To many evangelical Protestants the word “dialogue” is akin to the word “ecumenism,” which, in their lexicon, is another way of saying “theological compromise.” These individuals fear that such discussion is simply a prelude to suppressing genuine differences in a lowest-common-denominator approach to unity. In fact, over the years I have noticed a fascinating phenomenon that bears this out. Very often, if I am speaking with a group on the subject of Catholicism and use the word “dialogue,” it won’t be long before someone raises a hand and asks me what I think of the ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) document of 1994 (which many regard as having driven off the cliff of doctrinal compromise). It has happened so many times that I now anticipate it. The unspoken assumption is that dialogue leads to a reduction of the gospel.
The fact that some ecumenical discussions have laid claim to more consensus than actually exists should be a healthy caution, but it should not undermine the value of dialogue, for such occasions provide the opportunity to convey biblical truth and to recognize the implicit concerns of our Catholic friends. As mentioned earlier, the doctrine of justification is an outstanding example of how this works. Evangelical Protestants are keen to emphasize the redemptive grace and assurance that is accounted to everyone who believes in Christ. We do this to safeguard the gracious character of justification. Roman Catholics, concerned that a purely external righteousness will fail to promote actual holiness, stress the process of transformation in which the Holy Spirit renews the soul. Recognizing the existence of these concerns is invaluable to fruitful conversation. Tony Lane highlights two benefits that we receive as a result: “First, it can give one greater understanding of Catholic teaching and the realization that statements that one considers objectionable may nonetheless have been motivated by a concern that is legitimate, albeit misapplied. Secondly, an awareness of Catholic concerns can help Evangelicals to be more critical of their own teaching.”[i]
Having participated in a small amount of formal dialogue with the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in the Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation, and informally among numerous Catholics, I believe that Lane’s assessment is correct. We should not hesitate to dialogue with Catholic friends, learning from one another and celebrating areas of agreement, as long as we are also honest about our differences.
[i] Tony Lane, Relating to the Institution of the Roman Catholic Church: Suggestions for the EEA: A Northern Perspective. Unpublished lecture, delivered June 15, 2007. Used with permission.