At the end of the last academic term, there was a vote in Unity in Christ (UiC), Cal’s interfellowship group, on whether to admit Newman Hall, the Roman Catholic community on campus, to membership. After some discussion, a two-thirds vote came out in favour of Newman joining UiC. While I approve of recognizing Rome as part of the Body of Christ, which the Apostles’ Creed calls the Holy Catholic Church – especially as I see the opposite as born largely of sectarian bigotry – I would like to express my reservations about what I consider to have been undue procedural haste. My interest in discussing this matter now, months after the vote, is to clarify the role of this journal in promoting careful, frank dialogue within the Church as Christians seek greater visible unity.
My position on Rome in the Holy Catholic Church
Before proceeding with an account of the UiC deliberations, I wish to give my position as I stated it on my blog before the vote:
To deny [Newman] membership without clear and rigorous principle, I think, would be both sectarian and bigoted. It’s my hope that, with the progress of dialogue and theological growth in the Holy Spirit, Rome will be reformed of its errors and impieties – including its claims of supremacy in [God’s] Church – and its bishop [i.e. the Pope] take his [proper place among the bishops].
Many Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians, I think, could agree with these sentiments, both the hope for genuine unity and the demand for theological and practical reform in the Church of Rome. As faithful believers in an idolatrous Israel were called to pray for God’s mercy and Israel’s repentance rather than ceasing to identify with Israel at all, so I believe it necessary for those of us who are not in the Church of Rome to reason with our brethren rather than practically disclaim connexion to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.For more detailed discussion, I direct the reader to Bishop Joseph Hall’s No Peace with Rome (1611). In this book Hall wrote that the catholic Church, of which the Church of England formed a part, had fallen into corruptions, of which the Church of England had now purged herself, and that the Church of England should denounce the errors of the Church of Rome without denying her catholicity.
The hitches in principle
Without clear principle, nothing can reasonably bar any part of the Church, however different, from fellowship with any other part. The principle potentially barring Newman from membership at the time of the vote was related to UiC’s mission and Statement of Faith, to which all member groups formally subscribe.Though I would prefer the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the so-called Athanasian Creed and additional material from the Augsburg Confession, UiC has its own Statement of Faith drawn from scratch. The purpose statement at the head of the UiC Constitution begins as follows:
We, the Christian communities and fellowships of UC Berkeley, united invisibly by Christ in His body, establish this group, Unity in Christ (UiC), to provide a visible structure for our mutual fellowship and sharing of gifts. The purpose of UiC is:
(1) To promote unity and fellowship of Christians around Christ;
(2) To assist and support one another in prayer, service, and evangelism;
(3) To facilitate and provide support for new students seeking churches and Christian fellowship.
The first item listed is unobjectionable but often bland in practice; the second and third vary in difficulty according to theological difference: a Calvinist, for instance, may easily object to some of the ways in which an Arminian teaches the faith in evangelism, and a Charismatic may find it very hard to endorse a fellowship whose leaders are Cessationists. Nevertheless, the constitutionally stated purpose of UiC is the context in which to understand the UiC Statement of Faith as well. To the purpose articulated, the Statement of Faith includes the following article for members to subscribe to:
God’s mercy is only because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to humankind, and this justification is received by faith alone.
Newman’s leaders and designated contacts have always claimed to be able to subscribe to this article in good conscience. Though not doubting their sincerity, I continue to have concerns, concerns that have not been eased by the answer given to a question posed as to what Newman took to be the requirements for salvation. The answer had three distinct ideas, which I shall treat in turn:
(1) Disclaimer: Within Newman there may be different personal views.
This first statement, while a necessary corrective how many Protestants view Roman Catholics, is irrelevant to the question. Diversity of views is normal in any church: what matters is whether the group’s official position allows its leaders to subscribe to the UiC Statement of Faith. As far as I know, this position must include the doctrines defined by the Council of Trent in the 16th century, with any dogmatic adjustments made by subsequent councils of the Church of Rome (e.g. Vatican II).
(2) The one definitive factor is (profession of) faith in Jesus as Lord and God.
This second statement is unclear. It certainly accords with statements made by Protestants,Indeed, this statement from the Newman contact person attaches even more weight to the self-conscious profession of faith than I would as a firm Protestant. but the question at hand applies more specifically to the UiC Statement of Faith, and whether Newman’s leaders can subscribe to all its articles, including the article on justification. Part of the fault lies with the question, since it asked more broadly about the doctrine of salvation, not particularly about the doctrine of justification, but the answer did fail to address the issue of the meritorious grounds for a believer’s justification.
(3) Acts and works of kindness will come from true faith: with God’s compassion and Jesus’ gift to humanity, how would you not want to express God’s love to others?
This third statement, while true and affirmed by all, is irrelevant. The question is not whether works follow from faith but whether the Christian believer is reckoned righteous on the sole grounds of Christ’s righteousness outside the believer, a righteousness received through the believer’s faith. In essence, can a believer be reckoned righteous for Christ’s merits alone, without reference to any merit, internal to him, for which God owes him something by right?
Newman’s subscription to the UiC Statement of Faith requires first understanding of the ideas it contains and then assent to those contents.Whatever the statements set forth by the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, this requirement holds in the particular case of Newman. While I question the idea of Christ’s righteousness being reckoned to all mankind (except in a general sense, by the Incarnation as completed in the Crucifixion), preferring to state (1) the reckoning of Adam’s sin to Christ and (2) Christ’s obedience as the sole meritorious grounds for God’s declaring the Christian righteous,Double imputation, the notion that god the Father regards Christ’s good works as having been done by the believer, has been and still is a matter of disagreement among Protestants, but the sole source of merit according to Protestant doctrine is the perfection of Christ: ‘Forgiveness of sins being previously given, the good works which follow have a value different from their merit, because whatever is imperfect in them is covered by the perfection of Christ, and all their blemishes and pollutions are wiped away by his purity, so as never to come under the cognizance of the divine tribunal. The guilt of all transgressions, by which men are prevented from offering God an acceptable service, being thus effaced, and the imperfection which is wont to sully even good works being buried, the good works which are done by believers are deemed righteous, or; which is the same thing, are imputed for righteousness.’ still I can subscribe to the Statement in good faith. It is not clear, however, that the Newman contact, for his part, understood the required article well enough to speak officially for his group’s subscription to the Statement.
The vote on Newman’s prospective UiC membership took place without another meeting with Newman contacts, a week after the visit I have examined above. At the time of the vote, at least some who had taken part in the deliberations were not satisfied with the information upon which they were asked to make a decision, and it seemed that the answers, whether by design or not, evaded the matters at hand.
While Newman has been formally admitted, I find in the process a lack of clarity that has not served the interest of true concord. Where clarity could have been had, I believe that last semester’s schedule put a premature stop to measured deliberation, and so I had rather that the process had been either started earlier in the fall semester or continued into the spring semester.Whether the awkward timing was part of any party’s intention I do not know, nor do I find it useful to speculate; but if the timing was a political manœuvre on anyone’s part, whether in favour of admitting Newman or against, I call upon those at fault to repent publicly. Some in attendance must have had concerns about the little time given for deliberation, if not about the inadequacy of the answers given by the Newman contact. It is quite possible that these problems have led to unresolved resentment at a vote whose momentum trumped the desire of some for greater caution.
Church unity is hard work. It cannot be achieved by mere momentum, and like marriage will not allow problems to be swept under a rug.
Knowing I am not alone in my dissatisfaction with the answers given by Newman regarding the article on justification in the UiC Statement of Faith, I call for clearer discussion of the matter, even if further discussion reveals facts that we would rather not see. Discussion may even lead to conclusion that Newman was not well admitted at the time of the vote or that the Constitution must be changed because, like it or not, Newman is part of the (reformed and unreformed) Church in Berkeley. What the future holds, I cannot say. Nevertheless I feel compelled to break the silence, because the feeling of Church unity, even enshrined in official documents, cannot stand in for genuine unity. Such discussion as I urge will demand both commitment to apostolic doctrine and willingness to talk honestly without giving unnecessary offence. In the absence of either, the Church here will suffer either an erosion of doctrinal bounds or an unspoken sectarian hypervigilance. And either an overpermissive or a schismatic spirit would lead away from biblical faith and practice and, like all sinful habits, impair our ability to serve God in the way he calls us to serve.
We need to keep talking.