Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, attended the ecumenical gathering the Pope convened April 18 at St. Joseph’s Church in New York. Anderson, who is pastor of Wooddale Church in suburban Minneapolis, spoke April 28 with Contributing Editor Tom McFeely about how Benedict’s approach is encouraging dialogue.
Do you think Pope Benedict XVI’s approach to ecumenical dialogue, which emphasizes clarity with respect to areas both of agreement and of disagreement and that stresses the need for adherence to apostolic Christian doctrine, has advanced ecumenical discourse between Catholics and evangelical Protestants?
I think the simple answer is yes.
Your question is just one with lots of good words. Clarity is a critical key. We need to have an understanding of what we share in common and how we differ.
For evangelicals, the shared belief in the historic Christian faith with the Catholic Church is of great importance. For example, when Pope Benedict spoke at St. Joseph’s Church in New York, he made at least one, probably several, references to the triune God. His emphasis on the Trinity, that’s a core apostolic doctrine.
The answer is yes, but clearly there are differences, and I appreciate his willingness to not gloss over what the differences are.
Do you think this approach is proving helpful to advancing ecumenical dialogue among all Christians?
Yes, because it opens channels of communication. But for evangelicals it is most helpful that we agree on the central doctrines of Christianity, as well as the sanctity of human life.
Both of those have been core issues in a pluralistic world for evangelicals and they are core issues for Catholics. And Benedict’s emphasis of the importance of these issues, especially of doctrine, is of value to us. That’s good.
Does is it harm dialogue with some other Christian denominations that do not share these emphases when the Catholic Church spells out these areas of disagreement?
I prefer that we emphasize where we have commonality and agreement, but it’s a mistake to ignore where we have differences.
And historic Christianity is historic Christianity, and we need, as believers in the triune God and the teachings of Scripture, to uphold those doctrines. If people disagree, I guess they just choose to disagree with it.
What did you think about Benedict’s remarks at the ecumenical meeting at St. Joseph’s Church?
He covered a lot of territory, and I think the things that stood out in my mind were the importance of basic beliefs and evangelism. He was communicating that we need to be clear in our message to those who are not Christians and to the extent possible have a coherent and cohesive message to them.
And since I’m someone who believes in the central doctrines of Christianity and evangelism I appreciated him making those emphases.
Are you familiar with Benedict’s earlier writings as a theologian and as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
Only in a limited way. Most of my familiarity with what he has previously written is secondary.
But I think what I most appreciate is that he speaks both theologically and pastorally. And that was woven together in many of the speeches that he gave, but particularly the one I heard [in New York]. You’re listening to a theologian who speaks pastorally — that’s an amazing combination.
In your judgment, what are the prospects for eventual Christian unity? What are the main problems that need to be overcome?
If we mean by that organizational unity, I think that’s pretty unlikely.
I think the prospects are good for celebrating agreements and acknowledging differences, but for example the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Communion are the most similar. And they’re still distant after almost a thousand years.
So I think that Protestant and Catholic doctrinal divergence is real, and I don’t think either is likely to change to the point of unity.
Tom McFeely is based in Victoria, British Columbia.