformed understanding and also includes a series of affirmations and denials to clearly delineate both what evangelicals do and do not believe. Sproul then expands upon each of these affirmations and denials. Signers of the statement include evangelical signers of “The Gift of Salvation” and evangelicals who disagreed with the statement–an effort to mend the rift within evangelicalism caused by the statement. The book concludes with appendices that contain the complete text of both statements, and lists of their signers.

Sproul could have been a great lawyer! Lawyers scrutinize language for any ambiguities that could lead to disagreement between contracting parties. He realizes that fuzziness of ideas or “studied ambiguities” generally end badly through misunderstandings or doctrinal drift. Both Catholic and Evangelical commentators on this statement have noted this concern. Sproul’s concerns and careful work cannot be lightly dismissed in an age that is careless with words and increasingly inured to a culture of deceit.

What troubled me was an attitude that seemed satisfied with affirming orthodox evangelical belief and differentiating it from Catholic belief, without any further effort to propose how the divide might be healed. Sproul certainly acknowledges there are genuine Catholic believers, but in contrast to Colson and Neuhaus, does not seem to have any sense of urgency for common witness amid the pressing challenges of our day, nor for efforts to root that witness in a shared theological understanding. Likewise, the book does not address more recent discussions around justification within the evangelical community resulting from New Perspective scholarship.

What I find myself wrestling with, while appreciating Sproul’s theological precision, is what seems an unspoken assumption that the Reformed tradition reached a terminus with statements like the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Confession, and likewise Catholicism in the Council of Trent. While each of these reflected a developing understanding, albeit contrasting, of the testimony of our shared scriptures, is no advance in understanding possible in our day? Is there no possibility of development of doctrine (such as occurred as the church sought to articulate its understanding of the Trinity and Incarnation in earlier centuries)? Have we concluded that no further understanding is possible of the authoritative testimony of scripture that could lead to agreements that are not exercises in “studied ambiguity”? And is there no value in proximate shared understandings along the way, that honestly acknowledge differences while affirming ways, and bases by which we might stand together in a secularizing age?

R. C. Sproul, and the signers of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” may well have gotten that gospel “right.” I found nothing with which I took exception. Yet my reading left me with questions of how we might be one, not merely “invisibly” as Sproul discusses in the beginning of this book, but in visible ways that the world may see, and thus believe.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic Theology

Remembering the Reformation

Review: Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic TheologyDeclan Marmion, Salvador Ryan, Gesa E. Thiessen (eds.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers exploring Martin Luther in historical context and his roots in the medieval tradition and what might be learned by Catholics and Lutherans from him and how that may contribute to rapprochement.

This year marks the 500th year since Martin Luther posted his Ninety Five Theses. It is an anniversary that may be celebrated with mixed feelings–the birth of the Reformation on one hand, and yet a sharp schism in the Church that has lasted to this day–a schism Lutherans and Catholics may especially feel poignant on this anniversary. In the last fifty years there has been an ecumenical movement, now quieter perhaps than in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Yet 1999 marked a key development as Catholic and Lutheran theologians signed the  Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, articulating a common understanding of justification and that sixteenth century condemnations of each other no longer apply (with qualifications, and not without controversy on both sides). In 2015, Lutherans and Catholics took a further step in the release of “Declaration on the Way,” consisting of 32 statements of agreement on the church, ministry, and the Eucharist.

This collection of papers presented by Catholic and Protestant scholars is in a similar vein, exploring what may be learned from Luther, particularly for Catholic theology, but truly what Catholic and Lutheran may learn from each other. It might be noted that the engagement is with Luther rather than his successors, who, who like those of Calvin, often took his thought further than he would.

The papers are group into four sections. The first deals with historical foundations. Heinz Schilling sets Luther’s reformation in the broader context of church reform movements. Peter Marshall then looks at the treatment of Luther at the hands of Catholics over the last five centuries, noting that the invective often reflected particular national or local contexts that need to be understood.

The second section focuses on how Luther interacted with the medieval tradition. Philip Cary contributes what I thought a particularly fine essay exploring the influence of Augustine upon Luther in the question of law and gospel. Cary actually finds Luther more sacramental that Augustine, describing the difference between the two as a prayer for grace by Augustine, and the promise of grace realized in “the external word that gives what it signifies.” Theodore Dieter explores the relation of Luther’s thought to scholasticism. Then Charlotte Methuen concludes the section with how Scholasticism shaped Luther’s view of women and how his own married state and household experience modified those views.

The third section shifts to the interaction between Luther and Catholic theology. Peter de Mey considers some of the key documents of Vatican II, and the change in wording in the Decree on Ecumenism from the idea that Protestants “find God in the Scriptures” to “they seek God in the scriptures” — a more subjective notion that reinforces some divides. James Corkery, S.J. explores the role of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, often thought to slow ecumenical efforts, particularly in behind the scenes work that facilitated the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The section concludes with a paper on Luther’s simul iustus et peccator, and how both Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar interacted with the phrase. The essay, by Pieter de Witte, explores the differing grammars of faith of Lutherans and Catholics and the mutual learning that has taken place between parties.

This sets up the final section exploring more of what Catholics may learn from Luther. Gesa E. Thiessen explores Luther’s treatment of images in the church. He was hardly an iconoclast with his allowance for the freedom of the Christian in these matters. Risto Saarinen argues for the distinctive nature of Luther’s reading of scripture allowing for the subjective involvement of the believer, not unlike the Spiritual Exercises of Loyola. He describes him neither as a fundamentalist nor a humanist. Finally Christine Helmer explores the idea of the common priesthood, and how post-Luther, it morphed into the “priesthood of all believers” idea, due more to Spener than Luther, in her contention. She contends that the “common priesthood” of Luther was not set up as an alternative to the authority of the Catholic priesthood.

What this collection of papers does is help us understand both some of the contributing factors to schism and the landscape that needs to be negotiated in healing the rifts. Justification is huge, and here working through the different “grammars of faith” is critical. Likewise, the view of scripture is important, and thankfully Lutherans and Catholics are closer to each other on these matters. The papers point out that there are substantive theological concerns that must be addressed before shared communion, as well as an often tendentious history. Real unity is not at the expense of truth or the muting of differences and has always taken sustained effort. Let’s hope and pray that this continues!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer
The Jesus Prayer by John Michael Talbot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Jesus Prayer is an ecumenical event! It is written by a Catholic monastic who returned to faith during the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. It is written about the Jesus Prayer, which has its origins in Eastern Orthodoxy beginning with the 5th century St. Hesychias (from whom hesychastic prayer, a form of contemplative prayer gets its name). And it is published by InterVarsity Press, a publisher most closely associated with thoughtful evangelical scholarship.

The book is an extended meditation and primer on praying the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Each of the brief chapters takes one word, or at most one phrase of the prayer and engages in a theological reflection upon that word, and then concludes with an exercise in praying the prayer. The book concludes with practical encouragements about praying the prayer daily (he suggests at least one 20 minute time of prayer) and helps regarding place, the role of community, the value of “fathers and mothers” or spiritual directors and the relation of the Prayer to the church and sacraments. Following the conclusion is an Appendix that goes deeper into the roots of the prayer.

What I appreciated about this book was how deeply theological this book was even as it was teaching a practice of contemplative prayer. Talbot is not interested in by-passing the head to reach the heart. He weaves this theological reflection into personal ministry narratives that bring the awesome truths of the incarnation, the Trinity, the work of the Spirit and more down to every day life.

I mentioned the ecumenical character of this book and this may either be winsome or off-putting, depending on how you think about such things. Talbot is unabashedly Catholic as he talks about Mary or the Eucharist, and yet his writing is irenic, framed in such a way to emphasize agreements and commonalities, while aware of historic differences. I found myself thinking that if ever the historic divisions in the church were healed, it would no doubt be through individuals like him, and perhaps Christians across these different communions who met together to pray the Jesus Prayer.

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Review: Reading Scripture Together: A Comparative Bible and Qur’an Study Guide

Reading Scripture Together: A Comparative Bible and Qur'an Study Guide
Reading Scripture Together: A Comparative Bible and Qur’an Study Guide by Barbara J Hampton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While scholars and pundits debate whether in fact we are facing a “Clash of Civilizations” (in Samuel Huntington’s words) between the West and Islam, there is a different kind of encounter that is possible in universities in many parts of the world. Christians and Muslims attend classes together, form friendships, compete on intramural teams, and stay up late together sometimes, talking about the deepest questions. While such conversations can’t resolve the violent clashes occurring elsewhere, no one knows what might happen where conversations of respect and mutual understanding across religious differences occur.

Barbara Hampton has given us a wonderful resource to foster such conversations in her study guide, Reading Scripture Together: A Comparative Bible and Qur’an Study Guide. This guide was developed out of Barbara Hampton’s work with College of Wooster students while she served as faculty advisor for the InterVarsity chapter at this school. The guide consists of seven studies, each of which parallels a text from the Bible and the Qur’an, along with a summary “Challenge” and paired “Witnesses” from Christian and Muslim perspectives. These studies can be pursued over seven weeks, or if participants elect, fourteen, doing Christian scripture one week, and the Qur’an the next.

The studies are organized around seven key aspects of Christianity and Islam where the two faiths both touch and differ: Abraham and Isma’il, the Name and being of God (and what can be known of this), Jesus as Incarnate Son or Prophet, the nature of salvation, whether Jesus was in fact crucified, the nature of the scriptures of each faith, and the ethics of the faith, captured in the beatitudes versus the call to jihad understood both as spiritual struggle and at least defensive war with unbelievers.

The person considering using this guide should be forewarned: Hampton has sought to be extremely even-handed in the presentation of these texts and witnesses. Some of the “witnesses” include former Christians who have embraced Islam and well as former Muslims who have become Christians. Equally, her questions about each text follow an “inductive” format and deeply probe the meaning of each. This makes sense as a prerequisite to genuine dialogue, yet may be unsettling for some committed believers of either faith. Yet a genuine search for truth as well as a human rights commitment to a person’s freedom to change their beliefs recognizes that changing one’s beliefs may be the consequence of such dialogue.

This is reflected in Hampton’s own premises. She believes the search for truth matters and that different religions are not “different paths up the mountain.” She is a convinced Christian and this comes through in the leaders notes and bibliography (forty pages of this hundred page book). While the leaders notes provide in depth commentary from both Christian and Muslim perspectives, it is evident that she envisions this dialogue being initiated by Christians who are at least open to or praying for their Muslim friends to embrace the Christian faith. What she advocates is not aggressive proselytizing or argumentation, but thoughtful consideration of the differences between the two faiths, as these emerge from the texts, in terms of what makes more sense out of one’s life and the world. What the leaders notes do not discuss is the possibility of Christians embracing Islam, and it occurs to me that perhaps she may have refrained from dealing with this issue in her attempts to remain as even-handed as possible while writing this guide as a committed Christian.

If one is looking for an absolutely “neutral” resource for such a dialogue, this is not that. Hampton believes that religion concerns matters of truth about which we ultimately must choose. At the same time, this guide represents the fruit of field-tested, respectful Muslim-Christian dialogues around scriptural texts that is an important resource in promoting respectful understanding between Christians and Muslims that takes the truth claims of each faith seriously.

[In the interests of full disclosure, the reviewer has had a long time friendship with the author including collaboration on various projects. However I purchased my own copy of this book.}

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