Philip Schaff and The Unity of Christendom – Part One

Unknown-2In the year in which he died (1893), Philip Schaff wrote what I take to be an extremely important piece on ecumenism with the title “The Reunion of Christendom.” It begins by quoting John 17:20–21 and then states the difficulty of the ecumenical problem by saying that the answer to the question the disciples asked Jesus, when they said – “Who then can be saved?” – may well be applied to the question, “How shall the many sections of the Christian world be united?” Schaff answers this query by quoting Matthew 19:25-26, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Make no mistake regarding Philip Schaff’s view of the subject of Christian unity. He believed that “in a manner far better than we can devise or hope, he [God] will, by the power of his Spirit, unite all his children into one flock under one Shepherd.” Schaff said that this reunion “presupposes an original union” which was marred and obstructed.

I concur with Schaff in this belief and passion. I also agree with him that the one invisible church is the [true] soul which animates “the divided visible churches, which means what we all confess in one way or the other: “All true believers are members of the mystical body of Christ.” Further, added Schaff, “Christians differ in dogmas and theology, but agree in the fundamental articles of faith which are necessary to salvation . . . .” I further agree with his sense of early church history when he concludes that the unity and harmony of the Christian Church was threatened from the beginning. Part of this threat was the result of “legitimate controversy” and part of it was from “ecclesiastical denomination and intolerance, partly by spirit of pride, selfishness and narrowness which tends to create heresy and schism.” This is why the apostles urged believers to avoid strife and contention and to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Unknown-1Schaff goes even further in this argument than many theologians when he recognizes that division is not an “unmixed evil” since in some instances it was guided by the hand of divine providence. It is here that one of his arguments helped me considerably when I first read it so many years ago. Said the great Reformed theologian: “

There is a great difference between denominationalism and sectarianism: the first is consistent with Church unity as well as military corps are with the unity of an army, or the many monastic orders with the unity of the papacy; the second is nothing bit extended selfishness and bigotry. Denominationalism is a blessing; sectarianism is a curse.

This somewhat unusual distinction allows Schaff to value the great good brought about by distinctive cultural and national church bodies that each contribute unique gifts to the whole church. But, he adds, keeping us anchored in the grim reality of our sad divisions: “No schism occurs without guilt on one or on both sides.” He argues that every denomination which holds to Christ the head will retain a “distinctive peculiarity . . . [but should] lay it on the altar of reunion . . . [and] cheerfully recognize the excellencies and merits of the other branches of God’s kingdom. No sect has a monopoly of truth. The part is not the whole; the body consists of many members, and all are necessary to each other.”

After surveying the various types of Christian division, and possible reunion, Schaff did something else that moved my soul to the depths when I first read it many years ago. I will quote his paragraph from “The Reunion of Christendom” fully at this point:

Before the reunion of Christendom can be accomplished, we must expect providential events, new Pentecosts, new reformations–as great as any that have gone before. The twentieth century has marvelous surprises in store for the church and the world, which may surpass even those of the nineteenth. History now moves with telegraphic speed, and may accomplish the work of years in a single day. The modern inventions of the steamboat, the telegraph, the power of electricity, the progress of science and international law (which regulates commerce by land and by sea, and will in due time make an end of war), link all the civilized nations into one vast brotherhood.

There is much to see in these words which invites scorn; e.g. ideas such as “the end of war” and the uniting of “one vast brotherhood.” Schaff, like you and me, was clearly a child of his time in history. World War I and II would shatter this kind of thinking and our age would shatter it yet again with the rise of high-tech terrorism. Man’s capacity for evil has surely not been checked by progress as Schaff had hoped. Differing Christian visions of the world’s future are, well, different. But none of these should have significant bearing on our desire to unite with fellow Christians wherever possible with the goal being our love and the advance of Christ’s kingdom and gospel.

But consider what Schaff says here that is deeply challenging to us in 2013. He says we should “expect providential events, new Pentecosts, new reformations–as great as any that have gone before.” I believe there is solid biblical and theological warrant for this kind of hope. I will not explore the warrant for this hope here but even if Schaff is partially right then we have sufficient reasons to believe that we might be seeing even more of what he hoped for in the early twentieth century. The Internet alone has given us the resources to accomplish both great evil while at the same time it allows us to spread the truth of Christ’s kingdom to multitudes in seconds. One evidence of the power of this technology is present here in Fr. Robert Barron and myself. We are both extremely active in using the Internet to communicate the love of Christ and the good news of his kingdom as widely as possible, especially to those who have left the church or never entered her door.

Philip Schaff follows these words of hope with some specific “means” for how we can promote this unity among Christians. I will enumerate some of these in my Monday (December 9) blog post and comment on them one-by-one.

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