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:

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:














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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 I believe you would find this a most moving program if you listen carefully to the entire program, which lasts about 90 minutes.


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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.

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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 


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:

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

A Unique Opportunity for Serving Christ in Ecumenism

Next Tuesday, April 8, the Semi-Annual meeting of the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops takes place near O’Hare Airport in Chicago. To my pleasant surprise I have been afforded the opportunity to speak to the bishops about evangelical Christianity and our role in ecumenism and mission. I will speak, as well as share lunch, with the bishops and thus I will interact with them as a friend. To say that I was delighted to accept this invitation when it was given to me several months ago, and now to be near the date of our meeting, is a source of deep joy and a call to pursuing true humility in mission. I go to this meeting to share as well as to learn. I go to love and be loved. I go to expand the work of ecumenism in my own circles, especially among younger evangelicals, and I go as the Liaison of the Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation. In this role I have been given further joy and opportunity.

885This committee is chaired by Bishop Denis J. Madden, Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore. Bishop Madden is a leader in ecumenism in America who I look forward to meeting for the first time. Sharing this meal and fellowship with him and the other bishops on this vital committee will present new opportunities for building bridges of unity.

I humbly solicit your prayer for me during these coming days as I prepare my thoughts and heart for this meeting on April 8. I also ask that you support ACT3 Network in any way that you can as we seek to be a catalyst for missional-ecumenism globally. We are a small network but we have been given immense opportunity and it seems the Holy Spirit is using this mission to build bridges. We need you to be faithful to our calling in this part of Christ’s kingdom.

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, Prayer, Roman Catholicism | 2 Comments/Likes

Divorce, Remarriage and the Insights of Deep Ecumenism

One of the enduring problems that all churches face is how to deal with the moral and ecclesial questions related to divorce and remarriage. The most obvious difficulties have ensued in the Catholic Church due to its interpretation of Matthew 19 as a prohibition against all divorce. Here Jesus very clearly speaks about divorce but the understanding of this text has presented no small problem for Christian interpretation.

Our Lord says:

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he cured them there.

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause? He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:1-9, NRSV).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of marriage and annulment:

The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that “makes the marriage”. The consent consists in a “human act by which the partners mutually give themselves to each other”: “I take you to be my wife” – “I take you to be my husband.” This consent that binds the spouses to each other finds its fulfillment in the two “becoming one flesh”. If consent is lacking there is no marriage. The consent must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear. No human power can substitute for this consent. If this freedom is lacking the marriage is invalid. For this reason (or for other reasons that render the marriage null and void) the Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage, i.e., that the marriage never existed. In this case the contracting parties are free to marry, provided the natural obligations of a previous union are discharged (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1626-1629).

An annulment is an ecclesial declaration that “the marriage never existed.” The Church recognizes that a relationship between a married man and woman was a putative marriage but not that it was a sacramental one if an annulment is granted. For those who do not understand this the reasoning is ultimately connected to the Catholic understanding of marriage as a sacrament.

What interests me, as an ecumenist, is how the dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church has allowed for an increase in understanding about both this text and the church teaching about marriage and divorce.

UnknownMy friend Fr. John Crossin (OSFS) serves as the Executive Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Fr. Crossin recently noted:

Pope Francis had an important interview with reporters aboard his airplane returning from World Youth Day in Brazil last summer.  He mentioned in the course of this lengthy discussion that perhaps the Catholic Church had something to learn from the pastoral practice of the Eastern Christian Churches on marriage and divorce. The Pope’s remarks commanded widespread and continuing attention.

Here is what Pope Francis said:

But also – a parenthesis – the Orthodox have a different practice.  They follow the theology of what they call oikonomia, and they give a second chance, they allow it.  But I believe that this problem – and here I close the parenthesis – must be studied within the context of the pastoral care of marriage.

Fr. Crossin adds:

For decades the American and Canadian Catholic Bishops Conferences have engaged in fruitful dialogue with our Orthodox colleagues. We have the deepest respect for the thinking, the theology and the pastoral sensitivity of the Orthodox churches.   In 1990, the Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops published an agreed statement on Orthodox-Catholic marriages.

The different practices of the two churches have been formally described in this way:

Our churches have expressed their conviction concerning the enduring nature of Christian marriage in diverse ways. In the canonical discipline of the Orthodox Church, for example, perpetual monogamy is upheld as the norm of marriage, so that those entering upon a second or subsequent marriage are subject to penance even in the case of widows and widowers. In the Roman Catholic Church the enduring nature of marriage has been emphasized especially in the absolute prohibition of divorce.  Our churches have also responded in diverse ways to the tragedies which can beset marriage in our fallen world. The Orthodox Church, following Mt 19:9 (“whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery”), permits divorce under certain circumstance, not only in the case of adultery but also of other serious assaults on the moral and spiritual foundation of marriage (secret abortion, endangering the life of the spouse, forcing the spouse to prostitution and similar abusive situations). Out of pastoral consideration and in order better to serve the spiritual needs of the faithful, the Orthodox Church tolerates remarriage of divorced persons under certain specific circumstances as it permits the remarriage of widows and widowers under certain specific circumstances. The Roman Catholic Church has responded in other ways to such difficult situations. In order to resolve the personal and pastoral issues of failed consummated marriages, it undertakes inquiries to establish whether there may have existed some initial defect in the marriage covenant which provides grounds for the Church to make a declaration of nullity, that is, a decision attesting that the marriage lacked validity. It also recognizes the possibility of dissolving sacramental non-consummated marriages through papal dispensation. While it is true that the Roman Catholic Church does not grant dissolution of the bond of a consummated sacramental marriage, it remains a question among theologians whether this is founded on a prudential judgment or in the Church’s perception that it lacks the power to dissolve such a bond.

Fr. Crossin concludes:

We should note that there have always been significant differences in the Western and Eastern Christian approaches to marriage.  Even within the Catholic Church, for example, the Latin Code of Canon Law states that the husband and wife are ministers of the sacrament, while the Eastern Code states that the minister of the sacrament is the priest who blesses the couple.  As with their Catholic colleagues, Orthodox theologians can have different insights into theology and pastoral care.  Drawing on both of these traditions would enrich a more extensive and well-informed study and meditation on one of the most important pastoral question of our times.

The last few words of Fr. Crossin’s reflection takes us to the heart of why ecumenism truly matters. If “one of the most important pastoral questions of our times” is divorce and remarriage then we would all do better to draw upon our several traditions while we respectfully listen and learn from one another. While Pope Francis is seeking to create better pastoral practices the timing for deeper ecumenism has never been more evident. By extensive and growing study, and through mutual respect, we just might do a better job of addressing a major and vexing issue rooted in an ancient biblical text that gives us the clearest teaching our Lord ever offered about the permanence of marriage and the “exception” (clause) regarding divorce.

Posted in Marriage & Family, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Sacraments, The Church, The Future | 11 Comments/Likes

The Pope’s Tears of Love

UnknownSeveral years ago I had the distinct joy of meting Dr. Hans Boersma, J. I. Packer Professor of Theology, Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia. This friendship connection came about when I invited Hans to present a paper in response to the late Fr. Edward J. Oakes, SJ, at the first Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation that I led as the Lausanne Liaison for this group. That paper, along with one given on “Christ the Center” by Fr. Oakes, can be seen on our ACT3 Network website in a wonderfully made video. These papers were also published in Books & Culture, a publication of Christianity Today.

After Dr. Boersma began to develop a relationship he invited me to participate in the Robert Wilken Colloquium at Baylor University. For the past two years, over my birthday on March 1, it has been a great joy to be included among some distinguished and first-rate Catholic and evangelical theologians in a serious conversation about our common work, and points of disagreement, as we labor for the kingdom of God. Further, Dr. Robert Wilken has been present at this gathering. He remains one of our finest patristic historians in this generation. I count his several books to be of the highest importance for understanding the early church and patristic thought.

Dr. Hans Boersma is a wonderful theologian. He is an even better man. Our friendship has flourished. I hope it will grow deeper in the years to come. He is a serious ecumenical theologian of the sort that I long to see more of within evangelical Protestantism.

I write this Introduction because I have included below Dr. Boersma’s carefully written and truly thoughtful response to the recent visit of Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer with Pope Francis and the pope’s subsequent greetings to the Kenneth Copeland Ministries Conference in Texas. When this meeting went viral a few weeks ago Hans decided to respond in the spirit of genuine ecumenism. I asked him to allow the ACT3 Network to be the first place to publish this refection. Now, with his permission, I present it for you to read.

The Pope’s Tears of Love

Dr. Hans Boersma

The recent videotaped message of Pope Francis to a charismatic conference (including his charismatic friend, the Anglican Bishop, Tony Palmer) of Kenneth Copeland Ministries has “gone viral,” as the now common expression puts it.  I admit I have added to the spread of the recent virus and sent the link to several of my friends and colleagues.  (For the entire episode, see   And why not?  After all, in some sense at least, the Pope’s message, along with the instantaneous response by Kenneth Copeland taped by Tony Palmer is historic.  To my knowledge, never before has a Pope sent an impromptu video message passing on his greetings to a Pentecostal conference. To be sure, many Argentinian evangelicals will be aware that the Pope’s bold step is in no way out of character.  For many years, Archbishop Bergoglio of Buenos Aires entertained close friendships with leading charismatic Christians.   In 2006, when at a large gathering of Catholics and evangelicals some of the evangelical leaders laid hands on him, it was so shocking that the Argentinian Catholic magazine Cabildo ran a story under a heading that accused the Archbishop of being apostata.  Apparently, the controversy didn’t dampen Bergoglio’s enthusiasm for reaching out to evangelicals.

There is little doubt that the pre-Vatican-II mutual hostility between Protestants and Catholics has made room for much greater openness between the two traditions.  Anyone watching the online video with Tony Palmer’s introduction, followed by the Pope’s message and Kenneth Copeland’s theatrical iPhone greeting of Pope Francis can only conclude that ‘warm fuzzies’ have replaced the frosty attitudes of yesteryear.  Clearly, the ‘ecumenism of the trenches’—the Catholic-evangelical cooperation and dialogue since the 1990s based in large part on shared social and cultural agendas—appears to be paying dividends in spades.

To be sure, there is plenty of reason not to celebrate prematurely.  It would be wonderful if Tony Palmer’s confident insistence to his charismatic confreres that “the protest is over” were borne out by the facts on the ground.  The reality is that many Protestants (and particularly charismatics and other evangelicals) continue to carry deep-seated suspicions with regard to Catholicism.  Some of this distrust has to do with genuine doctrinal differences, while elsewhere it is based on uninformed caricatures that persist despite genuine progress in ecumenical dialogue.  (And although I am less familiar with attitudes from the other side, I suspect that the ecclesial particularity of Catholicism continues to make many Catholics nervous of the isolation of Scripture and of the individual believer in many Protestant quarters.)

Another reason not to let the hallelujahs ring out too confidently has to do with the reasons behind the growing mutual recognition.  My hunch is that two developments, in particular, contribute to the ‘warm fuzzies’ between Catholics and evangelicals.  First, evangelicals are not nearly as doctrinally informed as they once were.  They have not just lost much of their erstwhile firm denominational identities and allegiances, but I suspect that we are going through a seismic shift also in terms of theological coherence.  In many evangelical quarters, catechetical instruction has come to a dead end, and only too often, preaching correspondingly lapses into general (semi-) biblical platitudes derived from cultural agendas as much as from the Christian tradition.  My hunch is that the situation in Catholicism isn’t much better.  Not infrequently, the preaching seems in serious disarray, and when Catholics do have a genuine encounter with the Lord, it often takes place in non-Catholic settings. True, there is an upsurge in “evangelical Catholicism,” documented by luminaries such as John Allen and George Weigel, but it remains to be seen to what degree it carries the theological gravitas needed to pass on the Catholic tradition with integrity.   Sometimes I wonder whether it is possible for Catholics and evangelicals to find each other in part because for both, experience increasingly trumps Christian doctrine.  (Tony Palmer’s explicit disparaging of doctrine in favor of experience isn’t exactly reassuring in this regard.)

The thaw in relationships does, however, offer genuine opportunities.  My hunch is that Pope Francis is convinced that charismatic renewal isn’t just a threat to the Catholic Church (either in South-America or elsewhere) but must first and foremost be seen as a work of the Spirit that may touch also the Catholic tradition and give renewed life to the structures of Catholicism.  The Pope’s opening words speak volumes in this regard.  He speaks here of a “joyful greeting” “because it gives me joy that you have come together to worship Jesus Christ the only Lord… and to pray to the Father and to receive the Holy Spirit.  This brings me joy because we can see that God is working all over the world.”

It also seems to me that Pope Francis hits the right note when he speaks of a “long road of sins” for which “we all share the blame.”  Any fair-minded appraisal of the Reformation and post-Reformation history of the West cannot but conclude that there was a great deal of moral depravity as well as theological deviancy that led to the rightful protest of the Reformation.  At the same time, the sins of pride and theological conceit bedeviled also Lutheran and Calvinist Reformers.  With evangelical theologians openly questioning today whether or not Luther was right with regard to key aspects of his theology of justification, one wonders what has happened among evangelicals to this “main hinge on which religion turns.”  It is increasingly obvious that evangelicals are no longer quite as assured of the doctrinal correctness of their theological forebears as they once were.  Perhaps we do, indeed, all share the blame—both in moral and in theological respect.

The most striking moment in Francis’s greeting came when he compared his own yearning for his Protestant “brothers” to the hunger of Joseph’s brothers, which forced them to go to Egypt in search for food—only to encounter there their younger brother.  Two items stand out in the Pope’s moral appropriation of the Joseph narrative.  First, he didn’t place Protestant “separated brethren” in the position of Joseph’s brothers.  Instead, he saw himself as traveling to Egypt, hungry for food: “I am nostalgic (yearning), of that embrace that the Holy Scripture speaks of when Joseph’s brothers began to starve from hunger, they went to Egypt, to buy, so that they could eat.”  This is a striking moment of humility, all the more remarkable because it is so obviously unaffected and arises from the heart.

Second, the Pope interprets the brothers’ money as the cultural and religious backgrounds and traditions that we all carry with us.  While he doesn’t speak against them per se—they are cultural and religious “riches,” after all—he does make clear that even these riches can turn into obstacles.  The brothers “couldn’t eat the money.”  What is necessary, according to the Pope, is an encounter of each other as “brothers.”   “Come on,” he insists at one point, “we are brothers.  Let’s give each other a spiritual hug….”  Of course, cultural and religious riches are intimately intertwined with gospel truths.  The danger isn’t imaginary that we end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  But the recognition that there’s a hierarchy of truths—and that some of the cash we carry in our wallets can become a hindrance to us—should compel us to look each other in the eye.

Finally, Pope Francis, very much following John Paul II in his encyclical on the unity of the church (Ut unum sint), realizes that only love will bring us where we need to be: “We must cry together like Joseph did. These tears will unite us. The tears of love.”  Most encouraging about the papal message is the deep spirituality that undergirds it.  True, the exchange between Pope Francis and the Palmer-Copeland duo may come across as a repetition of the old adage that “doctrine divides, love unites.”  But what if we have here not just a display of ‘warm fuzzies’ but instead tears of love and recognition?   Perhaps, therefore, the reason ecclesial unity still seems so far removed is because we haven’t yet learned what it means to shed tears of love.

Unknown-1Dr. Hans Boersma is the J. I. Packer Professor of Theology, Regent College, Vancouver.

NOTE: This article should not be reproduced without permission from ACT3 Network or the author, Dr. Hans Boersma. Please do send people to the article as a whole and to correctly attribute any quotations from it to this web source.

Posted in ACT 3, Current Affairs, Missional-Ecumenism, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Unity of the Church | 14 Comments/Likes