There is a deep ambivalence in Presbyterian and Reformed history with regard to the unity of the church. In the sixteenth century there was a strong desire for unity, one that was stretched by the division with Rome and then impacted by division with other Protestants, especially with Lutherans. (Sadly, all of the magisterial Reform movements rejected the hated Anabaptists, thus joining with the Catholics in their assault on these simple believers.) In the twentieth century Reformed churches and ministers became some of the most prominent leaders in the rise of the modern ecumenical movement. But you would not know this if you listened to many of the popular Reformed teachers of our day.

This fact is indeed clear: many conservative Presbyterian and Reformed Christians are known for some of the fiercest doctrinal debates imaginable. Numerous splits between these churches have been the sad result of several hundred years of theological warfare. In America these fires have been stoked by deep fears within a number of denominations and groups. The Internet provides a marvelous means for the vigorous pursuit of more schism. People who engage in this kind of polemical debate have virtually no desire to pursue unity with anyone who does not agree with their “essentials.” (The list of “essentials” varies from person to person and from place to place!)

I have routinely argued that a strong desire for unity is the best expression of true Reformed Christianity. The regular reader of these posts can see that there are strong opponents of this view, some of whom routinely raise objections to my posts. I remain Reformed but I seek to follow a way of charity and unity with other Christians who are anything but Reformed in their understanding of a number of significant doctrinal debates.

Recently a friend answered an email from a man who wrote him to say that he had left the Reformed Protestant faith for the Orthodox Church. What made this correspondence interesting to me was that I have also had more than a few friends join the Orthodox Church. One of my dearest friends, and the past chairman of our ACT 3 board, left the evangelical Protestant ministry to become an Orthodox priest. This experience led me to take an immediate interest in this particular correspondence. My friend answered this man by telling him why he regretted his decision to become Orthodox. But he also indicated that he would remain a friend and brother in Christ. The letter of my friend was then forwarded to another Reformed leader. This second correspondent is a strong advocate for the polemical stance of much conservative Reformed Christianity in America. Without divulging the name of this person I share a part of his response to allow you to see precisely what I am talking about when I write various posts on this subject. I do not make this stuff up. This letter will demonstrate my point abundantly. Here is the unnamed Reformed leader’s response to the conversion of his friend to Orthodoxy:

Because I have so enjoyed our friendship, this news is hard for me. As you already know, my views on Rome and Orthodoxy are decidedly less sanguine than

[those of your other Reformed respondent]. In my judgment you are leaving behind the Christian faith, and for that I mourn. I'm not angry, and I'm not offended, and I'm not hurt. I'm just sad. It is a sadness I have been through far too many times, including with respect to sheep that were at one time actually under my care. I don't need to fuss and fume, and you can rest assured of two truths. First, I will pray that God would open your eyes to the truth on these matters. Second, if He should be so pleased, I will rejoice with the angels in heaven.

There you have it. This man’s response is to tell his friend that he is “leaving behind the Christian faith.” This is utterly and completely preposterous. I will explain my response more fully tomorrow but it must be said now that everyone who confesses “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3) is my brother.

Yes, I am quite aware that there are many who confess Christ who are not truly his disciples. Our Lord repeatedly warned his followers to make sure that they really knew him. I am also quite prepared to say that you do not know who his true disciples are since “the Lord knows those who are his.” A little more humility here would go a long way. When you are convinced that you possess the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then you are prepared to tell people who become Catholic, or Orthodox, or anything else besides your version of the faith, that they “are leaving behind the Christian faith.” This is unmitigated tragedy. Who made you the judge of your brother or sister?

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  1. R. Jason Smith August 17, 2009 at 8:00 am

    Thanks for this. I look forward to it. I am preaching through 1 Corinthians right now and unity is such an issue.
    Paul’s utter dependence on Christ and Him crucified in the power of the Spirit (the message of the cross) is critical for us today, if we are to understand unity.
    I look forward to more on this.

  2. Hodge August 17, 2009 at 10:39 am

    I’ll repeat my question to you that I began with Chris: Do you therefore accept that a Mormon and JW are brothers in Christ, since they confess “Jesus is Lord”?
    Secondly, could not someone say to you, “Who are you to judge who is a brother and who isn’t”? Simply because you come down on the positive side instead of the negative doesn’t mean that you are not equally making a spiritual judgment about the individual’s eternal destiny. Why can you say to one, “Your sins are forgiven,” but not to another, “Your sins are retained”?

  3. John H. Armstrong August 17, 2009 at 11:05 am

    To engage all your questions would require a back-and-forth between us that would, seemingly, never satisfy you given what you’ve written to Chris, and now to me. It should be apparent that:
    1. JWs and Mormons are not confessional Christians. They embrace a defective Christology that was long ago deemed heretical by the whole church, Catholic and Orthodox. (There wasn’t really any other confessional church before the 16th century!) God will judge the heart but we must judge their doctrine as heretical based upon the confessional consensus taught by the ecumenical creeds and councils.
    2. I do not judge “positively” who is or is not a Christian but rather take a person (when I meet then and respond to them) on their confession. It is not my task to judge them but to accept them. Even if they affirm everything you say is essential then you still do not know who is or is not a Christian. The church does have a larger role, however, when it comes to judging their own members, etc.
    3. You have made a number of points to Chris but you have shown that you simply disagree with him. Fine, disagree, but do not tell him or me that we embrace a false gospel because we do not agree with you about synergism and monergism. I know you argument well. I tried to make in decades ago but simply found it completely ludicrous in the face of what the Bible actually teaches and what all Christians everywhere have taught for 2,000 years. Making this kind of thinking about the will and regeneration into a test of real faith would, in effect, mean that almost no one is a real Christian, even within the Reformed churches. I hope you are not promoting such a view but your words point in this direction. I have known my share of people who promote this idea. Your logic is compelling if you accept your essential premise. I simply do not.
    Question: Where in New Testament is this thinking about monergism made a test of real faith in Christ?
    Answer: No where. You have to do a great deal of theology, of the sort that never made it into any creed as essential for faith and practice, to make this argument work the way you are using it with Chris.
    Augustine is truly a great theologian but his views on important theological issues (e.g. free will, sin and predestination) are not the ultimate test of the gospel or of Christian unity. If his views on these points of disagreement are deemed essential to real faith then you have additional problems since he wasn’t even close to being a Protestant in any meaningful sense. I am persuaded, against your use of this theology, that he would not recognize what you’ve done with his ideas at all. In fact, his view of justification is not Reformed or Lutheran either. So appeals to him, or to this thinking about monergism, are simply not essential to the gospel. The gospel is about the good news of Jesus life, death and resurrection. The gospel is about sins forgiven and life eternal. Does this lead us to do theology? Of course it does. But this theology is NOT the gospel itself.
    4. You final statement about “sins forgiven” and “sins retained” is remarkable given the way that you are using these words of our Lord. Are you saying that you are actually required by God to judge who is and is not saved? (If so, this is impossible. Every faith tradition has as much as said so throughout Christian history. The lone exception comes from some certain rigid fundamentalist strands, found as odd eccentricities in almost every tradition.) The statement about “sins being forgiven or retained” was not made so that each individual Christian should do this with each and every person they meet who professes faith. It has an important context (the church) thus it is not a private text for my use with regard to other Christians/non-Christians.
    Please feel free to respond to my questions but do not expect a continued response from me. My views on all of the issues that you raise have been made clear time and time again. I would be delighted to discuss this in a private forum or a public context where it was the issue on the table. I cannot respond to long posts that express a clear desire to make points and then ask me to respond and make further points, ad infinitum. My few comments along the way demonstrate that I am not responding to you any differently than I do to almost every commented posted on this site.
    My March 2010 book, Your Church Is Too Small, will address a number of your comments in considerable depth. I must add, for the sake of other readers, your comments about the ecumenism of the church, and your generally negative response to it, are (in my view) considerably inaccurate as well. These points are also developed in my book and have been addressed in a myriad of previous written by me.

  4. John Fanella August 17, 2009 at 11:37 am

    John: I think John Williamson Nevin provides a more ecumenical voice for the Reformed community. He was largely ignored in his own day, and maybe the Reformed churches have been paying the price ever since.
    John Fanella

  5. John H. Armstrong August 17, 2009 at 11:45 am

    John Fanella has offered a fantastic resource for modern Reformed (and all other) Christians. No single theologian has helped me more to put my thinking together about catholicity more than Nevin, along with the more famous Philip Schaff. I concur with John Fanella’s view that he was largely ignored in his time. I hope this will be changed but I am not holding my breath, at least with many of the major Reformed conservatives, based upon how so many react to this important issue of ecumenism.

  6. Hodge August 17, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    I’ll simply try to get your book and read it. I am only responding to what you have said here. And to be frank, John, whenever you discuss the Reformed Church, you tend to be extremely judgmental of those who do not hold your position. I’m only trying to point out that everyone makes value judgments on what is true and false, right and wrong. No one has the immunity of being non-judgmental unless they are in a coma. We judge based on confession, but that confession must then be accompanied by belief in orthodoxy and orthopraxis once the individual learns them. Hence, Paul judges those who do not hold to his teachings in both areas even though they have a confession. Monergism and synergism isn’t the issue. The Gospel is the issue. Someone is able to inconsistently believe in synergism without ever applying that to his soteriology. Fine. I am discussing when someone does apply it.
    You, of course, offered no argument here, only propositions of your stance. I’ll go ahead and read your responses if you have already done so in your book. I have no problem with that as I do not like having to regurgitate things I have said time and time again either.
    I think, however, you have misread me. I have not made monergism the issue unless it has been appropriated in the sense that Trent did so in the 16th Cent. We simply read the Fathers differently. Trent reads the Fathers as you seem to do (attempting to see what the Fathers believed about “justification” by their statements concerning “salvation”). This is not a question for the Fathers, and attempting to find their views to be consistent with either RCC or Prot positions is anachronistic. They simply see salvation as a whole, and do not really deal with this question until Orange. To say, therefore, that Augustine’s view is not Prot, but RC is an irresponsible reading of Augustine. It is impossible to say what side he would have come down on by searching out direct quotes from him. Instead, one has to look at his presupps and determine what is consistent with them. If one does so, I think he would have come down with the Magisterial Reformers like Calvin on the issue of the Gospel (he comes pretty close to Calvin in his commentary on Galatians if you read it in Latin).
    What I have said about the ecumenists is a historical fact, John. You may not like that they have often mediated between heresies and apostasies, but that is the fact. You may think they were right or wrong, but simply because you don’t want them painted in that light does not negate what has occurred. It is due to Eusebius’ ecumenism that eventually ran Athanasius out of his church, and gave a direct path for the Arian heresy to nearly consume the Church. How am I wrong in that? What proof do you offer that negates that? If you deal with this in your book, that’s fine. I’ll look there. But simply to assert that these facts aren’t true is absurd.
    Does this automatically mean that ecumenism today is wrong? No. But covering up history doesn’t do anything but cause people to think that your moving around facts to fit your model rather than vice versa.
    I don’t like a lot of what has happened in Reformed circles historically, but I don’t deny that they happened.
    Finally, the context of the statement in John concerns the Gospel. That was my point with it. You want to divide from JW’s and Mormons based on Christology when Christology is only an issue because of its affect of one’s view of the Gospel. You then want to turn around and say that judging someone on his or her view of the Gospel is absurd. Well, OK, based on what? If one’s view of the Gospel does not matter as long as they have a generic confession that Jesus is Lord, then the early Church was wrong for dividing over Christology just as the later Church was wrong for dividing over anthropology’s affect upon one’s view of the Gospel. You want to maintain the correctness of division for one and the incorrectness of the other. I am simply trying to understand why. I have yet to receive a consistent answer to this question. I’m not even looking for an answer that I would necessarily believe or with which I would agree. I’m just looking for a genuinely consistent answer, whether I agree with it or not.
    You asked me where the Bible makes a monergistic understanding of the Gospel an issue of division. I would answer that the Gospel of grace via faith assumes it. Does it explicitly make it an issue where someone must understand and articulate it perfectly? No. Neither do the synoptic Gospels or the book of Acts explicitly make belief in the deity of Christ a necessity for believing in Jesus. Yet the Gospels still assume it. Should we then say that the early Church was wrong for dividing over the issue simply because one need not articulate and understand it perfectly?
    I do think it is woefully unfair of you to paint me, therefore, as the dogmatic fundie, who just won’t accept your well reasoned answers, when in fact I’m simply trying to see if your view can be consistent with the logic both of ecumenism and the Church’s view of separation throughout history.
    As a further note, I just want to point out that the RCC, EOC and all Prot Churches agreed and were united on the point I am making. I would think that the arrogance would stand with those who disagree with US. You have taken an approach to the gospel which denies what We All have concluded: that our gospels are not the same. What gives you the right to stand against all of the Church on this issue? Was all Christendom wrong and you are right? Everyone was in agreement that these gospels are different and therefore separation should take place between the groups. Do you now disagree with the Holy Spirit’s leading of the entire Church on that point? Are you being Catholic in separating from US on that point? Do you see the contradiction?

  7. Hodge August 17, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    John: “The gospel is about sins forgiven and life eternal”
    Me: How are my sins forgiven and I gain life eternal?
    Reformation: Have faith in Christ’s completed work on the cross, and it will be applied to you immediately.
    RCC: Have faith in Christ’s completed work on the cross, and as you continue through a system that continually applies that work to you as long as you work together with it to perform meritorious works and suffering penance, possibly going to purgatory, and eventually you might receive complete forgiveness and life eternal.
    So both of these are really the same gospel?

  8. Gene Redlin August 17, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    OK, I’m an outsider here, but all these “Famous” writers and thinkers in the Reformed movement you allude to. Who are they?
    None of them are familiar to the larger body of Christ at any significant level.
    Maybe we have to quit reading our own press releases.
    That starts with me. I had a friend recently post the top 15 most influential books he has read in the last 20 years. Nearly all of them were books I revere highly. The ONLY one I wager you and other of Reformed roots might be the Heavenly Man.
    All the rest to those of a narrow pentecostal focus are essential canon of reading necessity. I would wager none of them are books you ever heard of. Strange, isn’t it?
    I suspect the same is true of those books held in high esteem from a Reformed Theological background.

  9. John H. Armstrong August 17, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    The “famous” writers, Gene, are all the great minds of the 16th century Reformation. These would be Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Luther, Melancthon, etc. These are, by almost everyone’s account, some of the greatest biblical minds in the entire course of Christian history. A course in church history and historical theology will always include such authors because their ideas had deep consequence in the history of the church. Catholics study them in a rigorous survey of Christian thought as do Protestants. They must all be examined by the Scripture, just as they profoundly insisted.
    I agree about “reading our own press releases” however. We all do it and thus we refuse to learn something new because of it. Earlier today, on Twitter, I posted this great quote by Daniel Boorstin: “Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.”
    I will not engage all the counter-points made by Hodge in his multiple posts, as my previous (single) attempt quite obviously failed. I do not think I misrepresented the Reformed views of some noteworthy conservatives, or at least a significant portion of them. My original blog was clearly built on the comments of a fairly reputable conservative Reformed person. If you think I make this up then you should meet all the people I have met all over this land for twenty years, people who left this sectarian world long ago for some of the very reasons that I often discuss on this site. These are the quiet readers who say little or nothing but talk to me to my face in every context I speak into around the country. Surely we can agree that discernment is important and that discernment is not the same thing as judgmentalism. I do believe in discernment but the difference between the two is very often in the eye of the beholder.
    The problem with this online forum is that we tend to go back and forth and do not really accomplish a lot that is positive, at least from what I’ve seen. My efforts to answer are not satisfactory so I either have to keep writing or ignore. I chose to try one response and it did nothing to help from what I can discern.

  10. ColtsFan August 18, 2009 at 2:45 am

    Chris and Hodge:
    Thank you for your on-going discussion.
    I enjoyed and benefited from the “point-counter-point, and then nuance point,” etc.
    I think both of you guys were being fair and charitable to each other, while presenting arguments for your respective positions.
    I was hoping for a rich discussion like this, instead of listening to an echo chamber where everyone agrees with one another.

  11. Gene Redlin August 18, 2009 at 7:48 am

    John, this was a revealing thing from facebook.
    Ben Hughes from Australia asked a question about 15 favorite christian books. I have a sense that these are not read much by many. Yet among Charismatics they are a big deal. Canon sort of. Interesting how we DO keep reading our own press releases. I quote:
    Ben Hughes
    15 of my favourite books
    Sun at 8:35pm
    ** Don’t take too long to think about it.
    ** Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you.
    ** First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.
    1. The Bible of course, God.
    2. The Final Quest, Rick Joyner
    3. The Call, Rick Joyner
    4. The Heavenly Man, Brother Yun
    5. Is That Really You God, Loren Cunningham
    6. Apostle of Faith, Smith Wigglesworth
    7. There’s Always Enough, Heidi and Rolland Baker
    8. Light Belongs in the Darkness, Patricia King
    9. This Present Darkness, Frank Peretti
    10. Piercing the Darkness, Frank Peretti
    11. Courageous Leadership, Bill Hybels
    12. The Shack, William P Young
    13. Good Morning Holy Spirit, Benny Hinn
    14. The Anointing, Benny Hinn
    15. Jesus Freaks, DC Talk
    Written on Sunday · Comment
    Ann Doupont
    “Signs and Wonders” by Maria Woodworth-Etter. I don’t do the tag thing, but thought to write the first one that came to mind. Also, “Angels on Assignment” by Charles and Frances Hunter. “God Can Heal Anything!” by Ann Doupont…lol. Bless you brother. 🙂
    Matt Prater
    The Final Quest, Rick Joyner! That should have been in my 15 too! “What goes into the mind comes out in your life.” I can see by your life, that you are living out the stuff you’ve read, be encouraged mate!
    Gene Redlin
    BEN, almost all of the books that are your favorites are mine. WOW.
    Pastor Devin Rajiah
    Wonderful, your favorite books are also mine. God Bless you!!!
    I am confident that if I were to poll a thousand core charismatic/pentecostal Christians these books would be somewhere on their shelves.
    And we speak the language they define.
    NOW,to be fair, some are like me. I Read many of the authors you mentioned. Luther for sure.
    I don’t read many books from the bookstore any more. Few in fact. Have a thousand in my closet. Not as many as you of course.
    But, too many. Ecclesiastes is still right.
    And, we can’t stop reading our own press releases.
    Good stuff John. You are holding a magnifying glass up to some of the foolishness in Christianity.

  12. Bryan Cross August 18, 2009 at 7:50 am

    It seems to me that the only way to justify the nearly 500 year old Protestant-Catholic schism is [for Protestants] to claim that the Catholic Church is an apostate institution devoid of the gospel. If it is “utterly and completely preposterous” that Protestants who pursue reconciliation with the Catholic Church are leaving behind the Christian faith, then how are Protestants justified in remaining in schism from her?
    You can’t have it both ways. Either the Catholic Church is apostate and devoid of the gospel, or Protestants need to come back to the Church and be done with this schism.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  13. John H. Armstrong August 18, 2009 at 8:09 am

    Even if you were right, and I do not think that you are, this approach will never truly heal the breach! Vatican II recognized this and thus did not argue in this way in its final session. What is really needed is humility on every side. Only when we admit that the Reformation should not have happened, but it did happen nonetheless, will we then begin to see how we can actually move forward.
    The alternative that you give is that of a pre-Vatican II Catholicism, not the Catholicism of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
    By the way, to friendly Catholic readers, do not tell me that the Church sees no other direction for the future of our separated churches except that “we” all come home to Rome as it is constituted. This is consistent with your logic but it is not what the Council actually said.
    Finally, ecumenism (as we now know it) is very NEW. We think in months or maybe a few years. It took five hundred years to get to this place where we can talk and not threaten and kill each other. We have a long way to go still and many hurdles yet to cross. Only God can make this happen so how about we all chill out and love one another while we start to talk and see what happens?
    One thing is for sure—we are in a far better place than at any previous time since the 16th century break up.
    Finally, assigning blame for what happened back then is kind of like divorced partners now in marriage counseling. You can assign all the blame you want but it will never restore the marriage. I see the issues that broke our unity as very real but they were not necessary if we had really wanted to avoid the schism. Now we have it and everyone sees it. Telling Protestants the only option for them is to “come home” to Rome (as it now is) will not bring about true healing. Telling us “we need to talk” and “we need to pray” together is the first step. Both the most recent Popes understood this very well, much better than many conservative Catholic polemicists. John XXIII truly got it and thus convened Vatican II.

  14. jls August 18, 2009 at 8:57 am

    Like ColtsFan, I have followed the discussions between Hodge and Chris with great interest and have found them to be very instructive.
    I am an evangelical Christian with Roman Catholic upbringing. My shift from one tradition to another was effected by God who, for his own reasons, led me to serve him in a church that was culturally very different from the one I was born into. At the time, I naively thought I had the knowledge and maturity to decide that one approach was “right” and the other was “wrong.” Twenty-seven years later, I find myself in a very different place, amazed at how little I truly know. I pray that I will never again develop the hubris to discount the theology and faith of millions of believers who, for myriad reasons, find themselves in another tradition that confesses Jesus as Lord and Christ.
    I think that Hodge, in his lengthy response to John, did a wonderful job of demolishing his own argument. Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox believers all agreed that schism was necessary, even though they disagreed on the substance of the issues over which they were splitting. Therefore, to be truly ecumenical, we should oppose ecumenism. Reductio ad absurdum.

  15. Hodge August 18, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Thanks JLS,
    I don’t think you quite understood my point to John. I don’t believe an agreement/unification between the three groups is necessary to display catholicity, as I believe two of those groups break off from orthodoxy with their official statements concerning the Gospel. My point, as you have demonstrated for me, is that to be truly ecumenical in the way that John argues is to deny ecumenism. To accept it is to deny it. One must instead say that any and all who are exclusive in their claims to the Gospel are in error and some new understanding, insight, revelation, etc. should be followed instead. Hence, ecumenism is a disfellowship from these exclusivist/sectarian groups (ergo, it is self refuting in this case because it simply creates another viewpoint and another sect under which all must unite). That was my point. Hence, it is not my position that is destroyed, but the ecumenist’s. I maintain that orthodoxy survives through the Reformation in the same way that it survives through the small strand of Trinitarian Christians in the early Church.
    “At the time, I naively thought I had the knowledge and maturity to decide that one approach was “right” and the other was “wrong.” Twenty-seven years later, I find myself in a very different place, amazed at how little I truly know. I pray that I will never again develop the hubris to discount the theology and faith of millions of believers who, for myriad reasons, find themselves in another tradition that confesses Jesus as Lord and Christ.”
    So you accept Mormons and JW’s into the fold? Or do you consider it faithfulness instead of hubris to bow to God’s Scripture and His Church in determining what is true and false, the “right” view and the “wrong” view?
    The myriads of Gnostics were condemned by the Apostles and the early Fathers; the myriads of Arians were condemned by the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, the myriads of Pelagians were condemned by the Post-Nicene Fathers; the myriads of cults today are condemned by these same people and those who follow them; etc.
    But somehow because the Church continues to defend truth and build upon the creeds, as the early Church built upon them, that’s a horrible crime of arrogance and divisiveness?
    The Church reforms and builds its creed because the Church often becomes too influenced by the religious/secular philosophies and culture in which it resides. It will always need reforming, and the primary target of attack is the Gospel, since it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. To act like the Church reformed every doctrine necessary to secure the Gospel in the first few centuries is absurd. Why bother defending the Gospel at all anymore? Why not just repeat the Apostle’s Creed over and over again? I’ll tell you why not…because the Apostle’s Creed isn’t sufficient to deal with the Arian heresy, and the Arian heresy is sufficient to deal with the Nestorian heresy and the Nestorian heresy isn’t sufficient to deal with the Pelagian heresy, etc., etc. etc. Hence, the teachers of God needed to add to it. If you want to believe the devil was sleeping for 1500 years since, then keep to the Apostle’s creed only (or even the early ones found in the NT); but I do not believe that the Church in any generation can just relax and will not face a major challenge to the Gospel itself. If you want to believe that we’re arrogant for trying to be faithful, that’s your stance. You stand with Eusebius, Erasmus, and everyone who kicked Jonathan Edwards out of his church; but these men are my brothers and together with them I will stand and say to your “majority rule” argument, “contra mundum.”

  16. Nick Morgan August 18, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    John, to your last response, I just say AMEN!

  17. Bryan Cross August 19, 2009 at 7:47 am

    Thanks for your reply. You seem to think that at Vatican II, the Catholic Church gave up the notion she has always held, namely, that she is the one true Church that Christ founded, and that not to be in communion with her is to be in schism from the Church. But Vatican II nowhere says or implies that. If that wasn’t clear, it should be crystal clear after Dominus Iesus (2000) and Responsa ad quaeastiones (2007). The Catholic Catechism teaches that schism is “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” (CCC 2089) So according to the Catholic Church all Protestants are in schism, but Catholics are not in schism. So from the Catholic point of view, the only possible movement, to heal any schism, is to return to full communion with the Catholic Church. And that applies to groups in the same way it applies to individuals.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  18. jls August 19, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Hello Hodge,
    Thank you for taking the time to write to me. Since you raised some questions for me, I will try to respond to some of them (though not all). But I will not raise more questions for you because this particular line of discussion has reached its point of diminishing returns. I will try to answer courteously and honestly, then I will stop.
    If my earlier post offended you in any way, I am truly sorry. My personal statement about hubris/naivete of judging certain Christian traditions to be “right” and others to be “wrong” was not a back-handed way of implying that you or anyone else needs more humility. It was a brutally honest statement about myself. Twenty-seven years ago, I was fond of contending for certain types of doctrinal purity. Now I now realize that I was ignorant. And I was being a jerk. This was not meant to denigrate the importance of maintaining sound doctrine. Nor was it meant to impugn the character or motives of others who feel called to contend for doctrinal purity. God does raise apostles for that purpose. But that is an extremely difficult and specialized calling from God, one that requires copious amounts of scholarship, honesty, caution, humility and courage. It requires a genuine spirit of repentance to remove the pressure-treated 2×4 from one’s own eye before calling attention to the tiny speck in someone else’s. I have personally observed that many who think they are serving God by defending doctrinal purity (and I do not wish to imply anything about you here, because I haven’t even met you) are seriously deficient in one or more of these areas and are simply unqualified to do what they are attempting.
    You said that [John Armstrong’s type of] ecumenism is self-refuting because “it simply creates another viewpoint and another sect under which all must unite.” I want to be honest with you. You are obviously a highly educated and intelligent person, very knowledgeable, adept with words. (I too have scholarly credentials, but in areas very different from yours.) Your conclusion that ecumenism is the new sectarianism adds a nice rhetorical flourish. But I find it no more convincing — and no less absurd — than what you wrote earlier. And this is why: It contradicts what I have seen and experienced. Yes, there is plenty of bad ecumenism around. Some of the stuff that has passed for ecumenism was just relativistic pluralism in disguise. But there is such a thing as good ecumenism that breaks down barriers, creates friendships, promotes godliness, illuminates the scriptures, draws us nearer to God. I have seen it and experienced it. It has borne good fruit in my life.
    Repeating the Apostles’ Creed over and over again sounds like a good idea to me. Not because it is an exhaustive repository of truth (of course it isn’t). But because it is solid foundation that keeps us grounded. It helps us to keep the debates and controversies in perspective.
    No, I don’t think the devil has been sleeping for the last 1500 years. He has been hard at work inventing clever distortions and heresies and leading believers to adopt cavalier attitudes toward doctrinal purity. And he has worked equally hard to create schism, leading believers to cry “heresy” where there is none.
    When you refer to the Gospel, and talk about historical and modern challenges to the Gospel, you seem to be referring mostly to doctrines about personal salvation and justification. Those are certainly important to understand and to contend for where appropriate. But I have come to believe that to defend the gospel in today’s world, it is equally important to contend for the kerygma. God is redeeming and gathering diverse people from every tribe, tongue and nation to belong to him and to worship him in his eternal kingdom. His desire is not to exclude the heretics but to gather all people to himself and, once they are in his presence, to make them holy. It is my opinion that a never-ending quest for doctrinal purity that works to alienate, exclude and destroy fellowship among believers is an indidious enemy of the Gospel that needs to be fought on many fronts.
    About Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Let me be very honest. I have not personally studied their doctrines or practices. Virtually everything that I know about them is second and third hand and vague. What is the basis on which I exclude them from the fold? I cannot exclude them from the fold because, for all I know, on the day of judgment some of them may be found among the sheep as well as the goats. There will be many surprises on that day. What is the basis on which I reject their teachings as unorthodox? On the testimony of knowledgeable and respectable Christians such as yourself who say that their teachings are unorthodox. Obviously this is a weak position to be in for purposes of debate. If it becomes important for me to study and learn more about these groups in the future, then I will do so eagerly, but for now it is not a priority.
    When you asked about Mormons and JWs, I think the question was not really about them. The underlying issue is whether I have a doctrinal yardstick, a well defined set of criteria for deciding which **groups** (not merely which teachings) are orthodox and which are not. I am not a trained theologian and will not pretend to have such a yardstick. Even if I did, I suspect that you would not agree with my yardstick and would suggest a different one, and your reasons would be very intelligent and thoughtful. In my readings of the Bible, I have not yet found any conclusive instructions for creating such a yardstick. And I am beginning to suspect that this was God’s intention. I think that God wants me to be immersed in his word and to be a living witness to his kingdom. He wants me to learn more of him and grow in holiness. He wants me to learn from brothers and sisters in Christ like yourself, like John Armstrong, like the others who post comments here, and many other believers because the Holy Spirit is present in all of you and working in all of you, even though we frequently disgree. How anyone can discern truth from falsehood in this cacophonous environment is a great mystery to me. But it’s more interesting, and a whole lot more fun, than if a comprehensive system of true theology had been handed down to us from on high. And in the end it must bring greater glory to God.
    I hope that you have profited in some way from this discussion. I have. God bless you.

  19. John H. Armstrong August 19, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Of course you quote faithfully the Roman Catholic sources. I am fully aware of them and of the points that you make so ably. I am outside the Catholic Church and this means the church sees me as outside her sacramental life. But she also sees me as related to the mystery of the church. This underscores a much more important point that I think you missed. While we non-Catholics, and this includes the Orthodox as well (who also say they are the undivided, true church), are “outside” the sacramental life of the Roman Catholic Church we are not outside of God’s grace or the kingdom of God/Christ. In fact, we are “separated” brothers, not enemies or infidels. Prior to Vatican II this was not clear. Now it is clear.
    This is why “exceptions” are made and even made by popes. Consider: Brother Roger (now tragically deceased by murder at Taize) was communed at the papal mass for John Paul II by the very same man who is now pope. Brother Roger was a Reformed minister, not a Catholic. If you study this you will find that both popes were quite happy to have him remain a non-Catholic. In fact, it seems (and of this I am not yet sure) they did not urge him to enter the church for the reason that he was a kind of icon to what unity could look like in our present state. I have done serious reading on this point and some intensely serious personal investigation among Catholics who knew/know the persons and the events themselves. Someday, in God’s time, this story will be more widely known.
    All of this merely underscores my point. Rome believes it is the true church in the earth. I do not so believe. Both of us cannot be right. But in this present state we can and should keep talking and praying and asking the one Lord to show us how to proceed. I understand that I stand outside a church that believes it is the true church. I also believe this church is reaching out to me in a new way and I am reaching back in Christ’s love. Am I wrong to take this in the spirit with which it is being done?

  20. Bryan Cross August 19, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Again, thank you for your reply. I agree with everything you said in the first paragraph of your reply, except (to quibble) that you seem to be making a distinction between Kingdom and Church, such that [from a Catholic point of view] you are wholly within the Kingdom, even though imperfectly and incompletely united to the Church. But the Catholic Church does not make this distinction between Church and Kingdom, as I pointed out in the comments of your post on May 9. From a Catholic point of view, to be imperfectly joined to the Church is to be imperfectly joined to the Kingdom.
    I also agree with everything you said in your third paragraph.
    But, I have to take issue with your second paragraph. Brother Roger was an amazing person, rightly praised for what he did — an ecumenical hero in many respects. However, I have never seen any credible evidence that either Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict encouraged him to not become Catholic. And I would be highly skeptical of any claim that they did so, because to do so would be to deny everything the Catholic Churches believes and teaches about herself. (I can see them possibly saying to him that until he is willing to believe and profess all that the Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God, he should not become Catholic. But that would be quite a different statement than an unqualified encouragement not to become Catholic.)
    Regarding the communion of Brother Roger at the papal mass for John Paul II, Canon 844 §4 allows this, under certain conditions, based on the judgment of the presiding bishop, provided that the recipient “manifest[s] Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.” But it would be imprudent theological methodology to try to deduce either what the Catholic Church believes about the ecclesial status of Protestants, or where the Catholic Church is headed in future ecumenical decisions viz-a-viz Protestantism, based on this particular incident. From a Catholic point of view, it would be entirely unjustified to use this incident as a justification for remaining in schism from the Church. The exception does not make the rule. We believe, as you know, that the Eucharist is both a sign of our unity and a sacrament that effects the unity it signifies. Full communion within the Church will therefore always formally require sharing the “one faith”. Pope Benedict loved Brother Roger, and his action, even though an exception, should be seen as an expression of the deep desire of Pope Benedict (and all Catholics, including myself) to be reunited in full communion with all our Protestant brothers and sisters, not as an indication that remaining separated is an authentic or legitimate way to pursue reconciliation and reunion.
    Thanks, again, for being willing to discus this with me John.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  21. pyodor12 August 19, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    jls says, “But there is such a thing as good ecumenism that breaks down barriers, creates friendships, promotes godliness, illuminates the scriptures, draws us nearer to God. I have seen it and experienced it. It has borne good fruit in my life.”
    I am a little bit confused here. This is how I understand jls. I will use the following symbols to make my argument clear.
    bdb: breaks down barriers
    cf: creates friendships
    pg: promotes godliness
    its: illuminates the scriptures
    duntg: draws us nearer to God
    ihsi: I have seen it
    ihei: I have experienced it
    ihbgfiml: It has borne good fruit in my life
    Now consider the following two statements.
    A: There is such a thing as good ecumenism.
    B: It does bdb, cf, pg, its, duntg, and ihbgfiml.
    Suppose it is true that if A then B.
    Now the big question is this: Is its converse also true? In other words, is it also true that if B then A given that it is true that if A then B? jls seems to say that it is true that if B then A. Could it be also true that B but not A? I think the answer is yes. It is entirely possible that a thing as bad ecumenism still could do all of cf, pg, its, duntg, and ihbgfiml. Therefore B alone is not sufficient enough to have A. I think that is why we still need theologians.
    Next a very short note about ihsi and ihei. I believe that ihsi and ihei are very important in one’s testimony. But jls seems to say that ihsi and ihei are what the Holy Spirit reveals to us. I disagree. I think that ihsi and ihei alone are not sufficient enough to establish what the Holy Spirit reveals to us because we sometimes only see what we want to see and we only experience what we want to experience. This is another reason why we still need theologians.

  22. jls August 20, 2009 at 7:44 am

    I agree with pyodor. If you read what I wrote — and do not extrapolate beyond it to claims that I did not intend to make — then you will see there is no disagreement. A sound and robust understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit runs through the heart of this debate and is key to real (as opposed to fake) Christian unity.
    pyodor also mentions that we sometimes see only what we want to see. Amen to that. As far as I can tell, the authentic work of the Holy Spirit is often unexpected, uncomfortable, beyond our control, gently or dramatically leading us to places where we do not want to go. Which is why I hope that anyone reading these posts will take them seriously, not as some kind intellectual sparring for purposes of entertainment. You may be interested to know that I was never desirous of ecumenism. Far from it. If you knew about my church, you would understand that the internal historical/social/cultural forces have fostered attitudes that were anti-ecumenical. By nature I am a conservative person who does not want to make waves or fight battles. Actually I detest them. I don’t want to fight for ecumenism (which, as Hodge has shown, is oxymoronic anyway). But I must be open and obedient to the Holy Spirit’s leading in my life.

  23. jls August 20, 2009 at 8:07 am

    Lord, forgive me for posting again on this subject. I want to get off the soapbox and move on. And I don’t want to upset anyone. But there is something that Hodge wrote that is still bugging me.
    In the last paragraph of his last post, he said:
    “the Apostle’s Creed isn’t sufficient to deal with the Arian heresy, and the Arian heresy is sufficient to deal with the Nestorian heresy and the Nestorian heresy isn’t sufficient to deal with the Pelagian heresy, etc., etc. etc.”
    It saddens me when Christians take such a dim view of their own history. One heresy followed by another, followed by another, and so on. The continuing revelation of God to his church through the work of the Holy Spirit down through the ages, even through disagreement and schism, should be a cause for celebration and wonder. Despite all the ignorance, errors and inquisitions. Jesus is still pleased with his bride. If we cannot see that, something is seriously wrong.

  24. pyodor August 21, 2009 at 11:44 am

    I am writing this comment just in case you are mixing up my use of the word “sufficient” with that of Hodge’s. I am using the word ONLY in terms of logical sufficiency. But my guess is that Hodge is using it in terms of material sufficiency or something close to it.

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