Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. First Things, whose first publisher Richard John Neuhaus was a founding ECT member, is hosting a variety of reflections on ECT’s two decades, and in its latest issue published a new ECT statement, “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage.”
The first ECT statement was put out in 1994. But as recalled by Charles W. Colson, another founding member of ECT, the foundations of evangelical and Roman Catholic dialogue go back much further. The Dutch Reformed theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was a major influence on the thinking of Colson, and as Colson argues, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which created such controversy, was launched actually by Kuyper a century ago. It is not new.”
Colson made this bold claim in a speech in 1998, at a conference at Calvin College (co-sponsored by the Acton Institute), on the legacies of two great modern representatives of these traditions, Kuyper and Leo XIII.
In his closing address to the conference (as part of the proceedings published in the Journal of Markets & Morality; video of Colson’s address is available here), Colson pointed to the idea of worldview as determinative for both confessions:
Worldview was the key. And, again, Kuyper understood this better than anyone. Speaking of the association of Evangelicals and Catholics in his own day, Kuyper said, “By this unity of conception alone given in Calvinism, that is a worldview, we may once again be able to stand side by side of Romanism in opposition to modern pantheism.” What Kuyper said a hundred years ago is that Christians have to come together to define and defend our worldview, and that is precisely what the document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is all about.
Colson goes on to quote Kuyper’s Stone Lectures at length:
A so-called orthodox Protestant need only mark in his confession and catechism
such doctrines of religion and morals as are not subject to controversy between Rome and ourselves, to perceive immediately that what we have in common with Rome, such concerns that are precisely those fundamentals of our Christian creed, now most fiercely assaulted by the modern spirit. In this conflict [that is of worldviews in conflict a century ago, just as they are today], Rome is not an antagonist but stands on our side, inasmuch as she also recognizes and then maintains the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the Cross as an atoning sacrifice, the Scriptures as the Word of God, and the Ten Commandments as a divinely imposed rule of life. Therefore, let me ask, If Roman Catholic theologians take up the sword to do valiant and skillful battle against the same tendency that we ourselves mean to fight to the death, is it not the part of wisdom to accept their valuable help.
Kuyper became Prime Minister of the Netherlands in large part to a Reformed Protestant/Roman Catholic political coalition based precisely on these shared “fundamentals of our Christian creed.”
That Kuyper found much worthwhile and challenging in the Roman Catholic church is indisputable. The Roman Catholic church was a constant touchstone and foil for his work. For instance, in Kuyper’s 1891 speech at the First Christian Social Congress in the Netherlands, he notes the appearance of Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum that same year, which inaugurated the tradition of modern Roman Catholic social teaching. In this case, Kuyper uses Roman Catholicism as an inspiration for the Reformed to do better, to achieve more:
We must admit, to our shame, that the Roman Catholics are far ahead of us in their study of the social problem. Indeed, very far ahead. The action of the Roman Catholics should spur us to show more dynamism. The encyclical Rerum novarum of Leo XIII states the principles that are common to all Christians, and which we share with our Roman Catholic compatriots.
So in this way, Colson is right to argue that ECT was launched in spirit, if not in fact, “by Kuyper a century ago.”
For more on Colson and Kuyper, check out this excerpt from Chuck’s last recorded interview, in which he recounts the seminal role Kuyper played in his own intellectual and spiritual development: