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"The Common Catechism"

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Archives / 1975 / November



"The Common Catechism"

Raoul Dederen
-professor of theology at the Andrews University Theological Seminary and an associate editor of The Ministry at the time this article was written


TEN YEARS AGO the "Dutch Catechism" stunned Roman Catholics. It was a daring discussion of divine rev elation, very much in tune with the spirit of Vatican II. Earlier this year, the publication of an ecumenical catechism, The Common Catechism,1 ushered in a new era in the ecumenical movement.

This 720-page book offers the first comprehensive statement of the Christian faith produced jointly by Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians since the Reformation, 450 years ago. It is a collaborative summary of agreed-upon beliefs, very much in keeping with today's trend: steady ecumenical groundwork.

In the words of its editors, Dr. Johannes Feiner and Dr. Lukas Vischer,2 "this book provides a joint statement of the Christian faith by Catholic and Protestant theologians." 3 As the result of an invitation issued by the German publishing firm Verlag Herder, of Freiburg, in 1969, a team of German, French, and Swiss scholars, nineteen Catholics and sixteen Protestants (Lutherans and Calvinists), collaborated in the production of this volume. They include such internationally well-known names as Dumas, Fries, Kasper, Lehmann, Pannenberg, and the editors. The German edition came out in 1973.

In spite of its title, the book itself is not really a catechism. It is not written in question and answer form, like the old standby, the Baltimore Catechism. Nor is it addressed to youngsters. Rather, it is a comprehensive and systematic treatise on the Christian religion intended for the instruction of "all who are in any way interested in theological questions and present-day theological thinking." 4

The catechism is divided into five parts, averaging about 150 pages each. The first part is devoted, quite simply, to God: Who is He? Where can He be found? There is no concession in this section to the type of Christian faith that acclaims Jesus but dismisses God as irrelevant. Faced with the alternative of approaching God through nature or through history, the authors chose history as the place where modern man will first look for a divine revelation.

This part is really only preliminary to the subsequent section on "God in Jesus Christ" (pp. 91-275). Jesus Christ, in His work and in His person is the answer to the God question. Biblical criticism receives due consideration, and the Christology of Chalcedon is vindicated.

In Part III, "The New Man," we are treated to a stimulating discussion of the effects of Christ's death and resurrection on His followers (pp. 277-322) and in particular on the life we share in the Christian community (pp. 322-395). An effort is made to deal with the complex problems of grace, freedom, sin, prayer, the sacraments, the relation of the church to Israel and to the Gentile world. It is followed in Part IV by an important section on faith and the world (pp. 397-550), which deals with Christian ethics, both in general terms (con science and law, freedom and authority) and in very concrete cases (e.g., religious freedom, sexuality, war, and peace). A rather strong position is taken against abortion (pp. 510-513) and euthanasia (pp. 513-516), but the stand of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae on birth control is sharply rejected (pp. 504-508).

Part V involves a tense discussion of the issues that still divide Protestants and Catholics (pp. 551-666). It treats each of them with great frankness. It indicates their mutual origin and back ground, and tries to reveal their depth and degree of importance. This "is in no way some kind of appendix on a subsidiary subject" (p. 552). The issues singled out include Scripture and tradition, grace and works, the sacraments, marriage, Mary, and the church.5 Added as appendices to the book are the statements on the eucharist and the ministry in the English language recently agreed upon by Anglican-Roman Catholic, Methodist-Roman Catholic, and Lutheran-Roman Catholic conferences (pp. 667-681).

Unique in Its Objectives

Beyond all doubt, this book is an ecumenical event of importance. There has been no lack of volumes in which Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars have collaborated. However, this volume is unique in its objective of presenting a common, virtually undifferentiated exposition of the Christian faith and doctrine. Some will fear that, written from a supra-denominational point of view, it might aim to set up a kind of third denomination, a religious no man's land between the churches. But the editors very specifically tell us that it was written "to help ensure that Christians co-operate within their own communities in the common growth of the churches towards that unity in variety which is the goal of all ecumenical efforts." 6

The clear premise of the Common Catechism is that no obstacle remains insurmountable. It mirrors a growing sense of confidence among many that the long-separated churches can deal effectively with the most important concerns. One is entitled, however, to ask the question: At what cost? One can't help noticing that, following the trend of German scholarship, the authors put considerable limitations on the Bible. They say, for instance, that while our ancestors had no qualms about identifying Scripture with the word of God Himself, "We can no longer say, 'The Bible is the word of God.' " 7 We must rather say something like: "The Bible becomes God's word for anyone who believes in it as God's word," 8 for "the now unquestioned assumption" is that far from inspiring the minds of the sacred writers with what they were to write, God, in fact, wanted them to put down in writing their own testimonies of faith.9

Consequently, Biblical statements about Creation "are not intended to commit the reader to a particular view" of the origin of the universe and of the human race. Their purpose is merely to point to the fact that "everything that exists is connected with God." 10 Nor is it enough for the Christian who seeks to know what decisions he ought to make in a given situation simply to turn to the Scriptures or the Ten Commandments for advice. All the moral directives we might find in the Decalogue—as well as in the Sermon on the Mount—are "to a large extent conditioned by their age and their cultural environment."11 How large is not indicated. The same applies to standards bearing, for instance, on our sexual life, since "we can learn virtually nothing" from Scripture on specific questions of sexual morality. 12

Many New Testament passages, especially in the Gospels, are described as interpretations rather than historically accurate accounts. It is not, we are told, that apostles "deliberately falsified" the true picture of Jesus, 13 but they repeated His words as well as filled them out and made them clearer. They reworked sayings "with genuinely Christian content," and gave them the form of sayings of Jesus, and thus "put them in Jesus' mouth." 14 Thus we have stories about Jesus that cannot be regarded simply as events from the Lord's life, and sayings of Jesus "which the historical Jesus never uttered." 15

Certain Uneasiness

There is also a certain uneasiness about such topics as the pre-existence of Jesus, His virginal conception, and His physical resurrection. The latter— which lies at the center of whole Christocentric document—is regarded as a "permanent problem: for modern man," 16 full of "difficulties" 17 for him. Its message needs to be reinterpreted in a more meaningful manner, since the raising of Jesus from the dead is a concept formulated "in the language of Jewish apocalyptic," which has hardly any relevancy in our modern sociocultural context. 18

The emphasis of the whole book is on unity, and the authors are convinced that the statements that can be made in common "are quantitatively and qualitatively more important than any contradictions." 19 The earlier questions of dispute between Roman Catholics and Protestants, such as the doctrine of justification by faith alone, "are nowadays on the way towards agreement at numerous points." 20 Differences and conflicts that 450 years ago led to the division of the church can hardly be expected to give rise to any opposition capable today of producing the same results. This, explain the authors, is the fruit of the manifold ecumenical discussions that have been going on in recent years.21 "We have come to recognize," for instance, "that the doctrine of justification as under stood by the Reformers is not irreconcilably opposed to the basic assertions of the Catholic doctrine of justification." 22 More specifically, the authors contend, "it would certainly have been possible to achieve unity" except for the more recent disputes concerned with the status of Mary in doctrine and worship, and the question of the church, its structure and authority, including papal infallibility.23

Over-all, the book is a survey of the kind of European liberalism that has inspired Protestant ecumenism and is becoming increasingly attractive to ecumenically-minded Catholics. It strongly suggests that insoluble differences are, in fact, often merely differences of theological interpretation, that they can and do exist within one and the same church. Still, it has not been approved as official teaching by any Roman Catholic or Protestant church body, and it will be interesting to listen to the grass-roots reactions that might want to cling as strongly as ever to their own way of being Christian as formulated in their traditional catechisms.

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1. The Common Catechism: A Book of Christian Faith, edited by Johannes Feiner and Lukas Vischer; Seabury Press, xxv + 690 pp., $10.95. Translated by David Bourke, et al., from Neues Glaubensbuch, Herder, 1973.

2. Fr. Johannes Feiner is consultant to the Vatican Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity; Dr. Lukas Vischer is director of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.

3. The Common Catechism, p. ix.

4. Ibid., p. xiii.

5. With particular reference to authority and papal infallibility.

6. The Common Catechism, p. xiv.

7. Ibid., pp. 100, 101.

8. Ibid., p. 101.

9. Ibid., pp. 100, 101.

10. Ibid., p. 120.

11. Ibid., p. 436.

12. Ibid., p. 498.

13. Ibid., p. 94.

14. Ibid., p. 95.

15. Ibid., p. 96.

16. Ibid., p. 164.

17. Ibid., p. 146.

18. Ibid., p. 147.

19. Ibid., p. x.

20. Ibid., p. 657.

21. Ibid., pp. 658, 659, ix, xi.

22. Ibid., p. 658.

23. Ibid., pp. 665, 666.

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