Friday, February 18, 2005

Thoughts on Catholicity and Ecumenism (Reply to Reformed Pastor Tim Gallant)

Pastor Gallant wrote a post called Two Thoughts about a month ago, on his blog. I will reproduce it in its entirety in blue, below, and then make a response. I welcome his counter-reply. This could be a great discussion, I think, if only we can get it going and have Christians of many sorts join in, without rancor and acrimony. I think we can all agree that it is a very important discussion to have.
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Over the past few weeks, a couple of (quite unrelated) thoughts occurred to me, both of which are fairly obvious, but I don't think they articulated themselves directly into my consciousness before. The second point is ultimately far more significant than the first, I think.

(1) Judaizers and Anathemas.

The Judaizers implicitly declared Paul's gospel a heresy before he anathematized them. How do we know? They required something for the salvation of the Gentiles that Paul had not required. Ergo, Paul's doctrine was heretical and deficient.

Not particularly a profound point, although I think it is of interest, because we good Protestants often tend to call others "Judaizers" when they don't dot their i's and cross their t's quite like they are supposed to. And the situation, as it turns out, is usually not all that analogous.

(2) Catholicity and Confessions.

A few days ago I was blindsided with the glaringly obvious fact: if Christ's Church is ever to find the measure of unity in true faith Christ prayed for in John 17, every church tradition is going to have to sacrifice its sectarian confessional statements. I boldly say that neither the Westminster Standards, the Book of Concord, nor even my beloved Three Forms of Unity will ever provide the confessional instrument of the one Body of Jesus Christ (and no, neither will that Statement of Faith drafted by Joe-Bob's Bible Church of Podunk, revised last Monday). It is imaginable to me that there will come a day when Christ's churches will be able to speak confessionally in a way that goes beyond the Nicene Creed, but it also is obvious to me that the ecumenical creeds will necessarily be the confessional starting point of any ecumenical effort worth pursuing.

While the above point, as I've said, is glaringly obvious, most of us conduct ourselves ecclesiastically as if the opposite were the case. Perhaps we actually believe that the true Church is defined by our sectarian confession, and thus think that others can adopt it or... well, go to hell. Or perhaps we recognize that something big needs to take place ecumenically; yet nonetheless we go our merry way becoming more insular and sectarian with every generation. Instead of seeking ways to transcend the divide, we create even more within our respective confessional traditions.

Not so long ago, a well-known figure in the Reformed world said that the Westminster's articulation of justification could not be improved upon. And the corollary seemed to be that this confessional document must be preserved and defended against all comers until kingdom come.

I'm going on record today: I am a confessionally Reformed Christian. But all the truly important weight in that phrase is on the last word. All the confessions that we are presently fighting over are destined to become ecclesiastically non-authoritative, and what is more, all of us should be praying and working for that day.

May it so come.

The problem I see with this (though quite helpful and commendable in many ways) is that it creates an ambiguous relationship with truth and the pursuit of Christian truth and the ability to find it with God's help.

If we grant your main point: that every Christian tradition has gotten some things wrong and will have to "give stuff up" for unity to occur, it seems to me that we have adopted a certain skepticism, for you would have us believe that not a single Christian body has figured out true Christian theology in toto for 2000 years.

If that is how uncertain God has left things in His Church, then it is a depressing state of affairs indeed. And if "unity" is achieved by everyone throwing their doctrinal distinctives in the pot "so we can all get along," how can we ultimately distinguish that from the liberal ecumenism that hasn't helped anyone? I'm not trying to be provocative; I sincerely wonder how you would distinguish yourself in this regard, from liberal theology.

I believe there is one Christian truth. As a Catholic, I think it resides in the Catholic Church in its fullness (by God's grace, and nothing else -- because I believe that was His will). I don't think it is arrogant or "triumphalistic" to assert that. Until recent times, most Protestants believed that their own particular Christian tradition was the best one, and truest. That's why Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others fought so hard against each other right from the start, because they each believed their tradition was right, and the others wrong, where they contradicted one another.

It's fine to have an attitude of charity and humility and be willing to be corrected, etc. But we're not just talking about fallible, sinful men here. We're also talking about the omniscient, All-Holy, omnipotent God. Is He able to maintain Christian truth in its fullness through history or not? Is He so weak that He can't make it apparent what that truth is? Are we left to each make a lifelong journey, seeking for spiritual and theological truth, as if each generation (indeed, each person) has to reinvent the wheel?

That seems most implausible to me. We're fallible sinners, one and all, but the equation changes when God is brought into it. I think there are some very difficult problems about what Christian truth is, and how it is possible or impossible to find it, that have to be dealt with, beyond this level of "we all have some things wrong, and so we must put everything on the table for the sake of unity."

Whatever Christian unity is, or should be, it is certainly NOT the sort of doctrinal minimalism or "least common denominator" that this methodology would almost certainly bring about. I agree that the Nicene Creed is an existing common ground that can unite virtually all Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox NOW, complete with our own denominational distinctives. That already exists.

The problem comes when the "anti" factions in each group read the others out of Christianity. If those folks can learn that Christianity and Christians exist outside of their own group, then we can start to make some real, concrete progress, even with existing differences. But there is little sign of that happening (among anti-Protestants, anti-Catholics, and anti-Orthodox types). I say, first things first; baby steps first, and we have a lot to work out, if I have said anything at all above that rings true or poses a challenge to this sort of commendable-but-faulty ecumenism and concern for Christian unity.

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