First, let me state that no document except the Bible, and perhaps statements that directly quote or paraphrase the Bible, is perfect. There are problems with the Manhattan Declaration in that not all the language is clear enough. Yet I signed it wholeheartedly and encourage others to do so.
Some evangelical and Reformed Protestants have chosen not to sign it disagreeing with its definition that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are Christians and these bodies are true churches. The pastor of my church, Dr. R.C. Sproul, has written a nice piece on this called: The Manhattan Declaration: Why didn’t you sign it, R.C.? His argument and many of his points are valid. However, I disagree with the premise that signing the Manhattan Declaration signifies that one agrees with the Roman Catholic Church on its definition of the Gospel of salvation.
The Manhattan Declaration mentions “the church” a total of five times. Each time it refers to the church of the New Testament or the patristic and historic church of earlier centuries. Nowhere does it define “the church” as a particular body — Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Evangelical Protestant. Nowhere does the document say that the signer is agreeing with a particular church doctrine. How could it? If Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox sign, then do their signatures imply they reject the teaching of their own churches in favor of Luther’s confession or the five points of Calvinism? Of course not!
The Manhattan Declaration does recognize that there are Christians among all these groups and we must work alongside of each other to resist the federal tyranny that is becoming a threat to the sanctity of life, marriage, the family and religious freedom.
Here we must agree. Evangelical Christians who are involved in pro-life activism, for instance, are working alongside many Roman Catholics who dominate the movement. Sadly, Protestants were missing in action when Roe v. Wade was decided. This point is moot. We can try to separate ourselves from the Roman Catholic pro-life movement, but it is simply a reality that we Protestants responded many years too late.
R.C. Sproul writes:
While I would march with the bishop of Rome and an Orthodox prelate to resist the slaughter of innocents in the womb, I could never ground that cobeligerency on the assumption that we share a common faith and a unified understanding of the gospel.
In a similar article, R.C. Sproul, Jr. makes a similar statement saying he would march with a “Muslim” in an attempt to stop legalized child killing.
I agree. It is ironic that someone would state in a position paper that he would march with Catholics, but refuses to sign a document stating the same thing!
Of course, I disagree with their premise. The Manhattan Declaration does not make any statement saying that Protestants share a unified understanding of the Gospel with Roman Catholics. In fact, it says the opposite:
While fully acknowledging the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages …
… we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities.
We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences …
In short, it recognizes that the “church” as defined here is imperfect; that the signers are not bound to be in unity with anyone other than their own communities; and that the bodies represented have marked differences. It states that we may disagree, but still be united in a pro-active front against societal evil.
That being said, if pro-life, pro-family and pro-liberty activists have a problem with signing the document, then I support them in their decision. My problem is not with those such as Dr. Sproul who refuse to sign who nevertheless are valiantly fighting for truth, but with those arm-chair theologians who refuse to sign and yet do little or nothing to resist evil.
Further, I would love to see R.C. Sproul, Alistair Begg, Michael Horton, John MacArthur, John Piper and other Reformed luminaries revise the Manhattan Declaration to their liking and call Reformed Christians to the militant stance against evil that the Gospel commands. I would like to have seen this happen many years ago. In fact, I have tried to promote this idea for over 15 years. See some of my thinking on this here and here.
We Protestants as a larger group in America ought to dominate the pro-life movement with greater numbers and greater fervency than the Roman Catholics. Sadly, we do not.
Likewise, we ought to have far many more hospitals, grade schools and community charities. Sadly, we do not.
And since we do not excel the Roman Catholics in one of the most basic commandments of the Lord Jesus, “love your neighbor as yourself,” we ought to ask ourselves:
What is “the Church”? What is “the Gospel”?
In Acts 15:1-21, the Apostles agreed to reduce the standard for orthodox soteriology to the following: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
I decided a long time ago that I can’t peer into everyone’s heart and decide who is truly born-again and who is not. I also can’t decide who God accepts as a “true church.” At least I can’t decide this according to my own standards. It’s a good thing for me that this was all settled in the first 300 years of Christian history.
According to the church fathers, a true believer and a true church is one that holds to the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and one that accepts the definition of the Trinity as stated in the Athanasian Creed. A true church enforces discipline by teaching their members to repent from sin and is involved in active evangelism and works of mercy. In addition, a church must affirm salvation by grace alone as stated in Acts 15:11.
But here is a point many people miss. It is possible to be saved by grace alone and not fully understand the implications of that. Roman Catholics may be born-again and they are therefore saved by grace alone. However, they probably do not fully understand the doctrines of grace. Likewise, Protestants who don’t accept the doctrines of sovereign grace (unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace) don’t fully understand their salvation. Further, the modern evangelical movement is riddled with a postmodernist form of pietism or primitivism that eschews doctrine altogether. These are “Protestants in name only” whose doctrine would hardly be recognizable to Christians of past centuries. Eastern Orthodox soteriology denies original sin and the substitutionary atonement, but agrees with salvation by grace alone. Some Calvinists view these Primitivist, Arminian, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic views on soteriology as “another Gospel.”
How should we evaluate them?
Simply put: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
In other words, when we speak of Christians in these bodies, we are speaking of those saved by grace, just as we are. There is only one body and only one Gospel.
However, one can never be too narrow for some people’s liking. I can point you to entire blogs and vlogs on the internet that question whether R.C. Sproul is preaching the Gospel based on the fact that he understands the theology of Thomas Aquinas as approximating Reformed theology. Ironically, Sproul, who frequently and affectionately boasts of his admiration of “Thomas,” says his heart sank when he saw his Protestant friends’ names on the Manhattan Declaration. Thankfully, he condescends to agree not to break fellowship with the signers “at this time” preferring to believe they were simply misled. Dr. Sproul holds out hope they will withdraw their signatures.
The pitfall we must avoid is narrower and narrower thinking until we are straight-jacketed into a position where there are virtually no Christians left. So we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that only we or only our church understands the Gospel correctly. A few years ago, I heard R.J. Rushdoony answer someone who asked the question:
What should be the limits on how much the Reformed will cooperate with other groups who don’t preach the Gospel or preach another Gospel? Are we to view Arminians, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as Christians and should we cooperate with them in attempts toward social reform?
I loved his answer:
When we are Christians, to the extent to any degree we are faithful to the Gospel, we are bigger than ourselves. And that is why whether they are Arminian, Roman Catholic, or Calvinist, people who are truly serving the Lord are bigger than their own thinking, bigger than their own faith. We transcend ourselves. And that is the glory of the Gospel. It enables us to do more than we can do. It is the grace of God working through us. It is not that we teach different Gospels; we are trying to teach the same Gospel even though at times our emphasis will be a warped one, a limited one, a partial one. All the same, God can use it.
I don’t view R.C. Sproul and John McArthur as “preaching the Gospel,” while Arminians, Pietists, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are “not preaching the Gospel.” These other groups are preaching a limited Gospel riddled with several key misunderstandings. While Reformed doctrine formed the foundation of Protestantism in the 1500s, the evangelical movement prior to that time and up until today has not shared all of its distinctives. Do we say that unless one is fully Protestant (à la the doctrines of Luther, Calvin and Knox) then one is not a Christian or a true Church?
“No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
To disagree with Acts 15:11 and make an additional requirement of deep fidelity to Reformed doctrine is to automatically exclude well over 90 percent of all professing Christians in history. If a church publicly reads and expounds on scripture, it is preaching the Gospel. Even with a warped interpretation, people who hear the Word of God can be saved due to the dynamic nature of the inspired scriptures.
On an individual level, we can know a tree by its fruit. A person who lives a Godly life, who affirms they are saved by Christ’s eternal sacrifice, and affirms the basic tenets of the Gospel as formulated in the ecumenical creeds we ought to accept as a Christian despite their church affiliation.