Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Plausible Ecumenism” first appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Touchstone.
An Ecumenical Roundtable Discussion
Introduction by James M. Kushiner
In New York City on January 15, 1999, Touchstone held “Plausible Ecumenism: An Ecumenical Roundtable Discussion.” Participants met to consider several questions: What do you see as the current state of movement towards orthodox ecumenism with respect to your tradition and how has your tradition contributed to the current state of visible disunity? What hope do you have for the future? What needs to happen next, over the next forty years?
The daylong roundtable began with a keynote paper by Touchstone Senior Editor S. M. Hutchens (read by James M. Kushiner since the author’s flight to New York was cancelled due to bad weather). Six speakers then gave presentations on the suggested questions, as follows: Thomas S. Buchanan (Eastern Orthodoxy), Richard John Neuhaus (Roman Catholicism), Jonathan Jenkins (Lutheranism), David Mills (Anglicanism), Craig Higgins (Reformed), and Kevin Offner (Evangelicalism). Reverend M. Scot Sherman, Senior Pastor of Intown Community Church (Presbyterian), Atlanta, Georgia, moderated our roundtable.
The keynote paper, “The Fellowship of Loneliness,” by S. M. Hutchens, is included in the following pages. Not included is the presentation by Richard J. Neuhaus, since he spoke from notes and the sessions were not taped; but a summary of his remarks is provided.
Our Plausible Ecumenism roundtable, while a smaller and shorter meeting, carried on some of the work begun in our 1995 conference hosted by Rose Hill College in Aiken, South Carolina, called “Not of This World: A Gathering of Traditional Christians.” (The plenary papers and half of the responses are published in Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics & Orthodox in Dialogue, James S. Cutsinger, editor, InterVarsity Press, 1997. Conference tapes also are available, advertised on page 40.)
Conferences such as Rose Hill and our roundtable in New York City last January, we believe, are examples of what Richard Neuhaus at Rose Hill called a “new ecumenism,” an ecumenism flourishing outside of official ecumenical agencies, generally occurring among traditional Christians, often at the grass roots level.
The Fellowship of Loneliness
by S. M. Hutchens
“Ecumenical orthodoxy” or “mere Christianity” as we define it at Touchstone is a symbolic attempt to describe, in loosely theological terms, Christian fellowship in Christendom’s present state of division. If we are truly of Christ’s fellowship, then our prospects for success, eschatologically speaking, are assured, and much of what we do amounts to being a penitential exercise for the good of a divided soul, to be kept up until we reach an orthodox agreement, or the Parousia, or until hell freezes over, whichever comes first.
Those of you who have read some of my writing will recognize which of these I am inclined by temperament to think will unite us, but I take comfort in the fact that I have been wrong before on issues that involve the grace of God moving among men. I can remember telling a Latvian friend that the Soviet Union would loose its grip on his country when hell froze over. Well, Latvia is free—free, at least, as Latvians can make it, and Hutchens is wrong again, so hope remains alive.
If one examines the standard histories of the ecumenical movement—and I am thinking in particular now of the very detailed one edited by Rouse and Neill for the World Council of Churches—many causes for the combinations that led to the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910 will be found. Prominent among the reasons given for increased amity and cooperation were the scandal of presenting a divided Christ to the unevangelized, the irritation of the younger churches with the denominationalism of their original evangelists, and the realization that, as the slogan went, “What unites us is greater than what divides us”—something that often becomes a good deal clearer at the boundaries of Christendom.
If I recall correctly, however, it was my old missiology professor, J. Herbert Kane, for many years in China, who mentioned what has become for me an ever more important reason to make friends as well as we may with our separated brethren, and that is sheer loneliness. I have heard more than one missionary say that it was this that drove them together on the field, and indeed, had the power to associate even Catholic and Protestant in certain times and places.
Frontier Christianity has a different feel than that of civilized lands. Its needs are more elemental, and it has fewer theologians. Recognition of fellow members of the household of God is easier because the rudiments of the faith have risen to prominence, both in the missionary message and the missionary outlook, so the theologian must bow to the evangelist and pastor rather than the other way around. I do not have room to develop every thesis that lurks in what I have just written, but do wish to explain why I believe that it is under circumstances similar to those found on the mission field that what we call ecumenical orthodoxy will thrive as an authentically Christian movement in our own day.
The Useful Part of Official Ecumenism
“Official” ecumenism, as it has been practiced in the mid-to-late twentieth century, has been largely the occupation of settled and moneyed first-world churches, under conditions where doctrinal disagreements were becoming minimized less through the desire to remove stumbling stones for pagans or sustain fellowships of prayer than through the metamorphosis of greater numbers of ecumenists into theological liberals for whom the convictions that once marked the boundaries between their churches now belonged to a world they no longer occupied.
J. Gresham Machen published all the pertinent observations clearly and emphatically in the 1920s. In Christianity and Liberalism he noted that the Christian faith and the religion of the upper reaches of the Protestant churches were two quite different things, so that, for example, as many critical differences might exist between Reformed Christianity and Roman Catholicism, these were both recognizably Christian, whereas liberalism was not. It was on the missions battlefield that he drew his own line in the sand and from which he was propelled out of the Presbyterian Church.
The theological work of various ecumenical commissions did go on apace, and the material they worked with was the official beliefs and practices of the churches. What else, indeed, was there? A Methodist is necessarily defined by historical Wesleyan teachings, the Reformed and Lutheran churches by their confessions, none of which are “liberal,” but all undergirt by the old-fashioned belief that truth is absolute and may be expressed symbolically in such a way as to be right or wrong, in conflict or agreement with other such expressions. Any possible reconciliation must therefore involve careful and learned discussion of the meanings behind the symbols. This is a part of the ecumenical endeavor that is useful and of continuing interest to ecumenical orthodoxy.
The Demise of Liberality
The part that does not interest us lies on the leftward side of the endeavor. During most of this century official ecumenism has been marked by the increasing encroachment of liberalism as ideology on the liberalism of openness. Encroachment is inevitable because the liberality of liberalism in its first and inclusive stage, before it has been re-formed by liberalism in its exclusive, ideological stage, has no means of resisting ideology. It is much like the relation of the warbler and the cowbird. The cowbird lays its egg alongside those of the warbler, who, through the avian equivalent of ignorance or generosity, hatches it along with its own. The young cowbird, however, is not of an inclusive mind, and destroys the offspring of its host, whose generosity is hard for us to admire, since it terminates in the death of its own nestlings. Lenin understood this weakness, was contemptuous of it, and quite frank about his intention to take every possible advantage of the liberality of liberals.
Every intelligent radical, indeed, instinctively understands and exploits the fact that elemental, first-stage liberalism must allow ideology free entrance to its fold, especially when it arrays itself in the habiliments of liberality—of inclusivism, egalitarianism, non-judgmentalism, and the like. This ideology is happy to do, since one of its distinguishing traits is the willingness to prevaricate about its totalitarian nature to accomplish utopian ends. While it need not profess that all good ends justify any means, it is a true believer, in the Hofferian sense, that utopian ends do.
The liberality of first-phase liberalism—weak, but not overtly antagonistic to Christianity—has given way to ideology in the churches primarily through the willingness of theologians to alter church teachings in response to the charge that the old Christian God was narrow, exacting, bigoted, cruel, and unscientific. To the degree ecumenism is built upon this reaction, it is not Christian, for the Christian God cannot be successfully reformed to evade these charges in ways that will satisfy the critics of traditional Christianity. Even when theological liberalism—which has become more ideological (and divided upon itself) as it takes up power—has managed to remove the illiberal Scriptures from the churches as divine authority, the book of nature still inexorably points toward a higher power shaping a universe of frightfully illiberal ends. If there is a God, everyone but the liberals knows he is not liberal, and we may expect an ecumenism that lets uncomfortable doctrines slip is as conducive to his nature as a physics that ignores the stern laws of gravity or thermodynamics.
Merely Christian Light
If Dr. Kane was right, however, original ecumenism involved neither liberalism as naïve openness, let alone aggressive ideology—but distinctively Christian loneliness for godly fellowship in far-off places, of hunger in lands of dearth, where Christ could be seen in the confession and work of fellow Christians of other folds first because light that shines in dark places is unmistakably light, even if its color is not what one is used to, and then because the faith of missionaries must be intense and attractive to sustain their work. Missionary faith, which is really only Christian faith at work in dimly lit places, must, in order to accomplish its mission, shed light not only toward the pagan, but toward other Christians as well. And so Christian missionaries met and prayed with each other, frequently, I have been told, without telling the folks at home about it, much less their theologians, who were always ready to define things out of existence, always ready to build movements and launch them toward the rocks.
This is an ecumenism I believe that most of our readers recognize, or are coming to recognize, because of the waning of light in our own culture. At present it is most evident in institutions like the pro-life movement or Promise Keepers. First Things magazine is a Judeo-Christian answer to the problem, representing rather well what Peter Kreeft has called an “ecumenical jihad” that implicitly recognizes the work and mind of God in the ethical life of Western monotheism.
Touchstone is distinctively Christian, whose editors share many of the instincts that C. S. Lewis described as “mere Christianity,” and concerns itself with describing a distinctively Christian mind more in terms of something that already exists rather than something that must be achieved—while not at all denying the latter. This is why, to the disappointment of some of its readers, it does not intentionally serve as a medium of either polemical or irenical theology—except insofar as irenics or polemics are required to maintain the boundaries of mere Christian fellowship as its editors conceive it.
Although we would like to be a magazine for the masses, as a matter of fact, Touchstone is written mostly by and for clerks who are trying to avoid treason, and telling other clerks how they are managing. By treason I mean first, selling out to the Spirit of the Age—and today that means enjoyment of the palace life of an establishment Christianity that normally demands castration as the man’s price of entry—and second, retreating into the comforts of sectarianism—these being the Scylla and Charybdis of the Christian intellectual in all times and places. The choice I hope we have made is remaining with similar publications on the allied front, trying to understand our fellow soldiers, while fighting the darkness together.
The Loneliness Factor
This military metaphor is another that works, but here I wish to emphasize what I think is the nature of the impetus that brings us together in the first place and how it is different from the ecumenism of the settled, and increasingly liberal—or sectarian—churches. Wherever we find ourselves, we naturally seek out the companionship of those of like mind. For those who have been active in developing their minds, this is no small difficulty, for when we turn to those who would be our natural companions in less distressed times, the educated classes, we find not only growing hostility, but also the loss of proportion, and hence, rationality, masquerading as scholarly discovery and discourse. We find that we are able to speak the language of the academy only in reserved places—within the National Association of Scholars, for example—that the flames of ideological madness have not yet consumed.
Culturally developed Christians are lonely among those who are the Gebildeten in the broadest sense, too, for we have neither given up our minds nor accepted Schleiermacher’s balkanizing compromise—that Christians, to be Christians in cultured society, must regard their faith as affection rather than ontology—that Christianity is a subcategory of “religion,” and so of importance, in the final analysis, only to religiously inclined people. This, I believe, is an unintended but nevertheless clear subtext of his epochal Speeches on Religion.
And we are lonely in the churches, for we are their leaders, and when we look for the help and support we need from our fellow leaders, we must all too frequently look far. Too often when we look near, we see the sectarian or the worldling, who may be good chaps and good company, and in God’s grace not far from the kingdom, but with whom Herzbruderschaft, the companionship of the heart that we seek, is not to be found.
We needn’t dwell on what we see when we face the public square, except to say that ambiguities that have always been with us are sorting themselves out into harder divisions, and that in such divisions we are not in the majority.
Fewer But Stronger
I believe that the world of the mission field is re-collecting itself around us. The principal difference I see is that whereas the missionaries were often facing the hopeful pagan, who was able to become a Christian, we are facing, by and large, apostasy, which, if I read Scripture (and nature) aright, is irreformable. There is loneliness for Christian friendship and fellowship in both cases, but in the last days I think it will become more intense, and to that degree more ecumenically successful as the world darkens. This ecumenical success will, however, be matched by the numerical decline of real Christianity, for the same forces that will make Christian love and understanding more intense and necessary among mere Christians will also make believers less numerous.
This means that organizations like the Fellowship of St. James and magazines like Touchstone will become more valuable and necessary as they become harder to sustain, and that our audience will grow only as it shrinks. Little need will be felt for Touchstone as long as Christians have the security to ignore what we call ecumenical orthodoxy, and enough discretionary money to subscribe. As soon as these begin to evaporate, the work we will be doing will become visibly important, and Christian wealth will become measured in back issues of Touchstone.
That was a joke, of course, but the serious conviction behind it is that those of us involved in such projects have been brought to our work not through ignorance of what is happening around us, but by striking out, as the missionaries did, into what we know full well to be a heart of darkness. It is lonesome out here for the believer, and in such circumstances we find ourselves willing to accept the fellowships into which we perceive we have been cast by prevenient grace, laboring within them for greater clarity of vision on how we shall proceed.
And although this might be regarded as legend by future generations, it may be whispered among those who come after us that some, to find such company, were even willing to leave the genial comforts of the civilized world for New York City in January.
An Orthodox Perspective
by Thomas S. Buchanan
The Orthodox Church is one of the fastest growing churches in this country. The reasons for this are simple: Orthodoxy represents an adherence to historic, “little-o” orthodox Christianity. It has little room for the spirit of our age that abandons ancient creeds for liberal notions of God. It is a church that visitors describe as having a sense of reverence that has been lost in many other churches. The walls of an Orthodox church are filled with visual images of the saints and martyrs rather than the words of Christian pop tunes displayed from the warm glow of an overhead projector. In a day when new types of worship are being experimented with in many corners of Christendom, the Orthodox Church uses a service that is attributed to John Chrysostom of the fourth century.
The Orthodox Church represents an unbroken tradition that is measured not in years or decades, but centuries or millennia. This is its greatest strength and, quite frankly, its greatest weakness.
This is a strength because it preserves the Church from heresy. Father Thomas Hopko, the dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, once told me of a talk he had given at a parish in Minnesota. During a question-and-answer period a woman asked him about the notion of women priests. From the newspaper she had heard that this was an issue with some denominations. But she was puzzled. “Why would a woman want to be a priest?” she asked. “Since women are not allowed behind the iconostasis and can’t approach the altar, what could a woman do as a priest?” For the most part, the Orthodox are not troubled by modern innovations, unless, like them, you define a “modern” problem to include such things as the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. “Modern” to the Orthodox means within the past 500 to 1,000 years.
That points out why this is also our weakness. Often there is very little room for reform. Not all traditions within the Church are good, but weeding out the bad ones is very difficult work. To our credit, we Orthodox are willing to discuss changes in practice and look forward to the next great ecumenical council when we can all get together and hammer these things out. We are hoping to get one in before the end of the next millennium.
The Orthodox & the Fragmenting Church
The fragmenting of the churches that we see is, in a way, not an Orthodox issue. Certainly not for most of the Orthodox world. For example, if you live in Greece, you go to the local Orthodox church. The norm is that one is born and dies within the Church. You may change local churches, but you do not leave the Orthodox Church because, for the most part, there isn’t another church to join. That is the way Christianity existed for the first thousand years and still does in many countries in the East.
Splintering and fragmentation are not really a part of our tradition. This is not because the Orthodox always get along with each other; it has to do with our ecclesiology. You can’t go down the block and start a local branch of the Orthodox Church. That just isn’t the way we do things. In the United States, the differences between one Orthodox church and another are ethnic ones rather than theological ones.
The Eastern Church is historically isolated from much of the fragmentation of the West. Being in the West is a relatively new thing for the Orthodox, and Orthodox churches in the West are still treated as a part of the diaspora—offspring of the mother churches in the old country. We hope to have a universally recognized autocephalous church established in the United States before the next ecumenical council.
The One True Church
How do the Orthodox view other Christians? While being skittish about “lowest-common-denominator Christianity,” the Orthodox Church has tried to maintain a voice at the World Council of Churches (WCC). The Church has felt that it could be a voice for traditional Christianity and that it had a mission there. To quote from a recent statement from the Orthodox Theological Society:
Unfortunately, the WCC appears to be losing its interest in historic Christianity and is wandering into directions that have little to do with Christianity. A few months ago the Orthodox Church of Georgia pulled out of the WCC, and now the Russian Orthodox Church has done the same. [As of the time of publication, the Russian Orthodox Church now maintains its membership, albeit tenuously.] The Orthodox Church is divided as to whether involvement in the WCC is maintaining a witness or constitutes fellowshipping with heretics.
Other than liberals who do not represent the type of faith we hold to, the Orthodox Church knows there are sincere, traditionally minded Christians out there. The Orthodox position on such Christians has been expressed by the phrase that I believe is attributed to George Florovsky: “We know where the Church is; we do not know where it isn’t.” That is, we believe that our churches are a part of The Church—the Body of Christ—and we can’t really say anything about others. That is for God to know, and it is the job of us Orthodox to deal with our own churches.
That may sound like a cop-out, a nonanswer, but it is entirely consistent with the Orthodox apophatic approach to theology. It is uncharacteristic of the Orthodox to try to define God cataphatically. Rather, we would define what God is not: He is unknowable; he is invisible; he is invincible; he is immortal. Such a collection of negative definitions simply draws “boundaries” around God, eliminating everything outside, and when we are done, we say that God is something in the middle—the unfathomable, indefinable center. The same theological process applies to the Body of Christ—The Church. The Orthodox will not draw rigid definitions of who is in and out—we will just draw a few rough strokes and say that beyond that, God knows. And those strokes are drawn at the boundaries of our jurisdiction.
The Roman Problem
As for our view of the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox would accept the pope as “the first among equals.” Of course, this runs counter to Roman documents such as Pastor Aeternus and its claim of papal infallibility. Hence, ecclesiological differences are a problem. Theological differences such as the use of the filioque in the Nicene Creed and the dogmatization of the Immaculate Conception of Mary are problems.
Politically, relations with Rome have been strained over the problems with Uniate churches in Eastern Europe. Of course, most Orthodox consider Roman offenses against them in the Crusades as recent history. Finally, the Orthodox are concerned about the liberalism of the Catholic Church in America and Europe. Together, these constitute some major differences. I believe that the first and last of these are the biggest problems: the role of the pope and the liberal theology in the Church outside the Vatican.
The Orthodox view authority much differently than other churches. Although doctrine is handed down by the bishops, it isn’t valid unless the people of the Church, as they are moved by the Holy Spirit, accept it. Thus, for example, we see the Council of Florence, where the Eastern bishops and Western bishops came to an agreement. But when the Eastern bishops returned home, the people took the bishops and threw them into the sea. Hence, Florence isn’t an accepted council in the East, even though it did have the stamp of approval of some of our leading hierarchs.
Orthodox & Others
The Orthodox generally are not as close to Protestants as they are to Catholics, although there is a long history of Anglican-Orthodox dialogue going back several centuries. (A recent development to the Orthodox.) Of course, within the past two decades there have been many people and whole congregations coming to the Orthodox Church from the Protestant camp. Episcopalians, Evangelicals, even one of the charismatic Vineyard churches have become Orthodox. But, remarkably, this isn’t the result of a wonderful new Orthodox marketing plan or evangelistic effort. Rather, it comes from individuals (and churches) wanting to find their roots in the historic Church.
Those trying to build bridges between various Christians may find the Orthodox frustrating because, in general, they are not ecumenically minded. That is because they believe that Orthodoxy is the true faith, and they don’t spend much time looking beyond its borders. (Of course, I would hope that other Christians would also think that they are right and other-minded people are not.) As a small church, largely of immigrants, the Orthodox have focused on struggling to survive. The growth of the Church has more to do with people finding them than with the Orthodox reaching out. In fact, they can make it downright hard to join if you aren’t from the right ethnic background. But as the demographics of the Church change, this will change as well.
Future Unity & Martyrs
The test of “little-o” orthodox Christianity is best expressed by the Western saint, Vincent of Lerins: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all). This Vincentian canon should form the basis for an ecumenical dialogue. If you have no category for historic Christianity, we Orthodox will have little basis for serious discussion. In addition to the Bible, the Nicene Creed and the ecumenical councils form a basis for understanding the faith. From an Orthodox perspective, if one is interested in becoming truly Christian, one must follow the words of the prophet Jeremiah and “stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). These are the things we bring to the table.
For the Orthodox, I think there are great prospects for growth, especially as the rest of the world gets wackier. I would like to see Western-Rite Orthodox churches continue to grow. These are Orthodox Churches that use a Western liturgy. This represents an expression of the faith that is both ancient and familiar to most Americans. This could develop into a significant new movement in the Orthodox Church in the West. While not really ecumenical, this does show that the Orthodox Church has a true appreciation of early Western Christianity.
Christian unity of any kind requires a Christian mindset. We must see ourselves as a people of God—different from those outside the Church. This must be reflected in what we do, the things we talk about, the way we live. Christianity is not just a theological position; it is a halakah—a way of life. Common appreciation of and struggle in the Christian life is a basis for unity. That is what brings those of us at Touchstone together.
I think that a time will come when many serious-minded Christians will work together and start acting as brothers and sisters. But I believe that it will take several martyrs before that starts to happen with any strength. Yes, martyrs. Not necessarily the red martyrdom that comes from the shedding of blood, but certainly the white martyrdom that comes from a life of purity and holiness. It will take the efforts of very godly men who are willing to pay a considerable price to make it come about. Unity will not come without the mixing of our prayers, our tears, our sweat, and our blood.
May God grant us the grace to be faithful with the things we have been given.
A Summary of Richard John Neuhaus’s Talk
In his New York roundtable talk, Richard Neuhaus developed some of the themes from his paper at Rose Hill. Concerning the approach of the Roman Catholic Church to ecumenism, at Rose Hill he said: “Because of its nature and the explicit mandate of Vatican II, the Catholic Church is compelled to chart a distinctive course in ecumenical relations. The reasons for this are evident in the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio) and perhaps even more so in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). In the latter document the Church makes clear its understanding that all who are baptized and believe in Christ are ‘truly but imperfectly’ in communion with the Catholic Church.”
He continued, “However imperfectly it may be expressed, the reality of the Church is coterminous with the reality of Christ, the presence of the Church is coterminous with the presence of Christ. The Catholic Church therefore understands itself to be ecumenically entangled with all Christians, whether or not they wish to be entangled with the Catholic Church and whether or not Catholics wish to be entangled with them. As was so strongly affirmed in the 1994 declaration, ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together,’ we have not chosen one another, we have been chosen. And because it is the one Christ who has done the choosing, we have been chosen to be his together. Unity is not by our choice. Ecumenism is not optional. Ecumenism is not our effort to achieve a unity that does not exist; it is our response to the gift of unity already given.”
Neuhaus also posed this question at the roundtable: Does the “salvational decision,” the decision “to be saved,” encompass also the Church—or are there two decisions? A decision for Christ, and one for the Church? He said that a decision about Christ “does not necessarily equal a decision about the Church,” a point that needs to be seriously considered in talking about the unity of the Church.
At the roundtable, Neuhaus also highlighted recent efforts between Evangelicals and Catholics in Ireland, Spain, and Latin America, as well as the statement on justification worked out between the Lutherans and Rome. Still, Neuhaus said, the priority for Rome is unity with the Orthodox, that reconciliation must start between East and West. Disappointingly, while there have been “astonishing initiatives” by John Paul II, there has been a “non-response” from the Orthodox. The pope, said Neuhaus, has even said what the Orthodox have wanted to hear, that “unity is more important than jurisdiction.”
Neuhaus yet signaled his hopes for a brighter ecumenical future. As he put it at Rose Hill, it “is perhaps not too much to say with respect to the Orthodox that the main obstacle to full communion is the absence of full communion. . . . John Paul II has spoken about the second millennium as the millennium of Christian division and the third millennium, please God, as the millennium of Christian unity.” From there he reiterated themes emphasized by Pope John Paul II about a coming “springtime of Christianity” in the new millennium, and that we are in a moment of “extraordinary kairos.”
Neuhaus also said there is “widespread agreement that some kind of Petrine ministry was intended by Christ for the Church,” and the only candidate for such a ministry is Rome. Still, as for how and when the moves toward unity will proceed, God only knows. Unity is to be received as a gift from the Lord. We can never schedule the work of the Holy Spirit.
What’s the Problem?
by Jonathan Jenkins
Anyone who has tuned in to “The News From Lake Wobegon” (Garrison Keillor’s mythical town in Minnesota) knows that Lutherans are not by nature optimists, but, by grace, we are hopeful. The Preface to the primary Lutheran confessional document, the Augsburg Confession of 1530, promises a commitment that is exceedingly hopeful: “We, on our part, shall not omit doing anything, in so far as God and conscience allow, that may serve the cause of Christian unity.” It’s fair to say that Lutherans in this century have attempted to do just that: “The twentieth century has brought continuous, active, and official involvement of (our) churches . . . in the quest to overcome Christian division, and by God’s Spirit, to express the visible unity of Christ’s people” ( Ecumenism: the Vision of the ELCA, August 1991, p. 5). “Hopeful ecumenism” is the Lutheran tradition. I will illustrate by looking at three of the ecumenical agreements to which the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a party. I will be referring to the Concordat of Agreement with the Episcopal Church, the Formula of Agreement for full communion with three Reformed churches, and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Catholic Church. What is interesting (and very Lutheran) is that each one presents simultaneously something wrong and something right (simul iustus et peccator).
Lutheran & Episcopal Progress
Let’s begin with the Concordat that was intended to (and we hope yet will) establish full communion with the Episcopal Church. It missed being approved by our 1997 assembly by only six votes, and generally it is thought that a revised version will win the vote in 1999. [The Concordat was approved by the ELCA at its 1999 summer meeting.] The sticking point, for certain Lutherans, is that Episcopal bishops will participate in the laying on of hands of Lutheran bishops, thus establishing a clear (or clearer) sign of apostolic succession. The majority of Lutherans favor this form of apostolic succession (or do not oppose it). Most regard it as a gift that might be beneficial, but not a requirement, in the belief that the apostolic ministry has been passed on to us in the pastoral office. Some, however, are vehement in their opposition. Mostly Midwestern and populist, they press an argument that runs as follows. Premise: Lutherans are free not to have bishops. Conclusion: Therefore, Lutherans are not free to have bishops. What is very troubling to me is the implication that we’re better off without organizational and institutional unity or, heaven forbid, that we do not need the other members of the Body of Christ. We need to repent of the unloving spirit that takes division for granted, as if it were normal. If we recoil at episcopal succession, how will we ever be reconciled to our mother church? Many Lutherans have admiration and respect for John Paul II, but we still need to overcome our knee-jerk rejection of the claim that there really is a ministry of unity that is exercised by the successors of St. Peter that we need.
Nevertheless, one positive aspect of the Concordat is (in the words of Hans Frei) its “generous orthodoxy.” Lutherans are required to subscribe to the Lutheran confessional writings that are found in The Book of Concord; Episcopalians are not. This “generous orthodoxy” is a very delicate point and one on which the ELCA is criticized severely by the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. The Missouri Synod demands to know how there can be “full communion” without complete confessional subscription. The ELCA’s response is to recognize that it is possible to have “a common confessing of the Christian faith” without the other party having to become Lutheran. The relevant question is whether there is harmony and not whether we are identical. The ELCA finds tremendous harmony, fundamentally, in the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. Wherever disharmony might be found with Episcopal doctrine, the ELCA is willing to give first place to the lex orandi over the lex credendi. Michael Root has explained the general idea:
I am hopeful that we will spend more time, over the next 40 years, discovering how the various churches actually worship.
“Orthodoxy” we take to mean true worship (doxology), as much as true doctrine or true order. If only we had applied this insight to the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ! The “Protestant” wing of the ELCA has championed “full communion” with the liberal Reformed churches as a splendid triumph of Protestantism. The “Catholic” wing of the ELCA has largely decried it as a horrible mistake. I find myself in the middle.
It is a working principle of the ELCA that “the burden of proof rests with the resistance to unity in spite of agreement in the Gospel.” It is clear to me that we have undertaken an enormous risk in applying this principle to the liberal Protestant churches, especially the UCC. Perhaps it is worth taking the risk. The Formula of Agreement does affirm the real presence of Christ in the Holy Communion. It does so in terms that are adequate, if not everything that Lutherans believe should be said: “In the Lord’s Supper, the risen Christ imparts himself in body and blood, given up for all, through his word of promise with bread and wine. . . . We cannot separate communion with Jesus Christ in his body and blood from the act of eating and drinking” ( Formula of Agreement, p. 21). Putting the best possible construction on things, one could regard the Formula of Agreement as an opportunity for Lutherans to strengthen the Reformed in Eucharistic faith and practice. But there’s the rub: “full communion” normally means that one party so recognizes the churchly fullness of the other than it can accept the liturgy of the other as equivalent to its own. The problem is, we never took the step of examining the actual liturgies of the Reformed churches, and no attention was given, at any stage in the dialogue, to norms and guidelines for Eucharistic practice. Thus, the recently published “model” liturgy is problematic, if not a disaster. I don’t have space to go into the specifics, but I must insist, it didn’t have to turn out this badly. It is possible for Lutherans and the Reformed to join in the Eucharist in a way that would manifest unity and integrity.
Orthodoxy & Lutheran Ecumenism
Father John Breck is professor of Biblical Interpretation at St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. He has been a member of the Lutheran-Orthodox dialogues since 1984. In a guest editorial in Lutheran Forum, Fr. Breck offers an Orthodox perspective on “full communion” among Protestant churches. (Which is remarkable itself. You should know, by the way, that many Lutherans don’t like to be referred to as “Protestants.” Eric Gritsch once was asked, “What is a Lutheran?” “An impatient Catholic,” was Gritsch’s answer.) Fr. John Breck writes: “To put it bluntly, when it comes to dialogue on a personal level, we Orthodox can feel very comfortable, especially with (Lutheran) theologians and church leaders as gifted, faithful, and responsible as those we encounter, dialogue, and pray with on the bilateral commissions. When we attempt to speak with ‘churches,’ however, often we simply do not know to whom we are talking, because so much diversity in matters of basic faith exists within the communities themselves.” Breck is on target. He’s right when he says that we need “full awareness that unity across denominational and confessional lines will inevitably cause new forms of disunity within each church body.” Realignment is the “only alternative”: “realignment within the various Protestant churches that distinguishes clearly between those who adhere to the faith of the Apostles and the early Church, and those who, explicitly or implicitly, reject it.” I agree. As a Lutheran pastor, I am at home with some UCC pastors and congregations much more than I am with many in my own denomination. Realignment is one of the hopeful possibilities.
Lutheranism, by self-definition, is an ecumenical movement. Our sixteenth-century Book of Concord conceives of Lutheranism as a reformation for, and not against, the Catholic Church of the West. Our official Vision statement on ecumenism states, as working principles: “This church seeks to understand and value its past, its history, and its traditions in all their varied richness as gracious gifts of God, which are incomplete themselves. . . .” Also: “This church contributes and learns, not by attempting to repristinate the past, but by moving toward the manifestation of unity in Christ and thus toward other Christians.” Many find inspiration in Jeremiah’s call to return to the “old paths.” Shall we not also hear Isaiah’s message?—“Behold, I am doing a new thing.” The true, visible unity of the church is a gift that is coming from God’s future. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who is the power of the Father to raise the dead and to bring into existence the things that are not.
Lutherans & Catholics
Hope for a new ecumenical future is clearly put into practice in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue on the doctrine of justification. Things have changed!—in spite of the mixed signals that came out of Rome in June, and in spite of the fact that there are Lutherans, as well as Catholics, who have a vested interest in prolonging division. Things have changed, because the parties in the dialogue recognized that they were talking past each other for nearly 500 years. Things have changed, because both recognized that “difference” is not simply equivalent to “division.” Things have changed, the Joint Declaration emphasizes, because of “common listening”: “The Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church have together listened to the good news proclaimed in Holy Scripture.” Perhaps it will require another 500 years of active listening to iron out the kinks, but a definite, new beginning has been made.
Allow me to conclude by pointing to the Trinitarian nature of the statement on justification. The new “consensus in the basic truths” is largely the result of closer attention to the doctrine of the Trinity. Allow me to illustrate the Trinitarian “flow” it takes:
I think this agreement is a good reminder to us of why ecumenism, in spite of many frustrations, is finally a hopeful task. As an example to follow of Trinitarian theology, yes. Even more, as a gift of the promised Holy Spirit that our God and Father has given and will give again and again, to all who call on the Name of Jesus Christ. To Whom be all glory and power, majesty and worship, now and forever, to the ages of ages. Amen.
The Anglican Contribution
by David Mills
During the 1998 assembly of the World Council of Churches, its general secretary, Dr. Konrad Raiser, attacked the Anglican deputies for “becoming much more self-conscious and interested in protecting Anglicanism than in furthering the process towards genuine unity of the Church.”1 Anglicanism is, he continued, “more doctrinally self-conscious than earlier generations of Anglicans, more evangelical in that sense, or more Anglo-Catholic, in fact the Broad Church has become weaker.” The problem being, that “If you defend a line of exclusive truth beyond which no dialogue is possible, that makes it difficult to stay with the painful process of ecumenical and counter-exchange dialogue.”
This may portend a change in Anglicanism’s ecumenical work, though I have my doubts. But still, it is a pleasing charge for a traditional Anglican to hear: that Anglican hierarchs actually defended “exclusive” truth to the point of disrupting ecumenical progress. May Dr. Raiser have many more such fits of pique.
As you all may know, the Anglican Churches have been among the most ecumenically energetic, and still are, judging from the number of bilateral and multilateral dialogues in which they are engaged and the eagerness, the sometimes embarrassing eagerness, with which they seek agreement with others.2 The Western Anglican Churches are eager to talk with other Churches for five reasons, I think.
A Bridge for a Desired Unity
The first is Anglicanism’s modern conception of itself as a “bridge church” or a “via media” between Rome and the Reformation Churches, one holding together truths that have been sundered in other Churches and therefore able to go some way with all of them. This conception depends on the much boasted-of “Anglican comprehensiveness,” in which Anglicanism demands conformity on certain essential matters while allowing liberty on adiaphora or “things indifferent.” As the Lambeth Conference of 1930 declared, in a statement drafted by William Temple:
The appeal to “historic circumstances” is an attempt to be humble about the statement’s implicit claim to superiority, but the attempt hides, even from Anglicans themselves, the nature of their assertion. The claim to be a “bridge church” combining Catholic, Evangelical, and Liberal elements is first a doctrinal position before it is an irenic position. The modern Anglican has tended to treat this combination as a habit of mind or a temper or even an ecclesiastical lifestyle choice, when it is in fact a doctrinal claim to have got the Faith right. To appeal to “the traditional faith and order of the catholic church” is to say that both Rome and the Reformation Churches are wrong on some essential matters—Rome by claiming too much, the Reformation Churches by claiming too little.
The second reason for Anglicanism’s ecumenical energy is the genuine desire for reconciliation felt by many Evangelical and Catholic Anglicans—the more doctrinally minded people whose counterparts in other Churches tend (understandably) to flee ecumenical work. Both are driven by an innate sympathy for their peers in other Churches, the Evangelicals for other Evangelicals and the Catholics for Rome and, for a much smaller number, Orthodoxy.
Both are also driven by missionary and pastoral experience in which the barriers between Christians become at once thinner and thicker: thinner because their real agreement on the realities of the gospel becomes clearer, thicker because the pain and cost—not only to themselves but also to the world they served—of the barriers becomes much harder to bear. And both, I think, are naturally obedient to John 17:11, as the seriously biblical Christian has in his mind not only the Lord’s command but also the example of the New Testament Church.
They are, in other words, people to whom the pursuit of unity comes naturally, and whose Anglicanism makes it easier to pursue than it is for their peers in other Churches. They have found, as C. S. Lewis said in the preface to Mere Christianity, that “It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests at the centre of each there is something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.”
Establishment, Diversity & Diversion
The third reason is the extraordinary self-confidence of being an established Church, as in England, or a Church of the establishment, as in this country.4 This is one of the “historic circumstances” of which the 1930 Lambeth Conference spoke, and it is genuinely useful, for the same reason that one would much rather try to split the bill at a restaurant with a rich friend than with a poor one. It is also genuinely dangerous, as such generosity can easily decline into sloth, indifferentism, the elevation of process over content, and even “dilettantism.”
The fourth reason for Anglicanism’s energetic pursuit of reconciliation with other Churches is the theological diversity, at present clear incoherence, of the Anglican Churches. As a result, Anglicans must become adept at a sort of “internal ecumenism” which makes talking with other Churches all the more natural. And, I think, though here I am venturing into psychology, that talking to other Churches is a sort of compensation for the internal divisions. It is trying for Evangelicals and Catholics to argue over baptismal regeneration, and much more trying for both to argue with liberals over the reality of the Resurrection and the moral law. It is tempting to start talking to other Churches and put off the dangerous discussions with one’s fellow Anglicans, leading as they may well do to division.
The fifth reason, which has become increasingly compelling in the last three or four decades, is the breakdown of these Churches and the natural desire to find some external project or call or ideal to divert attention from the breakdown and to help them reconstitute a unified and effective identity.5 You may be surprised that Anglican leaders would latch onto ecumenism as such a project, because it would seem to raise precisely those doctrinal questions they want to avoid.
But ecumenical dialogue can be strung out into an eternal process, in which identity is found either in the process itself or in its eventual but now vague result, and further, the Episcopal Church chose several partners as muddled as she, in whose company her lack of a settled identity seems normal. Even when such dialogues fail, as they have recently with Rome, the failure itself can be presented as a virtue—and therefore a source of identity—by blaming it on the other party’s intransigence, unbending claims, and the like, compared with one’s own desire for unity and willingness to give up distinctive doctrines and practices to come closer to the others.6
These are, I think, the reasons for Anglicanism’s ecumenical energy. Some reasons are good, some bad, but each raises, to a different degree, the question of Anglican identity and self-image: the basic question of who, really, is speaking and what does he really believe? Here we find the problem. Anglicanism’s self-image, as articulated by the world’s Anglican bishops in 1930, and held today by almost every Anglican from right to left, is too general and minimal and malleable to be truly, as opposed to apparently, useful. Such a Church may be peculiarly open to talking seriously with other Churches precisely because it does not know who or what it is, but it will not be able to be truly reconciled with any of them because it does not know who or what it is.
As the liberal Anglican theologian Paul Avis noted in The Study of Anglicanism, the nearest thing to an official establishment word on the subject: “To describe Anglicanism as a synthesis of Catholic, Protestant, and Liberal elements is sound, but it does not get us very far. It is not enough to bring out the distinctiveness of Anglicanism.” The Reformed Churches, for example, “also appeal to the undivided Church and to the classical doctrines of patristic Christianity” and “[n]either are these Churches short of ‘sound learning’ or spiritual liberty.” The Lutheran Churches believe that their bishops stand in the historic succession because they believe the historic doctrine.
This synthesis does not solve the problems raised when theologically very diverse people try to live together in one ecclesial institution, making decisions on crucial and divisive issues, at which point their willingness to say the same words no longer protects them from division. As Avis noted, “All shades of Anglican churchmanship can be found subscribing to the view that the Anglican faith is both Catholic and Reformed and at the same time hospitable to intellectual enquiry. But the conclusions they draw are rather different.”7 (Imagine, if you can, a political party that included Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, Bill Bradley, and Jesse Jackson, and even an Angela Davis or two, and you will have a fairly exact parallel to the Western Anglican Churches.)
Dr. Avis concluded his essay by arguing that Anglicanism is distinguished by its threefold character, in which authority is “dispersed” between and among Scripture, tradition, and learning in the modern critical mode. As he describes them, its Catholic and Reformed natures have little content and authority because both are subject to modern critical reason, so that they become in effect forms or symbols whose content is to be supplied by something else. What he clearly finds most important in the synthesis is Anglicanism “rationality,” which includes what was once called latitudinarianism as to the truth and content of the revelation.
Thus, for him, Anglican identity is not a problem. In a revealing phrase, he announces that “Anglicanism exists. Its political, social and cultural parameters are set.” Its political, social, and cultural parameters, note, not its doctrinal foundations and limits. This he thinks is a very good thing. The dispersion of authority in Anglicanism is “[i]n the modern intellectual situation . . . beneficial, since it inhibits the enunciation of dogma, the articulation of absolutes and the exercise of ecclesiastical authority,” all of which he summarized as “a millstone round our necks.”8
And here he speaks for many conservative Anglicans, though they would react in shock to the idea, for on that most contentious of innovations, the ordination of women, many of them have broken with the plain meaning of Scripture as universally understood by Christians, including their Anglican ancestors, until the last few decades. It is this division among even overt believers that reveals most starkly the confused identity of modern Anglicanism. And explains, I should add, the gloom of Anglicans like me who stand with the Church on this matter.
Incoherence & Ambiguity
This confusion of identity has an inevitably destructive effect upon Anglicanism’s ecumenical work. The Anglican Churches in the West do not have the theological coherence necessary for effective ecumenism. For whatever reasons, modern Anglicanism has the most plastic and elusive identity of any of the traditions. This can be defended as comprehensiveness or derided as indifferentism, but in either case it has made the Anglican Churches of the last century or so at the same time particularly open to ecumenical ventures and unable honestly to consummate them. Communion is a relation like marriage, and marriages made when one partner either hides or does not know who he is are annullable.
Whatever justification Anglican comprehensiveness has in theory, today it leaves Anglican identity and Anglican commitments so open-ended and unsettled as to prevent true and useful dialogue with anyone else. It reminds me of the contemporary attitude to marriage, in which you will gladly pledge to remain married “till death us do part,” assuming that you may change so significantly that the pledge no longer holds. We see the confusion about basic doctrine summarized in the old joke about some modernist Anglo-Catholics, who believe that Jesus was just a man but that his mother was the Mother of God.
So we get, for example, the spectacle of Episcopal bishops declaring that we bring the Lutherans “the gift of the historic episcopate,” when almost to a man—or, I should say, almost to a male—they do not care a fig about history, at least when it affects such questions as the ordination of women. Their reverence for the tradition is selective and convenient and therefore not truly a godly subordination to its judgment, and therefore not a sound basis for any real reconciliation with others.
This ambiguity is inherent in the main ecumenical statement of the Anglican Communion, the Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888, which is trotted out whenever the subject comes up. The world’s Anglican bishops gathered at the Lambeth Conference in 1888 approved the statement and in it declared that four Articles “supply a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made towards Home Reunion.” They are:
You will notice that the first three articles of the Quadrilateral are such that no Christian of that day or this will object to them, and the fourth, the historic episcopate, to which some might object, is only part of “a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made towards Home Reunion” (emphasis added). The content is, again, too minimal and general, and in this case optional, to support reconciliation.
Significantly, the language was rather less emphatic than that of the version passed by the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops two years earlier, in which these four articles were “inherent parts of this sacred deposit.” This deposit the bishops defined as “the principles of unity exemplified by the undivided Catholic Church of the first ages of its [sic] existence; which principles we believe to be the substantial deposit of Christian Faith and Order committed by Christ and his Apostles to the Church unto the end of the world, and therefore incapable of compromise or surrender.”9
The diversity of world Anglicanism even in 1888 forced upon its agreed statements a generality and minimalism that encourages ecumenical relations by making them painless, and discourages ecumenical reconciliation by refusing the real pain thereof. The question, of course, which no one asks, is whether this actually contributes to the ecumenical venture.
The Anglican Contribution
So what is the Anglican contribution? As deeply as it pains me to agree with Dr. Avis, I think it is Anglicanism’s traditional liberality. This liberality, which I think is mainly a product of its “historic circumstances,” is a natural development of the Christian understanding of man, as articulated most eloquently today by Pope John Paul II.
It includes a respect for human conscience and a faith in the ability and willingness of others to reach the truth, a recognition of human limitations, one’s own and one’s partners’, a working assumption that even those in error articulate a truth now neglected, and the knowledge that some people do not see the light because the lightbearers have failed. As Chesterton said, a bigot is not a man who thinks he’s right. Every sane man thinks he’s right. The bigot is the man who cannot see how the other man came to be wrong.
But of course liberal Anglicanism is rarely in this sense liberal. This sort of liberality is today characteristic of the dogmatically rigorous members of the traditions, not of the liberal members thereof. The “ecumenically orthodox” may be the last truly liberal Christians left, for the simple reason that liberality requires that one be certain about the things that are certain. One must be quite sure where one must hold firm and where one may let go to be confidently liberal.
Without that certainty, one either fears to let go at all or lets go of too much in the fear of holding too tightly, and both produce, over time, a reaction. The first produces a reaction against dogma, the second a reaction against freedom, and both reactions result in the imposition of a new, and for various reasons almost certainly “liberal” (meaning illiberal), dogma.
This claim would surprise many outside this room, because many of us are marked in our own circles as dangerous reactionaries, of the sort, even our conservative friends believe, who hold too firmly to abstract principles and do not recognize the practical necessities of life, particularly the impossibility of fully living by even those principles one holds. Our conservative peers are often what I have called “Latitudinarian Conservatives,” who either resent or fear or misunderstand our restrictions on their latitude.
Let me give an example. As I have written before, in Touchstone and other places, conservative Christians have invoked a biblical argument against homosexuality, have indeed ruled it completely and forever intolerable, declaring that the homosexual man or woman must be celibate if he cannot get married and that God will bless him in his suffering, while invoking a pastoral or therapeutic argument in favor of relaxing the rules in the case of remarriage after divorce and invoking a pragmatic argument against excommunicating open enemies of the gospel.
One cannot find in their various arguments any guiding principle: specifically, any reason to hold firm on one issue while acting “pastorally” or pragmatically on others. It looks—and I suspect, is—as if these distinctions were made from prejudice and self-interest. The result is a hash of reaction and liberalism, which may play well in some suburbs but does not convey or embody the Faith we have been given.
But all that said, the ecumenical orthodoxy that characterizes Anglicanism at its best, and is practiced by groups that disagree radically about the definition of Anglicanism, has that delicacy and gentleness, that confidence and liberality, characteristic of those who know who they are, what the world is, and who God has revealed himself to be.
The Anglican Ecumenical Future
To the final question we were asked to answer—“what should happen and what, realistically, could happen?”—I can only say that the Western Anglican Churches should repent of their apostasy. As bodies, they will only be useful in the true ecumenical enterprise—the one that has to do with God—to the extent they are completely, unambiguously, uncompromisingly orthodox. If they were so, they could be ecumenically useful, for two reasons.
First, and obviously, an orthodox Anglican Church would be engaged in the missionary work of which Dr. Hutchens spoke in his paper earlier today and making the discoveries about its brothers and changes in its practices he described. And second, Anglicanism’s liberality, its expansive and diverse sympathies, and its “bonds of affection” with so many other Churches could make it at least a Church in which the experiment of missiological ecumenism could be safely carried out—particularly of discerning how far the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox visions can be reconciled and how much the inherited forms may be adapted and revised to serve the world to which we have been called to bring the gospel.
That is what should happen. What, realistically, could happen is painfully different. The question requires me to end on a note of gloom. As far as a man can tell, these Anglican churches will not repent, though they may well evolve into that sort of limited and moralistic conservatism that passes for orthodoxy in contrast to the crudely skeptical liberalism of Bishop John Spong, whose absurdities have had the corrosive effect of hiding the actual liberalism of so much of conservative Anglicanism.
We could see Anglican Churches in which homosexuality was rejected and a theoretical authority of Scripture upheld, but in which women would continue to be ordained and people remarried with one or two or more spouses living, a Church in which feminist liturgies would be banned but neutered liturgies celebrated, in which the Creeds would be insisted upon as a standard but in practice replaced with experience as the source of doctrine, and in which godliness and community would be conflated.
Even in this case, many of the “ecumenically orthodox” will leave for other Churches, and those who remain will be among the loneliest members of the Fellowship of Loneliness.
1. “General Secretary slams Anglican involvement,” by George Conger and Alister Macdonald-Ratcliffe, CEN (date unknown), p. 1.
2. The Anglican Churches, despite their relatively small membership, have contributed disproportionately to the ecumenical movement. The usual estimate of Anglicans in the world, 70 million, is, I should say, grossly inflated. According to the Anglican Communion Secretariat, whose report appears in the Episcopal Church Annual 1998 (Morehouse, 1998, p. 380), this figure includes 26 million Anglicans in England, where fewer than 2 million people are to be found in an Anglican church even on Christmas Eve or Easter (although the note appearing with the table says, “These figures are low estimates”). The London Times’s religion writer Ruth Gledhill believes that the Church of England “can count just one million of these [baptized members] as regular churchgoers.” (Catholic Herald, 14 August 1998). The figures for the other Western Anglican Churches seem to be inflated also, and even with a very generous estimate, the total membership of the Anglican Communion is at most 40 million. One sociologist, writing in 1988 and quoting the missiological scholar David Barrett, put the number of “affiliated” Anglicans at 47.6 million but the number of Easter communicants at only 5.8 million and the total number of communicants at 16.2 million. W. S. F. Pickering’s “Sociology of Anglicanism” in Stephen Sykes and John Booty, editors, The Study of Anglicanism (Fortress, 1988) p. 369.
3. Quoted in “What is ‘Anglicanism’?” by Paul Avis, in The Study of Anglicanism, p. 412.
4. The phrase is Fr. Geoffrey Kirk’s.
5. For an analysis of this second factor, see my “A Hope for Collapsing Churches” in Touchstone 8.3, Summer 1995, and The Evangelical Catholic (Vol. XVIII, nos. 1 and 2, January/April 1996), available on the web site
6. That the Anglican Churches were not willing to give up ordaining women to prevent yet further division from Catholicism and Orthodoxy does not prevent ecumenicists from blaming Rome for the failure of the ARCIC talks, especially after one of them realized that by ordaining women Anglicans were coming closer to the Protestant Churches.
7. Avis, p. 413. Aidan Nichols’ The Panther and the Hind: A Theological History of Anglicanism (T&T Clark, 1993) is an excellent survey of this problem.
8. Ibid., p. 422.
9. Both statements can be found in the “Historic Documents” section in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
A Reformed Perspective
by Craig R. Higgins
In college I came across a delightful book of cartoons entitled A Porcine History of Philosophy and Theology.1 In one of the sketches a number of pigs are dancing in a circle, while one portly old hog sits under a shade tree with his arms crossed. The caption reads, “Southern Baptist pig caught up in the heat of ecumenical fervor.”
It may seem a bit odd for me, a former Southern Baptist, to be addressing the subject of ecumenism, and the fact that I am now a Presbyterian does little to alleviate this. After all, not only am I a graduate of Westminster Seminary—a school founded by the late J. Gresham Machen during his battles with the theological modernists within the old Northern Presbyterian Church—but I am also a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the largest of the evangelical and confessional denominations formed as a result of the theological latitudinarianism within “mainline” Presbyterianism. We in the confessional Reformed churches have often resembled the old sectarian hog ourselves. Yet here is where the true irony is seen, for if we are faithful to the confessions and theologians of the Reformed tradition—to say nothing of the holy Scriptures themselves—we will indeed be filled with ecumenical zeal.2 In other words, we will obey the dominical and apostolic commands to practice visible unity in the Church.
Any Reformed ecclesiology must begin with the confession that there is but one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. This is an article of the Faith—a theological first principle. In the ultimate sense, the unity of the Church is inviolable.
However, we must also admit with deep sadness that the visibility of this unity is dangerously obscured by our “unhappy divisions” into hundreds and thousands of denominations. The best of the Reformed tradition has emphasized that even the Reformation itself—while a necessary “washing of the dirty face of the Church”—was a tragic necessity, tragic in that it led to horrendous fracturing of the Church along national, cultural, ethnic, and sectarian lines. Such shattering was contrary to the desires of all the principal Reformers. Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten has said it well:
Another characteristic of Reformed ecclesiology has been to note that a right understanding of the Church preserves certain biblical balances.4 For example, the Church is both local and universal,5 both an organism and an organization,6 and can be seen from both a visible (baptismal, eucharistic) perspective and from an invisible (eschatological) perspective.7 While in some Protestant traditions there has been a marked underemphasis on the visible, organizational, institutional side of the Church’s life, this has not been typical of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
Another characteristic of Reformed ecclesiology is seen in our teaching that the unity of the Church is to be expressed in all aspects of the Church’s life—in its eucharistic life, its pastoral life, and in its governmental life.8 Because the Church exists on both the local and universal levels (and on regional levels in between), the Church is to be connectional—operating in ever-widening concentric circles of accountability and pastoral care. The Reformed tradition sees the phrase “independent church” as an oxymoron.
Central to Reformed ecclesiology has been the conviction that the Church is to be governed in a conciliar fashion, with governing councils9 existing on local, regional, national, and (sometimes) international levels.10 While there are worldwide advisory bodies, no such group would ever consider itself an “ecumenical council” in the historic sense.11 A “denominational ecumenical council” is also an oxymoron.
In addition to this conciliar emphasis, Reformed ecclesiology has also stressed the “parity of the ministry,” teaching that all those ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament share the same sacramental office. Yet we also recognize, within the one order of ministry, many roles of commissioning and authority. For example, in a Presbyterian congregation with several clergy—all of whom hold the same ordained office—there are clear differences in responsibility and authority between the senior pastor and those who serve with him as associate pastors.
This leads me—as it has led others in our tradition12 (though it still doesn’t go over well with some)—to conclude that episcopacy is not inherently contrary to a Reformed ecclesiology. In fact, the senior pastor of a Presbyterian congregation is, for his local flock, something of a bishop. For example, our denomination’s Book of Church Order states that the senior pastor is, “by virtue of his office,” Moderator of the church’s Session, holding a primus inter pares position among the other pastors and the lay elders. If this is our practice on the congregational level (in our Sessions), there is no reason to oppose a similar practice on a regional level (in our Presbyteries) and beyond. Indeed, there is precedent for the practice: the Reformed churches of Hungary have retained the ministry of bishops, and, though the parallel is not exact, for some time after the Reformation, the Church of Scotland had a ministry of “superintendents.” A Reformed ecclesiology—following John Calvin himself13 —is opposed to an authoritarian prelacy, but not to a pastoral episcopacy.
The Reformed churches have always placed a high value on episkope. We have historically voiced a serious concern for ecclesiastical oversight, particularly for a well-ordered succession of ordained ministers. While rejecting the claim that only those in the “historic episcopate” may legitimately convey holy orders, the churches of the Reformed tradition have held that episkope—whether exercised by a single bishop or by the “corporate episcopate” of a church council—is a biblical necessity and of vital importance.14
Last, a Reformed ecclesiology must boldly confess that the visible unity of the Church is rightly seen as a first-order priority.15 While in the evangelical Reformed churches great stress has been placed on evangelism (and rightly so), the late John Murray often stressed that the “ecumenical imperative” is just as much a dominical mandate as the Great Commission.
In the sixteenth century, the reforming archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer dreamed of calling, for the purpose of visible unity, a great council of Reformed leaders, but his plans were interrupted by the early death of King Edward and the archbishop’s own martyrdom at the hands of Queen Mary. Calvin wrote to Cranmer, “So much does this [the disunity in the wake of the Reformation] concern me that could I be of any service I would not begrudge traversing ten seas for this purpose.”17 Such is the ecumenical fervor that should characterize those churches that look to Calvin for theological guidance.
Ecumenical Weaknesses in the Reformed Tradition
At its best, the Reformed tradition has a rich ecumenical legacy. In practice, however, it has often been another story. The ecumenical imperative has in many cases been either passively ignored or actively denied. It has been ignored by those who have acquiesced to a “denominational theory” of the Church in which visible unity is seen as peripheral to the Church’s work, and it has been denied by those who have argued that providence demonstrates that the “pluriformity” of the Church is the evident will of God. The response of Lesslie Newbigin is sharp and to the point.
Tragically, Reformed churches—and, again tragically, particularly those of a strongly evangelical and confessional character—have often been quite sectarian. An old joke—“Wherever you find two Scots, you’ll find a Presbyterian church; and wherever you find three Scots, you’ll find two Presbyterian churches”—contains more truth than we should care to admit. In our circles, we often speak of the “alphabet soup” of American Presbyterianism: PCUSA, PCA, OPC, RPCNA, KAPC, ARPC, EPC, and on it goes.
In all candor, it should be pointed out that the twentieth-century ecumenical movement, especially in recent years, has often worked against “orthodox ecumenism” in the confessional Reformed churches. Since in so many cases those in the forefront of the mainline ecumenical organizations, such as the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, have been those most doctrinally latitudinarian, confessional Reformed folks have tended to view all talk of ecumenism with suspicion.
Last, there has been a sad tendency for the churches of the Reformed tradition to be easily sidetracked from the mainstream of their own theological thought and practice. For example, later Puritanism and American revivalism both contributed to a loss of liturgical and sacramental focus, and the social gospel movement led to a decline in both doctrinal orthodoxy and evangelistic zeal. At its best, the Reformed tradition has been able to maintain equilibrium in several important areas—between the word of the gospel and deeds of justice and mercy, between evangelical preaching and catholic liturgy, between its “world-formative” vision and the eschatological hope.19 This equilibrium, however, has been all too frequently lost.
What Should Visible Unity Look Like?
In attempting a Reformed answer to this question, several factors emerge.
First, the visible unity we seek should be eucharistic. From the Reformed perspective, the lack of eucharistic hospitality among the branches of the one Church is seen, not so much as a witness to our “unhappy divisions,” but as an indication of our unwillingness to recognize the inviolable unity that already exists. The practice of eucharistic hospitality demonstrates that, however much we may we disagree, and in spite of those sin-produced divisions that we are striving to overcome, we are one, for we all partake of the one loaf.
Second, the unity we seek should be missional. One of the great legacies of Newbigin—who saw his missionary and ecumenical callings as essentially one—is the realization that mission is dependent upon unity and that unity is dependent upon mission.
While the church growth movement has been quite controversial—and some of its ideas I would be most hesitant to endorse—one of its clear blessings to the Church is that it has called many Evangelicals to the recognition that the goal of evangelism is not merely the multiplication of individual converts but the growth of the visible, sacramental Church.
Third, the unity we seek should be both conciliar and, yes, episcopal. While wholeheartedly agreeing with the position of all the Reformed churches that a corporate episcopate is (at least!) as faithful to the apostolic tradition as is monepiscopacy, and while agreeing that the latter was not practiced universally until centuries after the apostolic age,21 we in the Reformed churches must admit that the Church did become near-universally episcopal, and that the historic episcopate is an important witness to the Church’s unity.22 Therefore, if we are to work toward the visible unity of the Church, we should, I am increasingly convinced, defer to the wisdom of the majority in the Great Tradition and embrace the ministry of bishops.
Yet we in the Reformed churches will insist that episcopacy does not equal prelacy. Proposals such as “bishops in presbytery”—similar to the order of the Church of South India—should be both studied and, I believe, eventually embraced. As suggested above, the Presbyterian model of the senior pastor, presiding over the council of associate pastors and lay elders in the local congregation, provides a most helpful model for regional and larger bodies within a reunited Church.
One last comment: In Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II has invited all the churches to discuss how the Petrine office should function in a reunited Church, and Reformed churchmen should welcome this conversation. Our idea of concentric circles of conciliar accountability would lead us to teach that, if the Church were visibly united around the world, there would need to be an ecumenical council, meeting as necessary to govern and guide the Church. The above argument for a (reformed) episcopacy would also lead us to teach that such a council would need a “presiding bishop,” serving as primus inter pares among his brothers, and historically such a position of honor has fallen to the bishop of Rome. How would we envision a Reformed(!) Petrine office? 23 First, as argued above, any such primacy would need to be exercised in a conciliar fashion; the universal episcopate must be seen first as a pastoral, rather than a juridical, office. The idea that the pope has an authority that exceeds even that of an ecumenical council must be rejected. Second, we must humbly but firmly insist that the dogma of papal infallibility is not only foreign to the holy Scriptures but also is not a catholic doctrine at all, but a sectarian one. The dogma of papal infallibility is a serious obstacle to true ecumenism, and another example of where the unity we seek awaits further reformation.
Some Practical Steps
The theme here is plausible ecumenism, and some of the topics above—such as the role of the bishop of Rome in a reunited Church—appear to be far from plausible. So, practically, where do we go next?
First, we must all be quick to repent and confess the sins of our own traditions. Newbigin argued that we must see the Church—corporately, as we see individual believers—as simil justus et peccator, essentially an eschatological way of looking at the Body of Christ, recognizing the tension between what we already possess in Christ and what awaits the end of the ages.24 In the words of Eugene Peterson, we must recognize that the church militant is, and will be until our Lord returns, roughly equal parts mystery and mess.25
Second, we must both learn and teach (with the emphasis on the former), practicing as much genuine fellowship with one another as the biblically informed and Spirit-formed conscience will allow. This is why journals such as Touchstone are vitally important for developing a truly orthodox ecumenism. And while many in my tradition have been quite critical of the Evangelical and Catholics Together documents (and some of their criticisms have been both valid and helpful), can we not at least agree that the conversation should be applauded? Yes, we must affirm that the Reformation was necessary, but we must equally affirm that, for the biblical vision of observable unity, it was indeed a tragic necessity.
Third, we must give mission its proper priority. In the following statement, Newbigin sounds a serious warning to the churches of the Reformed tradition.
Fourth, we must work, actively and passionately, for visible unity. Though the mainline ecumenical movement seems to have run out of steam (and often out of orthodoxy), now is the time for a renewed commitment to ecumenism. We must realize that the ecumenical mandate is a commandment of our Lord, and we must both repent of our laziness and recommit ourselves to obedience. We must work for greater unity within our traditions27 —Reformed with Reformed, Anglicans with Anglicans, etc.—and across our traditions, especially by working for local and regional unity wherever possible, so that “all in each place” are visibly united. The missionary vision of local visible unity is what drove Newbigin and the other founders of the Church of South India; they continue to provide a most helpful example to us all.
Fifth, and most important, we must pray. This call to prayer does not contradict what I just said about working for unity; in fact, prayer is the chief work. Yet must we not confess that, all too often, we have acted as ecumenical Pelagians, behaving as if the visible unity of the Church could be accomplished by our own efforts, when in fact we need the Spirit’s power to help us repent of our selfish divisiveness?28 Yes, we have had enough of the “ecumenism” that papers over the cracks of doctrinal compromise with the language of creative ambiguity. But let us never forget that we are called to be faithful to the “whole counsel of God”—to all the teachings of the holy Scriptures—including the ecumenical mandate. Many Christians across the world have committed themselves to praying each day for the visible unity of the Church. May we all join in this prayer—praying daily as well for the task of world evangelization, for unity and mission go hand in hand.
All of us, I believe, are tempted to see the visible reunion of the Church as more of an eschatological vision than a realistic goal; I confess that I am not holding my breath. But we must beware of any ungodly cynicism. In his autobiography, Unfinished Agenda, Newbigin quotes from a letter he wrote shortly after the 1947 service of reunion for the Church of South India—the service at which he was consecrated as bishop.
May we all make this our solemn vow.
1. I no longer have a copy or any information on its publication.
2. See John T. McNeill’s well-known article, “Calvin as Ecumenical Churchman,” Church History 58 (supplement) ; originally published in vol. 32 .
3. Carl Braaten, Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), p. 12. See also Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., The Catholicity of the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).
4. These balances are developed at greater length in Edmund P. Clowney, The Church, in the Contours of Christian Theology series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995); this is a definitive work of ecclesiology from a confessional Reformed perspective.
5. In other words, believers “belong” both to the whole Church around the world and to local eucharistic communities.
6. The late Lesslie Newbigin was known to remark that while the Church is indeed an organism, it is a vertebrate organism.
7. The language of visible and invisible has a long pedigree in the Reformed tradition. While realizing that important truths are reflected in the traditional nomenclature, our theologians are increasingly stressing that to speak of the “visible church” and “invisible church” as if they were two separate bodies is clearly unbiblical. See two articles by the late John Murray: “The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid” and “The Biblical Basis for Ecclesiastical Union,” in Collected Works of John Murray, vol. 1, The Claims of Truth (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976).
8. In fact, we would insist that these cannot be separated. The government of the Church is both sacramental and ministerial.
9. In most of the Reformed churches, the councils include not only ordained clergy but also pious laymen, traditionally called “elders,” chosen by the people on the basis of their godly character and wisdom.
10. In Presbyterianism, these councils are known as the Session, the Presbytery, and the Synod and/or General Assembly.
11. Even though one such group is called the Reformed Ecumenical Council, it is not attempting to rank itself with Nicea!
12. A notable twentieth-century example would be the late “Presbyterian Bishop” Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland who became one of the original bishops in the united Church of South India. His comments on the episcopate can be found in his The Reunion of the Church: A Defence of the South India Scheme (New York: Harper, 1948); see especially ch. 9.
13. For Calvin’s comments, see Institutes IV:4; see also Geddes MacGregor, Corpus Christi: The Nature of the Church in the Reformed Tradition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), ch. 11.
14. In discussing the difference in the understanding of the term “presbyter” between Anglicans and Presbyterians, Thomas F. Torrance remarks, “In the Church of Scotland the presbyter is a presbyter-bishop who along with his fellow-presbyters holds and exercises the episcopate in solidum in the presbytery. Consequently in the Church of Scotland the episcopate is given a corporate or collegiate expression in the presbytery. . . .” (The Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2nd ed., 1993], p. 104). He goes on to show how the corporate episcopate could be assimilated to the historic episcopate. One may find a historical defense of the corporate episcopate both in this work and in H. J. Wotherspoon and J. M. Kirkpatrick, A Manual of Church Doctrine According to the Church of Scotland, Rev. T. F. Torrance and R. S. Wright (London: Oxford, 1960 ).
15. An excellent ecclesiastical statement is the “Ecumenical Charter” adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1987.
16. “The Nature and Unity of the Church,” in Collected Works of John Murray, vol. 2, Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), p. 335.
17. Quoted in McNeill, “Calvin as Ecumenical Churchman,” p. 55.
18. The Reunion of the Church, p. 24.
19. The term “world-formative” is from Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983). By this balance, I refer to the tension between, on the one hand, the Reformed insistence on the lordship of Christ over every area of life and, on the other hand, the biblical emphasis that we are sojourners en route to our true Home. Wolterstorff, by the way, offers a wonderful introduction to the Reformed liturgical tradition in “The Reformed Liturgy,” in Donald K. McKim, ed., Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).
20. The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (New York: Friendship Press, 1954), p. 174.
21. See Wotherspoon and Kirkpatrick, A Manual of Church Doctrine.
22. Newbigin argues this point strongly, and to my mind persuasively, in The Reunion of the Church.
23. Braaten offers a Lutheran perspective on the papacy in several places in Mother Church.
24. This is found in both The Reunion of the Church and The Household of God.
25. See The Wisdom of Each Other: A Conversation Between Spiritual Friends (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).
26. The Household of God, p. 111.
27. John M. Frame, in Evangelical Reunion: Denominations and the One Body of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), argues for this as a first step.
28. N. T. Wright argues (in a lecture, “God’s Light in the Post-Post-Enlightenment World,” available on audiotape from Regent College, Vancouver) that one reason for the decline of the ecumenical movement is that it was often dominated by the hubris of North American and Western European rationalism. Ecumenism in our postmodern future will, I am convinced, take some surprising shapes, particularly as we listen to our brothers and sisters to our south. The 1998 Lambeth Conference among Anglicans may well be a foretaste of things to come.
29. Unfinished Agenda (2nd ed.; Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1993), p. 91; emphasis mine.
Evangelicals & Christian Unity
by Kevin Offner
How do and how should Evangelicals think about ecumenism? The best way to understand how an Evangelical thinks about and acts toward Christian unity is first to understand how he thinks about his own identity. Just what is “American evangelicalism”?
Twentieth-century American evangelicalism is that amorphous collection of Protestants who (at least until very recently) have adhered to two theological convictions: the centrality of the gospel and the authority of the Bible.
The Centrality of the Gospel
Evangelicals believe that all human beings enter this world as sinners, and thus all human beings are in need of a savior. That one Savior, that one and only solution to man’s sin, is Jesus Christ, and he is received by faith alone. When people are born again, they receive forgiveness of sins and are supernaturally regenerated by the Holy Spirit, enabled to live a life of obedience to God, their heavenly Father. Christianity, for Evangelicals, is all about a relationship—a relationship with God the Father and with Jesus Christ. (The question Evangelicals often ask in their evangelism is, “Would you like to know God in a personal way?”)
In understanding Evangelicals it is important to see that for them, the world is clearly divided into just two kinds of people: the saved and the unsaved. One is either a sheep or a goat, walking in the light or a child of darkness, for Christ or against Christ. What matters most in life, then, is to see non-Christians become Christians. Education, using one’s mind, and affirming reason may be good things, but they are secondary to getting people saved. So too with being an active participant in the culture wars and taking a stance on, say, abortion or pornography. So too with caring for the poor and feeding the hungry. You can clean the outside of the cup all you want, but until the inside of the cup is cleansed through the new birth of salvation, the water in the cup will still remain dirty.
This commitment to the gospel trumps any denominational loyalty for the Evangelical. One is an Evangelical first, a Presbyterian second; an Evangelical first, a Methodist second; and so on.
The Centrality of the Bible
Sin has so drastically blinded us that we are unable to know the truth about God and his will for us unless and until he takes the initiative in revealing himself to us. The Bible is that one, unique, inerrant, authoritative place where God has done this. The Bible is the very Word of God. If you want to know the truth about something, don’t turn to a creed, a papal encyclical or even a book by J. I. Packer—rather, open your Bible and let God speak to you directly.
To be a growing Christian, then, is to be soaked in the Bible. The primary evangelical spiritual discipline is personal Bible study. In choosing one’s church one must find a church where the Bible is revered and clearly taught. We must measure all ideas by the Bible, for what the Bible says, God says.
For Evangelicals, then, these two convictions (gospel and Bible) are it. They are the essence of Christianity. The only non-negotiables. Notice what is missing from this list of two. Not a word about the sacraments, church, tradition, worship, how the Bible is to be interpreted, how believing the gospel is related to living the gospel, etc. If you love Jesus Christ and if you obey the Bible, Evangelicals tell us, then you are a good, faithful Christian.
This is not to suggest, of course, that all Evangelicals understand secondary issues in the same way. For instance, regarding the sacraments, baptism is more important to some than others, but in all cases one’s coming to Christ in regeneration is through personal faith and not baptism; and the Eucharist, however highly it is held, is still much less important than Scripture. In practice, the only true sacrament for Evangelicals is the “Word preached.” And regarding the Church, some Evangelicals hold a higher ecclesiology than others, but in all cases, one’s personal salvation is superior to, and can be separated from, church attendance.
Ecumenical Strengths & Weaknesses
Given the above snapshot, then, how do Evangelicals approach ecumenism? With this lowest-common-denominator, non-ecclesial mark of orthodoxy, the room for unity across denominations and traditions is great. In fact, this surely is one of evangelicalism’s most significant legacies to American Christendom: the ability to cross denominational lines for the sake of the gospel. There are the Billy Graham crusades, Promise Keepers rallies, the student missionary convention that InterVarsity sponsors every three years called Urbana, para-church ministries, and so on. Evangelicalism is uniquely capable of promoting ecumenical gatherings of Christians.
What is good and bad about this kind of Evangelical ecumenism? First, the good news. I do believe that any movement forward in Christian ecumenism must have the gospel front and center. The Apostle Paul in Romans says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” And in Galatians: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. . . . Let them be accursed!” And in Corinthians: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” And in Philippians: “For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain. . . . I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”
Evangelicals rightly warn us of the danger of placing anything but Christ and his gospel at the center of our lives. (We all know of people in our own congregations who attend church, know their theology, and are good people but who don’t know or love Jesus Christ—who, indeed, need to be evangelized.) Our center must not be “conservatism,” some position on the culture wars, ecclesiology, or whatever. There is only one foundation, and it is Jesus Christ. Evangelicals can help us with our priorities here. Ecumenism of the twenty-first century must be marked by the same kind of koinonia that those two men on the road to Emmaus experienced after they had spent time with the resurrected Lord: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road and opened to us the Scripture?” In all of our intellectual and theological sophistication, we must never lose a simple love, trust, and obedience to Jesus Christ.
Second, Evangelicals helpfully remind us all that one way of understanding the Church is as the Body of Christ. Though surely the Church is more than this, she is not less. Evangelicals are right to affirm that the Church is invisible—even though they are wrong when they fail to affirm the twin truth that she is also visible. All Christians, by virtue of the Holy Spirit who inhabits them, are brothers and sisters in Christ—whatever denomination or tradition they align themselves with.
Third, Evangelicals are right to insist that all theology be rooted in holy Scripture. Taken in its most rudimentary expression, surely all Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants can agree here. We run into danger the more dependent we are on secondary and tertiary sources. Any disagreement with the Evangelicals’ use of the Bible must be clearly distinguished from our agreement with their instinctive commitment to the Bible.
And fourth, Evangelicals are uniquely equipped to relate relevantly to contemporary culture. Being unencumbered by unmalleable traditions, Evangelicals can bring the gospel to twenty-first century needy sinners in a language and subculture they can hear. Evangelicals are freed up to learn and practice the language, customs, and idiosyncrasies of the mission field they are trying to reach.
But now for the bad news. Though the gospel and the Bible are primary and foundational, they cannot stand alone. There is more to the Christian life and Christian culture than merely a spiritual gospel and a spiritual Bible. For at the very heart of Christianity is the Incarnation. Christianity is an embodied religion. Both this personal relationship with Jesus and this personal reading of the Bible must be fleshed out, lived out in the physical world that God has created, and made concrete within a Tradition. Orthodox (small o) Christians have always considered Gnosticism as nothing short of a heresy.
The real problem, though, is not that Evangelicals will remain completely spiritual. For this is impossible. As long as Evangelicals remain human beings, they will need to eat, drink, earn money, sing, read, and decide how to use their spare time. For better or for worse, Evangelicals always will bring more to the ecumenical table than just the gospel and the Bible. The question, then, is what form this community of Jesus-loving, Scripture-centered people will take.
Evangelicalism is a movement that needs a church home. The freedom of evangelicalism needs the form of creeds, sacraments, and church hierarchy. Another way of putting this is to say that evangelicalism is like a parasite in need of a host. Jesus-loving, gospel-centered Evangelicals need a host—a culture, a tradition—in which to live out their convictions.
The Major Evangelical Shift
I believe that a major shift has been occurring within evangelicalism since the early 1970s that has serious repercussions for the Evangelicals’ contribution to ecumenism. The parasite has changed its host over the last thirty years. Evangelicals still to some degree bring with them their love for the gospel and the Bible (although even this is changing), but the embodied subculture in which these spiritual convictions find their life has shifted.
Evangelicals from the modernist-fundamentalist debate at the turn of the century up until the 1940s were divided largely into three camps. There were the Fundamentalists, the Pentecostals, and the Reformed. In the 1940s, from the fundamentalist camp emerged a fourth group, which I will call Progressives. These four camps in a somewhat wobbly fashion coalesced under the common rubric “Evangelical.” But the reigning worldview into which this movement was embodied was largely informed by the Reformed tradition. Even though the Progressives were growing in number and influence over the Reformed, the worldview that shaped the Progressives was nevertheless primarily Reformed.
The key players—Carl F. H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, J. I. Packer, John Stott—were heavily shaped by the Reformed tradition. Also, the significant evangelical churches were often Reformed: Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Christian Reformed, etc. So the ethos that Evangelicals brought to the ecumenical table with their gospel-loving, Scripture-centered convictions had historical and theological depth. Their books, music, and view of church authority and of relationships between the sexes were all strongly influenced, however unconsciously, by the Reformed tradition.
But then the shift began. In the last thirty years, the Progressives have been breaking rank with the Reformed, and the Evangelicals’ new host, its new form, its new worldview, is contemporary culture, not the Reformed tradition. The ethos of evangelicalism is a forward-looking commitment to relevance rather than a tradition-centered commitment to orthodoxy. Westminster Seminary is no longer producing evangelicalism’s leading lights, but Fuller Seminary and Regent College are. The old Christianity Today is being replaced by the new Christianity Today. J. I. Packer, John Stott, and Francis Schaeffer are being replaced by Tony Campolo, Bill Hybels, and Stanley Grenz. Elizabeth Elliot is being replaced by Mary Stewart VanLeuwen. And so on. R. C. Sproul, solidly Reformed, no longer wants to be called an Evangelical, and Stanley Grenz wants to stop looking back to the Reformation as the primary Protestant touchstone.
What this means for ecumenism today is this: The instincts and sensibilities that gospel-loving, Scripture-centered Evangelicals are bringing with them to the ecumenical table have changed. Today’s Evangelicals are more committed to innovation than to tradition. More to psychology than to theology. More to tolerance and relevance than to holiness. More to entertainment than to worship. Today’s Evangelicals know how to be in the world, but do they have the ballast, wisdom, and historical perspective to prevent them from being of the world?
The strength of evangelicalism in comparison to the different church denominations and traditions is its ability to adapt, improvise, and move with the culture. But this is a strength only if there is an anchor that prevents Evangelicals from drifting too far from the shore. And it is this anchor that is being lost today.
Evangelicalism is in trouble. For even its two hallmark convictions—the gospel and the Bible—are now being debated. Are people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ really going to hell? Is it really possible today in our postmodern world to interpret our Bibles correctly—and if not, what good is an authoritative Bible if you can’t agree on what it means? These are questions Evangelicals today are repeatedly asking themselves.
I fear that Evangelicals are moving further away from historical, orthodox Christianity. Evangelicals’ savvy regarding contemporary culture is a good thing, and Evangelicals can help us all to read our culture and learn its nuances and values, so that we can more effectively bring the gospel to today’s hurting people. But this cultural perceptiveness is outweighed by the Evangelicals’ theological vacuity. The new host that they have chosen to inhabit is unable to equip them to speak prophetically to twenty-first-century man with a time-tested, authoritative word from God.
So is there no hope? What ought Evangelicals to do next?
The Evangelical Return to the Church
Evangelicalism needs to attach itself to a church—and a church tradition. For once Evangelicals are members of a church (or churches) that is well-grounded in the historic, orthodox faith, whose ordained leaders are acknowledged as being commissioned with the special charge to oversee, nurture, lay down their lives for, and at times discipline their flocks; where the sacraments are truly those physical places and times where God who is Spirit mystically visits his physical people in physical, earthy ways; where the relationship between the sexes is understood as equal yet ordered—once Evangelicals attach themselves to this church or these churches, then they will have a solid fort from which to take the gospel and the Bible into the trenches of the world. With a solid form, their freedom can be truly free. If attached to the right host, the parasite can help that host engage the world with the gospel in creative and culturally sensitive ways. Evangelicalism simply cannot reform itself by itself, but needs to come under the authority of the Church!
The six-million-dollar question then becomes, which church or churches will be the proper, most suitable host for Evangelicals? I see only two options.
Option No. 1: A radical return to the church and churches of the Reformation. This is the route suggested by those of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (A.C.E.). There is a movement afoot today wherein churches that align themselves with the Reformed tradition are beginning to coalesce. The thought here is that these churches together will submit themselves to the doctrines and practices of the Reformation. But while this option is certainly better than today’s free-floating drift of evangelicalism, I don’t know what kind of specific, tangible connections with the Reformation are possible. For there are several, not one, Reformed traditions (e.g., what about the Reformed Baptists, and Arminians?). How closely tied with each other would these various Reformed churches need to be? And where would their authority lie?
I do think this option holds some potential if those associated with A.C.E. would sincerely seek dialogue with, not against, Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. The reaction of men in the A.C.E. against the initiatives of Evangelicals and Catholics Together has been unfortunate. Now is the time to revisit the theological issues of the sixteenth century in fresh ways, looking for bridges, not chasms.
Option No. 2: A radical return by Evangelicals, en masse, into the Roman Catholic Church. (A move towards Orthodoxy, however desirable, seems implausible, primarily because the Eastern mindset is simply too far removed from that of the West where evangelicalism has flourished.) But for this to happen, there would need to be some fairly major changes in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church would need to admit her need for Evangelical Protestants, convinced that the fullness of the faith can only be realized once orthodox Protestant perspectives have been incorporated.
First, the doctrine of salvation would seriously need to engage and reflect Reformational themes. Most Roman Catholics have no idea how deeply both Progressive Evangelicals and Reformed Evangelicals hold to justification by faith alone. What Evangelicals need to be convinced of by Roman Catholics is that in becoming Catholic, Evangelicals would not need to lose their (correct) conviction that one is saved by God solely by his grace. As they sing at the Billy Graham crusades, one comes to Christ, in faith, “just as I am.” One doesn’t need first to try to make oneself better before God will accept him. The caricature most Evangelicals have of Catholics is that they are practical Pelagians. (The key discussion point here, I think, is not faith-versus-works, but grace-versus-works. Roman Catholics do, in fact, believe one is saved by grace, not works—in a way that, when better understood, would refreshingly surprise many Evangelicals.)
Second, the Catholic Church would need to recover expositional preaching. It is not enough to have little ten-minute homilies tacked on to the Mass, where a priest shares a story or personal experience. Serious biblical exposition needs to thunder forth from pulpits, where the Scriptures are opened up before congregations, and a thus-says-the-Lord is heard booming forth from the podiums of Catholic churches. Lay people need to see and feel that the priest himself is submitting to God in Scripture—rather than the sense that the priest is simply submitting to “the Tradition,” with the Bible as a mere tack-on. Somehow the Bible needs to be freed up to breathe and exhort with power in Catholic parishes. Until this happens, most Evangelicals will stay away, however ugly their own denominations or local parishes become.
Evangelicals can be shown the importance of tradition if they can see its connection with Scripture. We need, together, to rethink what exactly the relationship is between Word and Sacrament. Evangelicals err in emphasizing Word over sacraments, but Roman Catholics err in exactly the opposite way.
Third, the doctrine of Original Sin needs to be revisited by Evangelicals and Roman Catholics together. This, even more than justification, is foundational in understanding our differences. To what degree do creation and natural law reveal truth to us today, and how have they been hampered by the Fall? To what degree is human reason impaired by the Fall? And to what degree has human nature itself been impaired by the Fall? A shared understanding of the nature and effect of Original Sin would have a deep impact on how Christians understand anthropology, soteriology, and epistemology.
Evangelicalism is not going to go away. But the degree of lasting influence Evangelicals will have on both Christian ecumenism and American culture, and their ability to remain faithful to the gospel and Scripture, will depend on what kind of church they end up fastening on to. The big question for Evangelicals in the twenty-first century is, “What is the Church?” Evangelicals for 450 years have thought long and hard about soteriology; the time has now come for them to put their minds to ecclesiology.
The Reverend Richard John Neuhaus, a priest of the Roman Catholic Church, is also President of the Institute for Religion and Public Life and Editor-in-Chief of First Things.
The Reverend Jonathan Jenkins is Pastor of Holy Spirit Lutheran Church (ELCA), Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The Reverend Craig R. Higgins is the founding and senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Rye, New York. A minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, he holds an M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and is a student in the D.Min. program at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
James M. Kushiner is the Executive Editor of Touchstone.
David Mills , former editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream and columnist for several Catholic publications. His last book is Discovering Mary. He and his family attend St. Joseph's Church in Corapolis, PA.
Kevin Offner is on the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He has written for Re:Generation Quarterly, Critique, Student Leadership Journal, and First Things. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Amy. They are members of the Presbyterian Church in America. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
“Plausible Ecumenism” first appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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