Sunday, February 08, 2015

Gregg Allison on Roman Catholicism: “An Evangelical Perspective”

I have spent three blog posts now anticipating the objections to Gregg Allison’s definition of “what is evangelical”. These include:

The big Roman Catholic apologetic thumb on the scales.

On Gregg Allison’s “Roman Catholicism: An Evangelical Assessment”: Responding to Objections on “Exactly What is Evangelicalism?”

These Nonsensical Objections from Bryan Cross are Not to be Trusted.

I don’t want to say too much more about these objections, except that Allison’s description of himself as writing as “an evangelical systematic theologian of the Reformed Baptist variety” and his description of “evangelicalism” as:

not a church or a denomination but a massive broad-tent movement that encompasses thousands of churches and ministries from many different theological persuasions: Reformed, Lutheran, and Arminian; covenantal and dispensational; Pentecostal/ charismatic and non-Pentecostal/ non-charismatic; proponents of infant baptism and supporters of believer’s baptism; complementarians and egalitarians; and much more. Given this amazing theological spectrum, it is not possible to define and present one evangelical theology; evangelical theologies—plural—are the reality.

… does not strike me as dishonest in any way about “where he’s coming from”. He includes himself within this grouping, and he describes his position as “a typical expression of evangelical theology” which he calls “an evangelical vision of life with God and human flourishing”. To which he attributes the following summary characteristics:

God eternally exists as three persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—each of whom is fully God, yet there is only one God. Eternally existing, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are characterized by dynamic, loving relationships (John 17:24–26), mutual glory giving (John 17:4–5), and purposing (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:20–21), part of which included the decision to bring into existence our visible, tangible universe. This plan was actualized as the triune God created the world and everything in it ex nihilo, or “out of nothing” (Gen. 1:1; Heb. 11:3).

Light and darkness, the dry land and the seas, the sun, moon, and stars, trees and plants, the fish, birds, land animals—everything was formed (Gen 1:2–25), seemingly in preparation for a final, special, climactic creature; indeed, this being would be more like God than any other created being. God created human beings in his image and according to his likeness (Gen 1:26–31), which means we both reflect God and represent him in the world in which we live.

As for the reflective element, we human beings display God in whose image we are created, mirroring his love, justice, truth-telling, faithfulness, mercy, power, wisdom, and the like—always imperfectly, partially, and intermixed with sin because of our fallen reality.

The representational aspect consists of two functions (Gen 1:28): procreation (“be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”), which means that most of us are or will be married and have children; and vocation (“subdue [the earth] and have dominion”) or civilization building, which means that we work in such professions as education, politics, business, health care, construction and manufacturing, the arts, and so forth (e.g., Gen. 4:17–22).

We contribute to human flourishing by using our God-given human abilities. Through reflecting God (displaying glimmers of his character) and representing him (establishing a family and building civilization) we engage in the ultimate of purposes: glorifying God.

As divine image-bearers, we are hardwired with an innate sense of God (Acts 17: 2–34), witness his eternal power and divine nature through what we observe in the created order (Rom. 1:18–25), experience further testimony of his goodness as he providentially cares and provides for us (Acts 14: 8–18), and possess an intuitive sense of right and wrong through our conscience (Rom. 2:12–16 ).

Through these modes of general revelation, we know that God exists, we know something about his attributes, and we know some basic moral principles that render us accountable before him. Because of this universal revelation of God, we should worship and honor him as God, give him thanks and depend on him for our very existence, and obey the moral sense in our heart.

Tragically, all image-bearers of God have fallen into sin and live in a world that is not the way it is supposed to be. Personally, we fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23); that is, we do not worship and honor God as we should, we do not give him thanks and depend on him as we should, and we (often, not always) do not obey our moral sense of right and avoid doing what our moral sense indicates is wrong, as we should. All of this is evidence of our alienation from God.

Still, our fallenness does not end here: We are also alienated from other human beings, consumed with ourselves rather than concerned about others, in competition with them, experiencing relational brokenness. Furthermore, we are alienated from ourselves, being darkened in our understanding, chasing after things that will never satisfy, even being self-deceived.

Indeed, we may not even be aware of our present condition of sinfulness: Our conscience may be calloused; we may judge ourselves morally upright by comparing ourselves to others who are worse than us; we may even engage in doing good works (this element does not necessarily mean that we are religious, but often being religious and being part of a faith community that emphasizes doing good contributes to this element), leading us to conclude that we have gained God’s favor.

Deep down inside, however, we know we are not fine: we have a disturbing sense of our own hypocrisy, and though we may hope that God will look favorably on us and our good works, we suspect—rightly—that a perfectly holy and just God does not grade on the curve, and that even the most momentous of human achievements, let alone the meager efforts of most human beings, cannot avail before a perfect God.

So, we are not in a good state, nor are we merely in a neutral position; rather, we are in dire straits. We come into this world weighed down with original sin, and we manifest that reality throughout life: guilty before God, pervasively corrupt in nature (our mind, emotions, will, body, motivations, purposing—everything is marred), and incapable of rectifying our guilt and reorienting our sinful nature from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, from the life of self to life with God.

In this tragic world of fallen human beings, God intervened to rescue his image-bearers.

At the heart of this redemption is Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who, through a miracle wrought by the Holy Spirit, was conceived by the Virgin Mary and became incarnate (Matt. 1: 18–25; Luke 1: 26–38), taking on human nature (Phil. 2: 5– 7).

As the God-man, Jesus lived a perfect life under the law of God (Gal. 4:4), performed miracles to demonstrate his deity, walked in the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:16–21; Acts 10:38; e.g., Luke 4:1), announced and inaugurated the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14–15), taught the masses (e.g., Matthew 5–7), discipled a handful of men (Matt. 10:1–4), faced temptations and trials as every other real and fully human being does yet he never once sinned (Heb. 2:14–18; 4: 14–16), flourished in his relationship with God (e.g., Matt. 11: 25–27), enjoyed intimate personal relationships with people of all kinds (e.g., Mark 2:15–17), and rendered visible the invisible God (Col. 1:15; John 14: 8–9; Heb. 1:3).

Shortly before his death, Jesus was betrayed by a close friend, abandoned by his disciples, charged with and convicted of blasphemy though innocent, beaten, and finally crucified on a cross; his body was laid in a garden tomb, where it reposed for three days (e.g., Matt. 26: 47–27: 66). On the third day, this once-crucified-and-buried Jesus rose from the dead through the power of God.

For forty days he appeared to his disciples, after which he ascended back into heaven (Acts 1:2–3, 9–11) and sat down at the right hand of the Father, from which position he exercises all power and authority as the cosmic head of all created things (Eph. 1:19–21), directs the church or the body of which he is head (Eph. 1:22), intercedes for his followers (Heb. 7:25; Rom. 8:34), and prepares an eternal future for them (John 14:2–3). And he is poised to return again to earth, this time not as a suffering servant in shame and humiliation but as the triumphant King of kings and Lord of lords with power, might, and glory (Revelation 19).

This work of redemption, and how it becomes actualized in the lives of sinful people, is communicated through another means of divine revelation: special revelation, especially Scripture. This written Word of God is characterized by the following attributes: It is inspired, or breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1: 19–21); that is, the Holy Spirit superintended the writers of the Bible in such a way that, preserving their personalities, writing styles, theological emphases, and grammatical abilities, they wrote exactly what God wanted them to write.

Because this Word is God-breathed, it is wholly true (inerrant) in all it affirms (John 17:17), whether it addresses the person and work of Jesus Christ, the existence and nature of angels, the creation of the universe, the history of the Jewish people, the eternal destiny of both the righteous and the wicked, and so forth.

Because it is God-breathed, Scripture is authoritative; that is, it is to be believed and obeyed (Rom. 6:17), just as God himself is to be believed and obeyed. It is effective, igniting faith (Rom. 10: 17), exposing sin (Heb. 4: 12–13), exhibiting the proper path on which to walk, saving hardened sinners, transforming and remaking ruined lives, always accomplishing the purpose for which God gives it (Isa. 55: 10– 11). Scripture is sufficient, containing everything people need to know in order to be saved and to live in a way that fully pleases God (Ps. 19:7–11; 2 Tim. 3:16–17).

It is necessary, that is, needed for fallen human beings to understand the way of salvation, to know God’s will, and to acquire wisdom for godly living (Matt. 4:4; 1 Pet. 2:1–3). Indeed, without Scripture, the church would not exist or be able to exist. Scripture is clear, written in such a way that ordinary human beings who possess the normal acquired ability to understand written/oral communication can read Scripture with understanding or, if they are unable to read, can hear Scripture read and comprehend it (Deut. 29:29).

Finally, Scripture consists of sixty-six books—thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament. These books compose the biblical canon, or proper list of writings that God wanted included in his inspired (God-breathed), truthful (inerrant), authoritative, effective (powerful), sufficient, necessary, and clear Word.

From this divine revelation of Scripture, fallen human beings come to know about and understand the gospel, which is the work of salvation that God accomplished in Christ and its actualization in human lives.

As for the accomplishment of salvation, the focal point of the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15: 1–4). By means of his atoning sacrifice, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin as a substitute for sinners; that is, Christ died in our place, for us (Eph. 5:2).

His death overcomes four desperate consequences of human sin: as an expiation, it removes the liability to suffer death and eternal punishment due to guilt before God (Heb. 10: 5–18); as a propitiation, it assuages the furious wrath of a righteously angry God (Rom. 3: 23–26); as reconciliation, it removes the enmity between God and human beings by means of the mediation of Christ, restoring friendship between formerly opposing parties (2 Cor. 5: 17– 21); and as redemption, it frees sinful human beings enslaved under sin from such bondage through the payment of a purchase price or ransom, the blood of Christ (1Pet. 1:18–21).

Through this atonement as expiation/propitiation/reconciliation/redemption, Christ accomplished salvation for sinful human beings. The satisfactory nature of this sacrifice was confirmed when the Father raised his Son from the dead, for the resurrection signified that Christ had accomplished everything necessary for salvation (Rom. 1:4; 4:24–25). Additionally, through his death and resurrection, Jesus defeated Satan (Heb. 2:14–18) and triumphed over all created things (Eph. 1:19–21; Col. 2:15), a cosmic victory that will be fully manifested at the end of this age, when he comes again in conquering power and glory.

Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 672-753). Crossway. Kindle Edition, pgs 32-38 in the printed edition.

That is a very fine concise summary of the position from which Allison writes, and while there may be some divergences from it (and Allison lists them following this description), it is hard to say that these divergences either move him outside of the mainstream of evangelical thought, or that his characterization is dishonest in any way.


  1. I think a Roman Catholic can agree with most of what is said here, except the scripture part of course. Do you agree John?

    1. Hi Vincent -- they would disagree with the doctrine of Scripture as you say -- they also would disagree with the seriousness and consequences that sin wrought on man as "image of God". This is where the "nature/grace" disagreement begins -- with Rome positing that there was some sort of prior "donum superadditum" that man lost in the fall, leaving the "image of God" intact, whereas for Protestants, there is no "donum superadditum"; that the "image" is defaced by sin.

      If you were to launch a space ship to the moon, if that ship were off course by a small fraction of a degree at the beginning of the journey, it would miss the destination by a huge distance. Such is the case with Roman Catholicism. 2000 years down the road, Rome's view of God's plan, and the Biblical view of God's plan, are very far apart.