December 5, 2020

Riffs: 11:07:09: The New/Old Look Evangelical Ecumenism: IVCF Splits at GWU

mljThis is a bit of old news to theological news hounds out there, but it fits in with this week’s discussion and yesterday’s post rather well.

IVCF at George Washington University has split over reformation theology. There is plenty of interesting reading here, btw. Good article.

Short version: a sizable contingent of students with concerns about a lack of precise reformation theology and overtures to Catholics by their George Washington University IV chapter have split off and formed their own campus ministry.

Collin Hansen, whose objectivity in this kind of story has to be somewhat questionable, gives the historical perspective to make it clear that the theological acumen of the current crop of GW IV students is considerably higher than in the past; high enough that the difference between IV’s statement on justification in 1960 and 2000 caused alarm.

InterVarsity’s Bear Trap Statement, adopted in 1960 at the national staff conference, specified that sinners are justified “by the Lord Jesus Christ through faith alone.” By contrast, the Doctrinal Basis of 2000 said that InterVarsity believes in “justification by God’s grace to all who repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.”

The word alone’s shift in placement is significant, said Doug Sweeney, professor of history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

“Tridentine Roman Catholics could not sign the Bear Trap Statement, for justification by faith alone was anathematized at the Council of Trent,” said Sweeney. “Such Roman Catholics could sign the 2000 statement, however, for Catholics have always taught that salvation is found in Christ alone. Further, the 2000 statement allows for a Tridentine commitment to the necessity of faith being formed or perfected by love before one is finally justified. This is the doctrine that the 16th-century Reformers opposed most strenuously.

Lurking in the background of this controversy are two figures not to be missed: Capital Hill Baptist Church, a reformed Southern Baptist Church in D.C. that is the home to 9 Marks Ministries and N.T. Wright, whose theology questioning the achievement of Luther, etc on justification is- surprise!- leading an exodus of evangelical students into the Roman Catholic Church, or so we hear.

As a Southern Baptist, I’m always ready to look on the bright side of a church split, but this story can’t help but remind me of one of the defining moments in Reformed evangelical history: Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ refusal to take part in the 1954 Billy Graham Crusade in London. Lloyd-Jones was distressed over the direction of evangelicals being involved in an ecumenical movement with liberal churches, some of which tolerated denials of doctrines like the Virgin Birth. His refusal to be part of that Graham crusade set the tone for the conservative evangelical approach to evangelicalism and explains why you don’t see John Stott referenced particularly often by the young, restless and reformed.

I’m not much of a joiner, and official organizations involving various kinds of Christians can make me as nervous as any reformation Christian, but on the level of “common fellowship,” mercy ministries, church planting, encouragement for reform within various churches, appreciation of mutual faith in Jesus and a good meal, I’m in favor of a generous evangelical ecumenism. I could have cooperated with Graham and spoken my mind on where I parted from him and his methods/message. I’ve cooperated in many a fundamentalist area-wide crusade where I had to hold my nose at manipulation and rotten theology, but we made it through and I haven’t had any problem saying I disagree with those knuckle-head tactics.

I doubt that IV has a lot to worry about on the national level with this sort of division, but it demonstrates that when we talk ecumenism, Nicene creed confessionalism and so forth, our reformed Baptist brothers and sisters are thinking how to separate over issues like where is the “alone” in the statement on justification? Christ alone is Catholic. Faith alone is reformation. Of such divisions will the new evangelical ecumenism be made.


  1. I’ve always considered Catholics christian. I’ve always considered myself to be some sort of Protestant. I’m not all that theologically sophisticated, but……

    If I have to choose between those two statements, I’ll drop the the rigidly reformed one like a hot potato.

    Maybe I’ve been missing something all these years.

    • Just for Quix says

      Thanks for saying this.

      I tend to agree with the C.T. article that sacramental perspectives and the papacy are the more difficult issues to reconcile the divide between Protestantism and Catholicism. Nevertheless, I don’t find even this more substantial divide any acceptable reason for the vehement anti-Catholic sentiment I find among some of my fellow “non-denominational” congregants.

      Despite some differences in the nuances and understanding of Christ’s salvational processes, I think we should be able to have cooperative unity in the Body that salvation is in Christ alone, that it is His work, and that we are seeking to submit, conform and serve the Kingdom He builds. Now it may be I don’t see the ungracious viciousness, where it may exist, among Catholics because my family of faith is Protestant. Still, like you, if I am forced to take sides on the Justification debate I’ll choose to part company with the strident, rigid persons in Reformed circles any day in order to keep cooperative dialogue open — always favoring a more humble and gracious unity within, and submission to, our Lord’s redemptive work.

      • L. Winthrop says

        The “Catholic” formulation as given here seems pretty reasonable. I mean, who could be against love? (Sigh.) I’m sure the Reformers had their reasons, which must have seemed compelling at the time–and still do to our own zealots–but I frankly don’t see the point of all this hair-splitting.

  2. Perhaps some Stott would help them. Perhaps. But I doubt they’d read him. When Piper speaks they listen. No generous orthodoxy for them. That’s what IVCF is about. What saddens me is there was a time when kids who were from Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal backgrounds could meet, sing, pray, study the scriptures and support each other in their Christian walk.

    • ” What saddens me is there was a time when kids who were from Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal backgrounds could meet, sing, pray, study the scriptures and support each other in their Christian walk.”

      The needs of ‘the least of His’ in today’s world are calling to these young people in great numbers. Their response may require more of them than meeting, singing, praying, and studying. Their Christian walk may lead them to break out of the old separations and rejoin their brothers and sisters, if not theologically, at least in the practice of serving the Lord Christ Whose Presence they see in the faces of those in need. And, in doing so, the bindings of divisions will loosen their hold.

    • did you really just say that IVCF is all about “when piper speaks they listen”? really? tell me i misunderstood that.

      • I am happy to report that IVCF in upstate NY is happily unaware of the state of affairs in the GWU chapter. Nothing like that here… And I doubt many of our students know who John Piper is.

  3. As a Southern Baptist, I’m always ready to look on the bright side of a church split

    I don’t know why, but that statement really made me laugh.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Probably because it’s making a virtue out of a necessity.

      Or laughing to keep from crying.

  4. Clay,

    Inter-Varsity, CCC, and similar Evangelical student bodies are still places where Baptists, Presbys, Assemblies, etc. can meet, worship, pray, and encourage one another. The point of the GWU controversy is that such fellowships should have a common Evangelical confession, which excludes Catholics. It comes down to this: Protestants and Catholics confess the same Christ, but they preach a different Gospel. As such, Evangelicals have a common witness, where faith is the sole ground of justification. The proclamation of the Word (through hymns, preaching, and prayer) is the central purpose of Inter-Varsity and CCC, but this proclamation could no longer be faithful to Scripture if it were to include the qualifications and nuances of Roman Catholic formulas.

    • I’ve always found it interesting that the late Evangelical apologist and cult expert, Walter Martin, never included Roman Catholicism in his famous book Kingdom of the Cults. He certaintly had his differences with Catholicism, but he never classified them as “preaching another Gospel”, at least not to my knowledge.

      Though we evangelicals may have our serious differences with Rome, I think we should be careful not to accuse them of preaching another Gospel which, of course, would place them in the category of those who fall under the divine curse of God (Gal. 1:8,9).


  5. Clay, when I was a kid, in the early 60’s we had , in public school, Chapel, where ALL Christians would sing hymns,hear scripture read, and pray the Lords prayer, some stopped before others, but nobody minded. On Wednesday mornings we would walk to and from local churches for religious education. The Catholics one way, the protestants another. According to what my folks told me later, the protestants got along fine, all the different Catholics, Greek, Russian, Roman, did not like it. In my area the Roman Catholics were very divided by country of origin, the Irish, and Italians hating each other almost as much as they all hated the Slavs; Czechs, Poles, Silesians, Slovaks and Serbs, all of whom had there own churches, seminaries, Priests, Patron Saints, and none of whom got along.
    I like the 2000 best because of the word “repent”. I don’t understand faith without repentance.
    I don’t pretend to be on a Martyn Lloyd-Jones or Billy Graham level, I have wondered however, that if all the Billy Graham conversions in America were real, why do we look the way we do.

    With all due respect to you Imonk, I have never before heard this statement. ” Christ alone is Catholic.” I have always believed Christ alone lead to everything else, repentance, salvation, justification and by work of the Holy Spirit Sanctification. I have never had a Catholic agree with me.
    I have attended many Masses, and read many catechisms, and have never encountered the expression, “Christ alone is Catholic.” I pray for a day when the church of Rome believes Christ Alone. Pope John Paul led in that direction. It thrilled me to see banners hung over RC churches that said “Open the doors to Christ”, Many of my Catholic friends said that there was a new concentration on Christ in the Homilies. May Pope Benedict continue in the same direction.

    • >With all due respect to you Imonk, I have never before heard this statement. ” Christ alone is Catholic.”

      I never said that.

      • Christ alone is Catholic. Faith alone is reformation. Of such divisions will the new evangelical ecumenism be made.

        Is it a context thing??, Cause there it is.

        • willoh, he was speaking of the statement where they were parsing out where to put the word “alone”; in the first version, having “alone” after “faith” was solidly Reformation and a great barrier keeping out those sneaky Tridentine Roman Catholics.

          But the nefarious 2000 version, which moved the word “alone” to follow “Jesus” meant that those pernicious Tridentine Romans, with their racks and their rosaries and their idols of Mary, could sign up with beatific smiles on their faces, take over, and start the Inquistion and the heretic burning with clear consciences. (Why he imagines we’d boggle at a trifle like perjury, mental reservations, and plain lying about signing on to a statement of faith when it came down to the placement of one little word, but have no problems about infiltrating and corrupting the innocent Reformed students, I have no idea but there you go) 🙂

          That’s what Michael meant by “Christ alone” is Catholic, i.e. the line in the excerpt that reads “Such Roman Catholics could sign the 2000 statement” and “faith alone” is Reformation.

          • Thanks Martha. You have to watch where those Reformed Protestants plant there Sola.
            After reading all the comments of the last week, seeing that particular sentence was a bit odd.
            Lighten up on the Tridentines, they have not had an Inquisition in quite a while, and they have stopped burning people like me at the stake. I guess you could say they have “reformed” , but that would really muddy the waters, wouldn’t it!

          • As a descendant of a very long line of Quakers, I’d just like to remind everyone that the Reformed did their fair share of persecuting.

            Mary Dyer, anyone?

          • Just a clarification that all Catholics are Tridentine, Latin Rite and otherwise. It’s not a byword for traditionalists, right-wingers, hard-liners or anything like that. The term makes sense as used in the article but it doesn’t denote a subset of Catholics. Trent was an ecumenical council.

        • Maybe he meant little “c” catholic, as in “universal”? That’s how I understood it.

  6. Clear doctrine matters, but there is a point at which hyper-specification of fine points can shatter the spirit (and truth) of the whole. We need to think a bit more with our hearts and minds, not just with our brains.

    • Christiane says

      It is interesting that the Scriptures tell us that God has written His Laws on our hearts.
      Peter, I think your on to something: ‘thinking’ with our hearts may bring a response more in tune with His Will, instead of relying solely on our own pitiful human rational understanding.

  7. What it comes down to is whether we’re following the same Lord, or whether we’re adhering to the same theology. If it’s about theology, then of course there will be many splits. If it’s about Jesus, then there will of course be some splits—we shouldn’t overlook heretics, especially when they want to be in charge—but we won’t see as many. And Intervarsity has always been about promoting Evangelical theology against modern and postmodern secular thought.

    It’s great that Christians are working and worshiping together. I’m completely in favor of Protestants and Catholics recognizing that we all have the same Master, and loving one another like He wants. I firmly believe the Holy Spirit is behind it. I’m glad some of the Christians in IV have realized that this is a bigger priority to Jesus than theology. But in order to pursue this, it’s going to require a significant change in IV’s mandate. It either needs to be all things to all Christians, or it needs to narrowly focus on Evangelical theology and leave the growing Christian ecumenical movement to other organizations.

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing that they chose to focus on theology; I just don’t believe it’s as big a priority to the Spirit as putting the body of Christ back together.

  8. Things can change pretty quickly on college campuses but the people that I knew from GWU and involved in IVCF were really hard core–heresy hunters, lots of Calvinism. If it’s still like this then I’m not surprised.

    • I always feel I have to defend Calvin because of statements like this:

      “hard core–heresy hunters, lots of Calvinism”

      I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there are those who profess Reformed beliefs that tend to be very hard and uncompromising on doctrine. But equating Calvinism with heresy hunting is like making a blanket statement that Catholics aren’t Christians—it’s simply untrue and unfair. Calvin was clear and precise in his doctrinal teachings, but he never claimed to have all truth and after stating his own position with far more precision than most people could come close to, he nevertheless still gave others room to disagree with him.

      Again, I can sympathize and know where you’re coming from with respect to what you’ve observed in certain people, but I would tend to suggest that the problem is with those particular people and not the doctrines themselves: if they truly took into their hearts all that rich doctrine instead of leaving it stuck in their heads alone, I think perceptions would be very different.

      • Sorry I didn’t mean to make it sound like A (Calvinism) necessarily leads to B (heresy hunting)–my bad; apologies. My intent was to express the “hard-core-ness” of the group and I fumbled.

        There’s plenty of heresy hunting in other strictly-constructed groups as well–read a conservative Catholic blog for example.

      • Ross from KY says

        In my personal experience where I’ve found out at the time or later the details.

        Not all Calvinist are heresy hunters.

        But all (at least 99.99%) of the heresy hunters I’ve be accosted by in evangelical circles have been Calvinists.

        All the standard disclaimers about limited data set sizes apply here.

  9. Sigh, yet another split promising the true Truth and the true return to the Reformation (or the Early Church or whatever). It is what tired me of evangelicalism and what makes Christianity so hard to explain to the non-believer.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Until you reach the theoretical end state: Millions of One True Churches, each with only ONE member, each calling Jihad ex cathedra on all the others as Heretics and Apostates.

  10. The IVCF chapter on my campus was a good 50-50 mix of Catholics and Protestant, and among the protestants were Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Methodists, etc. I sincerely hope that this doesn’t affect other chapters.

  11. ““Tridentine Roman Catholics could not sign the Bear Trap Statement, for justification by faith alone was anathematized at the Council of Trent,” said Sweeney.”

    Speaking from a position of complete benighted ignorance here, but it strikes me that if you’re more worried about your theology or praxis being acceptable by Roman Catholics or sounding like it might be something similar to Roman Catholicism, than you are about it being accurate for what you require it to do, you’ve got a problem.

    Somehow, I don’t think that the Pope is worrying about his second volume of “Jesus of Nazareth” (due to come out next Spring) sounding “too Mennonite” or “ZOMG, Campbellites could agree with this part!”

  12. I stopped calling myself Protestant more than a decade ago, when I was continually looked at ascance for my appreciation, admiration, (and even love) of Mary.

    And as I began to pay attention, it struck me that much that we do and believe as non-Catholics we did and believed simply to not be Catholic. If “they” did it this way, then “we” had to do it another way.

    The fight between Catholics & Protestants is centuries old. And it is simply not my fight.

    • Patrick Lynch says

      “And as I began to pay attention, it struck me that much that we do and believe as non-Catholics we did and believed simply to not be Catholic.”

      I was about to make this observation, but then you went ahead and made it better than I could!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        As the guy who wrote Evangelical is Not Enough put it:

        “If we stand just because Enemy Christians kneel, that is Protestantism taken to its end-state sterility.”

  13. Instead of going either one way or the other, why not satisfy both with a statement like:
    “….put their faith alone in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.”? This should keep both reformers and Catholics happy.

  14. Some times moving one word can make a big difference. I believe this is one of those times.
    At what point should those who objected to the rewording become alarmed? Any ? Co-operation is a good thing but it can’t be the altar on which doctrinal truth is sacraficed.

    • I don’t think anyone (in this discussion, on this blog) has demonstrated that this was truly the reason for the re-wording of the statement. All we have is an outsider’s (Doug Sweeney) interpretation.

      The other thing to remember is that a campus ministry is not a church and thus can legitimately be broader and wider in its membership criteria.

      But obviously some disagree with that last statement.

    • It’s tough to find the right balance, and I don’t know the “correct” answer myself. I tend to err on the side of doctrinal correctness, but I don’t feel that each and every situation is the right time to focus on doctrine. Sometimes in my marriage, if my wife and I have a disagreement, even if I’m right (which seems to be infrequent), I think to myself that proving I’m right isn’t the helpful thing to do right at the moment—quieting things down, affirming our relationship and maybe (only maybe) later revisiting the issue when cooler heads are prevailing seems a saner approach.

      Finding the right balance between heresy hunters of any ilk and those who think that as long as we’re all hugging, doctrinal issues are totally irrelevant—-that’s the hard thing, but it’s what I personally think we should be striving for. I’d probably side with the original wording, but I like the idea of at least trying to find common ground.

  15. When I started to attend an IVCF chapter during college and then university I was the strongest Calvinist on campus and decidedly opposed to the Roman Catholic Church. There was a Catholic group on campus that shared the inter-faith room with IVCF, and some of them involved in that group were also involved in IVCF.

    I was troubled by this, and by the comments I had heard from some IVCF people from other campuses and discussed this with the IVCF staff person on multiple occasions. After these discussions, and getting to know the IVCF leadership on campus it became clear to me that this group was not “falling under Roman Catholic influence” but if anything was influencing the Roman Catholics, but doing it through friendships and dialog.

    I stuck with IVCF on this campus, joined it’s student leadership and eventually lead it myself. It was a wonderful experience that brought me out of the fundamentalist Calvinistic baptist understanding and into something rooted much deeper in the Church. This IVCF group has had a greater influence on me then any other individual Christian or group because although it had it’s own evangelical Christian convictions it engaged with all other types of Christians, both learning from them and teaching itself to them. This allowed me to explore (something I did not feel I was allowed to do before) the Christian tradition and incorporate more of it into myself.

    It was therefore quite troubling when I first heard back this when it was put up on Christianity Today’s website. I don’t know the situation at this particular IVCF chapter, and each chapter takes on the character of the staff member who leads it and the students who attend it, so I cannot comment to much on it. I have seen an IVCF chapter keep it’s convictions, but work with Roman Catholics, and dialog with them as Christian brothers and sisters (although ones there is important disagreements with). It’s a shame to see that it couldn’t happen in this case because I know what can come out of it.

  16. Unless I am missing something the division over this issue seems to be foolish. I became a believer due the ministry of IV while in college. Since that time I have become more Calvinistic in my theology and looking back I see many shortcomings related to IV. Doctrine was downplayed, to promote or defend a doctrine was looked down upon. Many of those I knew were involvled with churches that would become part of the emergent movement whose views on scripture I was uncomfortable with. And we did have our share of people who passed through who espoused outright heresey (I do not use that term lightly) such as those on the extreme charismatic fringe (ex. Morningstar ministries and Todd Bentley). Despite these issues however I am grateful for the time I spent in IV and everything I learned from a diverse group of believers.
    This statement of faith seems to me to be a non-issue however. The 2000 statement of faith expresses my views on salvation as a reformed Christan in a straightforward simple way. It would be irrelevant to me if a Catholic could now be in agreement with that statement. There are plenty of other issues with the beliefs and practices of IV that would be in conflict with a Catholic understanding of church and savation that would impede a sudden influx of catholics into IV. I understand where the conflict arises however as I have run into many people who would try to argue that believing in justification by faith alone was required for true salvation and anything less than this was a false gospel.

    BTW You mentioned Mark Dever and Capitol Hill Baptist as being involved in this. I must have missed this, how are they involved?

  17. Michael, in the link to the Christianity Today article you gave us, I was interested to read this, “Wright, the Anglican observer at the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops last October, said he was struck by the bishops’ emphasis that every Catholic read the Bible in his or her own language.” I didn’t realize that there would be an “Anglican observer” at the Synod. Someone on a blog once joked that Wright harbored a secret desire to be Pope! I know that with this new Catholic thing where some Anglicans will be in full communion with Catholics that married bishops cannot be a part of it. Married priests can be, though. So, N.T. Wright (not that he would WANT to) cannot join in the fun. (Just joking. But he can’t join in. Unless his beloved wife were to join Jesus for eternity before N.T. does.)

    I just love Bishop Wright’s scholarship, theology, humor.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I know that with this new Catholic thing where some Anglicans will be in full communion with Catholics that married bishops cannot be a part of it. Married priests can be, though.

      That’s the same rules used for Western-rite Permanent Deacons and Eastern Rite priests. A married man can be ordained, but an ordained man cannot marry after being ordained. And Bishops must be single or widowed.

      • So I guess if you think you want to be married AND be a Western-rite Permanent Deacon or Eastern Rite priest, you better hope you can find a wife before being ordained.

  18. I love that hymn “In Christ Alone.” Maybe the truly reformed should abstain from singing it–just to be safe. 😀

    • Interestingly, the PCA General Assembly sang that hymn immediately after voting to condemn the Federal Vision.

  19. I think the proper place for theological hair-splitting like this is the academy or the scholarly debate or the ecumenical council. But to put it out there immediately as something that requires division among the body of believers just seems a little juvenile and silly. And I’m speaking as an evangelical. Imagine what it looks like to the agnostic or buddhist student who was considering Christianity. I can’t imagine it making the Christian option more attractive to such folks. Imagine the appeal: “Hey, join us, but first you have to pick a side in a fight you may not even understand or care about.” Good grief.

  20. I think there needs to be some truth in advertising behind this sola-fide statement. The qualifications placed on saving faith need to be state, something like this:

    1. faith must be sincere (do you really, really, REALLY believe? Really? You better try harder, just to be sure.)
    2. faith must be committed (Is Jesus only 99.99% Lord of your life? Sorry, not good enough.)
    3. faith works (where’s your fruit? Does it measure up to a 100 different arbitrary standards? No? Sorry, you fail).
    4. faith must never doubt (questioning your faith? Then you must have never truly believed. Fail. Try again.)
    5. faith must persevere (sin? gasp! Backslider! Perhaps you were never truly predestined to grace. Hope you like warm climates.)

    I think Catholics are a little more honest about lumping together justification and sanctification; protestants tend to confound the two in the fine print.

  21. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I doubt that IV has a lot to worry about on the national level with this sort of division, but it demonstrates that when we talk ecumenism, Nicene creed confessionalism and so forth, our reformed Baptist brothers and sisters are thinking how to separate over issues like where is the “alone” in the statement on justification?

    You know what that reminds me of?

    A lawyer who got caught at something, parsing and lawyering his way out.

    “That all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
    — Bill Clinton

  22. I know I’m embarrassingly late to this conversation (forgive me, my wife just had a baby a couple weeks ago), but I thought I’d point out the absurdity of Dr. Sweeney’s “observation” about the 2000 statement. It does not state simply that Christians are saved by Jesus Christ alone, but through genuine repentance and conscious faith in Jesus Christ (and implicitly, His work) alone. This is not really a loosening of the doctrine of sola fide at all. How a scholar as able as Sweeney could miss this I have no idea.