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How Kuyper can bring evangelicals and Catholics together

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Have Catholics sacrificed the integrity of their faith tradition by allying with conservative evangelicals (like me)?

Matthew Walther, a national correspondent at The Week, thinks so. Walther claims the alliance between Catholics and evangelical Protestants was born of supposedly shared values. “In fact, few shared values exist,” says Walther.

Seemingly in exchange for the cooperation of evangelicals, conservative American Catholics have abandoned one of the great jewels in the crown of the Church, her modern social magisterium, the tradition that runs from Pope Pius IX’s denunciation of Victorian-era classical liberalism to Pope Francis’ Heideggerian assault on the merciless logic of globalized technocratic capitalism. For evangelicals, the idea that there is a common good toward which the political order must be oriented — and that this mutual flourishing cannot be conceived of as the mere aggregate of millions of individuals pursuing their own material interests with limited interference from the state — has no basis in theology. In return for evangelicals’ acknowledgement of one evil, Catholics have learned to ignore what the Church has to tell them about how we are to live in the world with one another.

Walther’s disparagement of evangelical theology, whether borne out of animus or ignorance (or possibly both), is not particularly surprising. Walther is among the young firebrand “traditionalists” whose primary pose is to be “more Catholic than thou.” For example, Catholics who deny that government is responsible for providing everyone with healthcare are, as Walther implies, essentially Protestants. When someone has such uninformed disdain for Catholics who don’t read the social encyclicals the way he does, you can’t expect him to have much respect for us lowly evangelicals.

If Walther had a better understanding of both evangelicalism and Catholicism, he’d be able to see our common ground is based on common grace and a common creed.

Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) was about a big a fan of “Romanism” as Walther is of Protestantism. But Kuyper agreed there are two specific realms—creedal confession and morals—that are “not subject to controversy between Rome and ourselves.”

“[W]hat we have in common with Rome concerns precisely those fundamentals of our Christian creed now most fiercely assaulted by the modern spirit,” said Kuyper.

As J. Daryl Charles explains, Kuyper contend that differences of theology and ecclesiogy were “not now the points on which the struggle of the age is concentrated.” Rather, “the lines of battle” are drawn as follows:

  • Theism versus atheism and pantheism
  • Human fallenness versus human perfectibility
  • The divine Christ versus Jesus the mere man
  • The cross as a sacrifice of reconciliation versus a mere symbol of martyrdom
  • The Bible as inspired by God versus a purely human product
  • The Ten Commandments as ordained by God versus a mere archaeological document
  • The eternally established ordinances of God versus an ever-changing law and morality spun out of human subjectivity

“The character of common grace in Kuyperian thought is mirrored in its accent on our shared humanity, common moral ground, and public responsibility based on the created order,” says Charles. “As a theological reality, it has its roots in the absolute sovereignty of God, a sturdy doctrine of creation, and a full-orbed, all-encompassing understanding of redemption.” He adds,

In addition to Kuyper’s insistence that two realms—creedal confession and morality—are the basis for Protestant–Roman Catholic unity, a further bit of evidence indicates that natural law represents common ground between Kuyper and Roman Catholicism. In 1897, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his editorship of De Standaard, Kuyper stated what was his one great passion in life: “to affirm God’s holy statutes” in all of life and “to engrave God’s holy order,” known through creation and Scripture, “upon the nation’s public conscience.”

Walther is probably right in claiming that “few shared values exist” if that requires Catholics and evangelicals to submit their consciences to a particularly left-leaning interpretation of Catholic social teaching. But I believe that Kuyper is correct in claiming that shared creeds, common grace, and natural law are the more natural basis for ecumenical cultural engagement. And I agree with Charles that, “If we update Kuyper’s program where needed and push it in a fuller ecumenical direction, the fruit might be rich beyond measure.”

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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