Last week I wrote about the unity of the church in light of my visit to Moody Bible Institute on December 3 and the dialogue that took place between Fr. Robert Barron and me before Moody students in Chicago. I then cited the work of the famous theologian Philip Schaff. I ended my final blog of the week last Thursday by promising to reflect on Schaff’s “means” for the pursuit of visible unity.
Think of this very carefully – one hundred and twenty years ago this great Reformed theologian referred to what he called the “moral means” by which a similar affiliation and consolidation of the different churches may be hastened in the future. His points are as fresh now as when he wrote them in 1893. These are:
- The cultivation of an irenic and evangelical-catholic spirit in the personal intercourse with our fellow-Christians of other denominations. We should meet these other Christians “on common rather than disputed ground, and assume that they are as honest and earnest as we in the pursuit of truth.” he says we should make allowance for a large number of differences in our surroundings that “to a large extent account for differences of opinion.” He concludes, “Courtesy and kindness conciliate, while suspicion excites irritation and attack.” While controversy will never end “the gold rule of most polemic among the apostles” was always “to speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
- Cooperation in Christian and philanthropic work draws men together and promotes their mutual confidence and regard. Faith without works is dead. Sentiment and talk about union are idle without mutual manifestation in works of charity and philanthropy.
- Missionary societies should at once seek to come to a definite agreement prohibiting all mutual interference in their efforts to spread the gospel at home and abroad. Every missionary of the cross should make it a point to help those in trouble and affirm with the apostle, “What then? only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and therein I rejoice, yea, and will rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). To plant a “dozen rival churches” in the same small town is a great travesty. We ought to explore how we can use our vast expenditures for the conversion of the world.
- The study of church history [is] an important means of correcting “sectarian prejudices and increasing mutual appreciation.” “The study of symbolic or comparative theology is one of the most important branches of history in this respect” [especially in America] “where professors of all the creeds of Christendom are in daily contact, and should become thoroughly acquainted with one another.
- We have a duty to enter into our Lord’s prayer in John 17:21-23. We are given a glimpse of the inter-Trinitarian love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in this prayer. It is meant to not only reveal God’s heart of love to us but to promote our shared intimacy in this love and that with one another as Christians.
- After a brief overview of the positive qualities of the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and the Protestant churches Philip Schaff concludes his essay on “The Reunion of Christendom” by saying: “There is room for all these and many other churches and societies in the kingdom of God, whose height and depth and length and breadth, variety and beauty, surpass human comprehension.”
What an amazing appeal. We should see the “variety and beauty” of our various churches and understand that in the whole they “surpass human comprehension.” I have committed my entire life to live and think in this manner. This is why I am a missional-ecumenist who teaches mission and evangelism and devotes my entire soul to praying and working for the unity of all of God’s people wherever possible.
As for the final outcome of this matter, or how this unity in mission will come about, I leave to God. I live by faith, not by sight!
I trust the ever living One to do “above all that we can ask or think” in Christ Jesus to make his love known to the whole world. The results of this work are securely in his sovereign hands. I must sow, water and wait in hope. The Lord of the harvest will come and he alone will judge the work of our hearts and hands in his grace and mercy.
With the apostle’s moving prayer I conclude”
33 God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep! They are as mysterious as his judgments, and they are as hard to track as his paths!
Who has known the Lord’s mind?
Or who has been his mentor?
Or who has given him a gift
and has been paid back by him?
All things are from him and through him and for him.
May the glory be to him forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36, NRSV).
Note: I just discovered a new series of modern editions of the primary works of Schaff and Nevin from the Mercersburg Movement that is currently being (re)published with modern annotations, etc. There is an excellent resource site where you can pursue this theology more deeply if you are interested.