How Can Doctrinal Fidelity and Christian Unity Be Reconciled?

Cardinal Avery Dulles, one of the truly important voices in American Catholicism in the twentieth century, was a very insightful thinker about the nature of the church and ecumenism. Not only was he a first-class scholar he was also a first-class Christian gentleman. He was a man of the mind and the heart. He worked tirelessly for the greater good of all Christ’s people. Though I have many friends who knew Avery Dulles personally I never had the privilege of personally meeting him face-to-face.

In an article he wrote in 1986 he posed a question I am asked on a weekly basis: “If a measure of doctrinal accord is a prerequisite for Christian unity then how can we proceed in the real world?” Dulles’ second principle, under the first of his ten theses about doctrinal agreement, was (he believed) “equally indisputable.”

Complete Agreement on All Matters of Doctrine is Unattainable

Agreement on all matters of doctrine should never be regarded as necessary for unity. Why? “In every church there are certain and disputable questions.” For example, in the Roman Catholic Church, Bishops as in most other churches, there are deep and sharply different views about the relationship between divine grace and human freedom (ex. “Calvinism vs. Arminianism”).Different schools of though flourish side by side with the same church. This is why Augustine, agreeing with Cyprian, said on certain questions one may think differently without sacrificing one’s right to communion. Pope John XXIII, in an encyclical of 1959, reiterated the ancient principle: “In necessary (fundamental) truths unity, in other matters (less essential) liberty, in all things charity (love).” This distinction was upheld by ancient Christians, Reformers and even Puritans. Tragically many today refuse to seriously practice it.

Dulles notes that important work was done on this problem by the French Reformed theologian Pierre Jurieu (1637−1713). Jurieu held that the fundamental articles were relatively small, at least in terms of what was necessary for one to be a Christian. Jurieu listed items such as the unity of God, the divine character of the revealed word, the messiahship of Christ and his divine Sonship. Jurieu’s position allowed him to write about cutting across denominational lines, which was contested by both Catholic and Protestant contemporaries. Some things are not new.

But What Are the Essentials?

Spelling out the essentials is notoriously not easy. American fundamentalism began with the “five fundamentals” (the inerrancy of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and his physical resurrection and future bodily return). Dulles notes, “The list given illustrates how difficult it is to specify the essentials.” Since fundamentalism was formed in opposition to liberalism it is time-conditioned and representative of a particular kind of response to issues of that time.

Christians of almost any other tradition would draw up very different fundamentals. The majority would have insisted on the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the true humanity of Christ, the primary of grace, the divine origin of the church, the value and importance of sacraments, etc. All of these are missing from the five fundamentals. Lutherans would likely want to stress justification by faith while the Orthodox would insist on tradition and liturgy in a very important way.

index In 1928 Pope Pius XI rejected the very idea of distinguishing between fundamental and non-fundamental articles of faith. He said the assent of faith is motivated by God the revealer and thus it must extend without distinction to everything divinely revealed. This is the same stance of many very conservative Protestants as well. The Pope argued, as do many evangelicals and fundamentalists, that unity can never be attained by subscription to a limited number of articles of faith.

Yet this was clearly not the last word from the Catholic Church on the issue. In 1963, at Vatican Council II, Archbishop Andrea Pangrazio of Italy made a speech in which he said: “Even though all revealed truths are to be believed with the same divine faith and all constitutive elements of the church maintained with the same loyalty, nevertheless not all receive and hold the same status.”

Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism

Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism called further attention to the fact that there exists a certain hierarchy of church doctrines “since they vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith.” The Decree went on to exhort all Christians to profess before the whole world their faith in God, one in three, and in the incarnate Son of God, our Redeemer and Lord. Dulles adds, “The council was clearly suggesting that the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation are central and foundational for Christians. Happily, too, these primary doctrines are widely shared by Christians of many different churches and confessional traditions.”

A Hierarchy of Importance in Christian Doctrines

Dulles concludes, by way of a third principle, that “there is a hierarchy of importance in Christian doctrines, the most central being those Trinitarian and Christological dogmas which are presumably accepted by the vast majority of Christians.”

Dulles concludes, and this is at the core of what I conclude and thus at the basis of my argument for missional-ecumenism, that there are foundational truths which are of greater importance to all Christians and are, generally speaking, much more significant than our disagreements in other areas of doctrine.

An Ecumenism in Core Orthodoxy

I like to call this an ecumenism of core orthodoxy. We share a basic commitment to the same God, to his salvation and grace and the necessity of faith and repentance. We share a common commitment to the Christian community and the Holy Scriptures and to the life to come. We thus do not pursue unity without doctrine but unity in doctrine. This unity then allows us to work from the center, which is in Christ, outward to the areas where we can work on our disagreements in the spirit of Jesus Christ our one Lord.