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The Manhattan Declaration

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The release of The Manhattan Declaration (an ecumenical document addressing the issues of life, marriage, and religious liberty) has already generated significant discussion.  Since I have been on the receiving end of many questions concerning it, I thought it best to address it directly.  The declaration reads in part as follows:

“We are Christians who have joined together across historical lines of ecclesial differences… …to speak and act in defense of these truths.”

I was present at the meetings in Manhattan in October when the draft of this document was presented.
I listened carefully and was stirred by the ensuing discussions.
I share the concerns expressed in the document.
I also have respect for those who wrote the paper and also for many who have subsequently signed it.

Why then have I chosen not to append my name as one of the initial signers? Because of my convictions about the nature of the Gospel, and the importance of Christian co-belligerency being grounded in it.  The activity of the Christian as a citizen engaging in co-belligerency over civic and moral issues is not the same as the declaration of Christians mutually recognizing the reality of each other’s faith.  This is what I wrote to Chuck Colson:     

“Thank you for sending me the amended document. I care deeply about these issues, but I cannot in conscience sign on with those with whom I have fundamental disagreements on the nature of the Gospel. (I just re-read Calvin in the Institutes, Book IV, section 18.)”

This particular section of Calvin’s Institutes provides us with his response to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the mass.

It was maintained at the meeting in New York that this document was not to be viewed as a product of ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together). However, in light of the evangelical leadership behind the declaration, it is hard not to take into consideration the most recent ECT paper on “The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Life and Faith”. In examining the place of Mary, the writers “acknowledge the primary authority of Holy Scripture.” This at least gives the impression of a concession to Roman Catholicism.  Protestant theology affirms the sole authority of Scripture.  Sadly contemporary evangelicalism seems little concerned with the solas of The Reformation and is therefore susceptible to initiatives, which make something other than the Gospel, the basis of unity and the focus of our declarations.

I am reminded in this connection of the declaration of Jude.

 “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”

It is quite common for people to view The Reformation as simply a disagreement between two groups of men. The protestant martyrs and their monuments testify to the fact that they died, not on account of ecclesial differences, but because the issue was the way of salvation. (Interestingly, exactly the same was true of the Roman Catholic martyrs!)

Are we wise to lay aside crucial historical differences of eternal significance so as to secure temporal advantages? George Smeaton, in his classic work on the atonement observes, “To convert one sinner from his way is an event of greater importance than the deliverance of a whole kingdom from temporal evil.”  

I do not believe it is possible to embrace the premises of ecumenical strategy and still draw the conclusions of evangelical orthodoxy.

In accord with others who have chosen not to sign, my reservation is not with the issues themselves, or in standing with others who share the same concerns, but it is in signing a declaration along with a group of leading churchmen, when I happen to believe that the teaching of some of their churches is in effect a denial of the biblical gospel. I wonder whether it might not have been more advantageous for evangelicals to unite on this matter, rather than seeking cooperation with segments from Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy and the Latter Day Saints.  The necessary co-belligerence, as far as I’m concerned, can never be rooted in a Gospel other than that which has been given to us.

Alistair Begg

(updated and expanded November 25, 2009)

Category: Ministry Updates