The Catholic–Evangelical Forum began with a welcome and opening statement by our moderator Alan Krashesky, followed by a prayer by Father Wilbur Ellsworth, the chairman of the ACT 3 board. Each of the four of the speakers gave an eight-minute opening.
My comments addressed the ecumenical question from the perspective of my own evangelical journey of faith, revealing how I came to embrace this kind of public dialog and effort for unity among Christians. I shared about my own childhood background in the South, my narrowly anti-Catholic perspective, and then my days as an evangelical minister who made no real public effort at all to converse with Catholics other than with an intention to convert them to my evangelicalism. (There were two exceptions as I recall. As a teenager, one of my best friends was a Catholic and we talked about faith issues constantly, which made me realize that we did share a great deal in common. The other was a rather close friendship with an excellent priest, now deceased, who I got to know during my first church-planting ministry in Bolingbrook, Illinois, 1972-76.) I then expressed how I came to embrace the overall concept of biblical ecumenism by preaching from John 17, by meeting diverse people and cultures, and by having the words of the Apostles Creed hit me very directly in 1997: “one, holy, catholic church . . .” I resolved, as I told the audience, to make it my passion to defend the Church, to love the whole catholic Church and to seek her unity through relationships with all Christians that I met and associated with personally. This informal ecumenism led to my more formal involvements which now include serving on boards and in settings that include Christians from all three of the great traditions. One example is the Institute on Religion in Democracy in Washington, D.C. Another is my passion for Acton Institute in Grand Rapids. And to my pleasant surprise my very dear friend Wilbur Ellsworth, the chairman of our ACT 3 board, entered the Orthodox Church this year as a priest. Our board refused his resignation precisely because we saw the hand of God upon our work in this matter and wanted to maintain the very unity I had been promoting for some years.
My opening comments were then followed by my friend Tom Baima’s reflections on the history of the ecumenical movement in the 20th century and the entrance of the Roman Catholic Church into this process following Vatican II. Tom is a specialist on this subject, having directed the office for ecumenical affairs for the Chicago Archdiocese before he became provost at Mundelein Seminary. He showed how liberalism had broken down the best kind of Christian ecumenism and why Catholics and evangelicals were naturally more interested in this kind of effort since they share many of the same core beliefs with passion. One thinks of C. S. Lewis here and the concept of "mere Christianity" as a starting point at least. This is the kind of thinking that explains the success of magazines like First Things and Touchstone, both of which are friends to ACT 3.
Father Robert Barron then gave a stirring and effective address on how we could approach our differences much better by returning to the issue of the gospel. He asked: "What is the good news?" He suggested that we seemed much closer to one another now than we were some decades ago and that a new way might well be pursued that would further open new doors for better dialog and convergence. This new way would be for Catholics and evangelicals to pursue the theology of theosis, or deification. This idea, almost entirely absent from evangelical thought, draws on 2 Peter 1:4 which refers to us “sharing in the divine nature” through the “very great and precious promises” of the good news. (This does NOT mean we become little gods, as anyone who knows Christian theology will readily recognize.) This suggestion created much interest among our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters who were in attendance. (We are planning a forum on “Christianity East and West” for a future ACT 3 event.) I personally believe this suggestion should be heeded and that we should pursue it with much more personal interest. I also believe it is not the single solution to the problems that still divide us. Barron, to say the least, energized the audience and put an engaging biblical idea before us all.
Finally, Dr. P. Andrew Sandlin followed with an excellent presentation on the message of the good news. Beginning with 2 Corinthians 5:19 Dr. Sandlin stressed that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing [counting] their trespasses to [against] them.” Andrew declared that 2,000 years ago God dramatically acted in Jesus of Nazareth to bring back to himself an estranged human race. This, he said, "is the world’s good news.” The Bible calls this the gospel, or evangel. This message formed the heart of the mission of Jesus’ earliest followers after his death and resurrection. This kerygma, foreshadowed in the Old Testament, and revealed fully in the New Testament, is our basis for mission and ministry. Thus the New Testament is principally the enumeration, interpretation and application of the redemptive events centered in the person of Jesus Christ. The good news, said Sandlin, “is that God has done something by means of Jesus—he has taken the initiative—to bring us back into his good graces.”
I will unpack more of this ACT 3 Forum tomorrow but these four presentations set the stage for the dialog that followed and it was an open and fruitful one to say the least. Watch for more on the ACT 3 site about the DVD.