Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Evangelicals and Catholics Together: On the Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life

Evangelicals and Catholics Together have produced a joint-statement, Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life. ECT continues on the assumption that Evangelicals and Roman Catholics as those who "accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ". We wish that this were the case, but there has to be real concern that the Roman Catholic negation of justification by faith alone tends to detract from the gospel of grace and obscure the way of salvation.
Now to the statement itself. The opening section attempts to set out the common ground between Evangelicals and Catholics on Mary. Then unresolved differences are spelt out under the headings of, A Catholic Word to Evangelicals and, An Evangelical Word to Catholics. On the whole disagreements are faced honestly rather than fudged. The Evangelicals explain on the basis of Scripture why they do not accept Roman Catholic dogmas such as the Perpetual Virginity, Immaculate Conception, Bodily Assumption and Invocation of Mary. However, the Evangelical signatories seem open to further special revelation on Marian teaching saying,
"As a safeguard against the temptation to idolatry and because this pattern of piety is not found in the New Testament, most Evangelicals today do not include prayers to Mary and the saints in their worship and personal devotions. At the same time, we acknowledge that the sovereign Lord may choose to reveal himself in extraordinary ways whenever and however he wills." [Emphasis added].
What is the last sentence in that quote supposed to mean in the light of Evangelical commitment to sola Scriptura? Yes, we are open to the Spirit giving us more light from the Word, but that does not entail the revelation of new doctrines like the 'Bodily Assumption of Mary' which are not found in the Bible. The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks for all Evangelicals when it says,
"The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture." (WCF I:X).
On this issue the Evangelical signatories have conceded too much in the direction of Roman Catholic thinking. That quibble aside, and it is a serious quibble, there is much that is helpful in what the Evangelicals have to say on Mary and her role in redemptive history. Overreacting against the extravagance of Roman Catholic Marian teaching Evangelicals have sometimes failed to give due consideration to Mary. She is indeed 'blessed among women' as the mother of our Lord. We should admire and imitate her faith and love. All Christians need to give careful heed to her admonition concerning her Son, "Whatever he says to you, do it." (John 2:5). The Evangelicals note that the Reformers seemed to have a much 'higher' view of Mary than their theological heirs and successors.
Surprising as it may seem, this document is able to highlight a considerable amount of common understanding between Bible believing Evangelicals and traditional Catholics on Mary. But even as this joint-statement demonstrates, with all the best ecumenical will in the world, serious disagreements remain. In a sense, the big issue is sola Scriptura. Shall we view Mary in the light of the witness of Scripture alone, or will we supplement what the Bible says with the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church? On that point, Evangelicals and Catholics are not together.
I believe that dialogue between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics is a worthwhile exercise. But the Evangelicals often seem to be the ones conceding ground. As ever Rome wants unity on its own terms. Writing in The Guardian, Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung despairs of this tendency, exposing the Vatican's ecumenical skulduggery. Evangelicals should take note.


Andrew said...

Great post Guy, very balanced and even in tone. Marian theology is very strong here in Peru, and often eclipses devotion to Christ entirely.

Blessing to you and yours in Wiltshire,

Exiled Preacher said...

Cheers, Andrew. Good to hear from you.

Pastor Zach said...

Thanks for this post. There is a large catholic sway here in central Ohio. To my shame, I have not taken the time to understand the Evangelicals and Catholics together as I should.

The Lord bless and guide you this day!