This Christmas eve, I went to Brecon Cathedral for Christmas carols with my wife and her family. This is my second year joining the family in this sacred tradition. As usual, we first went to the Castle Hotel and had roast dinner (yum) with coffee and tea for the whole afternoon (!), and headed to the Cathedral for the carols.
The service was truly moving. We read various scriptures and sang lots of hymns, some in English and others in Welsh (my wife was jumping up and down during the Welsh hymns – that’s the only legitimate release for her Welsh patriotism all year round so she makes the best use of it). It was really encouraging to see the Cathedral packed to the brim, and seeing families passionately celebrating Christmas.
Seeing the procession led by the Lord Bishop and all the other ‘high church’ traditions got me to reflect on just how far I have come in my view of the established church. I grew up in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and I went to an American Jesuit School for 13 years and semi-regularly attended the Catholic Mass. But for the best part of the last decade I avoided the established church like the plague. I became an evangelical Christian some 12 years ago in Ethiopia, and I believed with all my heart that most of the people in the older Christian traditions had been blinded by tradition, that they believed that they would be saved by works and not by faith and were therefore destined to hell, and that I should evangelise to them as I would an atheist.
Over the last year and a half all of that began to change. I began to see the riches of the older traditions and started to read more and more about them. I read through a lot of the Apostolic and Church Fathers and began to read about the Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church. And most of what I was finding brought me a lot of joy and encouragement. I now find myself committed, yes committed, for broader Christian unity and constructive dialogue with my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters. I want to learn – genuinely learn – more about their faith and experiences and speak to them about mine. I want us to grow together in our Lord Jesus Christ and encourage one another in the faith. Yes, that is a major turn around.
I can think of many an objection to this ‘ecumenism’. First is the argument that unity should never be pursued at the expense of truth. Dr. Michael Reeves makes the point that the Reformers were prepared to die for the truths that took them out of the Catholic Church. This younger generation that I am a part of seems to him to hold these truths in lesser esteem.
Similarly the late John Stott, as much as he was known for his ardent quest for unity within the Anglican Church wasn’t all in favour of the ecumenical movement that was in vogue during his time of ministry. He vigorously objected to the tendencies of the movement to downplay and at times outright reject several biblical and doctrinal truths.
Others have seen in this search for unity with the older traditions an ironically new, postmodern tendency in the Western evangelical church. People in this camp note how the young are more and more proverbially restless in this postmodern age and want to find their roots in the older traditions. They claim that the prevailing tendencies towards relativism are driving the youth to criticise their own evangelical traditions and accepting serious errors in the older traditions.
All of these criticisms should not be taken lightly. Unity should never be pursued at the expense of truth. We should all be grounded in the truth of the gospel and not be taken ‘captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ’ (Col 2:8). However, I am not convinced that that is what is happening with me.
What the Reformers wanted was a dialogue with the Church leading to a reformation. They were not looking to found a separate church. At the time it was the Catholic Church that was not interested in a dialogue. That is not so today. We in the evangelical church have totally forgotten about the Catholic Church. To us, they have rejected the Reformation and the gospel and they have been stuck in their ways for the last 500 plus years. We have not been paying attention to some of the encouraging developments within the Catholic Church over the last 50 to 60 years, including the results of the extensive work of the Nouvelle Theologie. This movement sought to bring the Church back to Scripture and the Church Fathers and had major breakthroughs during the Second Vatican Council and since one of its foremost theologians became the Pope in 2005.
On the other hand, we evangelicals are conveniently blind to how we have been ever-splintering into thousands of denominations and that most of our mainline churches have gone liberal at the turn of the last century and others continue to follow suit to this day. There needs to be a lot more humility on our part and a lot more eagerness to learn about what’s happening in the older traditions.
Furthermore, at the time of the Reformation nobody doubted that the Church needed reforming. Indeed there were multiple attempts within the Church that sought to bring about reformation – at least in practice if not necessarily in doctrine. Moreover, most of the theological errors and practical abuses that the Reformers sought to change have their origins in a worldview that began to take shape in the 12th century. But as Louis Bouyer points out, the Reformers thought within the same worldview as most in the Catholic Church did at the time. Therefore, whilst they argued for much needed changes, they were also not able to see beyond themselves and those around them in some crucial issues. As a result, they rejected much too much and a lot of the baby was thrown out with the bath water.
We are in a more privileged position today. While we carry our own biases, we can be free of much of the biases of the 12th – 16th centuries, and thereby evaluate both the works of the Reformers and the mainline Church alike. We can see where the Reformers had it right (and they did for the most part) and where they went too far. And we can appropriate the rich and long traditions of the Catholic Church and approach it with a positive and a constructive attitude rather than a dismissive one.
This brings me to my last point. Not everything about postmodernism is bad. Whilst fully rejecting the claim that there is no objective truth, we should be happy to embrace the humility that comes from knowing that we have lots of biases that keep us from fully seeing the truth. After all, the church has always appropriated positive components of the world’s views whilst fully rejecting the negative. John Calvin was a true student of the Renaissance and brought the exegetical and hermeneutical principles of it into the church. The church in the first 500 years significantly benefited from Neo-Platonist thought, and the scholastics benefited form Aristotelian thinking.
So, as I recline on the sofa in my in-laws’ living room this Christmas eve, I thank God for His church universal, praise Him for His patience with her over the last 2,000 years and pray for unity grounded in truth and not at its expense. May the Lord Jesus continue to purify His Church by His Word through His Spirit, and may she be one as He is one with His Father.
1. Reeves, Michael (2011), the Unquenchable Flame: introducing the Reformation, London: IVP.
2. Stott, John (1992), the Contemporary Christian: an urgent plea for double listening, London: IVP.
3. Bouyer, Louise (1956), the Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, London: the Harvill Press Ltd.