The prayer of our God and Savior is recorded in the Holy gospel of St. John as follows,
"that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one." (John 17:21-22, NASB).
Thus we are told the purpose of unity, namely that humanity can see the power and veracity of Jesus Christ and that God has sent Him into a fallen world to redeem it. However, is this true in today's day and age? Instead of unity we have disunity, instead of a complete picture of the Church on earth we have a fragmented many-faced distortion (see painting above). I know many people that refuse to come to Christianity because in their eyes Christianity is self-refuting. How are we going to believe in a religion that is so shattered and cannot come to terms with itself in theological unity? They ask. This distortion that has entered Christ's body (and is due to sin) I submit cannot in principle last forever. For it is not our Church to run and mis-manage, but it belongs to Jesus Christ as the Head of the Body. The current situation is a mystery but as St. Paul reminds us throughout the New Testament, - mysteries ultimately serve the will and purpose of God to His glory.
Dr. Peter Kreeft1 is one of my favorite lecturers and authors. It has been a number of years now but I have given his lectures a fresh hearing and his lecture on "Ecumenism without Compromise" is one of the sanest presentations around on this subject. In it he tackles some of these issues, a few issues that I will now comment on.
Kreeft first marshals 1 Corinthians as the locus classicus that speaks against the splitting of the Church. Denominationalism Kreeft remarks, is not a sub-division within an organization but an amputation of limbs from an organism. St. Paul notes in Corinthians,
"I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions2 among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement." (RSVCE, 1:10)
St. Paul as Kreeft cites cannot be clearer and more forceful in his rejection of schism. A divided Church weakens the witness of the truth claims of Christianity. Professor Kreeft goes on to cite nine commonly cited foundations for ecumenism;
1. "Reasonable Compromises." Which is an oxymoron in the strictest sense. This term brings to mind some dialogue's that I have read between Catholics (liberal) and Mormons. We can put away some theological issues as long as we can reach some common agreement - so this argument runs.
2. "Understanding/Education." Or the view that claims that differing Churches are simply misunderstanding eachother and at heart the theology is the same.
3. "Mystical Experience." If you experience one of these you will see that the teaching is compatible.
4. "Tolerance." Why can't we all just get along?
5. "Subjectivism." There is no one truth, truth is relative to each person - so why disagree?
6. "Skepticism." No one can find the truth anyways, so why bother?
7. "Rational Argument." Through critical and academic discourse, we can persuade eachother towards agreement.
8. "Vague Optimism." It will all pan out in the future, so no need to strive today.
9. "A Unified Front." Union for a common cause.
All of which has failed according to Kreeft. The "golden key" on the other hand is Jesus Christ. Through Him agreement can be found, soley done by us, we are doomed to fail. The Christian churches world wide have failed to grasp this and thus ecumenism has failed accordingly. Kreeft cites John Paul II when he said that the first millenia of Christianity was a time of unity (and it follows, a time of apologetic prosperity when the Church spread in unprecedented levels). The second millenia however has been an age of disunity, with the split of 1054, 1517 and the now (closer to 30,000) Protestant denominations. The hope is this third millenium will be the age of reunification.
How can we start this time of healing? First, the split between Eastern Catholics (Eastern Orthodoxy) and Western Catholics (Roman Catholics) must take place. Thankfully, the Eastern Church has remained unified and not split into thousands of sub-divisions. Theologically, the East remains essentially Catholic and the main stumbling block remains universal Papal authority but Rome has responded with open arms willing to modify the form (but not the reality) to better accomodate the Eastern Church3.
The harder reunion will be that of Rome and Protestantism. As have been pointed out already this will not happen with yielding on important theological tenets in one camp of the other. One of the major problems as Kreeft sees it, is the issue of acceptance of tradition. Catholics (Protestants complain) accept too many traditions that go beyond what should be held. Protestants (we retort) believe too little, theirs is a truncated Christianity, a faith reduced to the bare minimums.
Kreeft then gives a personal experience that can act as a way through the impasse. When (as a Protestant) he was studying at Calvin College he took a class in church history when the professor asked the class this question in the first day of the semester, "If a Roman Catholic challenged you why you are a Protestant since Protestantism is a novelty and Catholicism has been the same Church established by Christ 2000 years ago, how would you respond?" Nobody responded with an answer. "The Catholic will say" continues the professor, "that the big church of today is essentially the same little church of the first century, just as an oak tree is the same as the little acorn it came from." How do you answer this objection?, again asked the professor and again no answer. Here is the answer, claimed the professor, Jesus Christ did found his church, picture it as an ark. This ark through the centuries started to corrode, get rotten and it was left to Luther and the other reformers to scrape the barnacles off of it and thus restore it to it's pure and primitive New Testament essence. Immediately a question came to young Kreeft's mind. He asked that if he was put into a time machine and transported back into the first century, would he feel more at home in the ancient early church as a Protestant than a modern Catholic would? The professor smiled and said, "That's exactly what I'm saying."
Kreeft felt a relief. Instead of getting lost in the modern controversies he can simply read the early church fathers and draw his Protestant doctrines from the original contemporary interpreters. The fathers however turned out to be much more Catholic than Calvinistic and to make a long story short, Kreeft is now a Roman Catholic.
To be a good Catholic is to try and be the best Evangelical Protestant there is, says Kreeft. For the essence of Protestantism is to be one and to meet with Christ. In turn, this is the kernel of Catholic doctrine and sacrament as well. Contrary to popular misconception, Catholicism does not idolize the saints, Mary or relics but rather proud in idolizing Jesus Christ. Christ alone is the absolute ground of worship in Catholicism. For unity between Protestants and Catholics to manifest itself, Protestants must understand this point. Jesus Christ is the main pillar and object of worship for Catholics. St. Mary, the Saints, the authority of the Pope and such things only draw whatever meaning they have from their relationship too Jesus Christ, the ultimate Head of the Body.
If Protestants were to make only one adjustment in their thinking, it is to think of the Church in a different way. The Church is the Body of Christ. The Church then is not a thing to be feared or derided but to be loved, admired and cherished. The Church is the physical manifestation of Christocentristic Christianity. Therefore, the true Church of Christ points all her teaching, doctrine and living to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is the essene of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it's Christocentrism.
It is none other than providence that has given us the most Christocentric and ecumenical Pope in history at the close of the second millenium, namely John Paul the Great. Before any tremendous reunion is possible kreeft holds, first Catholics must change. Not a change in theology but a rediscovery of relation. For this is the great advantage that Evangelicals claim over Catholics, their personal relationship with Jesus Christ4. Thus the Catholic rediscovery and the Protestant appreciation of Catholic Christocentrism are the prerequisites for unity. The Church being powered by the Holy Spirit moves to the tune of His beat. Protestantism itself is a tool being used by the Holy Spirit to teach people step one of the full Catholic faith. Many converts from Protestantism can attest to this fact, that in Protestantism the personal relationship with Christ is strong and real. But this relationship is just the foundation of the fuller house of Christianity. Catholicism rightly understood is the full flower of the relationship of Jesus Christ manifested in doctrine and practice.
Kreeft is confidant that when Christ comes again for His bride He will not be found a polygamist. But that she will be one bride waiting for her groom.
1. Catholic Professor of Philosophy at Boston's College. I have greatly enjoyed Kreeft on Aquinas, (Summa of the Summa) and Kreeft on logic, (Socratic Logic). His website that includes free audio mp3's can be found here - http://www.peterkreeft.com/.
2. σχίσματα is where we get the word schismatic from. I am fascinated at the length Protestant commentaries go to waterdown both the meaning, translation and theological import of σχίσματα here. Without entering the huge debate to the exact meaning of the word here (i.e., as "political bickering"; John Lightfoot (Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul. 151), or as "personailty cliques" J. Munck (Paul and the Salvation of Mankind. 135-67), etc) the main thrust of St. Paul is clear, the spirit of fragmentation is anti-Christian at it's very root.
3. Cf. on this point John Paul II's Ut unum sint that can be found on-line here - http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25051995_ut-unum-sint_en.html. An excellent discussion can also be found in, Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives. Vol 2.
4. I disagree with Kreeft's statement that a personal relationship is more important than a correct conception of a person. Mormon's can claim vehemently that they have an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. But once studied, their Christ is not the Christ of the Sacred Scriptures. Our advantage is that Protestants and Catholics worship the same Christ.