New Evangelicalism and Catholicism


I have been surprised from time to time to find that some think that the official plank of the New Evangelicalism included a desire for rapprochement with Catholicism. The first time I heard that was close to twenty years ago and it was stated as one of the reasons that the softer fundamentalism that was emerging would not become the new New Evangelicalism. I remember thinking to myself, hasn’t this guy ever read anything about the original New Evangelicalism?

To charge those early men with having a desire for rapprochement with Catholicism is to slander them and create confusion about what the real differences between Fundamentalism and New Evangelism were. For instance, with regard to Catholicism, in 1947 one of the New Evangelical founders, Carl Henry, wrote, “It is a sober realism, rather than undue alarm, that prompts the fear that, unless we experience a rebirth of apostolic passion, Fundamentalism in two generations will be reduced either to a tolerated cult status or, in the event of Roman Catholic domination in the United States, become once again a despised and oppressed sect” (The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism [Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1947], p. 9).

Additionally, George Marsden clearly has demonstrated that the early New Evangelicals were very anti-Catholic. In commenting on the spirit at Fuller Seminary, Marsden illustrates his point with content from a book by Harold Lindsell, A Christian Philosophy of Missions, which was the substance of a course he taught at Fuller. Marsden notes that Lindsell, articulated with logic and clarity the conventional evangelical views of the day.

In line with the themes set by his colleagues, Lindsell placed the missions question in the context of the world crisis. As others would have agreed, Lindsell saw three massive world forces threatening Christianity: secularism-modernism, communism, and Catholicism. At the early Fuller, no one would have dissented from Lindsell’s remark that Catholicism was among the “arch enemies of America and our way of life and true faith.” [Harold J.] Ockenga was renowned in Boston for his opposition to Catholic power, and [Wilbur] Smith routinely listed Catholicism along with communism as a major threat. Anti-Catholicism was simply an unquestioned part of the fundamentalist-evangelicalism of the day (Reforming Fundamentalism, p. 84).

This hardly sounds like a desire for rapprochement! New Evangelicalism was anything but intent on heading back to Rome—even Edward J. Carnell, one of the progressives at Fuller, did not hesitate to do battle against Catholicism. While I am not in agreement with his basic ethical approach, his critique of Catholicism in A Philosophy of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1952), is stinging:

the Catholic church is consciously seeking the religious control of America. By overseeing education, marriage, politics, the press, movies, and social-economic centers, the church has already worked herself into a position of advance prestige in the country. The Catholic goal is a final, religious totalitarianism where the state employs its power and finances to support and defend “the true religion.” If the Catholic hierarchy should gain the powers it is aiming for—and it assures all that it will, either tomorrow or a century from tomorrow—a dictatorial system will so overlord our life that wholesome fellowship in Jesus Christ would be as difficult to enjoy as it would be if communism gained the hegemony…one would be very deluded if he supposed that fellowship under Catholic domination would be easier than under a secular dictatorship. The aim of the Vatican is to bring every national government under its control, until in the end Catholicism is the only tolerated religion in the world (pp. 432-433)

Carnell held sentiments very close to those of most Fundamentalists on the issue of Catholic people over against the Catholic church.

Although the heart quickly restores a feeling of love and sympathy toward the persons of those already won to the Catholic Church, it cannot but feel toward the system of Catholicism as Christ did toward the system of Pharisaism: By a tradition of men the law of God has been made void. Because the Catholic Church is exploiting the sinner’s best friend to increase her own power, the heart is estranged from fellowship with such an institution (p. 443).

Lest one miss the point, note Carnell’s final words on this matter:

Regardless how vast the Catholic Church may become, how immense her coverage of the earth, let no true believer in Jesus Christ tremble before institutional prestige. If Christ is an authoritative revelation of the Father’s will, Catholicism is anti-Christ. That much is lucidly clear. The gospel according to Christ and the gospel according to Rome cannot, in a rational universe, simultaneously be true. Romanism will fail (p. 448).

It simply isn’t true that New Evangelicalism was initially soft on Catholicism. There is no doubt that the tent was pitched in a direction that would eventually tone down its rhetoric and soften its resistance, but I doubt that Ockenga, Henry, & Co. would ever have positively anticipated things like Evangelicals and Catholics Together, full participation by Catholics in Graham crusades, or the many highly publicized migrations of “evangelical” scholars back to Rome. Ideas have consequences. The New Evangelical idea had many bad consequences, and among the worst of them was the softening of evangelicalism’s stance regarding the false doctrines of Rome.

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