Berkouwer, Cullmann & Barth: Cornelius VanTil on Protestant and Catholic Unity Post Vatican II

I was reading A Christian Theory of Knowledge the other night and came across an interesting section dealing with Gerrit Berkouwer’s writing on Vatican II.  Berkouwer saw in Roman Catholic scholars like Yves Congar “a more open-mindedness toward the Reformation which in turn has created a far better possibility for dialogue than has been known since the sixteenth century” (cited in VanTil, pg. 177).

VanTil continues to summarize Berkouwer:

The new theologians, says Berkouwer, are bringing into the arena of discussion new insights into the Catholic doctrines of justification, Scripture and tradition, the infallibility of the church and so forth.  We contend that we are observing a new interpretive phase of Roman Catholicism.  A basic question facing Protestants is, whether the new theology aims merely at “new forms of expression” of the old faith or at radical revision of the Confession of the Church. (pg. 178)

VanTil then notes the suggestions of Oscar Cullmann “who says that the Roman Catholic and the Protestant viewpoints on Scripture and tradition ‘have drawn astonishingly closer together'” (pg. 178).  Cullmann noted the change in relations between scholars of both Roman Catholic and Protestant conviction, and suggested that this must begin to visible among laymen as well: “We ‘should not continue a cold war when among the theologians peace was declared long ago'” (pg. 180).

But are these scholars really representative of Roman Catholic and Protestant persuasions?  Some would say, “Yes.”  VanTil suggests otherwise.

The second point that Berkhouwer should have considered flows from the first.  It is to the effect that Cullmann refers to Karl Barth as a representative of the Protestant position.  He says that such Catholic writers as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri Bouillard and Hans Kung find basic similarities between Roman Catholic theology and the theology of Barth.  This is obviously true.  But it corroborates the contention made just before that it is the “new” Protestantism rather than historic Protestantism that Catholics think of when they think of a possible agreement with respect to the relation of Scripture and tradition.  Cullmann says that no one suspects Karl Barth of having Catholic tendencies.  This is true enough.  It is equally true, and of far deeper significance, that no one should suspect Barth of having any orthodox Protestant tendencies.  (Pg. 181)

In the end, VanTil describes the kind of unity that is actually being proposed: “Neo-orthodox Protestant theologians are now urging union with neo-orthodox Roman Catholicism.”

This is an interesting discussion indeed.  It is interesting to see how Berkouwer, Barth and Cullmann, von Balthasar, Kung and others fit (or don’t fit) into more recent apologetic interactions between Rome and Protestantism.  While there does seem to be kinds of doctrinal unity and agreement now existing between Rome and the Protestantism, the real question is which “Rome” and which “Protestantism” are we talking about?  Since Rome’s official document’s lack perspicuity and lead Catholics to use fallible private interpretation in formulating what Catholicism means to them, and since Protestantism is a worthlessly inclusive term anymore including everyone from Primitive Baptists to Confessional Lutherans to Liberal Anglicans to Mormons, speaking of substantial agreement being achieved between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism seems ambiguous at best.

Andrew Compton
Lakewood, CA

1 thought on “Berkouwer, Cullmann & Barth: Cornelius VanTil on Protestant and Catholic Unity Post Vatican II”

  1. “Do not remove the ancient landmark which your fathers have set” (Pr.22:28).
    True Reformed Evangelicalism can never come to agreement with Rome. When one shines light in darkness, the darkness scampers away. Biblical evangelicalism will never be at peace with the man-made doctrines of Roman Catholicism. What fellowship hath light with darkness?


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