how to be catholic (as an evangelical)

A little way into his dense and rich book, Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf outlines an intriguing case for catholicity as the appropriate way of responding to Jesus’ summons to ‘depart’ from our godless personal and cultural situations without ‘leaving’ them (e.g., through some form of monastic withdrawal).

We’re to depart because our loyalties have been rearranged. We’ve exchanged our inveterate Egocentrism for a Christocentrism — and thus Theocentrism — that reflects reality (cf. Eph 1.9-10). As 1 Peter makes so clear, our new birth results in a new identity, a new future, a new family, a new citizenship — a whole new life! And so we don’t belong to the world any longer. But, as Volf says, ‘Christians take a distance from their own culture because they give the ultimate allegiance to God and God’s promised future’ (p 51).

Yet we do all this without leaving. Although we don’t belong to the world anymore, we don’t give up on being ‘in’ it — indeed, if Byron is right (as I suspect he is), even our heavenly citizenship doesn’t promise us a future escape from the world but rather the world’s reclamation and transformation, beginning now with the establishments of little outposts of the new creation: Christian churches. Geography (and genealogy) may have been relativised — replaced by the Lord Jesus at the centre of our personal universes — but that does not make it unreal.

So where does catholicity comes into it? Well, according to Volf, the gospel bestows a “catholic personality” on us. ‘The distance from my own culture that results from being born by the Spirit creates a fissure in me through which others can come in’ (p 51). This catholic personality, in turn, requires a catholic community to sustain it:

As the Gospel has been preached to many nations, the church has taken root in many cultures, changing them as well as being profoundly shaped by them. Yet the many churches in diverse cultures are one, just as the triune God is one. No church in a given culture may isolate itself from other churches in other cultures declaring itself sufficient to itself and its own culture. Every church must be open to all other churches […] Every local church is a catholic community because, in a profound sense, all other churches are part of that church, all of them shape its identity.

This should not result in a total surrender of discernment in which all difference and ‘otherness’ is embraced no matter how wicked or perverse. For, as Volf goes on to explain, a ‘second function of the distance forged by the Spirit of new creation is no less important: it entails a judgement against evil in every culture‘ (p 52):

There can be no new creation without judgement, without the expulsion of the devil and the beast and the false prophet (Revelation 20:10), without the swallowing up of the night by the light and of death by life (Revelation 21:4, 22:5).


The judgement must begin, however, “with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17) — with the self and its own culture […] those who seek to overcome evil must fight it first of all in their own selves. Distance created by the Spirit opens up the eyes to self-deception, injustice, and destructiveness of the self.

As a result, ‘A truly catholic personality must be an evangelical personality — a personality brought to repentance and shaped by the Gospel and engaged in the transformation of the world’. Only the announcement of the redemption accomplished in Jesus Christ can humble us and teach us to weep over and stand against sin and evil wherever we find it without setting ourselves up as judges of others (as though we had exclusive possession of truth and beauty and righteousness).

It’s only as an evangelical that you can be truly catholic.


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