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Can We Be Confessional and Catholic?

Prospects for Christian Unity Today

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Until we start to listen for what each party is saying more than how it says it, we will continue to foster illegitimate division, so that any serious discussion of real divisions becomes clouded at the outset.

British theologian John Webster has noted, "To confess is not to reflect, even to reflect theologically; it is to herald the gospel.... To confess is to testify-and to testify with a bit of noise." It would be surprising if such noisy testifying did not at times lead to unrest and even division within the churches of Christ. Doctrine divides, we are often told, and so it does; but it also unites. But what are the right divisions and what is the right unity? That is where the plot thickens. In this article, I want to challenge us to reflect more deeply on what ways we might pursue a greater unity in the Body of Christ. I argue that such a unity will take two forms. First, there is a unity of the visible church here and now, which I will link to the cause of ecclesiastical unity-the unity of particular denominations. Second, there is a unity between all of the elect of all ages, whose number is at present known only to God, but will one day be visible to the whole world. This "pure" church belongs to the age to come, while in this present age we must accept a "mixed" church. Yet precisely because the age to come has broken into this present age, that future state of the church can be anticipated in the grassroots unity that is emerging even ahead of all of our attempts to theorize it. Given the limited space and my own Reformed standpoint, I can only focus on divisions with Rome and between the churches that maintain a close affinity with the Reformation.

Roman Catholic-Protestant Unity Today: A Waste of Time?

The church, we believe, is the offspring of the gospel, not vice versa. Where the gospel is preached, there is a visible church of Christ. It is not the only mark, but it is the most foundational one. This means that unity cannot be pursued on the basis of a common cultural commitment (a "culture of life" vs. a "culture of death," a "Christian" civilization vs. a decadent secularism), however important these issues certainly are. Church unity is distinct from any other sort of natural affinities-even religious ones, we may legitimately share with other people. We have always lived in a "culture of death" since Adam, and that is why we need the only power that God offers through the Church: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, since it is the power of God for salvation" (Rom. 1:16).

Assuming these parameters, is it a waste of time even to pray for and labor toward the reunion of Rome and the Reformation churches? In some of his writings over the years as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in spite of his own past efforts on behalf of and renewed commitment to ecumenical discussion, reaffirms the decisions of the Council of Trent. To its credit, Rome has the courage of its convictions to deny Communion to those who are not in communion with the Bishop of Rome, and for his own part, Pope Benedict does not foresee any possibility of ecclesiastical communion short of our actually joining the Church of Rome.

In spite of numerous ecumenical dialogues since Vatican II, Rome officially has not moved at all toward revoking any of Trent's condemnations themselves or toward embracing justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. (In recent accords with mainline Lutheran and Reformed bodies, Rome has not lifted the anathemas of Trent but has simply said they no longer apply to "the present dialogue partner." What can that mean but that the latter no longer holds the views for which the reformers were charged with heresy?)

The language is, of course, more conciliatory, but the point is not the tone but the content of what is affirmed and denied. My own criticism of the impressive initiative known as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (ECT) some years ago was not that such dialogue should not exist or that real consensus on many issues was impossible from the outset, but that the consensus reached affirmed agreement in the gospel while acknowledging disagreement on justification, merit, purgatory, indulgences, and the redemptive intercession of anyone other than Christ. Yet, in step with other recent agreements, here it is only the evangelicals who have moved, accepting the view that justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone is not essential to the gospel.

Yet, as I will argue below, none of this should cause us to lose heart. The question of our visible unity is in the Lord's hands, not ours. And as for grassroots unity, it is a fertile field. There are many Roman Catholic individuals-perhaps more than at any other time, with whom we can share significant agreement even on the nature of the gospel itself. Remarkably, Roman Catholic New Testament scholars like Joseph Fitzmeyer argue an essentially evangelical position on justification, while many evangelicals are rejecting such "Lutheran" exegesis! Even Rome's official teaching is better than the Pelagian creed that seems to dominate so much of American Protestant religion at least implicitly. Rather than give up because of obstacles to ecclesiastical unity, we should be encouraged to greater and wider grassroots interaction. This seems to be where Pope Benedict XVI sees matters at present as well.Remember, Rome and the Reformation didn't disagree about everything. Our churches include the ecumenical creeds in our books of confessions and recite them in worship. One of the most impressive achievements of that period known as "Protestant orthodoxy" (from the sixteenth-century Reformation to the dawn of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment) is that it never tried to reinvent the wheel as Protestants (both evangelicals and liberals) have done today. Fathers of the East and West, medieval theologians like Lombard, Albertus Magnus, Aquinas, Scotus, and Bradwardine, were treated as part of the common fund of Christian reflection. Even their own contemporary opponents were read closely and widely. While we will not be serving each other Communion any time soon, nothing should keep mature Protestants from taking advantage of the rich resources of contemporary Roman Catholic theologians and pastors on a host of topics, and we can only hope that the favor will be returned. This can help curb our tendency to parochial navel-gazing, even as it may foster greater opportunities for articulation of the gospel.

A Divided Reformation Family

Closer to home, mainline Lutheran and Reformed churches are reconciling (even sharing pastors). Of course, from our perspective, the problem with the virtual union of Lutheran and Reformed churches in mainline ecumenism is that the partners are often united more by modern German biblical and theological scholarship than by confessional impulses.

Yet at the same time, more confessional branches retain almost exactly the same suspicions they have had of each other for five centuries. It is sometimes astonishing to see how often even systematic theologies from both traditions routinely misrepresent each other's views. We rarely consult each other's confessions but satisfy ourselves that our theologians did our homework for us in summarizing each other's views. Despite a fruitful period of discussion and even agreements with other reformers after Zwingli's death, arteries hardened and each side settled for caricatures of the other. To this day, standard Lutheran texts identify the Reformed position on the Supper with Zwingli's extreme views, which were subsequently rejected by every confession. The Reformed have consistently returned the favor, however. Aside from the Christological controversies, there is the recurring charge that Lutheranism rejected the "third use" of the Law-that is, as a guide for the believer, even though this third use became an article of faith in the Book of Concord when Lutheranism repudiated antinomianism as soundly as one could find in any Reformed confession. We added to the name-calling by designating Lutherans "Arminians."

Both camps have largely failed to listen to each other sympathetically and on their own terms: what they say is often less important than how they say it. Despite the fact that Lutherans are officially committed to total depravity, unconditional election, and monergism (i.e., God alone does the saving), they are lumped together with Arminians because one is either a Calvinist or an Arminian. The possibility of one being neither is unthinkable because the Calvinist-Arminian debate is the horizon of Reformed historical experience. In both instances, then, we fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt. We decide what each party believes not on the basis of what is actually confessed but on the basis of where we think the logic naturally leads. Until we start to listen for what each party is saying more than how it says it, we will continue to foster illegitimate division, so that any serious discussion of real divisions becomes clouded at the outset.

Divisions are also engendered by historical circumstances that are not obviously doctrinal in nature, as in the Augsburg Interim, which excluded the Reformed, or the Kaiser's forced "Prussian Union" of Lutheran and Reformed bodies into one state church. But now that we both stand well beyond such political extremities, why not take advantage of a new historical context? Closer communication, even if not full communion, between confessional Lutheran and Reformed/Presbyterian bodies makes a lot of sense. If the reformers were ready to engage in such an enterprise, why have we given up on it? Have we really tried?

Another conversation that has yet to take place is between confessional Reformed churches and Anglican bodies. Once again, historical circumstances have played a large hand in divisions. In the aftermath of the Reformation, debate eventually erupted over the proper ministerial order, otherwise known as church polity. Does Scripture require a particular form of government and if so, which one? Advocates of Episcopal, Presbyterian, and eventually also Congregational government, despite their shared Reformed conviction, ended up "unchurching" each other principally because in a state church situation there cannot be competing polities. What if we tried to distinguish the historical circumstances from the real issues involved in church government? Wouldn't the conversation look a little different today? Even if we believe that such polity is most conformable to Scripture, are there any Presbyterians today, even in our circles, who believe that only churches with Presbyterian government are true churches?

It has often been said that the Episcopal Church (daughter of the Church of England) has "a Calvinist creed, an Arminian clergy, and a Roman Catholic liturgy." Today its slide into a vague cultural liberalism is widely recognized within its own ranks. Nevertheless, there is still a strong evangelical tradition that continues to thrive in England, Africa, and Asia. John Stott, Alister McGrath, and Jonathan Fletcher in England, J. I. Packer in Canada, and the entire Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, represent this vital strand in English-speaking countries. In the United States, there remain key leaders within the Episcopal Church who seek to recall their denomination to the ecumenical creeds and the Reformed theology of the "Thirty-Nine Articles." Among the names one thinks immediately of Paul Zahl (a regular MR contributor) and the now-retired Bishop of South Carolina, C. Fitzsimons Allison (another contributor). Grassroots ecumenism is alive and well and should be encouraged, while ecclesiastical unity is unlikely. However, what about the Reformed Episcopal Church (U.S.), the Church of England in South Africa, or other churches in Africa and Asia that have formed their own denominations or jurisdictions? These, of course, are merely questions, not answers.

What about Baptists? Confessional Reformed/Presbyterian ecclesiology has maintained a close link between the invisible and the visible church. In other words, while never identifying the "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" with one denomination or even with Reformed/Presbyterian bodies taken together, we do identify true, visible churches with the "three marks": the Word rightly preached, the Sacraments rightly administered, and the existence of discipline (i.e., a proper order for maintaining sound teaching and oversight) within the church. Traditionally, even Calvinistic Baptists have been regarded as belonging to bodies that do not bear the second mark. (Again, the favor is returned by denying the validity of our baptism.) Yet we take a common stand for the doctrines of grace and much else besides.

Once again, historical circumstances come into play with the confusion of church and state. Even in Puritan New England, founded in part by religious refugees, Roger Williams was exiled, as Baptists (including Calvinistic Baptists) had been in England by successive regimes of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Independents. Yet we cannot chalk all of this up to historical factors. There are important confessional issues involved. How can Baptists accept us as brothers and sisters if they, even Calvinistic Baptists, do not accept our baptism as legitimate? How can Reformed/Presbyterian churches extend ecclesiastical fellowship to bodies that do not administer baptism to covenant children? Again, while visible, organic union of denominations is not likely any time soon, should we not create more forums in which greater understanding, mutual admonitions, and fruitful partnerships can emerge wherever possible without violating the integrity of each group's confession?

Our Alphabet Soup

Finally, what shall we say about the various denominations within the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian family that remain at least ecclesiastically separated, though friendly? To be sure, even more than in these other cases, members of these denominations move about freely. Jobs move frequently and with each move comes the search for a new church, often forcing a choice of a different one. Church membership classes, which are welcome wagons more than border crossings, are now an effort to address broader questions of the Christian faith and doctrine rather than an effort to inculcate familiarity with a particular denomination. That is, on balance, an improvement. At least it's a legitimate accommodation to cultural reality.

So why don't our denominations reflect on a broader scale this fact taking place in the particular churches? Why so many conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations, when our differences are more circumstantial than substantial? Have we accustomed ourselves to a perpetual state of division that would have made our orthodox forebears shudder? More importantly, how can we square this state of affairs with the prayer of the Church's King? Surely a uniting of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP)-perhaps even the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North American (RPCNA), would not form a more challenging marriage than, say, the reunion of Old and New Schools in the Presbyterian Church. In fact, far from it. The doctrinal and practical unity between the former bodies is already deep and wide. We already treat the movement of individual members between these churches on the local level with general flexibility. Furthermore, is it not possible-even likely, that the weaknesses of some of these bodies could be compensated by the strengths of others?

Then there are the confessional churches with roots in the Continental Reformed heritage. At present, the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA), in which I am ordained, is in discussions about possible merger with the Canadian Reformed Church. This would be evidence that differences can be held without constituting church-dividing situations. There is some movement also toward greater church unity with other groups within the Continental Reformed tradition. Yet what about our (URC) relations with the confessional Presbyterian bodies? A fellow pastor told me that when he was growing up in a predominantly Dutch Reformed region, he once met a Presbyterian youth and asked his devout mother to explain what a Presbyterian was, to which she replied, "I think it's close to Methodist." Even within the Reformed family itself we can become pretty insular.

I do not mean to suggest that ecumenical committees are not working on such matters, but what would keep us from delegating representatives to a committee tasked with a simultaneous multiple union? Of course, this would mean adopting a common confessional standard, but what are the doctrinal differences between the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity? Both belong to the common treasure of Reformed Christianity, the Westminster divines concerned not to stray in the slightest from "the example of our best Reformed churches." Could individual churches continue to subscribe their own confession to which the wider body would hold them accountable? Surely some things would be lost, but are they essential to the marks of the church? Are they confessional differences-not just nuances, but serious differences that divide? Or do they belong more to our cherished history, perhaps even to our culture? (See Godfrey's "A Reformed Dream" sidebar.)

Once more, historical circumstances (such as being Dutch, German, Scots-Irish, Southern, or even American) that once played such a large hand in stitching the patchwork quilt of immigrant Calvinism in America have to be separated from the confessional unity that we share. Unity is a merger, not an acquisition. We face a moment of decision as to whether we will be ethnic enclaves (even if that is as broad as white/middle-class/Republican) or an outpost of Christ's universal kingdom in a land of immense diversity that we have not even begun to reach. And beyond our own shores, it is anticipated that soon the number of Reformed Christians in Nigeria will outnumber those in North America. For anyone who has not received the memo yet, the center of gravity for Christianity worldwide has already shifted from North America to Africa and Asia. Confessional and confessing Christianity is not cultural Christianity, and the latter will eventually wither.

Hazy or Lazy: A False Choice

Both the achievements and failures of the modern ecumenical movement must be well-marked and learned. Born in an era of postmillennial triumphalism, it sought to usher in the kingdom of God by amassing the troops for a reassertion of "Christendom"-whatever the political version one adopted. We would do well to avoid any such triumphalism-an "over-realized" eschatology-especially at a time when similar strategies are at work on both the cultural left (mainline) and right (conservative). At the same time, we confessional Protestants easily receive such old news as a comfort for our apathy. We who pride ourselves on being confessional are often attentive to Christ's call to "teach everything I have commanded you," but less eager to respond to the "Go!" part of his great commission. If in evangelicalism we seem too willing to sacrifice the message for the mission, we often thrive on internal controversy, as if confessionalism could substitute for confessing. We glibly protest a "Rodney King theology" ("Why can't we all just get along?"), but often seem to forget that "communion of the saints" and "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" part of our creed, postponing any realization of this to the heavenly life. But this is what is called an "under-realized" eschatology. Expecting too little is the result of not realizing all that already belongs to us here and now because of Christ's resurrection and the sending of his Spirit. Running ahead of the Spirit and quenching the Spirit are the twin dangers we must avoid: "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another" (Gal. 5:25-26). Like sanctification ("one holy ... church"), overcoming church divisions ("one... catholic ... church") is our mandate even if we cannot determine its results or measure its success.

Being confessional is not a guarantee that we are actually confessing "the faith once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Talking to and arguing among ourselves is sometimes necessary, but only for the purpose of having something to say to the world on God's behalf. Getting the gospel right is pointless if we do not get the gospel out, and mission is inextricably linked to ecumenism. After all, the mission entrusted to the church as an institution is not to form a theological circle, nor to transform culture, but to proclaim the gospel in Word and Sacrament and to care for the flock our Shepherd has gathered by that ministry.

Unity: A Gift to Be Opened

However, if we are to try again, how shall we go about it? The unity for which Christ prayed in John 17 is, like salvation itself, not something to be attained by our feverish activity, but a gift already given in union with Christ. It is realized imperfectly now, as a down payment on its full realization later. This grounds both our grassroots ecumenism, which is already evident practically everywhere. However, if it is not matched by an aggressive, hopeful, visionary effort of churches, it will eventually wear out and, at the same time, the church will be even more seriously degraded in the process. Both forms of ecumenism need each other.

Grassroots ecumenism can take place in a variety of settings, some formal and others informal. They can be nonecclesiastical without being antiecclesiastical. In other words, they do not have to be actions of a church body, but they can be actions of professing Christians wherever there is common ground. Here we are clearly in the terrain of godly wisdom rather than hard-and-fast rules. We collaborate where there is consensus and we talk to each other even where this is lacking. Who knows what fruit it might bear in the long run by God's grace toward greater visible, ecclesiastical unity? Even those of us who are ministers could see such cooperation as part of the "general office" that belongs to every believer, not as part of our official Word-and-Sacrament ministry.

At the same time, the kingdom of Christ is not an entirely future reality, but has dawned in history. Denominational committees for ecumenical relations are not mere bureaucracies that are to be trodden under foot by grassroots efforts, but they are hallways in the courts of Zion. We cannot use the so-called invisible church and grassroots ecumenism as a cop-out for ignoring our commission to realize visibly, in concrete if imperfect ways, that unity that will be finally and fully consummated at the end. Does this mean that all of the bodies that claim to be or belong to the one visible body of Christ will one day be united this side of the return of Christ? That is doubtful. But even if it were a proper target, we have, as my grandmother would put it, enough fish to fry in our own kettle. In terms of my own tradition, perhaps after conservative, confessional Reformed and Presbyterian bodies are united visibly, we could consider the next frontier. And would that be so bad?

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "Shall We Still Protest" Sept./Oct. 2005 Vol. 14 No. 5 Page number(s): 9-18

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