Catholic and Evangelical

In 1991, CCET was founded by two veterans of theological disputation within the North American Lutheran ecclesial world. When they put “Catholic and Evangelical” into its name, Carl Braaten and Robert W. Jenson were thinking and speaking out of a particular conviction of what it meant to be Lutheran. Braaten writes: “our conviction [was] that the original intent of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers was to be a gospel-centered movement within the western branch of Christianity.” The board of directors were all Lutherans. It was perceived as a Lutheran enterprise, and it garnered suspicion from within some Lutheran quarters.

Yet in founding CCET, Braaten goes on, they were turning away from intra-ELCA struggles, “set[ting] our sights on the future of the ecumenical church.” The board became ecumenical. Pro Ecclesia, by its contents even as by its very name, considered theology from East and West, from the whole Christian tradition, rooted in the church but not restricted to any given church. The CCET strategy, Braaten writes, “was to reclaim the great tradition of evangelical, catholic, and orthodox theology by bringing together the best theological minds in all the churches.”

All of us who are involved in CCET are here because that is what we are committed to. We are committed to the church, that “ecumenical church” Braaten speaks of; we are also committed to particular churches, Orthodox, or Roman, or Protestant. We see theological indifference in our churches, and we see how such indifference harms the proclamation and reception of God’s Word. We long to reclaim the great tradition.

Still, Braaten acknowledges, CCET has had from the start a difficulty in “defin[ing] itself. It faced a certain ambiguity regarding its identity.” The words “Catholic and Evangelical” capture this difficulty. Avery Dulles, with his characteristic grace and precision, wrote to Braaten on just this point. “Although I suspect you and the Board of the Center are quite clear about the meaning of the term ‘Catholic and Evangelical Theology,’ it may be desirable in the course of time to give some descriptive definition of these terms.” Dulles asked: “Does the term ‘Catholic’ include ‘Roman Catholic’? Does the term ‘Evangelical’ include Reformed? Does it mean ‘Protestant’ or can it also include Roman Catholics?” [141f.] Having posed such questions, Dulles said they did not keep him from accepting the invitation to join CCET’s Advisory Council.

What is good about the name of CCET is that it keeps before us as a question of fundamental importance, what does it mean to be catholic and evangelical? We are, as it were, a society committed to exploring just that. When Michael Root succeeded Jenson and Braaten and became the executive director of CCET, he honed in on those two words, catholic and evangelical, deriving four “defining commitments of a catholic and evangelical theology.” They are commitments:

  • “to the Christological and Trinitarian dogmas of the early church as the permanently normative context for the explication of the Christian faith,”
  • to “the constitutive significance of the church for the reality and the interpretation of the faith,”
  • to “the message of God’s free gift of salvation, as that has been articulated at different times and places in the history of the church,” and
  • “to the unity of the church and reconciliation of divided Christians.”

That was a decade ago, and while each of those points opens onto its own vast theological terrain, it remains in my judgment an excellent quadrilateral (!) of points from which we dare not turn away.

What is CCET to be today? A quarter-century after its incorporation, we remain committed to the retrieval of the great tradition for our various churches. Although many of us have been involved in struggles within our own churches, CCET remains outside those particular engagements. We continue to think theologically, as best we can, and to pray, for the sake of that ecumenical church, for whose eschatological consummation we may never cease to long.

Victor Lee Austin
Program Director