A Reforming Catholic Confession: Continuing the Reformation to Attain Unity of the catholic (universal) Church

I. The Reforming Catholic Confession (RCC) in Context
One criticism of the Protestant Reformation that is often raised is that it splintered the universal church in the 16th century. The sectarian spirit of the Reformation not only undermines ecclesiastical authority; it also engenders a rebellious spirit resulting in radical individualism and secularization of of modern society. The proliferation of Protestant denominations only confirms the perception that the Reformation is a tragedy to Christianity.

It is therefore appropriate that recently, more than 250 Protestant leaders and theologians published “A Reforming Catholic Confession (RCC) –A “Mere Protestant” Statement of Faith to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.”

The RCC begins by setting the diversity of Protestant denominations in proper perspective.

Not every denominational or doctrinal difference is a division, certainly not an insurmountable one. We dare hope that the unity to which the Reformers aspired may be increasingly realized as today’s “mere” Protestants, like Richard Baxter’s and C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christians,” joyfully join together to bear united witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to its length, depth, breadth, and width – in a word, its catholicity

The RCC lays out a set of eleven carefully and precisely formulated doctrinal statements [D] under the following headings: Triune God, Holy Scripture, Human Beings, Fallenness, Jesus Christ, The Atoning Work of Christ, The Gospel, The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, Baptism and Lord’s Supper, Holy Living and Last Things. This is accompanied by an explanatory document, Explanation. A Historical and Theological Perspective: Why we say what we say

I shall give only a few abridged statements of the RCC as a sample to provide a sense of its precise formulation accompanied by an irenic spirit.

Triune God
That there is one God, infinitely great and good, the creator and sustainer of all things visible and invisible, the one true source of light and life, who has life in himself and lives eternally in glorious light and sovereign love in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14) – co-equal in nature, majesty, and glory…God has freely purposed from before the foundation of the world to elect and form a people for himself to be his treasured possession (Deut. 7:6), to the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:3-14).

Holy Scripture
That God has spoken and continues to speak in and through Scripture, the only infallible and sufficiently clear rule and authority for Christian faith, thought, and life (sola scriptura)…The Bible is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it commands, trusted in all that it promises, and revered in all that it reveals (2 Tim 3:16).

Jesus Christ
That Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God become human for us and our salvation (John 3:17), the only Mediator (solus Christus) between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5), born of the virgin Mary, the Son of David and servant of the house of Israel (Rom. 1:3; 15:8), one person with two natures, truly God and truly man… He lived a fully human life, having entered into the disorder and brokenness of fallen existence, yet without sin…

The Atoning Work of Christ
By his death in our stead, he revealed God’s love and upheld God’s justice, removing our guilt, vanquishing the powers that held us captive, and reconciling us to God (Isa. 53:4-6; 2 Cor. 5:21; Col. 2:14-15). It is wholly by grace (sola gratia), not our own works or merits, that we have been forgiven; it is wholly by Jesus’ shed blood, not by our own sweat and tears, that we have been cleansed.

II. Explanation of the RCC

A. Unity of doctrinal spirit
First, the RCC confronts head on the charge that the incorrigible spirit of divisiveness of the Reformation is a consequence of its adversarial approach to doctrine, rallied under the banner of the “Five Solas” – Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”), Sola Fide (“faith alone”), Sola Gratia (“grace alone”), Solus Christus (“Christ alone”), Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”):

The ongoing doctrinal disputes among the children of the Reformation have led many Christians to adopt an aversion towards doctrine. Hence we hear popular slogan among contemporary Christians that “Doctrine divides, but service unites” or “doctrine stifles but love kindles the spirit.”

The RCC corrects this popular misconception about doctrine by pointing out that difference did not stem from doctrinal disagreements. Doctrinal difference does not mean divisions.

The historical record is irrefutable: Protestants disagreed amongst themselves and begat not one but many church families and traditions. We acknowledge that Protestants have not always handled doctrinal and interpretive differences in a spirit of charity and humility, but in making common confession, as we here do, we challenge the idea that every difference or denominational distinction necessarily leads to division….We believe these divisive doctrinal disagreements stemmed not from the fundamental principles of the Reformation, but from their imperfect application due to human finitude, fallibility, and the vagaries of historical and political circumstance. Nor can we deny that they sometimes succumbed to the ever-present temptations of pride, prejudice, and impatience. [D10-11]

Indeed, the fact that the 250 initial signatories come from a wide range of Protestant denominations offers a unqualified refutation of the slogan that doctrine divides. More importantly, the irenic spirit of the RCC and its invitation to further dialogue is a demonstration that doctrine gives practical guidance to believers on how to conform to the truth of God in love. That is to say, doctrine and love are not mutually exclusive.

The RCC provides an example of how believers should handle doctrinal difference in a spirit of love that would lend credibility to the proclamation of the Gospel. In the challenging words of Francis Schaeffer,

Before a watching world, an observable love in the midst of difference will show a difference between Christians’ differences and other men’s differences. The world may not understand what the Christians are disagreeing about, but they will very quickly understand the difference of our differences from the world’s differences if they see us having our differences in an open and observable love on a practical level.

We cannot expect the world to understand that on the basis of the holiness of God we are having a different kind of difference, because we are dealing with God’s absolutes. But when they see differences among true Christians who also show an observable unity, this will open the way for them to consider the truth of Christianity and Christ’s claim that the Father did send the Son.

As a matter of fact, we have a greater possibility of showing what Jesus is speaking about here, in the midst of our differences, than we do if we are not differing. Obviously we ought not to go out looking for differences among Christians; there are enough without looking for more. But even so, it is in the midst of a difference that we have our golden opportunity. When everything is going well and we are all standing around in a nice little circle, there is not much to be seen by the world. But when we come to the place where there is a real difference, and we exhibit uncompromised principles but at the same time observable love, then there is something that the world can see, something they can use to judge that these really are Christians, and that Jesus has indeed been sent by the Father. [Francis Schaeffer,  The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: a Christian Worldview (Crossway Books, 1982), vol. 4, pp. 201-202]


B. Unity of doctrinal substance
Second, the RCC does not compromise on doctrinal substance for the sake of superficial unity which glosses over denominational doctrinal distinctiveness.

Kevin Vanhoozer , one of the drafters of the RCC explains in an interview with The Logos Academic Blog, Kevin Vanhoozer Announces a Reforming Catholic Confession:

We’re not trying to replace any one church’s confession of faith. We’re trying to show that Protestants actually can agree about matters of theological substance. So, this isn’t a least-common-denominator statement of faith. We’re trying to make this as robust as possible, but we’re trying to show that the Reformation didn’t give birth to simply a plethora of conflicting opinions. Some people think that the Protestant church is an experiment that has failed dramatically. It split the church. That’s not the way we’re viewing it. We’re trying to show, on the eve of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, that Protestants from different churches, different denominations, different local churches can come together and agree about the substance of the faith—the faith delivered once for all to the saints and recovered, we think, at the Reformation. That’s the main purpose of our confession; it’s not to displace anybody else’s. We’re not starting a new church. We’re simply trying to disprove the prevailing narrative that Protestants can’t state their beliefs together, that the doctrine always divides. We’re trying to show that these doctrines, the essential doctrines, actually unite Protestants.

Nevertheless, the RCC maintains theological integrity by being candid about the fact that it is a Protestant doctrinal statement. Vanhoozer elaborates,

We’re not Roman Catholics, we’re reforming catholics. We want to argue that the Protestant Reformation was all about reforming the Catholic Church, not starting a new one. There is only one church. So we are reforming catholic theologians. We believe the substance of the faith with the church fathers, with the medieval theologians, but we’re not Roman. We think “Roman” limits catholicity, and we actually feel we have a wider and more universal catholicity. “Reforming” signals our intent that our confession of faith is always under the authority of God’s written Word.

We primarily see ourselves not as Protestants defining themselves against others but rather as mere Protestant Christians who affirm the common spiritual tradition to which creedal Christianity bears eloquent witness. … we all value the Reformation solas, not simply because they distinguish us from Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christians, but rather because they are salient reminders to the whole church that God alone saves in Christ alone through faith alone. [D18]

Rather than fostering a homogeneous unity under an ecclesiastical authority which claims infallible authority, the RCC advocates for a unity of faith grounded in the Word of God which alone can provide the adequate foundation and appropriate boundaries for a doctrinal unity defined as “Unity in the essentials, liberty in non-essentials and charity in all things.”

What we offer is not a harmony of Protestant confessions, or an attempt to discover our lowest common doctrinal denominator, much less a charter for a new denominational entity or ecumenical organization. Rather, our statement aims at displaying an interdenominational unity in the essentials of the faith and agreement that the Word of God alone has final jurisdiction – hence “mere” (focused on the essentials) “Protestant” (founded on the Bible). [D15]


III. Dialogue and Unity on the Word of God
Third, the RCC disagrees with the charge that the Protestant Reformation was responsible for schism within the church. On the contrary, the RCC has a positive, albeit modest agenda of recovering the unity of faith found in the great tradition which began with the church fathers, insofar as they are in agreement with the infallible Word of God.

The Reformers also affirmed the material sense of catholicity (i.e., historical consensus; continuity in doctrinal substance) in retrieving the great tradition of the church fathers, insofar as it was in accordance with the Scriptures. In sum, “the Reformers directed their protest against the Roman Catholic Church not at the concept of catholicity but towards those unwarranted dogmas based on an appeal to human tradition rather than Scripture. What protests the Reformers made were ultimately lodged on behalf of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” [D3]

In effect, the RCC faithfully embodies the doctrinal and ecclesiastical vision of the Protestant Reformers who believed “their efforts to be both catholic and evangelical, that is, on behalf of the whole church and for the sake of the integrity of the gospel, particularly the singularity and sufficiency of Christ’s person and saving work (solus Christus).” [D1]

Kevin Vanhoozer is adamant that the goal of the Protestant Reformation in general, and the RCC in particular is not to divide the church, but to reiterate that the truism that the universal church becomes most united when all ecclesiastical traditions pledge allegiance to sola Scriptura, the authority of God’s written Word.

The term “reforming catholic” may prompt some questions: What’s that? What’s a reforming catholic? The first thing we want you to hear is a little of echo or an allusion to “Roman Catholic.” We’re not Roman Catholics, we’re reforming catholics. We want to argue that the Protestant Reformation was all about reforming the Catholic Church, not starting a new one. There is only one church. So we are reforming catholic theologians. We believe the substance of the faith with the church fathers, with the medieval theologians, but we’re not Roman. We think “Roman” limits catholicity, and we actually feel we have a wider and more universal catholicity. “Reforming” signals our intent that our confession of faith is always under the authority of God’s written Word. We are always reforming. In fact, one of the reasons we have so many churches in Protestantism is that we don’t always agree. But together we agree that we should all be listening to what Scripture says, and therefore we should all be listening to one another insofar as we have insights into Scripture. So a reforming catholic church, we’re stating our continuity with the one great tradition, but we’re also stating our allegiance to sola Scriptura. This is one great tradition under the authority of God’s written Word.

For this reason, the RCC argues that interpretive disagreements among the Protestants should be viewed in the context of our ever greater agreements about Scripture.

Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). Various sixteenth-century Protestant groups – including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and some Anabaptists – produced confessions that not only demarcated their respective identities but also, and more crucially, established their catholic bona fides. In view of their catholic credentials, the common notion that Protestants are theological innovators who are hopelessly divided over doctrine because of a lack of centralized authority is an unwarranted caricature. On the contrary: as mere Protestants, we all acknowledge the Triune God of the gospel and the gospel of the triune God, including the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ and the biblical testimony about him. While we continue to disagree about the particular form and content of certain doctrines, we together affirm God’s Word as the singular and ultimate authority to which we must all submit our respective interpretations for judgment. Our interpretive disagreements must therefore be viewed in the context of our even greater agreements about Scripture. It is in this spirit, with hope and prayer, that we together confess our common faith. [D12]

Finally, the RCC ends with a call for continuing doctrinal dialogue.

We are under no illusion that the statement of our mere Protestant faith will suddenly usher in a millennial age of church unity. We continue to appreciate the distinctive emphases of our respective churches, denominations, and confessional traditions. We wish to discuss our remaining differences in a spirit not of divisiveness but discipleship … We therefore resolve, with God’s help, to recognize and honor our distinctions even as we resist schism, seeking to achieve greater unity as we continue the discussion, humbly listening to one another as we together hearken to God’s word. [D21, 25]

YES, the Reforming Catholic Confession is a fitting reminder that the Reformation should continue as believers of all Christian traditions dialogue in the spirit of love and obedient discipleship, so that the catholic (universal) church may attain unity that pleases the one God who alone deserves all glory.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth…The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. [John 17: 17-19, 22-23]