August 14, 2012

Protestants and the New Evangelization

Cardinal George and Dr. Armstrong at Wheaton (Photo credit: Vimeo)

By Julia Polese

In April, Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, and evangelical leader Dr. John Armstrong of the ecumenical Act III network sat down at Wheaton College for a discussion about cooperation between evangelicals and Catholics. It was a fairly interesting conversation, even if I thought Dr. Armstrong was a little squishy on the doctrinal boundaries of evangelical Protestantism while Cardinal George stood his ground about believing the church of Rome held “all the gifts” Christ has bestowed to his church on Earth. In a telling moment, Dr. Armstrong praised Fr. Robert Barron, a well-known priest who released a video series explaining the faith for evangelistic purposes. He said Protestants could learn from the way he preaches Jesus. “We need more Bob Barrons, we need more preachers,” he said. Chuckling, Cardinal George pointed out that the video series is called “Catholicism, and if you were doing it, it would be called The Gospel.”

I thought the most pertinent conversation to the situation currently facing all Christians symptomatically in the HHS mandate and broadly in the secularization of culture was their different descriptions of evangelism (or, in Catholic language, evangelization; George: “We thought [evangelism] was a Protestant word.”). When asked to define evangelization, Cardinal George started out with a history of the Christianizing of Western culture. He emphasized that when Pope Benedict XVI talks about the New Evangelization, he primarily means the broader philosophical underpinnings of a culture. “You evangelize people[…] so that they have living faith and also plant a church so there is an institution that can have a public voice.” While he emphasizes that the City of Man will never be the City of God, he claims that reevangelizing formerly Christian cultures makes it easier for people to discover a living faith. “Culture is a normative system. […] It tells you what’s important. So does faith. You’ve got two normative systems.” And, as George said, if they are clashing, it’s “very schizophrenic.”

George points out that as the culture secularizes, the narrative becomes “we’re going to have progress. We’re not going to go back, we’re going to go forward” and the church has become a symbol of backwardness. In light of this, Armstrong dismissed the common Evangelical idea that Catholics and Protestants can be partners in cultural issues, but not on the gospel. I disagree with his dismissal. We can’t do evangelism (in the Protestant sense) without the same understanding of the evangel; however, evangelization can be an ecumenical idea. Protestants need a renewal of cultural understanding and can learn a lot from Rome’s self-reflective philosophical stance and the HHS mandate could be the catalyst for such cooperation.

The central problem with the heterodoxy of many of the mainline Protestant denominations is the acceptance of a culture that has vastly different presuppositions about human flourishing. Due to the cultural vacuum presented by a lot of American Protestantism, accepting the values of increasingly secular culture or, as was the case with much of the more conservative end of the spectrum the past few decades, placing culture on the very narrow and unproductive stage of control over the state. Evangelicalism is not immune to this trend. Much of contemporary evangelicalism has diluted its witness and claims to be “in, but not of” the world while adopting many of the values of contemporary American culture. The “relevant” ideal presented by megachurchianity also embraces the wider American individualism and consumerism.

All this goes back to buying the narrative that the church is the enemy of progress. Thinking if we could only add a little Bible to the rushing stream of consumerism or progressivism or the aftershocks of the secular revolution the culture would like us has turned out to be a poor strategy. Instead, Catholics and historical Protestants together can be the salmon fighting upstream by offering a competing but attractive view of human flourishing (and making lots of salmon babies, which seems to be one of the most counter-cultural statements in contemporary society).

Protestants can keep our preachers of the Word, but learn from the Catholic ethos of vocation behind the New Evangelization. God’s calling – vocare – out of darkness into light is an all-encompassing one that includes our creativity and productivity. Let’s lend some of that to evangelization of culture by a fruitful presence.

If God is for us, who can be against us?

Soon, I will head up to Philadelphia to start my fellowship with the John Jay Institute. The John Jay Institute is an ecumenical Christian organization with the vision “to raise up men and women of high principles who are characterized by the virtues of wisdom and justice, truth and mercy, prudence and courage.” Lead by an Anglican and a Catholic, the discussions my fellow Fellows and I will have in class will surely touch on these themes of cooperation in the public square across the Tiber and the Thames and I hope they prove fruitful for the broader culture. I am very grateful to IRD for giving me the opportunity to think and write about these issues facing the church during my internship this summer and I am excited to continue reasoning through them.


  • ib

    Congratulations on the John Jay Fellowship. May you have a blessed time there!

    However, the problem lies deeper than you seem to see. It’s not that mainline Protestant denominations accept a culture with “vastly different presuppositions about human flourishing” or that megachurches embrace “the wider American individualism and consumerism,” but that the fundamental principle of “private judgement” with regard to the reception and interpretation of Scripture, and by extension, all of Christian doctrine and practice, empowers these unkempt approaches.

    Right at the beginning of Protestant thought Luther declared that interpretation of the Scripture could only be according to “private judgement” (Martin Luther, Authority of Councils and Churches). There were no other guides to interpreting the Scripture than the inner movement of the individual’s will when he/she read it. Of course Luther also held that the Scriptures were so clear and transparent that every Christian (lead by the Holy Spirit, of course) would naturally agree. So what happens when two disagree? “Oh, you don’t agree with me? Then you must be lacking the Holy Spirit and not really a Christian!” And this has happened for 500 years as Protestantism splintered and fragmented over profound disagreements about Scripture. Sure, the believer can enter into discussions, debates, even trials over this or that jot or tittle, but no individual can override another’s “private judgement”. That’s why “vastly different presuppositions about human flourishing” that embrace “individualism and consumerism,” can never be extirpated from Protestantism as a whole.

    Social forces can keep a group of like-minded individuals centered around a shared “private judgement,” but it becomes impossible to enthrone that shared “private judgement” since that would undermine the very principle of “private judgement” to do so. In the history of Protestantism such enthronement has been tried hundreds of times and has led to the hundreds of varieties of Protestantism, many of them quite heterodox.