Re-Visiting The Manhattan Declaration

Earlier this week I, along with a lot of other bloggers, made mention of the Manhattan Declaration.  I am usually hesitant to jump on board with these sorts of proclamations: 1) because I fear they accomplish less than we think, 2) because no one needs my name to make these things significant, and 3) because I’m always leery of missing something.  For example, I liked the Evangelical Manifesto when I first saw it, but then after reading some of the commentary I thought, “Wait a minute, this may not have been the sort of document I thought it was.”

Well, I confess I didn’t see the controversy coming with the Manhattan Declaration. My initial plan was to ignore the Declaration altogether, but then a friend of mine encouraged me to mention it.  So I read over it and thought, “This sounds good. These are three important issues. A number of men I deeply respect have signed it, and defended doing so (Al Mohler).  I can as well.”  Since then, there have been a number of critical responses from other evangelicals I respect (for example, John MacArthur, Alistair Begg).  The issue is whether in signing The Manhattan Declaration–a joint statement about life, marriage, and religious liberty issued by Catholics, Orthodox, and Evangelicals–we are giving tacit approval to the gospel preached in those churches.  Does the Manhattan Declaration operate with the implicit assumption that Catholics, Orthodox, and Evangelicals all share a common faith and are in agreement on the essentials of the gospel?

Who’s On First?

The first thing to do in trying to answer that question is to take a step back and make clear that the debate going on in the conservative reformed blogosphere is primarily about, or at least should be about, what the Manhattan Declaration says or assumes, not about whether all those who signed it have suddenly sold out the gospel.  All you have to do is read Al Mohler’s reasons for signing it to realize that he does not think the Manhattan Declaration concedes any ground to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.

Mohler writes:

I signed The Manhattan Declaration because it is a limited statement of Christian conviction on these three crucial issues, and not a wide-ranging theological document that subverts confessional integrity. I cannot and do not sign documents such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together that attempt to establish common ground on vast theological terrain. I could not sign a statement that purports, for example, to bridge the divide between Roman Catholics and evangelicals on the doctrine of justification. The Manhattan Declaration is not a manifesto for united action. It is a statement of urgent concern and common conscience on these three issues — the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage, and the defense of religious liberty.

My beliefs concerning the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches have not changed. The Roman Catholic Church teaches doctrines that I find both unbiblical and abhorrent — and these doctrines define nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But The Manhattan Declaration does not attempt to establish common ground on these doctrines. We remain who we are, and we concede no doctrinal ground.

No doubt some who signed the Declaration may have done so assuming that Catholics and Orthodox and Evangelicals are separated by only relatively minor doctrinal issues.  But it is safe to assume that many of the evangelicals who signed the Declaration did not view the document in this way. You may argue that people like me or Mohler or Keller or whomever else (not that it’s nearly as big a deal what I think) don’t understand what the document really implies. That would be our mistake.  But don’t make that into a mistake of monumental, gospel-denying proportions.

I see how some could construe signing as a tacit suggestion that all three sides pretty much agree on the most important issues of faith. I also didn’t take into account that the leadership behind the document have been active in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. So maybe there was another agenda behind the document.  But maybe there wasn’t and we are wrong to make a document explicitly about certain things into a document that is implicitly about something else.  I simply don’t know. The brief introduction to the Manhattan Declaration from Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint didn’t sound like a an ecumenical Trojan horse.

The Controversy

So I admit, I didn’t anticipate how some might read the language of the Declaration as broadly affirming of Catholic and Orthodox theology. But I don’t think the language has to be read in that way.  As far as I can tell these are the two statements that have caused the most controversy:

We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love, who has laid total claim on our lives and by that claim calls us with believers in all ages and all nations to seek and defend the good of all who bear his image.

And just a little further:

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths.

Some have objected to these lines, and others like them that refer to “we [and] our fellow believers,” as affirming the basic legitimacy of the Catholic and Orthodox theology.  While this could be construed from the language, it is worth pointing that the Declaration never makes this claim (nor, I admit, does it reject this claim). The point of the document is not to bridge the gap of our “ecclesial differences.”  I know that some think this language is too weak, but it is fair to say our disagreements are “ecclesial differences.”  That is, they are differences among our churches.  To call them “ecclesial differences” says nothing about whether they are small differences or essential differences.  It only makes the point that there are differences. You may see that as underselling our differences, but you wouldn’t have to see it that way.

Likewise, I think there are a couple different ways to understand the language “We are Christians…” You could picture in your mind a meeting of Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox holding hands and shouting in unison “We are all believers!”  I’m pretty sure that’s not what Al Mohler, Joel Belz, and Wayne Grudem had in mind. But you could also picture someone getting the document and thinking “I’m a Christian and I believe these things. So I’ll sign.”

And it’s important to remember the Declaration was signed by individuals, not be ecclesiastical institutions.  It would be uncharitable to think there aren’t genuine, regenerate believers in the Catholic and Orthodox communities, men and women who really do trust in the merits of Christ alone for their salvation, despite the false doctrines found in official church confessions. To take the language of “We are Christians” in a document like this about societal ills and automatically assume that it is equivalent to affirming the gospel preached in Catholics and Orthodox Churches is an unnecessary assumption in my opinion.

So where do I stand on The Manhattan Declaration? Well, I wish I would have listened to my initial hesitation about signing these sorts of documents.  The Declaration does not need my signature to make it significant and I don’t need people to misunderstand what my support means. But having signed it (only as one of the crowd), I still agree with the Declaration and feel no pang of conscience for supporting it.  If it comes out that the Declaration was meant to minimize the deepest divisions between Evangelicals and Catholics, then I will regret my support.  But as it stands, I agree with Mohler’s reasons for signing the document and share his understanding of what signing does and does not mean.

One Last Thing

Before you post any comments, let me try to reiterate my main point.  This debate, at least among many of us in the conservative reformed world, is not a debate about whether there are essential core-gospel differences between Catholics and Orthodox on one side (who don’t agree either!) and Evangelicals on the other. So please let’s be careful before we blast each other for selling out the gospel. The debate is about whether The Manhattan Declaration implies that there are no essential core-gospel differences among us.  After reading the criticisms that have come out I understand how the Declaration could be seen as minimizing our differences.  I have great respect for those who read the document in that way. But I still think the Declaration can be read as a statement that simply says “We all as individuals stand in the tradition of Nicene Christianity and we speak together on these three crucial issues of our day.”