Christian TraditionsEcumenismEvangelicalRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

Evangelicals and Catholics Together…Have Gone Amnesic

The past month or so has seen the virtual world ablaze with comments about another high profile, evangelical-Catholic ecumenical…what shall I call it…‘incident.’ I am normally loathe to chime in on such occasions of internet natter. Only rarely do I judge them worthy of notice, rarer still do I find them worthy of attention. Perhaps rarest of all do I judge myself as having anything of worth to add.

But the case of influential Protestant, Francis Chan, (supposedly) turned Catholic seems to me to be illustrative of a problem in current American Christianity, and instructive towards a solution. For that reason, allow me a few observations.

Let me say up front that I am much in favor of ecumenical dialogue. I think that being divisive and schismatic is a sin against God and his Anointed One, whose body the Church is. I am very concerned about a kind of denominational tribalism which erects very narrow borders based on ‘distinctives’ merely for the sake of maintaining separation from ‘those over there.’ Hear, O Israel. Unity is a transcendental, just as goodness, beauty and truth. So please do not misunderstand my following puzzlement as a critique of all ecumenism. Read on to the end.

The video of Chan’s address to a group of Catholics at the Onething 2018 conference is somewhat old now (in internet years at least). There were, by my reckoning, a good many bizarre things said and done during Chan’s interactions at Onething 2018. Not necessarily “bad” or “wrong,” but bizarre. I don’t want to be nit-picky, however, so let me mention just a couple of what I consider to be more significant.

First, Chan seemed genuinely astonished that other Catholics—indeed, Pope Francis himself—desire ecumenical dialogue that does not “sweep our theological differences under the rug,” but discusses them with hands held together. Did Chan think this a new development?

From this epiphany, he seems to have stumbled upon a further moment of eureka: he could offer a simple message for unity. “I don’t care what title you give yourself: Baptist, ihopper, you know, whatever; or Catholic…” What really concerns him is that you “know God.” To his credit, Chan states that he doesn’t think of himself as the one to bring us all together again. In his words, he is just “taking a step.” That’s a step in the right direction, so far as I’m concerned.

The language of not caring about “titles” and “categories” but about loving and knowing God is so typical of a certain kind of ecumenism. The kind trotted out in the early to mid-twentieth centuries with very little by way of result. And that is what makes Chan’s talk so strange. It is so typical, and yet Chan and the audience seem quite taken with the idea, as is they think that they are on the brink of something new, fresh, revolutionary.

The second thing I found bizarre—and somewhat troubling if I’m honest—is the response of the Catholics present. The foot-washing, laying on of hands by priests, conjuring of the Spirit to “come,” and outstretched hands of all the audience may have fooled some YouTube viewers into thinking that Chan was actually on stage at the Pentecostal World Conference. But Catholics have their mystical traditions as well, I suppose. That was odd (though not unexpected), but not troubling.

No, the part that troubled me was when it was declared that although “technically” Catholic teaching “calls” Protestants like Chan “separated brethren,” that there is just no way that is the case for Protestants like Chan. It may come as news to some Catholics that their Conciliar Texts (cf. esp. UR III.2) specify only “technicalities” that are as much inaccurate as accurate, and so can be taken or left at will.

So, there you have it. An evangelical Protestant realizes that he has much in common with his Catholic brothers and sisters, and thinks that is surely enough to inspire unity (leave it to an American evangelical to think that church unity is something gained by inspiring the masses). A group of Catholics, seemingly understanding sensus fidelium as something closer to consensus fidelium nostri, takes it upon themselves to overrule Vatican II and convey the status of unqualified “brother” upon a Protestant. Strange, because increasingly typical.

That’s the background to another video of Chan, a bit later, that has again provoked interest on both sides. In this video Chan notes that he “didn’t know that for the first 1500 years of Church history, everyone saw it as the literal body and blood of Christ. And it wasn’t till 500 years ago that someone popularized the thought that it’s just a symbol, and nothing more.” Of course, he can’t actually ‘know’ this because it is not true. But, he continues, he now thinks that when one eats the bread and drinks the wine one is “truly partaking of the body and blood of Christ, somehow in some real way.”

The internet response is, again I say, bizarre.

Over at Reformation Charlotte one learns that “Chan appears to be embracing one of the most horrific and idolatrous doctrines of the Roman Catholic Mass, transubstantiation.” A doctrine, they say “that teaches that the bread and wine of communion are not symbolic — as the Scriptures teach — but the literal and actual body and blood of Jesus.” Funny ol’ religious world we live in. Though describing themselves as a coalition for “defending the faith,” this Kurtzian charge against the Roman Catholic understanding of the Eucharist actually aligns them more with the early Roman pagans, who likewise charged the early Christians with the horror of anthropophagy.

Even more ironic, just as Chan (supposedly) embraces the Catholic view of the Eucharist, Catholics appear to have abandoned it! According to a recent Pew Research Report, only half of American Catholics believe “the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. The other half of Catholics incorrectly say the church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion are just symbols of the body and blood of Christ…”


Other protestants are not so convinced of Chan’s Catholic conversion. Dustin Messer, writing for the Theopolis Institute, claims that Chan’s newly forming views, far from making him Catholic, are actually making him more Reformed. It has to be admitted that as far as the argument goes, this one is far more accurate than that of Reformation Charlotte. Still, it’s a bit ambitious. Perhaps Chan will end up with a Reformed view in the end; he hasn’t it now.

On the Catholic side, some are rather merrily welcoming him into the Roman fold. Apparently, agreeing vaguely with Catholics about real presence makes for a Catholic conversion. Who knew. Others have more accurately noted that Chan’s admission that, when eating the bread and drinking the wine, he now believes he is “truly partaking of the body and blood of Christ, somehow in some real way” is not exactly a precise formulation of transubstantiation. Perhaps he’s moving that direction, but much more needs happen before Catholics can claim Chan for their own.

My two cents (probably worth less than that, what with internet inflation and all that): I don’t think Chan is forsaking his evangelicalism; I don’t think he is becoming Catholic; I don’t think he’s moving closer to the Reformed; I think he is just confused – historically assessed, at least. And, I hasten to add, that is ok. We all are, to varying degrees and about a lot of things. I do wish that his confusion was not so publicly aired, but evangelical celebrity culture is another matter.

Not only is Chan confused, but the internet babble in response to Chan proves, yet again, that a good many evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics are also confused. Might I suggest, for starters, that before we begin discussing unity of views about the Eucharist, we all reread The Catechism of the Catholic Church, The Formula of Concord (VII), The Thirty-Nine Articles (XXVIII), and The Westminster Confession of Faith (XXIX). Again, this is just for starters. But even this little bit of reading will evidence that the debate between Catholics and most Protestants is not about whether Christ is really present in the bread and wine, but how. It gets more technical from there. But then, I guess most of us are a bit impatient with “technicalities.”

For those who are interested in patiently (and less publicly) working through the issue, I recommend Brett Salked’s recent book as a much better approach to the historical and theological issues involved, yet written with an eye toward ecumenism. For something a bit smaller, but still very informative, see Levering and Vanhoozer, Was the Reformation a Mistake?: Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical, pp. 74-110.

I said that I found this particular virtual craze to be illustrative of a problem and instructive towards a solution. In a nutshell, the problem for American Protestants and Catholics alike is amnesia (or, more probably ignorance of the past). The solution: carefully and consistently learn history. Doing so will make both ecumenical and apologetical engagement in our own times much more fruitful.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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