The Regions and Tribes of Evangelical Theology: The Catholics Part 2: Ecumenical Evangelical Catholics

This is the fifth of eight articles exploring the present state of Evangelical theology. The first, second, third and fourth can be found herehere, here and here



We continue our journey across the wide expanse of the Evangelical country. We began in the Classical region by exploring two tribes that inhabit the land – the Classical Conservatives and Classical Postconservatives. In the last article we moved into a new region – Catholicity. We explored a new tribe, the ‘Confessional Evangelical Catholics’, those theologians who sought to renew Evangelicalism through connecting it with its Catholic past via the Protestant Confessions. However, not all Catholic theologians have been convinced by such a move. A much smaller tribe agree that Evangelicalism must be renewed by engaging its Catholic past. They’re just not convinced that that can be done via the Protestant confessions. Instead of the tulip fields, they have found nourishment under the shade of the Boswellia groves.

In my introductory article to this series, I noted that a definition of Evangelical theology needed to incorporate Scriptural criticism of the Evangelical community. The question arises: what place does tradition hold? For many Classical Postconservative Evangelicals (CPE) and Revisionists, understanding Scripture in a new light means that many cherished Reformation doctrines must be revised and new doctrines emerge. For both Classical Conservative Evangelicals (CCE) and Confessional Evangelical Catholics (CEC) Reformation doctrine must be upheld because it is Scriptural. The latter especially emphasise that Catholic doctrine is Scriptural, and Reformation theology is Catholic. Ecumenical Evangelical Catholics agree with their CEC siblings that Catholic doctrine is Scriptural. However, they disagree with them the extent to which Reformation theology is Scriptural – or at the very least that Reformation theology lost some of the riches of catholicity in its (over)reaction to Medieval abuses. For some, it has been reading through the rich Patristic Scriptural engagement which has provoked a revising of Reformation norms. For others, it has been through intellectual trade with theologians across the Tiber wrestling with Scripture that has caused them to rethink cherished beliefs. For some, this means enriching Reformation theology with Patristic and even Medieval sacramental metaphysics and practice. For others, this means rejecting some key Reformation doctrines – and even questioning the wisdom of the Reformation in the first place. Like CEC, such Ecumenical Evangelical Catholics (EEC) are conservatives – they are just radically so. For EEC, the doctrine of sola Scriptura means the most radical conservatism of them all: criticising the Reformation context from where sola Scriptura arose.


Being Protestant in order to become more Catholic

It doesn’t take long to see a disjunction between the religion of the Church Fathers and Mothers and modern Evangelicalism. Would Athanasius recognise the de-sacramentalised worship-as-entertainment model of megachurch Christianity as in continuity with his own? How can Evangelical theologians treasure the rich Scriptural banquet found in John Chrysostom’s sermons yet ignore his liturgical innovations? Furthermore, how can Evangelicals accept the outcome of the Nicaean Council yet ignore the Platonic metaphysics which nurtured the Nicaean conclusions?[1] But what if we made even more striking comparisons between the theology of the Reformers and those of the Patristics? For some, the Reformers may be found almost speaking a different language. This is not to downplay the Reformers; it is just to question the extent to which in their limited knowledge they truly did ‘reform’ the church according to Scriptural and Patristic blueprints (as was their intention). In their rush to reform, what did they miss out? In their efforts to prune Medieval corruptions, what vital vine did they accidentally hack? In their desire to emphasise certain parts of the Scriptures, which parts did they overlook? Rather than a bastion of true Catholicism, EEC find in Protestant Confessions only a partial recovery of Patristic norms.

In keeping with the Patristic principle of sola Scriptura (correctly understood), EEC seek to look past the Reformation and return to the rich ecumenical sacramentality of the Patristics without abandoning their Evangelical heritage. This may seem a contradiction to many. Yet, as the 19th Century Bishop William van Mildert once wrote, ‘the Church England became Protestant in order to become more catholic.’ EEC has affinities with such an approach. Though the emphasis was always on returning back to the Scriptures, all the Reformers took the Patristics as their model for interpreting what that meant. Although there was always some disagreement with the Church Fathers (Luther with Augustine on justification, Calvin with almost all the Fathers in some way), the Fathers were considered the go-to figures for organising doctrine, ecclesiology, liturgy, and politics. Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer drew on the latest Patristic liturgical scholarship; the Reformer’s defence of the magistrate’s ecclesial involvement drew on the Patristic defence of the relationship between the Emperor and the Church; Bucer and Calvin’s reinvention of the diaconate as an office which cared for the poor looked to the early centuries for guidance. As such, in turning to the Patristics, EEC finds themselves in good Protestant company. Rather than turning away from Protestantism, they simply find that some aspects of Protestantism went too far – and thus want to steer it back. Furthermore, like early Protestantism, the Patristics offer ecumenical potential: in order to find the unity in the divided church, where better to look than the truly ecumenical theology of the Early Church?


Decades of Patristic Ressourcement

Such an approach has been quietly developing for decades, and now there is an abundant overflow of theology from this tribe. Often it is members of denominations which already value Patristics who have been at the forefront, in particular Methodist and Anglican Evangelicals. Methodist Thomas Oden found in John Wesley a theologian who weaved together Patristic (particularly Greek) and Reformation worldviews. Inspired by such an approach, Oden has advocated returning to a ‘paleo-orthodoxy’ through recovering patristic theology, exegesis and worship.[2] The greatest fruits of this approach is found in his magisterial Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, which collected a huge variety of Patristic exegeses of Scripture. Another theologian who has followed after Oden’s Wesleyan synthesis and has sought to develop it is T.A. Noble, who has drawn on both Wesley and the Patristics in his contemporary articulation of the doctrine of perfected sanctification.[3]

D.H. Williams of Baylor University has continued Oden’s project by beginning an Evangelical ressourcement series and arguing that Evangelicals must begin to look beyond their Reformation heritage to the Patristics.[4] He has sought to convince sceptical Evangelicals to reengage with the Church Fathers and Mothers on a more than superficial level – thereby returning to Protestant roots. Episcopalian Robert Webber’s ‘Ancient-Future’ series drew on patristic spirituality to help Evangelicals engage with the postmodern world. This looked at questions of sacramental worship, the liturgical calendar, as well as patristic models for evangelism and faith.[5] In doing so, Webber helped reinvigorate the Evangelical wing of the Episcopal Church in the USA, and has laid the foundations for an alternative Evangelical Anglicanism in the new Anglican Church of North America. In the Church of England, Christopher Cocksworth has sought to create an Evangelical-Charismatic-Catholic synthesis by encouraging Evangelicals and Charismatics to reengage with notions such as priesthood,[6] Eucharistic sacrifice and Mariology.[7] Like Oden, Cocksworth’s eucharistic theology has drawn much on Wesleyan themes (both John and Charles), as well as the old Protestant (and therefore pre-Tractarian) High Tradition in Anglicanism.[8]

Though also a member of the Confessional Evangelical Catholic tribe, W. Bradford Littlejohn has also argued that the kind of Reformed sacramental theology that emerged from 19th Century Mercersberg (see below) has an ecumenical potential in discussions with Anglo-Catholicism, Roman Catholic Nouvelle Théologie and Orthodoxy.[9] Indeed, Littlejohn’s journey from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism, follows much of the path original laid by Robert Webber. He argues that Richard Hooker offers the best approach for integrating Patristic and Reformed emphases. Gerald McDermott, also an Anglican, has repeatedly called Evangelicals back to a Patristic (as opposed to post-Reformation) doctrine of sola Scriptura.[10] As a Jonathan Edwards scholar, he has found in the great Evangelical revivalist a richly Patristic doctrine of reading Scripture and creation through the lens of Christological typology.[11] This has led him in the unusual direction of combining Christological typology with interfaith dialogue, even seeing Christological types in other religions.[12]


Renewing Mercersberg and Oxford: Federal Vision and Evangelical Platonism

For the doctrinal historian, seeing a Patristic revival amongst Protestants will remind them of nothing less than two similarly-inclined 19th Century movements: the Mercersberg Theology in the German Reformed Church in America, and the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. Both movements felt that Puritan-inspired Evangelicalism and Enlightenment liberalism had undermined the sacramental mystery of the church through ignoring the Patristic understanding of biblical hermeneutics. Indeed, both movements found the riches of the Patristics in their own ecclesial traditions – Mercersberg’s Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin in Calvinist and Confessional sacramentality, the Tractarians in Prayer Book spirituality and Laudian High Churchmanship. If the former were always closer to their Reformation roots, the latter increasingly distanced themselves from it – most famously with John Henry Newman eventually crossing the Tiber. The 21st Century has produced two groups of thinkers who each respectively re-tread the paths worn by Mercersberg and Oxford: Federal Vision and Evangelical Platonism.

Federal Vision emerged in the early 2000s when a group of American Presbyterian theologians offered an alternative approach to interpreting classic Reformed doctrine. Several theologians, most notably Peter Leithart, came on board. However, the reaction to it from the American Presbyterian churches was swift and brutal: the URCNA condemned it as a heresy, whilst other denominations said it did not meet the standards of the Westminster Confession. What was so shocking about Federal Vision? Like Mercersberg before them, those who are part of the Federal Vision are deeply rooted in such classic Reformed doctrines as covenant and election. Thus you won’t find any weakening of double predestination. Where Federal Vision differs is what is called ‘Covenant Objectivity’. Believing that the church is continuous with the covenant made with Israel – not all Israelites were ‘saved’ though were still part of God’s people – covenant objectivity means that all people who are members of the covenant are objectively part of God’s family, whether they are decretally elect or not (i.e. predestined to glory).[13]

Baptism is the way in which you become a member of the covenant people. Federal Vision has a high view of baptism, in which you are truly in union with Christ through the Spirit.[14] Yet this means that though you enter into Christ’s resurrected life through baptism in the covenant people, Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to you. It is through covenantal union with Christ that believers are justified before God. This means that a life of covenantal faithfulness is important. In many ways this movement was a shift towards something closer to Lutheranism without leaving behind the Reformed distinctives. Like Mercersberg theology, it gives a higher doctrine of the sacraments and ecclesiology than is typical in the Reformed tradition. In some ways, their view is closer to pre-Reformation pan-Augustinianism than Protestantism. They draw on a Patristically-inclined typological reading of Scripture,[15] believe in paedocommunion,[16] and have a rich eucharistic theology. Federal Vision pastors are more likely to worship like middle-of-the-road Anglicans than their Reformed brethren. As such, they have great ecumenical potential with Lutherans, High Anglicans, Orthodox and Roman Catholics. As most are postmillenialists, they have a high regard for the sacramentality of political Christendom.[17] Catholic Ecumenism is key: Peter Leithart has even written a book called The End of Protestantism.[18]

Evangelical Platonists, however, go much further. Ressourcement and the divided nature of Christendom has made these question the wisdom of the Reformation. This is not to say that they don’t believe that the Medieval church needed reforming – they are in agreement with all other Evangelicals that the Western Catholic Church had become deeply corrupt. Furthermore, they believe that the Roman Catholic Church still needs to return to its biblical and patristic foundations. Where they part company with other Evangelicals is in the belief that to a certain extent, the Reformation (or at least its subsequent outcome) made things worse.

They long to see the unity of the church through recovering a Patristic sacramental spirituality. Evangelical Platonists pick up the baton where early Tractarianism left off (before it drifted into ritualism and replicating Roman Catholicism). Hans Boersma is the central figure here. In his Heavenly Participation,[19] the J.I. Packer Chair of Theology in Regent College, Vancouver – in case you wanted confirmation of Boersma’s Evangelical credentials! – argued that the Roman Catholic French ressourcement theology of Henri De Lubac, Yves Congar, Jean Daniélou, Marie-Dominique Chenu, and Henri Bouillard, with their emphasis on reality as a sacramental ontology centred on Christ (i.e. that created reality participates in the being of God), was a way of weaving the ‘tapestry’ of Christendom back together. Plato, allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures,[20] the eucharistic mystery,[21] beatific vision,[22] and liturgy were back on the table. Through sacramental activities – including reading the Scriptures – Christians participate in the real presence of Christ. In many ways, Boersma’s theology is similar to the Restoration High Church Anglicanism of George Bull and Jeremy Taylor, as well as the early theology of the Oxford Movement (before ritualism changed the movement’s direction). His is nevertheless still an Evangelical theology (though only just!) through his emphasis on sola Scriptura and the atoning work of Christ on the Cross,[23] even if interpreted along Patristic lines.



What is the future of this Ecumenical Evangelical Catholicity? It is the case that many young Christians are finding sustenance in a sacramental worldview, hence why an increasing number are taking the road to Canterbury, crossing the Tiber or swimming the Bosphorus. EEC seeks to hold together the Patristic instincts of the Reformation with a sacramental consciousness. In new denominations like the Anglican Church of North America, we see ways in which such a synthesis may unfold. Indeed, such a theology may find its true home in the charismatic Anglicanism and Methodism of the Majority World. However, as of yet it is still a tribe dominated by white, middle class males. Furthermore, there is always the question of how such a tribe can remain viable down the generations. Considering that Boersma has recently joined the faculty at Nashotah House (an Episcopalian Anglo-Catholic seminary), it will be interesting to see whether Evangelical Platonists remain within the Evangelical fold, or merge with Anglican Anglo-Catholicism or even eventually cross the Tiber (as many Anglo-Catholics and Postliberals of previous generations did). Will the next generation of EEC still consider themselves Evangelicals? Perhaps the perfumed frankincense of the Boswellia groves will not be enough? Perhaps, like Newman before them, EEC theologians may find it difficult to defend their little Evangelical patch as ‘Catholic’ when confronted by the majesty of Rome? At the same time, it may be that in recapturing the sacramental heart of Evangelicalism EEC may help the Country return back to the eucharistic roots of Wesley, Edwards and Simeon. Only time will tell.

Key theologians: Thomas Oden, T.A. Noble, Robert Webber, D.H. Williams, Christopher Cocksworth, Hans Boersma, Peter Leithart, Rich Lusk, W. Bradford Littlejohn, Gerald McDermott



[1] See Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2004)

[2] Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (Bravo Ltd, 2009)

[3] T.A. Noble, Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Historic Doctrine of Christian Perfecting (Cascade Books, 2013)

[4] D.H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999)

[5] See Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, Ancient-Future Time, Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker)

[6] Christopher Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown, Being a Priest Today: Exploring Priestly Identity (London: Canterbury Press, 2004)

[7] Holding Together: Gospel, Church and Spirit – the essentials of Christian identity (London: Canterbury Press, 2008)

[8] Christopher Cocksworth, Evangelical Eucharistic Thought in the Church of England (Cambridge: CUP, 1993)

[9] W. Bradford Littlejohn, The Mercersberg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2009)

[10] Gerald McDermott, Everyday Glory: Seeing God in All of Reality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018)

[11] McDermott, Seeing God: Jonathan Edwards and Spiritual Discernment (Regent College, 1996)

[12] McDermott, A Trinitarian Theology of Religions: An Evangelical Approach (Oxford: OUP, 2014)

[13] See Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, The Federal Vision (Monroe, Louisiana: Athanasius Press, 2004)

[14] Peter Leithart, The Baptized Body (Moscow, Idaho: Canonpress, 2007)

[15] Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Baylor University Press, 2009)

[16] Rich Lusk, Paedofaith: A Primer on the Mystery of Infant Salvation and a Handbook for Covenant Parents (Monroe, Louisiana: Athanasius Press, 2005)

[17] Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010)

[18] Peter Leithart, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011)

[19] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011)

[20] Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017)

[21] Eucharistic Participation: The Reconfiguration of Time and Space (Regent College Publishing, 2013)

[22] Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2018)

[23] Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006)

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