Several 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 http://marysaggies.blogspot.ca/2014/02/astounding-pope-francis-records-private.html.) 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.
Dr. Hans Boersma is the J. I. Packer Professor of Theology, Regent College, Vancouver.
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