Last evening ACT 3 hosted one of our regular ACT 3 Forums. This time we were invited to have this event in a Roman Catholic Church. For those who have read my work for sometime this should not come as a surprise at all. For others it will provide one more
means for attacking my position about the Church. I am not concerned about the attacks (I once was and they troubled me but God has granted me grace to move on). I am concerned about the pursuit of the one Christ to whom we all will bow and give an account about our love for his people. His Church is one, not two. This truth obliges me to be an active part of that reality, not just a disinterested thinker.
This morning I pondered again the relationship between Catholicism and Protestantism, at least orthodox Protestantism. (I have to still agree with J. Gresham Machen when he said real liberalism was not
real Christianity at all. By this he meant the kind of liberalism that denies the affirmations of the Creed regarding Christ and his resurrection, etc.) So I pondered this subject of Catholicism and Protestantism in the light of a very excellent address given last evening by Mr. Gil Bailie, a Catholic layman. Gil spoke for our forum on humanity and how our hope lies in Christ alone. He emphasized how the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ provide the only hope for humanity and civilization. He argued that Christianity is not one of the world’s religions, but the only hope for mankind. (This address will be put on our Web site. If you are interested sign up for our ACT 3 weekly sermons and lectures as podcasts or check our archives for a growing list of both audios and videos.)
Catholicism and Protestantism have deeply differed with one another, as we all know so well. But both lay stress on the same central truths of the historic Christian religion.
These truths, as seen by both Catholics and Protestants, are unalterable. This is what C. S. Lewis referred to as "mere Christianity." It is the basis of what I, and a number of my friends, call "the new ecumenism." (As opposed to the old ecumenism that ended up denying large elements of the faith.)
I believe Catholicism has laid its primary stress on the structure of the Church and how that retains its oneness. Protestantism has laid primary stress upon how the message of Christ gives the Church oneness. As a result of these different approaches we tend to reject one another with deep suspicion. The late missional theologian Lesslie Newbigin, writing in 1954, said, "Both have known, at their best, that in so doing they were seeking to honor and safeguard the uniqueness, sufficiency, and finality of God’s saving acts in Christ." Amen!
Within the new ecumenism there are people on both sides that are increasingly recognizing the truth of Newbigin’s statement and thus we are experiencing the truth that the faith and practice of both streams of the Christian tradition seek the same goal, but by different means. But we are still not united. This moved me, as I read and prayed this morning, to weep at my desk. Many would scoff at my tears but they represent a deep and growing personal pain regarding the divisions that plague the modern Christian Church.
These two great streams in the West are now being drawn together, at least informally. (Some formal dialog has yielded fruit as we have not seen since the 16th century but it is the informal that interests me even more.) And when you add a third stream, one that is only recently being drawn into the more formal discussion about unity, you have a dynamic at work that is fresh and quite exciting. This stream is charismatic but it must not be limited to any one movement that goes by that name.
The central element in this third stream is, as Newbigin saw so clearly, "the conviction that the Christian life is a matter of the experienced power and presence of the Holy Spirit today." By this stream we are learning that neither orthodoxy of doctrine (as emphasized by lively Protestants) or the impeccability of apostolic succession (as emphasized by Catholics in the very nature of their church) result in a living, missional Church. Newbigin asks, "Where is the Church?" He answers, "Where is the Holy Spirit recognizably with power?" He uses Acts 15 as a model for this approach, a passage I spent time in this morning and think he is surely right about.
The danger here is that charismatics will assume far too much and non-charismatics will simply not listen at all. This third stream lines up with the other two at some significant points and yet it judges them both at points. Call this stream Pentecostal but please do not equate it with a separate Protestant denomination or a Catholic renewal movement and you will best get the biblical argument, which is the one that matters really.
Here is what I have found. There are Catholics and Protestants who refuse to allow for serious attempts to be made toward unity. These Catholics insist that the only unity that we will ever enjoy is when wayward non-Catholics return to Rome.
And then there are Protestants who insist that every doctrinal article in their system be agreed upon or you are not welcome to their fellowship. Both streams have deep sectarian tendencies, though this is frankly much more true of Protestants than Catholics. You can track either side of this tension by reading comments on this blog site over the past three years.
My hope, and I believe it is rooted in the sovereignty and mercy of God, is that the Holy Spirit will blow across the entire Church with power and grace renewing us all and pushing us to a new unity that transcends anything we can presently imagine. Is this a "pipe dream" as some tell me? Not if God shows mercy to whom he shows mercy and not if the Holy Spirit is still working powerfully in and through the people of God.
"Come Spirit of God and bless your people with the unity of your grace."