I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. John 17
We believe in the communion of saints. Apostles Creed
This statement on the communion of saints (communio sanctorum) is part of the ongoing project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, commonly called ECT. The project began in 1992 with a conference occasioned by growing and often violent conflicts between Catholics and evangelical Protestants in Latin America. In May 1994 we issued a statement, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. In that statement we explained why it is necessary for us, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to work with one another, and not against one another, in the great task of evangelization, and to support one another in facing up to the ominous moral, cultural, and spiritual threats of our time. The signers of the statement pledged themselves to such Christian solidarity and, while this initiative has not been without its critics, both Evangelical and Catholic, we are greatly heartened by the thousands who have joined in that pledge, both in this country and in other parts of the world.
Such solidarity, if it is to be true and enduring, must be grounded in nothing less than the gospel of Jesus Christ. This has been an insistent theme of ECT, reaffirmed every step of the way: the only unity that is pleasing to God, and therefore the only unity we can seek, is unity in the Truth. This theme was deepened and exemplified in the 1997 statement, The Gift of Salvation. In that statement we together affirmed the way in which we understand justification by faith alone as a gift received by Gods grace alone because of Christ alone. In that statement, we were able to say together:
At every step along the way, we have also noted carefully the questions on which, as Evangelicals and Catholics, we continue to disagree. On the long list of what might be called traditional disagreements between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics is the relationship between Scripture and tradition. In fact, there are few disagreements on the list that have been more agitated over the centuries. The disagreement is often posed in a way that calls for a stark choice between Scripture alone (sola scriptura), on the one hand, or Scripture and authoritative tradition, on the other. In Your Word is Truth, our statement issued in 2002, we were able to say together:
Each of the above statements is the result of intensive prayer, study, and uncompromisingly candid discussion among the Evangelicals and Catholics involved. In each statement we carefully note that we have not resolved all our differences on the subjects addressed, and it should be evident that we resolutely reject any thought of evading such differences. We believe, however, that these statements go a long way toward creating greater mutual understanding and recasting old disputes in new and promising ways.
We understand Evangelicals and Catholics Together as a work in progress. We are convinced that this is a work of the Holy Spirit. This work was underway long before ECT was begun. In recent decades, Evangelicals and Catholics have encountered one another as brothers and sisters in Christ in many forums, and especially as they contend together for a culture of life that will protect the unborn, the aged, the handicapped, and others who are often deemed to be expendable. These encounters and the patterns of cooperation they have produced are aptly described as the ecumenism of the trenches. ECT can be understood as making explicit what was implicit: that our unity in action is the fruit of our unity in faith. Our unity in action and in faith is by no means perfect. If this is the work of the Holy Spirit, as we firmly believe, it will continue long after the present participants in ECT have departed this life. We do not know how or when, but we do believe that the prayer of our Lord in John 17 will be answered, that his disciples will be one in a way that the world will see and will believe that he was sent by the Father.
Moreover, our historical circumstance makes our common witness increasingly urgent. Our circumstance is one of unremitting conflict between distinct and antithetical worldviews, or understandings of reality. Evangelicals and Catholics together share, and must together contend for, the Christian worldview. Whatever differences there have been between us in the past, and whatever differences persist still today, we stand side by side in contending for the truth of that understanding of reality. Such solidarity in opposition to the forces of unbelief is aptly called cobelligerency, and such cobelligerency is the more solid as it is more firmly grounded in the Bible, the creeds, and our confession and worship of Jesus Christ as Lord. With this statement and related undertakings, we seek to deepen our understanding of the common faith that binds us so that we might more effectively address the common tasks that claim us.
A century ago, the noted Protestant leader Abraham Kuyper recognized that the common defense of a Christian worldview made necessary precisely the kind of effort in which we are today engaged. Kuyper argued that, when we understand Christianity also as a worldview, we might be enabled once more to take our stand by the side of Romanism in opposition to modern pantheism. In a similar way, Catholic teaching today, as notably set forth by John Paul II, strongly encourages the fullest possible cooperation among Christians in contending for a culture of life and of truth against the encroaching culture of death and deceit. If then anyone asks about the purpose of this statement and of the ongoing project of which it is part, the answer is clear: it is to evangelize more effectively, to bear witness to the world that Jesus is the Lord and Savior sent by the Father, and to bring that truth to bear on every dimension of lifejust as we are commanded to do.
It must be added that ECT is an unofficial initiative. We speak from and to the communities of which we are part, but we do not presume to speak for them. We wholeheartedly support the several official theological dialogues between Evangelicals and Catholics. ECT is an ancillary initiative, serving as a kind of advance scouting party to explore possibilities, and, as such, has received much appreciated encouragement from many sources, both Evangelical and Catholic. We have no illusions that the centurieslong wounds of our divisions will be quickly or easily healed. We are convinced that ECT is part of a project that is Gods before it is ours, and is only ours because it is Gods. We offer this statement on the communio sanctorum in the spirit of the concluding words of our first statement in 1994: This is a time of opportunityand, if of opportunity then of responsibilityfor Evangelicals and Catholics to be Christians together in a way that helps prepare the world for the coming of Him to whom belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
There is, as we have noted, a definite sequence in the continuing conversation that is Evangelicals and Catholics Together. In the first round of conversation, we affirmed that, despite serious disagreements, we who recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ are called to the missionary task of proclaiming his lordship to the world. Acknowledging that we are together in Christ, we then turned in the second round to address justification as the way in which we come to share in the life of Christ. In the third round, we explored our understanding of the word of God and found ourselves in agreement that Holy Scripture, faithfully interpreted in the community of believers, is the divinely given rule by which we are to understand our life and mission in obedience to Christ. In the present statement, we examine more closely the nature of our life together. Our life together is communion in the communio of the life of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Evangelicals and Catholics both confess the Apostles Creed, which speaks of the communio sanctorum. In this statement, we address four aspects of that article of faith. First, we look to God as the one who is holy in Himself and in whose trinitarian communion we must participate in order to be holy. Second, we examine the relationship of communion among all those to whom God has imparted a share in His holiness. Third, we discuss our participation in sacraments or holy ordinances, which are means of manifesting and fostering the communion that we share. Finally, we reflect on the communion that we now share with those Christians who have gone before us, including those who have exemplified to an exceptional degree the fidelity to which we are all called, whom many Christians honor with the special title of saint.
God declared to Israel and declares to us, I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (Leviticus 11:45). The theme of Gods holiness permeates the entire Bible. The holiness of God is the mystery of His ineffable being manifested to us as His glory, which includes His righteous and merciful acts to which we are to conform our own lives. The holiness of God is given classic expression in the trisagion of Isaiah 6 where the seraphim cry out, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory. The threefold holiness of God expressed in this passage is understood by Christians as reflecting the life of the Holy Trinity.
All human beings are called to participate in the holiness of God. The life of Christians who, by the grace of God, have responded to that call is to be a life of holiness, which is to say a life of sanctification. Paul writes to his converts in Thessalonica and to us, This is the will of God, your sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Although our communion with God is impeded by sin, which repeatedly alienates us from Him, we are able to be reconciled through Jesus Christ who prayed to the Father, For their sake I sanctify myself, that they may be sanctified in truth (John 17:19). To be holy is to participate in the holiness of Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). The communion of saints signifies, first of all, communion, through Christ and in the power of the Spirit, with God the allholy.
Holiness necessarily entails relationships. In the communio sanctorum, one cannot be in communion alone. Holiness is, first of all, a relationship with God in Jesus Christ, the mediator of all holiness. Such a relationship is necessarily communal, for Gods own holiness is being in communion, namely, the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit dwelling together in love. To enter into fellowship with God is to enter into fellowship with all who share in the fellowship of God (1 John 1:3). To be in Christ is to be one with all who are in Christ. Our Lord prayed that those who believe in him may all be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, . . . so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:21). Jesus speaks of the union between himself and the Father as a mutual indwelling that is to be extended by his and the Fathers indwelling in the community of believers. So intimate is the union and so inseparable is the bond between Jesus and his disciples that those who persecute them are persecuting him, as is evident in his words to Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4). Similarly, those who are merciful to his disciples will be rewarded for having shown mercy to Christ himself (Matthew 10:42, 25:3440).
We Evangelicals and Catholics do not now live out together the fullness of the unity for which Christ prayed. Yet we do not lack blessings of unity in the body of Christ, which includes the vast company of believers of all times and places, from Abel the righteous one until our Lords return in glory (Hebrews 11). Our task is not to create unity in Christ, but to give full and faithful expression to the unity that is his present gift. Our union with Christ and with one another is never complete in this life, but it can be intensified and strengthened as we together draw closer to him and to one another. In the body of Christ, we strengthen one another by our strengths, even as we weaken one another by our weaknesses. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12:26).
To give expression to and thus to strengthen the fellowship that is already ours, we can and should, despite our different ecclesial allegiances, do many things together. We can gather to listen to the word of God, responding in prayer, worship, and thanksgiving, together with the whole company of heaven. We can together pray for the many good things that God moves us to desire, and for protection against the evils we rightly fear. Thus do we fulfill the prayer of Paul: May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:56). More particularly, together and in our separate gatherings, we should pray for one another. As Paul relied on the prayers of his fellow Christians (2 Corinthians 1:1011), so we benefit from our prayers for one another.
Through common study of the Bible we have gained a better understanding of Gods word in the tradition of the great preachers and theologians of earlier centuries, and thus we have learned to read the Bible more faithfully in and with the Church. We can together learn to interpret the Scriptures in faithful attentiveness to the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures, the same Spirit who Christ promised would lead the Church into all truth (John 16:3). In recent decades, this pneumatological and ecclesial way of reading the Scriptures is being widely recovered, thus protecting the sacred text from individualistic exegesis and those critical methodologies that are indifferent, or even hostile, to Gods saving and sanctifying truth.
In communal worship, Evangelicals and other Protestants have helped Catholics to value more highly the effective proclamation of the word of God. At the same time, Evangelicals have learned from Catholics and Orthodox to appreciate more fully the importance of ordered liturgy, including a lectionary based on the seasons of the Christian year. Noteworthy also is the greater use of one anothers legacy of hymnody. Patristic and medieval hymns are finding greater currency among some Evangelicals, while Catholics today praise God in the songs of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and others in the Evangelical tradition. In seminaries and programs of ministerial formation, leaders are increasingly being educated in both the unity and diversity of the one Christian movement in world history. Thus do we cultivate an understanding and experience of our belonging to a common Christian tradition. This is of growing importance in a century in which Christianity is sharply challenged by other world religions, most notably by Islam.
Always we are brought back to mission, and to explore how we might be more fully together in mission, for there is no doubt that Jesus speaks to all of us when he commands that we make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). As we are sent by the same Lord, as we go forth in the name of the same Lord, as we proclaim the same Lord, so we ought to evangelize with one another rather than against one another. In the words of the Evangelical leaders gathered at the Amsterdam 2000 conference on evangelization:
We participants in Evangelicals and Catholics Together join in the pledge of Amsterdam 2000, agreeing also with the words of John Paul II in the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer):
Faithful discipleship requires of us, Evangelicals and Catholics, that we do good to all men, especially those who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). We grow in the gift of, and vocation to, holiness as we give ourselves in service to the poor and needy. While individuals may disagree about what constitutes a just social order, we are united in our commitment to certain moral truths and their public recognition. Respecting the sanctity of human life at every stage of development and decline, securing the integrity of marriage and family life, protecting the disabled and vulnerable, caring for the marginalized and imprisonedthese are among the mandates that are bringing, and must increasingly bring, Evangelicals and Catholics together. Heartening also is our common witness and action in defense of religious freedom here and around the world, and an awakened sense of solidarity with persecuted Christians, joined with effective concern for nonChristians denied their rights of conscience. Moreover, Catholics and Evangelicals can assist one another in various circumstances by, for instance, defending one another from unfair public attacks, providing worship space and other facilities in times of need, and by taking up offerings for one anothers charitable works. In all these and in many other ways we can both express and deepen our communion with one another that is Gods present gift.
Communion among Christians includes the recognition of certain sacred rites, especially the sacraments or ordinances that come to us from Christ and the apostles. Although we have different understandings of how Christ orders his Church, we agree that communion has both visible and invisible dimensions. Catholics believe that the full and right ordering of the Church embraces seven sacraments, including the apostolic and sacramentally ordained ministry. Evangelicals, while differing both with Catholics and among themselves on the number and importance of sacraments, are agreed in respecting certain practices, such as Baptism, the Lords Supper, marriage, and the reading of Scripture. Some of these sacred practices and institutions, though differently understood, are bonds between us that maintain and deepen our communion.
The Church itself can be understood as a sign and instrument of grace, instituted by the one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, and, through the gospel, mediating his grace to the world. While the ancient formula Outside the Church no salvation may lend itself to misunderstanding, we agree that there is no salvation apart from the Church, since to be related to Christ is necessarily to be related, in however full or tenuous a manner, to the Church which is his body. Although Catholics believe that the Church is visible in its universal dimension and not only in local congregations, we as Catholics and Evangelicals together affirm the statement of Amsterdam 2000:
Similarly, we together affirm the statement of the Second Vatican Council:
Because we do not have the same ecclesial structures and do not fully agree on the doctrinal heritage that we share, there are some things that we cannot in conscience do together. Our communion is most manifestly and painfully imperfect in our inability to be one at the table of the Lord in Holy Communion. Evangelicals differ among themselves as to how open or restrictive admission to the Lords Supper should be. Catholics, for their part, cannot in conscience participate in an observance of the Lords Supper absent communion with the apostolic ministry that they believe Christ wills for his Church. Evangelicals and Catholics together know that our Lord commanded us, Do this. We know that he intended that we do this together. Our different discernments of what is entailed in doing this obediently prevent us from doing this together. This circumstance is an abiding and heartbreaking sadness.
We together pray that our imperfect communion will one day give way to full communion in eucharistic fellowship. At present, we cannot see beyond some disagreements that appear to be intractable. Our visibly fractured fellowship at the Lords table can, at the same time, be a salutary reminder of how far we are from the goal of complete unity, and a spur to more urgent prayer and work that one day the prayer of Jesus in John 17 will be fully answered. That fulfillment is finally the work of the Holy Spirit, who moves in ways that we cannot always anticipate. In the meantime, however, we recognize that the right ordering of the Church and all the means of grace are precisely means. They serve the end of personal union with Christ, and that union is effected, by the grace of God, when believers avail themselves of the means of grace available to them. We Evangelicals and Catholics gratefully acknowledge our unity in being reconciled to God through Christ, and pray for the day when that unity can be expressed and strengthened by agreement on all the means of grace that Christ intends for his Church.
The communio sanctorum embraces all Christians, including those whose lives are not notably marked by holiness. In the New Testament, the term saints generally refers to all who are baptized and confess Christ as Lord. The Christian tradition, following the New Testament, also lifts up some persons for special respect and veneration. The Letter to the Hebrews, for instance, proposes an honor roll of those in the history of salvation who are exemplars of heroic faith. The lives of such faithful men and women both point to and reflect the holiness of God in Christ.
As early as the second century, Christians gathered for worship at the tombs of the martyrs, celebrating the power of Gods grace in the lives of these faithful men and women. They prayed to God for spiritual and temporal favors to be granted through the intercession of the martyrs. Indeed, in the early Church and through the patristic era, the phrase communio sanctorum had primary reference to this enduring bond between the faithful on earth and the faithful who had gone before, especially those whose witness was crowned with martyrdom. While all Christians are properly called saints, the word saint soon became a title of honor referring to exemplary lives among the faithful, and most notably the lives of martyrs. Our own time is rightly understood as a time of the martyrs, and it is a most encouraging development that Christians today increasingly recognize and revere those members of the several ecclesial communities who, in the century past and still now, offer the ultimate witness to the lordship of Christ.
As Christians, we are wayfarers who look forward to joining one day the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven (Hebrews 12:23). Scripture indicates that the martyrs beneath the heavenly altar still await their full vindication (Revelation 6:10). They are one with us, and we are one with them, in yearning for the completion of Gods plan of salvation in the final establishment of the Kingdom of Christ who is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). In a world where many believe that this life is all there is, Christians are called to bear bold witness to the solidarity of the communio sanctorum, a solidarity secured by our communion with Jesus Christcrucified, risen, and coming againand with all, both the living and the dead, who are alive in Christ.
Catholics believe that there is a lively interaction, including an exchange of spiritual goods, between ourselves and those who have gone on to glory. This interaction is always in Christ and through Christ. Just as all Christians request the intercession of brothers and sisters on earth, so Catholics rely also on the intercession of the saints in heaven, of whom the Blessed Virgin Mary is foremost, and invoke their aid in prayers, recognizing that prayers to the saints are also prayers with the saints, directed to Christ and to the Father, and that all blessings are received from God. When the saints in heaven act, it is God who acts through them. This understanding is expressed in the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium):
Evangelicals do not generally affirm the intercession of the saints in heaven, and do not ask for their intercession, since they do not find any explicit biblical warrant for such practice. They are sometimes puzzled, if not repelled, by the intense and various ways in which Catholics express communion with the saints. They caution, as do Catholics, against the dangers of abuse and superstition in connection with the cult of saints and of relics. Indeed, the formal Catholic procedures for beatifying and canonizing saints are intended, inter alia, to guard against superstition, miraclemongering, and popular enthusiasms of a possibly heretical nature. While Evangelicals do not have such formal procedures, they have informal ways in which those who have lived exemplary lives of faith are recognized as deserving of particular honor. At the same time, however, some Evangelicals express concern that the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints implies that there is a basis of merit other than Christ the sole Redeemer, and are not convinced by Catholic assurances to the contrary. These are among the questions in need of further examination in our continuing conversation.
All Christians of all times have asked how God prepares believers for the beatific vision of the fullness of His glory. Holy Scripture does not present us with details about what happens to those who die in Christwhether, as most Evangelicals believe, they enter immediately into the fullness of Gods glory or, as Catholics believe, ordinarily undergo a period of further preparation. If sanctification is not complete here on earth, is it somehow completed between the time of death and the beatific vision? Catholics hold that one who dies in Gods friendship while still suffering from certain sinful attachments and dispositions will be cleansed by spiritual fire in Purgatory. Evangelicals agree that our lives will be reviewed before the judgment seat of Christ, and all that is unworthy will be burned away. While Evangelicals find no biblical warrant for the doctrine of Purgatory, we together affirm with Paul, If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any mans work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:1415).
A detailed exploration of the doctrine of Purgatory and related questions is beyond the scope of this round of our conversation. Nor have we examined adequately suffrages for the dead, the question of indulgences, the role of Mary in Christian piety, or the sins of denominationalism against the communion that is Gods present gift. Together, however, we do affirm that no true Christian, living or dead, can be outside the communio sanctorum, the fellowship of all who live in the crucified, risen, reigning, and returning Lord. Within the body of Christ, we know that we are to pray for one another and to offer up our sufferings for the sake of the Church (Colossians 1:24).
Living as we do in communion with those who have
gone before us, we strive to realize in the pilgrim Church on
earth a life together that more fully anticipates the communion
of the Church in glory. It is our hope and prayer as Evangelicals
and Catholics that by rightly using the means of grace afforded
to us in the Church here on earth, we will be more fully conformed
to Christ and thus be drawn into more perfect communion with one
another and with the communio sanctorum triumphant, to the glory
of the one and immortal God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy
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