Sunday, February 01, 2015

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

I’m continuing my walk through Gregg Allison’s work,“Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment”. Throughout, Allison’s method is to show side-by side, the Roman Catholic beliefs, along with what an “Evangelical Assessment” of those beliefs might say. And he does it in the light of a methodology that he clearly articulates at the beginning.

Several individuals have taken issue with one aspect of his treatment: the fact that he identifies “Evangelical Theology” as the interlocutor in his discussion of Roman Catholicism. I’ll admit, I find this to be somewhat unusual at one level. There might be better ways of identifying himself (I won’t speculate).

But on the other hand, he is following the method first articulated by Leonard De Chirico in his work “Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism”.

Before I get to De Chirico’s and Allison’s overviews of “Evangelical Theology”, I’d like to look first at a couple of specific objections.

One writer (Ted Bigelow on an earlier Facebook post of mine) suggested that Allison was being “dishonest”: “He just isn't being honest as to its source. The source of his doctrine, or his ‘pou sto’ isn't evangelicalism.”

(“Pou sto” is a word used by Robert Reymond and perhaps others to refer to Archimides, the Greek mathematician, who, “working with the simple machine of the lever, said ‘give me [a place] where I may stand [“pou sto”] and I will move the world’.” In doing so, “[H]e was asking for a base for his lever’s fulcrum necessarily outside the cosmos. So the Bible is the Christian’s extracosmic base for knowledge and meaning” (Reymond, “Systematic Theology”, pg 111, fn 1]).

It’s of course correct to base one’s “theology” upon Scripture. To “stand” upon Scripture while working out one’s theology. There are many ways to “stand” upon Scripture, while focusing on theology.

Ted further clarifies:

[While Allison identifies himself as broadly “Reformed Baptist”], his book doesn’t come from the perspective as a Baptist theologian critiquing Catholicism. He goes broader and proposes to speak for those identifying themselves as evangelicals.

Just a point of clarification here: He does not claim to “speak for” anyone. He actually presents his position as “An Evangelical Vision”. Here is how Allison begins to describe it:

As for evangelical theology, one must understand first of all that evangelicalism is 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. However, so as to avoid confusion in my evaluation of Catholic theology and practice, I will set forth and focus on a typical expression of evangelical theology— the one outlined below— while noting, where appropriate, important divergences within evangelical theology.

Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 660-666). Crossway. Kindle Edition, pages 32-33 in the printed edition.

That is a very honest overview. And it is typical, as I will show in what follows. What Allison sets forth as his “pou sto” is something that is “a typical expression”. Again, he is not forcing his views on anyone, nor is he claiming any supposed “authority”. This is one man’s point of view of “a typical expression”.

Back to Ted:

Yet, his theology on a number of core doctrines is different than the late Don Bloesch who wrote a two volume set called “Evangelical Theology” and that of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Those people actually identify themselves as evangelical more than Allison, so how honest is it to speak of his position as that of evangelical theology?

That’s why it fails to address the whole matter of schism, not just from the RC view of it, but especially from the evangelical side, which has no doctrine of schism. It is looking at RC theology from the insider’s perspective - its catechism - and not as to how the RC explains its faith and theology to outsiders - which Allison is.

Now, just flip the tables to see what I’m talking about. What sort of insider document (analogous to the RC Catechism) would an RC apologist use to contrast evangelical theology with RC theology? He/she couldn’t, because several million evangelicals would cry “foul” since whatever document was chosen, it wouldn’t represent their beliefs. It would be a dishonest presentation, iow.

So too, in response to Allison, an RC apologist would just say (of Allison as much as DeChirico), that “well, that’s just your personal view of evangelical theology. There are evangelicals who agree with you, and evangelicals who disagree with you. Moreover, you’re comparing a vaguely-defined movement that changes its own theology over its own history to our well-defined Church, and so your statements are simply dishonest.

I don't know what Bloesch had to say that is much different from what Allison says; nor can I tell if it is “core” or not. And, well, yes, there will be those who agree and those who disagree. And further, the “evangelical theology” that Allison describes is not so “vaguely defined” as Ted suggests.

Stepping back from that question a bit, the concept that God reveals himself at all (assuming one believes in God) is an awesome one. Herman Bavinck, in his “Reformed Dogmatics”, looks for guidelines as to how to deal with the Scriptures. In order to “achieve anything worthwhile in the study of religion and revelation”, he says “we need a criterion. If we do not bring such a criterion with us (actually an impossibility), we are bound to fall victim to the endless division that the history of religions offers to the viewer” (Vol 1, pg 299).

“A true concept of revelation can be derived only from revelation itself”, Bavinck says.

“If no revelation ever took place, all reflection on the concept is futile. If, however, revelation is a fact, it—and it alone—must furnish us the concept and indicate to us the criterion we have to apply in our study of religions and revelations. The appeal to revelations, which we encounter in all religions, cannot be an argument for Christians to relinquish their conviction with regard to the truth of the Christian religion any more than logically thinking or ethical or esthetic persons will relinquish their convictions concerning the laws of thought, morality, or beauty because there are thousands of people who say that truth, virtue, and beauty are merely relative concepts and find their criterion in the individual human beings themselves” (299).

What Bavinck is saying is that so long as we state our convictions clearly up front, there should be no hesitation to discuss various viewpoints on religion, because in an open discussion, what is true will become more and more evident.

This flies in the face of something that Bryan Cross frequently says, and has said with respect to an interview on the occasion of the publication of this book.

One implication of this insight is that criticisms of one paradigm on the basis of assumptions of the other paradigm, are question-begging, i.e. they are an exercise of circular reasoning. One cannot rightly adjudicate rationally between two paradigms by presupposing the truth of one of them. Attempting to do so is a kind of self-deception, because one makes it seem as though one is arguing for a position, when in fact when is merely assuming the truth of that position….

Bryan is sort of the “anti-Van Til” in this. He doesn’t want “presuppositions” to be held firmly, and to be a basis from which other presuppositions are challenged.

Why not discuss one presupposition in light of another? Why not discuss the actual thing in light of the other actual thing?

He says elsewhere:

When you say, “I simply don’t see it anywhere in scripture” you are bringing a sola scriptura paradigm to the question. So to resolve the question, we would have to step back and answer the prior question, does the Apostolic deposit come down to us only through Scripture or also through the unwritten Tradition?

When one states one’s own “criterion” clearly, in advance, one is not merely “assuming” the truth of that position. One is actually setting up one’s presupposition for examination, a thing that should be welcomed.

Bavinck continues: “This applies both to the personal lives of Christians as well as their scientific pursuits. Muslims, Buddhists, and others, will of course reason the same way and in the study of the religions proceed from their beliefs. But that remains for them to deal with. In this respect everyone had best be fully persuaded in his or her own mind. Division in life is a fact that we cannot undo and also has a ripple effect in the life of science [or, as Bavinck has also been discussing, in the religious lives of believers]. But a science that—driven by free convictions of course, and not by coercion—allies itself with the Christian faith will be able to do more and labor more energetically for the spiritual and intellectual unity of humankind” (299).

This is the same thing that Steve Hays has said, in this blog post:

The big Roman Catholic apologetic thumb on the scales.

“The more that more Christians live [and are taught] according to God's word, the more they converge”.

(If you haven’t read this, and if you have any interest in addressing Roman Catholicism on any level, I’d suggest that you go back and read this first.)

“Such unity”, Bavinck says, “is guaranteed in the unity of God and is the hope of all religion…. This method, which proceeds from the premise of faith and is actually applied by everyone, at once affords those who take their position in the Christian faith the immense advantage that they do not a priori establish by their own thinking what revelation is. Instead they seek an answer to the question in the words and facts that in Christianity present themselves as constituents of revelation and are recorded in Holy Scripture. They proceed to do their work positively and not speculatively. They do not dictate to God whether and how he may reveal himself but listen to what God himself has to say on matters (Vol 1 pg 300).

This is the criterion of “sola Scriptura” – ascertaining the meaning of “revelation” from what the “revelation” actually says. Allison is honest about his approach to Scripture. He states it up front, clearly, honestly, and without hesitation or reservation.

If Bryan thinks that Allison is “begging the question” by beginning with this, he fails to understand the point of the whole book.


The point of the whole book, then, is to provide a running comparison of the two systems: what Roman Catholicism teaches, and how someone operating from the broad evangelical perspective that Allison outlines will evaluate it.

Allison is familiar with the many different types of theology. His “Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine” not only describes and shows the various relationships between various types of theologies, including exegetical theology, Biblical theology, systematic theology, historical theology, and practical theology – how they came about, and how they fit together.

But the question again may be stated in another way:

“What is Evangelicalism?”

Thomas Howard, in his book “Evangelical Is Not Enough”, begins with the question of “what is evangelicalism?” Howard was one of the first high-profile conversions to Roman Catholicism (in 1985), and he describes “evangelicalism” in terms very similar to those that Allison uses, and in a similar way, but rather, speaks from “his own perspective”:

The word evangelical is an ancient and noble one, but it has become somewhat rickety. It has too many meanings. In our own time it sprang into popular use with the presidency of Jimmy Carter, when anyone who claimed to be born again seemed to fall into the category. The press often used the word as a synonym for middle-class religion. On the other hand, there are historic uses of the world. Originally it simply referred to the gospel. Late in time it referred to the union of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia, or to European Protestantism generally, or to the movement in the Church of England that stressed personal conversion by faith in Christ’s atoning death. Names like George Whitefield and Charles Simeon loom large in this last connection.

The evangelicalism of which I speak differs slightly from what one finds in Southern Baptist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, or Missouri Synod Lutheran circles, even though all of these may lay claim to being evangelical in some sense.

I can best identify my own milieu by listing the following as touchstones: Billy Graham; the Scofield Reference Bible; Moody Bible Institute; Wheaton College; the China Inland Mission; The Sunday School Times; Wycliffe Bible Translators; Youth for Christ; Young Life; Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship; Campus Crusade for Christ; The Navigators; Gordon-Conwell, Fuller, and Dallas Theological Sminaries; and all the evangelical publishing houses such as Word, Fleming H. Revell, and Tyndale, as well as the journals Christianity Today and Eternity (pgs 1-2).

So it seems as if Allison and one of the “elder statesmen” of the Roman Catholic Convert movement at least agree in principle on the definition of “evangelicalism”: while the word “evangelical” encompasses “a massive broad-tent movement” as each described, each was also able to “identify” his own “milieu” or “typical expression”. That is a legitimate thing to do.

Allison’s viewpoint is neither dishonest, nor does it fall outside of what is commonly held to be “evangelical”.


  1. Thanks John.

    You wrote:

    "Allison’s viewpoint is neither dishonest, nor does it fall outside of what is commonly held to be “evangelical."

    That his viewpoint was dishonest was never my point. I said he was dishonest as to the source of his critique, as you quoted me above:

    “He just isn't being honest as to its source. The source of his doctrine, or his ‘pou sto’ isn't evangelicalism.”

    His source is a mixture of Reformed and Baptistic theologians, each with differing ecclesiological commitments, not "evangelicalism." That, and his deep interaction with Scripture from those specific traditions over several decades of regenerated life in Christ, is his source. So while he makes a necessary caveat:

    "it is not possible to define and present one evangelical theology; evangelical theologies— plural— are the reality"

    he actually just takes his own ecclesiastical position and calls it evangelicalism - which it isn't.

    As for Bloesch, read this:

    1. Hi Ted, thanks for your comments here. I probably ended that a little too abruptly.

      Thanks also for the link on Bloesch. However, I'm not sure why, based on that link, you think he's within the mainstream of evangelicalism, while Allison is not.

  2. And what you write about Bryan and his requirement that one address him from the perspective of his own theological commitments is exactly correct.

    Several times I've told him in comments at his web site CtC that for me to adopt and argue from a perspective that denies that Scripture is the only source of revelation and authority is sin, since it depends upon the promise of Jesus Christ to the apostles in John 16:12-13. Those comments usually don't make it up, but get deleted.

    I really wouldn't want to be in his shoes, always trying to get people to not trust in Scripture as Christ presents it.

  3. John, when you say,

    " you think he's within the mainstream of evangelicalism, while Allison is not"

    you presume to know what that mainstream of evangelicalism is. But do you?

    How many millions of souls are a part of evangelicalism, but are Modalists? A lot, lot more than Reformed Baptists, like Allison.

    How many more millions of evangelicals believe the Bible insufficient and so listen to God in verbal prophecy, tongues, words form God, etc - i.e., charismaticism and word-faith theology - world-wide? Allison rejects that too.

    The numbers far, far outweigh those who embrace Allisons view of evangelicalism, and we're not even touching Bloesh and his squishy theology which represents the evangelicalism of Hybel's Willow Creek and the church growth movement in America (were you not watching the past 3 decades)?

    How is Allison in the mainstream of evangelicalism when others have the word Evangelical in their very name? ELCA is not Allison's evangelicalism (or yours) but has 4M baptized adherents. How can Allison's evangelicalism be more evangelical than they are when it is their very name?

    I'm guessing you want to go historical and make the case that the theological origins of evangelicalism are essentially the soteriology of Allison. Really? How close do you think he is to the Arminianism of Wesley, one of evangelicalism's two founders? Or his followers?

    It just isn't honest, John. It's a narrative that doesn't stand up to reality. You've got to take off the colored glasses and see that Christians don't identify by evangelicalism, but by the church they go to on Sunday. No matter what they say. That is who they are. Ecclesiology matters, and to judge the RCC up by a small slice of evangelical commitments is like judging the government of Russia by how you and your friends succeed at Assasin's Creed.

    Then, to call that small slice the mainstream is simply wrong.

  4. IOW, John, to quote Steve Hays, your mainstream evangelicalism

    "reduces to a subset of a subset of a subset of a subset of a subset of professing Christians"

    1. The same thing can be said for Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox.

    2. Ted, to say "within" the mainstream is not to say "totally representative of" the mainstream. Allison says that evangelicalism, this "mainstream" that we are talking about is "a massive broad-tent movement that encompasses ..." That is not a presumptuous description. Nor is it a sin to be a subset. He is totally honest about where he fits within that -- I think you are reaching when you say his presentation is dishonest.