Three Views of One Great Tradition
Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox in
reviewed by John Thompson
In May 1995 the “Not of This World” Conference was jointly sponsored by Rose Hill College and Touchstone magazine in Aiken, South Carolina. Three Touchstone Associate Editors—Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, James Hitchcock, and S. M. Hutchens—presented papers or responses at this “Ecumenical Conference of Traditional Christians,” and a number of Touchstone’s other editors were present for the gathering, which attracted some 200 attendees.
The “ecumenical” nature of this gathering, however, is considerably different from what is commonly associated with that term. As James Cutsinger indicates in the introduction to this volume, the plan was to “test whether an ecumenical orthodoxy, solidly based on the classic Christian faith as expressed in the Scriptures and ecumenical councils, could become the foundation for a unified and transformative witness to the present age.” He goes on, “Is it possible, we asked ourselves, for those who are deeply committed to differing theological perspectives to help each other in defending and communicating their common faith?”
The discussion at the conference was carried on between unofficial representatives from the Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions. There were two plenary papers from each of the three traditions, with responses from the other two traditions, for a total of eighteen presentations. Reclaiming the Great Tradition consists of the six plenary papers, six of the responses, and a concluding epilogue by Carl Braaten. Each speaker was free to address an issue that could help to lay the groundwork for cooperation between Christians, and it is no surprise that the resulting topics go in widely divergent directions.
From Rome: Kreeft on Ecumenical Jihad, Neuhaus on Unity and Truth
Peter Kreeft in “Ecumenical Jihad,” driven by a desire to reclaim the Church’s religious and moral hegemony in society at large, advocates a joining of forces, not only among Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, but also with conservative and cooperative elements in Judaism and Islam. This suggestion, which was only one of a number of recommendations he presented, created the most controversy of any of the papers presented at the Rose Hill conference. In his response, Fr. Ted Pulcini suggests that the joining of forces may be helpful or necessary in some circumstances. The emphasis, however, should be not be on restoring the cultural and societal clout of conservative religion but on the formation of alternative Christian subcultures. There the Christian light—as a city on a hill—can flourish without the dilution that would inevitably take place by the addition of divergent elements (i.e., Jews and Muslims).
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s essay, on the other hand, focuses on the ecclesiological dimension, particularly as Roman Catholicism relates to evangelicalism on the one hand and to Eastern Orthodoxy on the other. A new era of relations between Christians has dawned, as is testified to by events like the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) statement. The nature of these “relations,” however, is still emerging, and is better described as “cooperation” rather than any more formal term. He comments:
Fr. Neuhaus warns, however, that the deeper goal of Christian unity must not be seen in merely institutional terms:
All those engaged in bringing Christians together should keep before them this reminder that the “unity of the Spirit” will only be achieved through the work of the Spirit.
From Protestantism: Brown on Scripture and Tradition, Packer on James Orr
What is the relationship between Scripture and Tradition? This is one of the most fundamental areas of misunderstanding and actual disagreement between Protestants, on the one hand, and Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, on the other. And it would be hard to find a more helpful interchange on this vexed topic than that between Dr. Harold O. J. Brown of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Br. Isaac (now Fr. Andrew) Melton, an Orthodox monk from Cañones, New Mexico. Brown’s paper, “Proclamation and Presentation: The Necessity and Temptation of Church Traditions,” gives as sympathetic a treatment of Tradition as a Protestant can give and still remain Protestant. Fr. Andrew, himself a convert to Orthodoxy, gives a clear presentation of the Orthodox understanding of Scripture as part of Tradition, and between the two of them several issues of disagreement are clarified.
Using the work of early twentieth-century apologist James Orr, J. I. Packer proposed four emphases that could be shared by all Christians and would serve to build a “convergent conservative testimony to ‘mere Christianity,’ unified and transformative.” His emphasis, like that of most of the papers in this volume, is more on a positive contribution to the health of the Church than it is on resolving particular differences.
To these four parts of Orr’s theological desiderata, Packer adds a fifth: “Highlight the international supracultural phenomenon of the church, . . . anticipating the future joy of endless loving fellowship with the Father and the Son through the Spirit, and in and through God with one another.”
From the East: Reardon on the Fatherhood of God, Ware on the Mystery of the Trinity
The contributions of the two Eastern Orthodox papers to the conference are of a theological, as opposed to a more programmatic, nature. They redirect us toward the mystery of the Holy Trinity, of the Triune God who dwells in and sustains all Christians, and who is himself the source of all true unity.
Recognizing that the unity of Christians is based on the unqualified acceptance of the holy name of the Father (see John 17:11b), Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon asserts the essentially patriarchal nature of Christian revelation in general, and of the patriarchy of the Father within the Godhead, in particular. As the conciliar definitions of the Holy Trinity have come under attack, adherence to the traditional teaching on this subject has increasingly become a litmus test for Orthodoxy. His essay also lays to rest the efforts of some revisionists who capitalize on the supposed unknowableness of God to overthrow the acknowledged orthodox doctrines and substitute their own images and definitions.
Bishop Kallistos Ware’s essay takes another approach to placing the doctrine of the Holy Trinity at the heart of the Church. This essay, which may appear at first to be far removed from the issues that divide Christians, may turn out to offer some of the most profound contributions to the cause of “unity in truth.” Asserting that “the doctrine of the Trinity is not an embarrassing complication, a piece of technical theologizing of no importance for our daily existence,” he asserts that it “stands at the very heart of our Christian life. Or so at least it ought to.” Ware offers a doxological approach to the Holy Trinity to bring Christians closer to the deep truth of this central Christian mystery in our prayer and worship. It does not seem likely that the cause of Christian unity will be well served in any circumstance where this deep and profoundly beautiful Christian teaching is not fully embraced and personally appropriated. This may serve to explain why the cooperative efforts proposed in Peter Kreeft’s paper are unlikely to develop, to any significant extent, into a truly “united front.”
Reclaiming the Fullness of Christ
What emerges from Reclaiming the Great Tradition is an attempt to reclaim the fullness of Jesus Christ himself within the Church. It is apparent from the variety of topics and approaches selected that this is not an attempt at a more coherent, cooperatively constructed vision of Christ, but it is an attempt to let the real and living Logos—who is both the goal and the means of our reunification—to shine forth. On the one hand this is a theological—and in that sense objective—process, and on the other it is a subjective, personal process. Here at Touchstone it is our strong conviction that any institutional reunion, however orthodox our formulation, however considerate our treatment of our fellow Christians, must be visibly and powerfully imbued with the life of our Risen Lord.
The breadth of the issues covered in this volume may be suggestive of the enormity and complexity of the work to be done to bring “traditional Christians” into closer fellowship with each other, an effort that lies very close to the heart of Touchstone.
John Thompson is a librarian and professor at Waynesburg University, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania
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“Three Views of One Great Tradition” first appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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