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The scandal of Christian division, again: A letter

In reply to Wesley Hill’s recent piece on ecumenism, the legacy of the Reformation, and whether Anglicanism contributes something positive and distinctive to a “future catholicity, not least in its formulation of the doctrine of justification by faith” (see “Canterbury testimonies and the scandal of Christian disunity”).  A response from Wesley will come at a later time 



Thank you. This is the right question:

I think about what it would look like for an Auden — or for me, or any other modern-day Anglican — to a tell a “Canterbury trail” story in such a way that the scandal of Christian disunity wasn’t deepened but rather, somehow, acknowledged and, if not transcended, then at least put into a hope-giving perspective.

I would, however, quibble with you and George Hunsinger on your account of “Roman” views of justification as generally falling short of due richness, complexity, and true Christocentrism, such that they provide a reason not to become Roman Catholic. Presumably Augustine didn’t fall short on these counts: Luther and Calvin didn’t think so. And we should look closely at, say, Aquinas (with the help of, e.g., this volume), where we would find the full suite of classic Protestant desiderata on grace carefully laid out and guarded avant la lettre. We’d thus conclude, I think, that we don’t need churches/communities founded in and formed out of the 16th-century Reformation in order to lay claim to evangelical truths not otherwise available — even, arguably, at the time (cue more nuanced study and delving into various texts, including Trent itself).

This being so, a better, more precisely historical picture that pinches merely systematic-sounding statements like Hunsinger’s might look like this: The aspects of the faith that Christians in the West have learned to call Reformed may be found in their fullness in Roman Catholic magisterial teaching today (and before, in various instances), such that we may speak of convergence. This has especially been made possible thanks to the Catholic Church’s articulated embrace and vindication of specific Reformation emphases as properly catholic at and after Vatican II.

If that’s right, then we can set aside the notion of a settled teaching of Rome on point, certainly if that position is defined as less than evangelical. Instead, holding history and theology together, we need rich accounts of the historical push and pull of churches that are always already mutually implicated in the one body, such that simple distinctions between them make no sense — certainly not sacramentally, and even in terms of teaching, as the latter has shifted continually. In other words, the form and texture of churches in history, what they in fact say and do, don’t admit of much abstraction and generality. For this reason, most (all?) non-detailed, non-specific accounts devolve into — one hopes unintended, but still culpable — false witness.

A fuller discussion could unfold the writings of ecclesiologist-historians over the last two generations — Yves Congar and his children, as it were, for whom ecumenical theology has been a priority. They tendered their research in large part to challenge and undo flattening accounts of the Church and the churches that depend upon would-be doctrinal defense-and-construction without remainder, as well as defense as construction, starting notoriously with what divides: Mary, the pope, only Scripture, and so on. In place of such accounts, Congar et al. wrote theological histories that both articulate the first-order discourse of the faith and arrange the remnants of our common and varied pasts under the heading ecclesia semper reformanda (“the Church must always be reforming”). As a matter of fact — helpfully and unhelpfully — our churches all change and continually say new things.

Ephraim Radner, a child of Congar, has made a career of trying to teach us to view such changes as both a feature and bug of the body of Christ in time — which body may be mapped, discussed, and studied, as it suffers various indignities and worse until the End (see Heb. 6:6; cf. Col. 1:24). Mapping the faithfulness of the Church and her churches, and our faithfulness as members, amounts to marking these vicissitudes — “reading” them, striving to learn their lessons; retrieving, repenting, sallying forth anew; and teaching, preaching, and passing on the faith persistently, pray God unto salvation. Then, retrospectively, we may say that our striving was a providential feature of life with the Lord, albeit an often painful one, with real consequences and actual suffering: the history of charity and its discontents.

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Were all of this not true, were Hunsinger simply correct, then how might we make sense of the familiar scenario of synods and councils and conventions of the mainline churches, even Anglican ones, over the last 40-odd years, at which delegates and teachers du jour convene to adopt and embrace statements, resolutions, ideals, and “dreams” in direct contradiction to the classical, sola-principles of the Reformation?[1] Our precious Reformed and evangelical inheritance, carefully articulated over generations in scores of dogmatic volumes published by Eerdmans and Baker (and lesser houses of other ethnic groups: Augsburg and Fortress and Westminster; sure, SPCK, etc.): our inheritance is set aside and forgotten in favor of the Pelagian, Arminian, and otherwise Methodistical outfits being hocked by the latest theologico-hot-dog-salesman-cum-clothier happening by. And then we all head to the National Council of Churches Gala and Girl, it is on.

Meanwhile (needle scratches across record; splashing of cold water on face in restroom), one imagines many of these leaders owning as-yet-unopened copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), perhaps given to them by ex-evangelical friends with the assurance that here speaks the Reformation, even scripturally — which it does.

QED. We are in this together. The great mish-mash of the Church is everywhere, and the non-Roman Catholic mainline mostly comprises inter-ecclesial immigrés sans denominational loyalty. Our heresies are more material than formal, borne out of ignorance, hence susceptible of correction, given an opportunity to hold the attention of our leaders long enough to get down and back to basics. Exposition of the creed remains foundational and urgent.

At the same time, Roman Catholic ecclesiology can accommodate — that is, explain with a certain coherence and generosity — the phenomenon of the body persistently united-in-division. It does so by preserving a visible identifiability of the one Church while accounting for her plural members in baptism, strewn to the winds yet saved.

Setting the solas aside, there may be other reasons not to become Roman Catholic that would also tell a tale of deepening unity and avoid triumphalism. I would seek to tell such a story myself.

Does this help, as a small petition for Christian unity? Perhaps my few points amount mostly to a meta postcard, frustratingly gestural and too brief, but they occurred to me so I thought I’d share.

Yours ever in Christ; thank you again,



[1] For a smoking critique of one such meeting, see George Lindbeck, “The Church Faithful and Apostate: Reflections from Kansas City,” Lutheran Forum (Lent, 1994), with which I partly credit my own imagining that the vocation of churchly academics might include serving, and perhaps expiring at, such assemblies.


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