Salvation and the Christian Life – Doing Theology in the Era of Global Ecumenism, Part 4

UnknownSixteenth-century Protestant Reformers stressed that we are justified while still in our sins. I believe they were right. We are, as they put it, simultaneously justified and still sinful. The Reformers, including the Augustinian Martin Luther, were zealous for the sovereignty of God. Many of their modern heirs remain zealous for this great truth. I see this zeal as inherently good. Yet this Reformation emphasis on God and free grace can very easily create a new imbalance, one which I think has been emphasized by Reformed and Lutheran scholasticism and its profound impact upon modern conservatives. It is a fact that post-Reformational orthodoxy tended to ignore the devotional life, or at least downplayed it considerably. (Again, John Calvin is a wonderful exception!) This over-emphasis on grace – especially the emphasis on right doctrinal concepts – led to a sterile and dead orthodoxy in some contexts.

Servile and dead orthodoxy became the deep concern of three groups of Protestants who had a great impact upon the eighteenth-century awakenings; e.g. the Puritans, the Pietists and the Evangelicals who were associated with this awakening. The result was a movement that ignored both sacramental and ecclesial concerns clearly present in the first Reformers. “They [these revivalist theologians] also gave minimal attention to the doctrine of creation which accounts for the otherworldly orientation of much left-wing Protestantism” (The Christian Life and Salvation, 16).

Donald Bloesch, who routinely sought for a richer and deeper evangelical and ecumenical theology, said: “The Christian life is the arena or theatre of our redemption and not simply an effect or sign of this redemption. It is the battleground on which our salvation is continually fought for and recovered” (The Christian Life and Salvation, 17). After living my adult life in evangelical and Reformed communities (where Puritanism held a healthy sway over much I learned and practiced) I have concluded that Bloesch was profoundly correct. He writes, “The Christian cannot earn his salvation, but he is called to retain it and defend it” (18).

Please read the Donald Bloesch quotation above once again. It is striking. It will quite likely jar you at first. It is paradoxical in the best sense. It also preserves the truth that I have discovered within the context of my own ecumenical journey. (This last sentence will create fear in those who wish to defend one of the previous ways in which this battle has been fought between Catholic and Protestant, even between Protestant and Protestant!) The way forward is to revisit these historic tensions, survey where they have brought us, and then consider how we can learn from them and move forward in biblically creative ways. This is the work of good ecumenical theology at its best.

Posted in Biblical Theology, Faith, Missional-Ecumenism, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Theology | Leave a comment

“Our Love Is Too Small” Video

Most of you who frequent my blog spot are aware that I wrote a book titled Your Church Is Too Small in March 2010. This book has redefined my life and ministry. I am now writing a sequel, or you could say it is a prequel, to Your Church Is Too Small. The working title of my new book is Our Love Is Too Small. I have written about a third of this book over the last two-plus months. Some days the writing flows and other days I feel like I will never finish this project. This is sheer hard work, but it is life-changing hard work. At times I feel like I’ve opened a vein and I simply bleed as I write. My soul is being poured out in trying to find the most authentic voice that I have for what I believe needs to be said about God’s love and our response to his great love which will be shown in loving others.

Several weeks ago I completed a two-year process of consulting the ministry of University Bible Fellowship (UBF). The international headquarters of UBF is located in Chicago. On March 24 I taught the UBF senior staff in Chicago for the last time, at least as a consultant. My address that Tuesday was based upon my work on this new book, Our Love Is Too Small. This final UBF address is now available for you to see. Sadly, the first twenty minutes or so of this presentation were made with a remote microphone but the last forty minutes turned out to have clear audio when the microphone worked properly.

Please understand that this presentation is very tentative as I gave it only at the beginning of my long term work on my new book. This is, at best, a small sample of the total work from this developing book and is not meant to be a substitute for the book itself. It can only serve as a modest introduction to the book for now. I hope this will edify and also encourage you to pray for me as I keep writing.

Posted in ACT 3, Love, Missional Church, The Church | Leave a comment

Salvation and the Christian Life – Doing Theology in the Era of Global Ecumenism, Part 3

51GKY541PRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When Catholics and Protestants engage in the polemics of theological polarities they quite often misrepresent one another. In the process they miss the deeper fruit of real ecumenism in doing confessing Christian theology. Non-theologians often do this more poorly because they adopt the views they have been taught by their favorite teachers and then treat them as the gold standard.

One of the central issues between Protestants and Catholics has always revolved around the subject of God’s grace and our(human) response to divine grace. We can very easily get the wrong end of the stick in this debate. On one side we separate the life of the Spirit from the salvation of God. This can be seen in a number of Protestant and evangelical responses to grace and works. Donald Bloesch noted: “To separate the life of the Christian from the salvation of God is to divorce ethics from religion. It was precisely this non-ethical religion or religiosity that was attacked by the Old Testament prophets and by many saints and reformers through the ages” (The Christian Life and Salvation, 14). This direction often leads to extremes of ceremonialism or antinomianism. An example of the latter can be seen in American evangelical tendency to separate the Lordship of Christ from his actual saving work, suggesting that we can accept Christ as our Savior and later, if we grow, accept him as Lord.

The biblical prophets did not call for ritual sacrifices but for the sacrifice of obedient lives. Jesus clearly placed emphasis upon inwardly loving rather than the kind of outward performance that was in accord with formal acts of piety. Modern evangelicalism has even tended to separate the gospel of grace from the concerns of daily Christian living. The “once saved, always saved” notion, which seems to remain widely popular, is an aberration  of grace. But this particular aberration is consistent with this biblical distortion. Add to this the popular notion of “carnal Christians” and you have a very deadly mix.

The other basic error is to make the Christian life the cornerstone of salvation. In this case we end up with a religion of ethical culture. Our salvation can even appear to be dependent upon our human works, albeit our works united with God’s help! In this error right conduct is more important than divine grace! This often results in moralism and/or legalism. Salvation is finally won by some form of obedience to the law. Bloesch added, “Such works-righteousness is to be found not only in humanistic liberalism but also in much conservative Protestantism, despite its outward adherence to the message of free grace” (14).

How does this second error happen in real life? If our salvation is made contingent upon our acceptance of a particular confession of faith, or the “right” way to interpret Scripture,  we have fallen into the trap (or the sphere) of legalism. Some forms of post-liberal theology fell into the trap of making salvation equal “neighbor-love and humanization.” In every such instance salvation was severed, in some way, from its transcendent basis in God alone.

Roman Catholic theology sought to guard against the two errors by upholding divine initiative (grace alone) in salvation while stressing the human agency in cooperation. This theology made a strong plea for “meritorious works.” While this has been popularly labeled as “salvation by works” the claim is, strictly speaking, false. Catholic theology has never taught something this clearly opposed to the grace of God in the good news. Polemical writings aside this is slanderous and wrong. But Catholic scholastic theology did teach a cooperation in the operation of grace through which man cooperated in justification on the basis of prevenient grace. Thus Donald Bloesch rightly noted, “[Man] can merit salvation and even make satisfaction for sins but only with the assistance of grace” (15). The tendency here, one now acknowledged by much modern Catholic theology, is toward a synergism in which we are saved by grace and works. Catholic theologians have sought to avoid a “works based salvation” by stressing a parallelism between the divine and human action. What is needed, concluded Donald Bloesch, is “a paradoxical unity of action” (15). I like that expression and I agree with it. It must be acknowledged that this paradox has been grasped by many Catholic theologians, especially in the last century. In our present ecumenical era fresh attempts have been made to restate the grace of God in ways that avoid this problem. This is one of the great fruits of serious, academic ecumenism. It is also a fruit of trans-denominational Bible study, both academically and in popular neighborhood Bible study groups.

Reformation theology, and most of the modern heirs of this Western tradition, have sought to avoid this problem but bringing together divine grace and the works of faith and love by seeing the latter as an effect, or the fruit, of the former. In this emphasis the Christian life is only a sign of our salvation; the effecting of our salvation is by the sacrifice and work of Christ alone (solus Christus). Karl Barth went so far as to stress the sole efficacy of the atoning sacrifice of Christ alone. Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr remained closer to the Reformation tradition by seeking to include the decision of faith in the event of salvation. Yet these men all saw the works of love and obedience as a sign and a by-product of faith rather than as a means of our salvation.

My own view remains firmly rooted in the understanding of the Reformation. The only adequate foundation for the Christian life is the justification of the ungodly. The basis of our salvation is solely the free grace of God. Yet because I am ecumenist, and seek to do the ecumenical theology, I try to learn from the two sides of this historic tension. With my late friend Donald Bloesch I believe that we can employ these categories and at the same time move beyond them to fresher ways of seeing the whole truth. This is precisely where ecumenical theology becomes so important. In dialogue with the whole church we can begin to see fresh ways in which we can ground salvation in God’s grace alone while we also seek to better understand a fuller understanding of the Christian life, a life of ongoing transformation.

Donald Bloesch notes: “The Reformers talked much of a ‘holy gospel’ and a ‘holy faith’ but very little of holy persons. They sounded the call to repentance, but they neglected the call to perfection. Their emphasis was on the sinfulness and helplessness of man apart from God, not on man’s ascent towards sainthood made possible by the Holy Spirit” (The Christian Life and Salvation, 16). The Reformers lived in a time when a doctrine of “evangelical perfection” could not be easily talked about. Later, John Wesley would take this concern quite seriously. (Regardless of what you do with his doctrine of perfection you cannot ignore the impulse behind his concern!)

 

 

 

Posted in Discipleship, Faith, Gospel/Good News, Lordship of Christ, Reformed Christianity, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Theology | 1 Comment/Like

The Seven Last Words of Christ by Franz Joseph Haydn

DaliCrucifixion-160x160Readers who did not grow up in a liturgical tradition are not as likely to have experienced the seven last words of Christ in a Holy Week context. I had preached at Good Friday services but my experience Tuesday evening at Dominican University, where I heard a string quartet play Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ” was a complete immersion experience in the richness of a Holy Week celebration. It is in this spirit that I encourage you to listen to the broadcast of this event tonight, at 8 p.m., on WFMT in Chicago. You can access the broadcast on the web at: https://www.wfmt.com.

Franz Joseph Haydn considered “The Seven Last Words of Christ” to be one of his greatest works. Haydn’s profound religious convictions informed this music deeply. Without a deep understanding of what Haydn actually did in this music it is hard to appreciate just how well he accomplished his purpose. Haydn wrote: “Each sonata or movement, is expressed by purely instrumental music in such a way that even the most uninitiated listener will be moved to the very depths of his soul.” Can instrumental music reach the soul in ways that words cannot? I think so but “the preaching of the gospel” is still essential. In the Haydn concert I experienced words that were clear and Christ-centered, at least on the whole. Haydn’s words express what I felt upon hearing this presentation of his work on Tuesday evening. It is a deeply intense presentation. If you can gain a better understanding of the music itself you will likely experience it more personally when you hear it. Before the symphony was played I heard a one-hour lecture on the entire piece given by viola player Richard Young, himself of the Vermeer String Quartet. Young explained each section and the deep mysteries that Haydn sought to express with his amazing music. I wish you could hear this lecture but so far as I know it is not available.

To hear the music itself is magnificent, even without the Richard Young lecture that preceded it. But without hearing these introductory words you are not likely to fully appreciate what the artist “said” with his music. When the (verbally spoken) seven last words of Christ are included in the program you will “feel” a great deal of the composer’s inspiration. I hope those who listen will be able to enter into the mysteries of holy faith in a fully human way.

Richard Young has written, “Though its message is decidedly Christian, it transcends the focus of any particular faith.” While I understand his point I do not agree. How can I appreciate the culture and richness of this great symphony without the context of the original, an original so admittedly rooted in holy mysteries of Christian faith? The music may transcend religious lines, as Young suggests, but the entire symphony is clearly meant to inspire and thrill Christians who know the Christ who died for their salvation.

Martin Marty wrote, in a postlude for the Haydn symphony published in the program for Tuesday’s presentation by the Vermeer String Quartet:

Ages have passed, and Jesus’ seven last words resound not as mere words but as “cries;” as announcements, as it were; declarations of his perfect love that still reshapes an imperfect world and many lives within it. Reinforced by Haydn’s music, or reinforcing the music, the remembered cries and the silence that surrounds this love still haunt many and lure more.

Christ’s death, and the words he spoke from the cross, “are declarations of his perfect love.” These declarations, as Marty notes, are still powerful enough to reshape the world by changing lives.

Remember, you can hear the Haydn symphony tonight at 8:00 p.m. (CDT) at: https://www.wfmt.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Christ/Christology, Death, Music, Personal | Leave a comment

The Seven Last Words of Christ – The Franz Joseph Haydn Symphony

lg-vermeerChrist_0414Millions of Christians around the world will hear the “Seven Last Words of Christ” over the next twenty-four to thirty-six hours. I heard them this week and understood them in a wholly different way.

While I have participated in a number of contexts in which these words of Christ have been read, sung and even preached, this week I experienced them in word and music in one of the most moving presentations of the seven words that I’ve ever heard. The occasion was the performance on Tuesday evening of the Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) symphony, “Opus 51– The Seven Last Words of Christ.” Haydn’s work was originally composed in 1786 and first presented on Good Friday in 1787. The original setting was the austere underground grotto of Santa Cueva (Spain) which was completely dark but for the wick of a single lamp, hung from the ceiling. Following the moving Introduction the bishop recited the first of the seven words, moved to the altar and there knelt quietly during the sonata. The bishops words served as a spoken meditation for the original music. Each of the seven words was introduced by the bishop then each sonata was played.

Though the symphony was originally composed for a full orchestra Haydn crafted an alternate version for a string quartet in 1887. In the hands of a quartet the music has taken on a heightened intimacy which the larger orchestra cannot match. This music is deeply emotional and has a profound psychological impact upon the careful listener. With only four instruments – two violins, a viola and a cello – the Haydn piece uses subtle and moving variations of timbre, voicing, rhythm, and tempo. This may be why music historians believe that the simplest version of Haydn is also the most affecting.

My experience with this music last Tuesday evening allowed me to hear the famous symphony live, with amazingly good dramatic readers and some deeply personal narratives. The presentation of  “The Seven Last Words of Christ” I heard was performed by the Vermeer String Quartet in the Rosary Chapel at Dominican University in Park Forest, Illinois. (Dominican has an excellent arts program and has a performing arts center that is partially funded by the Oak Park Area Arts Council in partnership with the villages of Oak Park, River Forest and Park Forest, three near western suburbs of Chicago.

The Vermeer String Quartet has performed in major cities all over the world. Decades ago the Vermeer earned a reputation as one of the greatest string quartets in the world. They have performed over 200 works. The quartet “retired” in 2007 so this week’s performance was a rare opportunity to hear them play. Sadly the Vermeer’s cellist, Marc Johnson, died earlier this week. While the quartet mourned their great loss Marc was replaced by a substitute. The group played, quite obviously, with a heavy heart. This made this memorable evening fitting to both the music and the unique occasion.

As with Haydn’s original presentation in 1787 each of the seven last words was introduced by reading the biblical text/context and through a short homily/meditation. The speakers at this year’s presentation included Martin Marty and Jeremiah Wright. (Yes, the Jeremiah Wright who was President Obama’s pastor in Chicago.) A presentation by Jean Bethke Elshtain, who passed away in August, was movingly read by her son, Eric. Elshtain was a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago for many years. She was widely known for her sharp, biblically-informed, mind and her deep Christian faith. The president of Dominican University, Dr. Donna Carroll, also spoke eloquently. The speaker who moved me the most deeply was Jeanne Bishop, a respected advocate for the rights of a fair trial and a leading public defender. Jeanne’s sister and brother-in-law were brutally shot in 1990 by a 16-year old home invader. Jeanne spoke from the text: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” She related the story of her ongoing forgiveness of the young man, now forty years of age, who killed her sister and brother-in-law in 1990. The killer shot the husband in the back of the head and the wife in the belly where she carried a young unborn child. He intentionally made sure that he brutally killed the entire family in one evening. That teen is now serving a life sentence for killing Jeanne’s family. Her story gripped me because it so powerfully underscores the words of our Lord about forgiveness. It reminded me of the great love of God, and of just how small our love really is. (Readers will know that I am writing a book currently on this subject.)

Tomorrow I will say more about the Haydn symphony: “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” I will comment further on the presentation I heard Tuesday. You can listen to the entire concert, including the mediations, on Good Friday evening at 8:00 p.m. (CDT) on WFMT in Chicago. The station can be heard on the web at https://www.wfmt.com. I believe you would find this a most moving program if you listen carefully to the entire program, which lasts about 90 minutes.

 

Posted in Christ/Christology, Death, Music, Personal | Leave a comment

Salvation and the Christian Life – Doing Theology in the Era of Global Ecumenism, Part 2

51GKY541PRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When the Holy Spirit revealed to me the truth of John 17:21 I felt I had no choice but to commit the rest of my days to humbly learning from other Christian traditions and teachers. Both my theology and practice necessitated a more humble epistemology and a deeper personal tone anchored in love. I did not jettison what I believed. I opened my mind and heart afresh to “seeing” truth in a far different way, a way that led me to listen more carefully and respectfully to the global catholic church. I realized that over the centuries the faith has been debated and understood and far too much of our history has been about pursuing truth without grace. But I am reminded that the Word was himself “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). If I was to faithfully follow Jesus my life should more nearly be one where grace and truth were both present in abundant measure.

I soon discovered that the present ecumenical era gave me a compelling opportunity to reexamine the role the Christian life has in the doctrine of salvation. At that time, in the mid-1990s, I felt stuck in the “gospel wars” of the sixteenth century, at least as they were understood by me and my peers in the late twentieth century. I wanted to explore these debates with new glasses, glasses that would allow me to move beyond my own “confirmation bias.” Like many conservatives I actually thought that no progress had been made in understanding the grace of God, God’s salvation and the Christian life. I had been taught, and I thus taught, that the sixteenth century gave us a once-for-all benchmark. Opening new questions was perilous. It was even traitorous.

I soon discovered, as I pursued a more ecumenical theology and read various papers and documents in the twentieth century, that we had come quite far in our attempts to better understand salvation and the Christian life. Yet we plainly still had further to go by the grace of God. Among conservatives the most pressing opposition that I encountered then, and still do now, comes when I talk about salvation and the Christian life with Catholics. When Fr. Robert Barron and I spoke to the students at Moody Bible Institute in December 2013 this was underscored for me by the bright and  thoughtful questions of young students who felt that I was compromising the gospel. (One student read from Galatians 1:6-9 and asked me if I might be in danger of preaching a “false gospel” in my open affirmation of public unity with Fr. Barron.)

Before we began our conversation that Tuesday afternoon in Chicago Fr. Barron asked me if the students would ask him a lot of questions about the Council of Trent, especially the debates of the sixteenth century over justification-sanctification. I told him that I was quite sure they would. This proved to be true. Most of the questions that afternoon came back to the sixteenth century, the time when Catholics and Protestants defined their positions on salvation and life against each other.

In that Catholic-Evangelical dialogue a student asked me to define the gospel. I did, referring to the good news of the kingdom and the invitation to repent and believe the good news which requires us to put our explicit trust in Christ alone. I added that justification was an important doctrine because it protected the good news from any notion that we could earn our salvation though any merit of our own. Fr. Barron agreed. I think some of the students were stunned. Why?

Without going into the polemical debates of the past I think the answer should proceed in this manner. Catholic and evangelical theologians have agreed that the Christian life is our response to the salvation that was won for us by Christ alone. What we have differed upon is how we relate God’s saving grace to the appropriation and fulfillment of our salvation. What do we do as Christians who must live out our God-given faith? What does love and our works have to do with our life in Christ?

The central concern of the Reformers was to strongly preserve the divine initiative in the process of salvation. Salvation is sola gratis (grace alone) and sola fide (faith alone) because any grace that includes our human contribution is ultimately not grace at all. Thus for the Reformers anything less than this understanding detracted from soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). The Catholic concern, in standing against this idea, was that this type of teaching would/did deny the need for personal holiness. Whereas the Reformers wanted to cut all dependence upon anything that we can do to merit or earn our salvation the Catholic theologians wanted to equally stress the requirement of a holy life. In Reformation theology the justification of God was the great motif. In Catholic theology the accent was placed upon transformation and sanctification, thus there is a mixing of justification and sanctification in Catholic theology. (Fr. Barron spoke of justification as a process in our dialogue, a traditionally Catholic understand that I do not find helpful at all.) In the Reformers there was a rather sharp distinction between justification and sanctification. This is less true in John Calvin than it is in Martin Luther, or so a lot of theologians think. (I agree with this observation and thus believe that Calvin had a much better grasp of transformation by the Spirit!)

Long before I met my late friend and mentor Donald G. Bloesch he wrote a wonderful small book, that has been reprinted several times, with the title The Christian Life and Salvation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967). Dr. Bloesch, a careful student of the Reformers, sought to be a faithful evangelical and a serious ecumenist. He studied widely and wrote with insight and the love of Christ. In the introduction to this fine out-of-print book he wrote:

It must be recognized that there is no absolute dichotomy between these two types of Christianity, for each makes a place for divine grace as well as personal holiness. Yet in Catholic and Protestant dogmatics these two concerns have not been given the same emphasis (13).

Bloesch said he wanted to “do justice” to both “the ideal of perfect love and the message of free grace” (13). He concludes:

The call to holiness which has been preserved (although not always in its biblical context) in Catholic piety (both Roman and Orthodox) and also in the circles of sectarian revivalism must be held in tension with the biblical and Reformation witness that salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia) and faith alone (sola fide).

This debate must finally lead us to avoid two errors, errors that are quite common to the respective sides in this centuries old debate. On the one side, there is the strong tendency to separate the Christian life from salvation. This tendency can easily separate justification (God’s saving acceptance of us) from sanctification (our response to God’s grace which produces in us an active and obedient faith). On the other side there is a strong tendency to make the Christian life (what the Spirit is doing in us) the foundation or ground of our salvation. The second is the Catholic tendency, an emphasis where love is stressed so deeply in the work of God’s saving grace inside of us that people can far too easily begin to think they contribute something to God’s saving grace.

Posted in Biblical Theology, Discipleship, Faith, Missional-Ecumenism, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, The Church, The Future, Theology | 1 Comment/Like

Salvation and the Christian Life – Doing Theology in the Era of Global Ecumenism, Part 1

Global-Ecumenical-PictureWe live in the era of global ecumenism. The word ecumenism is actually derived from the Greek oikoumene, which literally means “the whole inhabited world.” It was originally used with reference to the whole of the Roman Empire. In the ancient Christian Church the word was first used in contexts such as an “Ecumenical council” or the “Ecumenical patriarch.” Here the meaning pertained to the totality of the larger Church (e.g. the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church) rather than to one of its constituent churches or dioceses. Used in this original sense, the term was expanded in the last century or more to refer to the re-uniting of the historically separated Christian denominations. I use it in both senses – for the reality of the global church and the work of reuniting historic churches, though I take it that this work will likely follow patterns yet to be seen in the Spirit’s creativity and timing.

Ecumenism has plainly become a definite movement within visible Christianity. To varying degrees Christian leaders and theologians now recognize this reality. Sadly, many conservative Christians have widely embraced the tendency to resist ecumenism because of what they see as a compromise of Christian truth claims through ecumenical dialogue.

In an academic article, published in 1952, a scholar said that modern ecumenism aims at “the recovery in thought, in action, and in organization, of the true unity between the Church’s mission to the world (its apostolate) and the Church’s obligation to be one” (“The Calling of the Church to Mission and to Unity,” Theology Today, vol. 9, no. 1, 15). In this understanding we see a trajectory that moves toward unity and collaboration among various Christians and churches.  This definition clearly underscores that the two truths that move us in this direction are: (1) Christ’s mission to the world, and; (2) Our obligation to be one, not just in word or spiritual (often defined as “unseen”) reality, but in our actual life together.

For some Catholics ecumenism has only meant a desire to bring all who profess the Christian faith in baptism into a single, visible organization. This has very often been understood as “returning to Rome,” or union with the Catholic Church.

For other Catholics, and many Protestants as well, spiritual unity has been enough. The problem with this type of “spiritual unity” (at least as it has often been understood) is it fails to address important issues squarely. It also tends to settle for something far less that what Jesus actually prayed for in John 17:20-24. In this way of thinking “spiritual unity” was never truly lost. It has only been distorted and obscured by different historical experiences, through what one writer calls “spiritual myopia.”

9780310321149.jpgHow then should we proceed? I believe that we must intentionally move toward Christ as the center of faith of real Christian faith. In Christ alone unity can be rediscovered as a God-given reality in our actual practice. This comes about through the gift of love. Here we can learn how to love one another as we work for a shared witness to the world. The result of this rediscovery of unity should be a deep and Spirit-given recognition of our public and missional fellowship. This recognition may well be seen in a new way forward, a way that we do not presently see but one in which the Holy Spirit guides us into a deeper commitment to Christ at our center and his mission as our shared call to the world. In my book Your Church Is Too Small I call this “missional-ecumenism.” In the words of a rhetorical question a leader in the World Council of Churches spoke to me in private several years ago: “John, at the end of the day is there any other ecumenism that really matters than missional-ecumenism?”

Posted in ACT 3, Discipleship, Missional-Ecumenism, The Church, The Future, Theology | Leave a comment

The Climate Change Debate: Wrestling With the Creation Narrative

global-warming-before-after.jpg.644x0_q100_crop-smartA massive report on the impact of global warming is being completed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This report explains to the world what the representatives of approximately 100 governments concluded at their meeting in Japan in late March. AP reported: “The key message from leaked drafts and interviews with the authors and other scientists: The big risks and overall effects of global warming are far more immediate and local than scientists once thought. It’s not just about melting ice, threatened animals and plants. It’s about the human problems of hunger, disease, drought, flooding, refugees and war, worsening.”

I am always amazed at how people respond to these reports. Many are skeptical and some are fanatical. But both extremes are neither good science nor good public policy. The key, it seems to me, is to marry the two in some effective way. I hope this happens but I am not holding my breath about it. The effects of global warming, which are being accepted by a growing number of us, are still not seen as immediate enough to cause anything like serious alarm or action. I am not quite sure why but my sense of the issue is that we do not, in general, really think this is a problem we can do anything about. It has been so politicized that we seem “tone deaf” about the consequences of climate change. Many of my Christian friends admit the evidence for global warming but then shift to arguments that deny what climate scientists tell us. (Yes, I know some climate scientists disagree with such a report but the number strikes me as declining with every passing year.)

UnknownI am not advocating specific political action steps though some steps must be considered more seriously. I am advocating that we have a clear responsibility for the care of the earth. In the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 we are given two great commands it seems to me. First, we are to take dominion over the earth. Second, we are to take care of the earth as good stewards. It seems to me that this is very, very clear. So why do we not care about what we are doing to the earth with industrial and modern waste and carbon emission? I am not completely sure but it seems we are so self-absorbed with one part of the divine mandate in Genesis, the one we like, that the other mandate is conveniently ignored. It also seems that the more politically and theologically conservative you are the more likely you are to ignore, or even attack, such climate science. The reverse also seems true though millennials are going to change this, or so it seems right now. If we thought that our collective actions were causing a serious food and water shortage, an increase in major health concerns and (potentially) a huge increase in poverty would we then care? I don’t know. I fear many of us would not care. It seems easier to continue to live as we are accustomed to living and to kick the can further down the road.

I was once a skeptic, at least broadly speaking, about climate science. My view has changed. I believe the preponderance of evidence supports these warnings even if they are too dire in some cases. (Some models suggest that they are too conservative!) As a Christian steward I cannot ignore the earth and mock the science behind this growing problem. I am no expert but I have read both sides and my mind has changed. Now the hard part – what should I do and how should I do it? I am not given to “apocalypse now” scenarios nor am I a skeptical conservative about science in general and this science in particular.

Does Christ’s kingdom mandate that we seek to protect our atmosphere/biosphere wherever possible? Or is the earth simply an inexhaustible resource that we can abuse and then throw away? I think most of you know the answer to that question. Now I wonder, “What will we do?”

It is shocking to me to see how serious the Catholic Church is about this matter while non-Catholic evangelicals continue to seem intent on rejecting a great deal of this kind of science and thus ignore the problems this is causing, and likely will cause, to both us, our children and our grandchildren. The same people who rightly argue that national debt could destroy us seem content to ignore climate science. I guess I do not get it. I am concerned deeply about both. And in both cases there are steps we can take to change the scenario. One is more immediate but the other is more fatal to human and animal life in the end. I think we need a more comprehensive Christian social policy and this issue must be on the agenda.

Posted in Current Affairs, Personal, Science, The Future | 2 Comments/Likes

An Orthodox Journey – Searching for a Place to Stand

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What Can Be Done to Seek Unity Between Catholics and Evangelicals?

It is no secret that I am an evangelical Protestant. (I do not think the word “evangelical” makes for a good noun thus I use it here intentionally as an adjective.) I was originally ordained in an evangelical Protestant context (Southern Baptist, a fellowship of churches that actually resisted the name “evangelical” until more recently), received three degrees from evangelical schools and then pastored in an evangelical Baptist denomination for twenty years (The Baptist General Conference). I  entered the Reformed Church in America, about ten years ago, out of growing conviction that I could find a “broader way” of expressing my Reformed faith in both catholicity and ecumenism. I wanted a church home that had a meaningful catholic history and some ecclesial stability without all the stops and strictures of the rigidly conservative Reformed Church expressions that I see in the U.S. (More of my friends are still within such groups than within the RCA where I am hardly known at all. It might surprise some to know how many of these friends, who remain in these denominations, are very open to the thought process that led me to my place of ministerial standing. It is not easy to shift directions when you serve a church and that church is inside of a group that you struggle with on a number of fronts. Only idealists keep moving on every time they meet a new problem.)

UnknownWhat I did not know when I began to follow the Spirit’s leading to what I call missional-ecumenism back in the 1990s was how this would take me into Roman Catholic contexts since around 2000. I was completely unprepared to go where I went but God gently took me step-by-step and I believe led me by the Spirit in this matter.

Now I find myself loving my Catholic friends deeply. But I also love the Catholic Church. Indeed I think I love her more than the majority of Catholics I know. Some think I am on “the road to Rome” and a few friendly wagers have been made, at least from what I hear second-hand. My answer is always the same – “I will go where I believe God leads me, when he leads me. I reserve the right to admit that I am wrong and then to go wherever he leads.” In my heart, and in several specific dreams, the old Baptist invitation hymn continues to play again-and-again: “Wherever he leads I’ll go. I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so, wherever he leads I’ll go.” I’ve tried to do this – always with the care and counsel of friends and spiritual directors who are Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – and will try to do it all of my days. I do not think I will become a Catholic by communion because I believe I am a “reforming catholic” and thus I still believe the Spirit is putting a great deal back together in his own time. I believe the way He does this will surprise us in 10, 20 and 30 years. I will not likely see this happen (since I am 65 years old) but I believe God will do it in time. I am a pilgrim and will just keep following. You can accept this story for what it is or make up stories about my story and motives but I’m sticking to my own story as honestly as I understand it.

During the last decade-plus I’ve been allowed many new friendships through my work in ecumenism. One such friendship, which began last year, is with a Catholic lay leader in ecumenism who works in the archdiocese of St. Augustine in Florida. This new friend wrote a letter of appeal to area evangelicals. I found this letter is so moving that I want to share it with you, my reading and praying friends.

The writer is Dr. Chau T. Phan.

Dear Evangelical Pastors:

My name is Chau T. Phan of the Christian Unity ministry at Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Community in Flagler Beach. My aspiration is to bring about greater tolerance and friendship among Christian denominations in Flagler County, in particular between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, in particular members of the Southern Baptist Convention. I would like to open a dialogue with any and all of you.

I am not out to “convert” anybody, but instead I am interested in “conversation” and “convergence”.  I am eager to learn from each one of you and to pray with your congregation. Convergence means that if we all are focused on Jesus and walk toward Jesus, we will certainly meet together in Christ.

In service to the Lord of Unity!

Chau T. Phan

Chair, Christian Unity ministry

Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church

Flagler Beach and Associate Diocesan Ecumenical Officer Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine

Can Evangelicals and Catholics be Friends?

By Fr Dwight Longenecker 

Excerpts:

The evangelical faith is incomplete without the Catholic Church, but we [Catholics] are also incomplete without those Christians who are separated from us. The evangelicals have some good traditions we [Catholics] can learn from.

Evangelicals tend to be excellent communicators and preachers. We could do with those skills in the Catholic Church.

The Evangelicals love the Bible and study it with passion. Our people could do with a better grasp of Scripture.

Evangelical churches are strong on fellowship. They really make people feel they belong to a loving community. Some of our parishes could improve in this area.

The evangelicals have a strong tradition of sharing the gospel in creative and attractive ways. Sometimes Catholics forget that we are all called to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others.

Pope Francis calls us afresh to take part in the New Evangelization and we can learn some lessons from the Evangelicals on how to do this. However, the learning process is not all one way.  The new generation of Evangelicals like Tony Palmer are more tolerant and open-minded towards Catholicism.

They are less frightened of other forms of worship and are happy to experiment and be open to beliefs and worship practices which would have horrified their parents and grandparents. These “convergent church” Christians are being freed from their old prejudice to explore Benedictine retreats, Ignatian spirituality and Catholic social teaching. Evangelical magazines publish explorations of Catholic styles of worship. I’ve heard of Baptist churches where they have started using candles, celebrate communion every week instead of four times a year and observe the liturgical year.

These promising signs, and many more, have been brought about because Evangelicals and Catholics are finally realising that there is more that unites them than divides. At the heart of the matter both Evangelicals and Catholics believe in a revealed religion, not a relative religion. 

For the full text, click on link below:

http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/can-evangelicals-and-catholics-be-friends?utm_campaign=dailyhtml&utm_medium=email&utm_source=dispatch

This blog by Fr. Dwight Longenecker is one of the finest appeals that I’ve read by a Catholic who understands evangelical Protestants from the inside and retains true love and respect without a triumphalism regarding his own conversion to the Catholic Church. I would to God that we would take the same approach toward Catholics and ask, “What are the strengths of the Catholic Church and how can we learn from them and then meet our brothers and sisters in deep, growing oneness in Christ?” This is not the last word on deep ecumenism but it must always be the first word because relationships come before ideas, even doctrinal ones.

The question I have today is thus simple: “Will evangelicals be open to this movement of the Holy Spirit?”

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Current Affairs, Evangelism, Friendship, Missional Church, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Reformed Christianity, Roman Catholicism, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | Leave a comment