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From the July/August, 2003
issue of Touchstone

 

Unity, Truth & Christian Identity by S. M. Hutchens

Unity, Truth & Christian Identity

In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity—A Call to the Churches from an Ecumenical Study Group Sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology
edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson
Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003
(62 pages; $10.00, paperback)

reviewed by S. M. Hutchens

This document has been produced by a study group of 16 theologians and ecumenists, members of mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches. It is addressed “to the churches of North America, Judicatories, Ecumenical Agencies, Ecumenical Officers, Laity and Clergy,” and set forth in 72 paragraphs in 7 sections.

Its editors direct the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, whose Pro Ecclesia is, in the opinion of this writer, the best academic journal of ecumenical theology. They represent the mind of what is probably the most theologically expert and broadly attractive track of serious ecumenical activity in North America, now that the National Council of Churches (NCC) has settled into its grotesque and increasingly irrelevant chaplaincy to the religious and political left. The editors of Touchstone have always regarded their work as worthy of serious and respectful attention, and the manifesto under consideration is no exception.

The Mandate of Unity

According to the authors of One Body, the mandate of unity is a permanent and central aspect of Christian life. While this unity already exists in Christ, it must appear more fully in our worship, mission, and the structure of our religious life. Division cannot be regarded as normal, but as the result of ignorance and sin. A brief history of the ecumenical movement is given, with emphasis on the achievement of the 1961 New Delhi conference in developing a statement of the unity we seek as being

brought together by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who are at the same time united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages, in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all. . . .

This “Christocentric universalism” has been replaced in the World Council of Churches (WCC) by a deliberate paradigm shift toward interreligious dialogue that is frequently at odds with it. The original goals of the ecumenical movement that were so well stated at New Delhi must be carried on by those who share its vision.

Our celebrations of diversity, the statement goes on to say, are easily conscripted to sinful purposes, particularly to group identities that perpetuate old contempts, hatreds, and fears. Elements that cause division must be subject to constant questioning, judgment, reconciliation, and reconfiguration. The whole Christian mystery is visible unification in Christ. So far as Christian groups distinguish themselves from others by claiming special strengths and insights, they are committed to knowing something other than Christ and him crucified.

Our complacency about divisions undermines our mission because the assertion of special marks detracts from the confession we have in common. The true transformations to which we must be committed too often devolve into divisions of race, class, culture, and ethnicity (attempts to overcome this may be escaped simply by walking to the church down the street), and because the attempts to strengthen our own fellowships risk emphasizing precisely those things that divide us.

The authors note that much harm has been done by the confusion created by Christian division. Movements Christians make between more or less rigorous churches may be on account of differing perceptions of the gospel, but church-shopping may also be a sign of ecclesiastical consumerism. Divisions between the churches were originally understood as rooted in real doctrinal disagreement, but now all too often it is asked not whether a disputed teaching is true, but whether it comports with the denomination’s self-definition. Some Christian groups have adopted a policy of cultural accommodation; others have resisted, but more for the sake of their distinctive identities than truth. This can be overcome only through a commitment to visible unity. However much we insist that Christian discipleship is not a matter of consumer choice but normative teaching, the point will not be credible in the world until Christian communities unite in shared disciplines of faithfulness to the apostolic word.

In accepting the ecumenical challenge, we must remember that friendly division is still division and not allow ourselves to think it normal. Authentic community is always in faith and doctrine. This is not best addressed at the denominational level, but by a united voice under a common doctrinal discipline. Churches should routinely include theologians from other traditions in their doctrinal commissions, formulate their official statements for the widest possible audience, and hire scholars to teach in their educational institutions who will teach in ways that serve the whole church. To address the danger of mutual witness and service degenerating into mere ideological commonality, opportunities for coordinated witness should be developed across denominational lines so that church growth is not accompanied with sheep-stealing, but by evangelization of the unbaptized and re-evangelization of the fallen-away. We are to discipline ourselves to think of building up the whole church and not just our segment of it, and clergy should resist a proprietary attitude toward their membership.

The group does not agree on the theological meaning of ordained ministry, but does note that clergy are often socialized into the denominational particulars that divide them, so that commitment to unity often becomes a professional liability. To help correct this, it urges that where full communion agreements are already in place, reciprocity agreements should be implemented, and where no reciprocity of ministry and membership exists, the separated Christians should pray for one another. “In the cross of Christ the personal and corporate suffering entailed in giving up aspects of our denominational heritages becomes the grace of fellowship with the Son. . . .”

The responsibility for healing wounds of disunity rests on all Christians, but in different measures and ways. Denominations have a central ecumenical role, but they must not allow their will to survive to inhibit ecumenical action. The NCC and WCC must rid themselves of their political agendas and recover the quest for visible unity embodied in the New Delhi statement. Catholics and Orthodox should be careful to distinguish between divinely appointed functions of oversight and ministry, and current judicial, bureaucratic, and institutionalized forms of those functions. The Roman Catholic Church should not return to pre-Vatican II anti-Protestant forms of theology, and the pope, being the only historically plausible candidate to exercise an effective worldwide ministry of unity, should recognize the special responsibilities for unity implied in the claim to primacy. Evangelicals should accept invitations to participate in ecumenical discussions, celebrate faith beyond their boundaries, pursue catholicity, and instead of calling other Christians out of their fellowships, work toward the health of all Christian communities. Orthodoxy should jettison its divisive and nationalistic proclivities.

The authors finally note that the disciplines of unity are penitential, and the process will be ascetical and difficult. Short of a decisive intervention of the Holy Spirit, the goals of the New Delhi statement will not be met. That the unity we seek will not simply be a human work is, however, good news.

Sheep Stolen or Rescued?

As well-crafted and attractive as the Proposal is, it sounds to this reviewer as though it comes from a distant and receding world, a world where denominational divisions based upon the traditional teachings by which various churches are identified are still the chief barriers to ecumenical activity. To be sure, where and to whatever degree this is so, the statement would be a very solid and useful contribution to the cause of Christian unity.

Its authors recall a day when church divisions were generally understood to depend on questions of truth rather than church identity. Where serious application to real Christianity still exists, however, that has not changed. The question of truth is still and always the essential thing, and the old confessional difficulties have in our day been compounded, if not overshadowed, by truth-problems added by theological and ecclesiastical “progress” since the days of the New Delhi conference.

In the ecumenical world known to the editors of this journal, the traditional faith-and-order questions have moved to the edge of the ecumenical horizon. The problems inhering in the separation of Christian communions are no longer so much the question of what kind of Christians these Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, or Catholics may be, but to what degree they are, at least in the forms that have the authority to represent their churches in ecumenical conversations, still Christians at all. Or, more precisely, it is a question of whether in the time that has passed since the promulgation of this document’s New Delhi benchmark, the theology of denominational identity has been misshapen so badly by innovations that redefine Christian belief and morals at a fundamental level, that faith-and-order discussions based on traditional divisions have become exercises in futility.

It is significant that there is so much concern over sheep-stealing in the Proposal, in which the Evangelicals are singled out as at particular fault. The members of the committee regard it as a demonstration of an unecumenical spirit, of competition rather than cooperation with the work of the Holy Spirit in other communions, and of religious consumerism. There is little doubt that in those Evangelical churches whose chief business has become religious entertainment, that is indeed the case.

This, however, obscures a part of the story to which this statement does not give adequate weight. The Evangelical congregations with whose statistics I am familiar would rank high among the sheep-thieves indicted by this document. They all contain a large percentage of ex-Catholics. Another large minority has come from mainline Protestant groups that have not simply been influenced, but radically altered in the last several generations, by novelties in doctrine and practice.

The sheep have not been lured from their folds; they have fled, many after years of pleading and protest that their churches not abandon or pervert the ancestral faith. The evidence that they did not mean the denominational faith, but the Christian faith, is that they have not, in their disappointment with the former, simply stopped attending church, as if the old-style Methodists or Episcopalians alone had the truth, but sought out other congregations with different names and customs that they recognize as believing and teaching the principal parts of what their old church used to.

They have not removed themselves because they have in the first instance willfully rejected papal authority, developed deep difficulties with Westminster or Augsburg, or are doubtful about entire sanctification. They have come because their children are returning from Sunday school or CCD stuffed, in Jesus’ name, with the social philosophy of the Democratic party; because their minister will not use a masculine pronoun to refer to God; because their Bibles, lectionaries, hymnals, and prayer books have been done over to feminist specifications; because their denominations will not effectively oppose abortion, the ordination of homosexuals, or the blessing of their unions; and because their priests are living scandalous lives and their bishops will do nothing about it. All these things have been instituted recently by the churches’ progressives, now in complete practical control of their denominations or dioceses, visibly hostile not simply to their confessional traditions, but to beliefs and practices that have heretofore been universal among Christians.

These sheep have come not because they are church-shoppers out to select whatever best answers to their tastes, or because they are constitutional conservatives who can’t abide change, or bigots fleeing enlightened attempts to integrate their parishes, but because they intuit something is desperately wrong in the places from which they have come, something that has to do with the imposition of new teachings and practices to which Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, Cranmer, St. Thomas, St. John, or St. Paul did not hold. They have often undergone terrible spiritual abuse and are dehydrated and desperately thin from lack of true and authoritative Christian teaching. These sheep have not been stolen; they have been rescued. Where this state of affairs pertains, nicely balanced statements about people shopping for churches that meet their tastes or perceived needs for greater or lesser stringency in service of the gospel do not apply to the reality. It is a question of shopping for truth or lies, that involves not so much questions about denominational traditions, but of what has been happening to their churches in recent years.

Questions of Christian Identity

It is useless to open dialogues with the converts’ former confessional homes, because in most of them no one with the official authority to represent them talks or thinks like a Christian. So far as the old denominational distinctives are still represented by fringe-dwellers within those churches, the qualifications of the latter to represent the larger group to which they belong are materially damaged by the fact that they don’t adequately represent what their churches have become, while in order to stay within the denomination and to speak from it as representing its tradition, they must cooperate to a significant degree in the novelties, particularly in women’s ordination, belief in which has been wryly but credibly called the only cardinal doctrine to which mainline Protestant clergy are required to subscribe—and which progressive Evangelicals, always looking for opportunities to integrate with the mainstream, are glad to endorse.

Traditional Christians invited to ecumenical gatherings in the name of a common orthodoxy are often called upon to confront and deal with women clergy and “inclusive language,” including that of the newly published egalitarian scriptures, their hosts apparently assuming these will be accepted in good grace as part of the ecumenical situation, and something to which those who find them offensive will become acclimated. These innovations will, however, remain insoluble impediments to reconciliation wherever they appear because they cannot be credibly reconciled with any possible shared source of authority in Scripture and catholic tradition. If there is any fixed and common ground upon which the Church may be said to stand, women clergy and egalitarian philosophy will not be found upon it.

There is a very significant gap in the ecumenical views and aspirations of those who believe the day’s most pressing ecumenical problems still lie in denominationalism, and those who see it in the more fundamental question of whether any proposed dialogues can be carried out on grounds that are sufficiently Christian to warrant the effort. Things have changed among the principal legatees of the churches responsible for the New Delhi conference.

The changes have inhibited ecumenical progress not simply because they have added new disagreements to old, but because the novelties of the last half-century have cast fundamental doubts on the innovators’ understanding of the Christian faith in which they claim the desire to be united, doubts which it is impossible not to consider may have their origins in the deepest root of their confessional existence. As a result, for example, one might reasonably incline to think some of the old-style Catholic polemics are right: Lutheranism is what it is because the impulse at the base of the movement is irreformably anti-Christian, the evidence being that its development has been from bad to worse—from sectarian Christianity based on theological error, to liberalism and nationalism, to modernism in various forms, and so out into the void, ultimately killing the faith in every country where it has been able to take root. If the problem with Lutheranism is its essential character, then Lutheranism of a conservative, non-Erastian variety is simply Lutheranism in a pre-apostate instar. If this is the case, our responsibility toward Lutherans who still have ears to hear is not essentially ecumenical, but evangelical: Clear-minded charity demands we seek to reclaim them for the Church.

Surely it is not appropriate to summon others to the ascetical and penitential disciplines of ecumenical engagement without clear explanation of how the changes that have taken place in their own groups since the best years of the twentieth-century ecumenical movement now define them, and whether or why these changes should be added to the ecumenical burden of the whole church as issues upon which other Christians are now called to meditate, pray, and assume a teachable, penitential attitude.

Is “inclusive language” now to be considered part of what is Presbyterian? Are female clergy Lutheran? Are gay priests Episcopalian? Is mainline Protestantism pro-abortion? Are bishops and priests who bring dissent from Church teaching to the ecumenical forum Catholic? Are those who flee these things likely to be church-shoppers, knee-jerk conservatives, and racists, as this proposal impressionistically invites us to believe, and are those who take them in sheep-stealing? These are among the questions that must be squarely faced and clearly addressed by the summoners among themselves before those invited can enter the doors to discuss the old confessional issues. When that day comes, this document will serve as an intelligent and salutary guide.


S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.

Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. letters@touchstonemag.com

 

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