Full Text for American Religious Scene- Volume 49 - Ecumenism (Video)

No. 49. >> Please forgive me if I'm taking us in a new direction too soon. But I have a question that has piqued my interest for quite some time. Most of the churches in Cleveland have what they call an ecumenical thanksgiving service. Some of the pastors involved appear to place great emphasis on being ecumenical. Even the ELCA pastor speaks with great enthusiasm about there being only one church. Suggesting the old lines of denominational distinction are passe. What does ecumenical really mean? And what are the dangers involved? >>DR. LAWRENCE R. RAST, JR.: No, David, it's not too soon to ask that question. In fact, in light of the discussion we've been having here recently, I think it's exactly the right kind of question to ask. You look at all of these different denominations that emerge in America by the middle part of the 1800s. And you say: How do you keep all of these straight? And does each one of them claim to be the only true church? And if you're not part of that church, you're not part of Christ's church? It really began to create a problem for Christians here in America, this division of Synods and church bodies. And traditions. And confessions that began to overwhelm things by the middle part of the 1800s. So some folks began to say: Maybe we should take a step back at this point and think a little more broadly about what's involved in being church. And in fact, it's during this period of time that the word denomination really comes to the forefront. Afterall, think about the word. We've discussed it before. But denomination. Name. How do you denominate yourself? What do you call yourself? And some folks within the Christian tradition more broadly speaking began to say as differently named parts of the church, perhaps we should look for ways to work together. To recognize one another's ministries. To recognize the common faith that we all share. Rather than emphasizing the differences that drive us apart. Now, this was nothing new in the Christian church. In fact, going back into the 1600s, we even see evidence of this concern in the Lutheran tradition. And certain Lutheran theologians, probably the most famous of then all being Johann Gerhard would make a distinction between what they call fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines. Fundamental doctrines being those which were clearly taught in the Bible and which were necessary to be known and believed if one were to be saved. And non-fundamental doctrines, doctrines about which there was some diversion of opinion and which were not absolutely necessary to be known to be saved. Now, Gerhard would say, the Lutheran church holds both fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines in their entirety and in their purity. So that the Lutheran Church does confess the one true faith as the Scriptures teach it. But, he would say, there are other churches that teach fundamental doctrines, as well. And as a result, there can be Christians in other confessions, in our traditions. In other words, Gerhard wanted to avoid saying only Lutherans could be saved. And he was right to do that. But in the wake of Gerhard, particularly in the wake of the Thirty Years' War where you had a war that was fought over confession, over belief, among and between Christians. In the wake of the Thirty Years' War a certain Lutheran theologian by the name of ***Gaorg Kolext said: Let's approach this distinction a little bit differently. That is to say if you are willing to recognize that other traditions hold to fundamental doctrines, then shouldn't that be enough for you to recognize that they are, in fact, Christian? And that there should be some kind of recognition, some kind of interrelationship between the churches that hold to these fundamental doctrines. While it's true we may not agree on the non-fundamental points, they remain just that. Non-fundamental. Thus, focusing on the fundamental, perhaps we could find a way to work together at the very least, even if we weren't able to achieve union. That is to bring back together the Lutherans, the Reformed and the Roman Catholics. He chiefly thought in the terms of those three traditions. In other words, to recognize one another's ministry, one another's sacraments, even if we did not explicitly practice fellowship with one another and didn't remerge immediately. But rather, offer opportunities for ongoing discussion that would allow for reproach between these various traditions. Some welcomed Kolext's emphases. Others were resistant to them saying he was compromising the faith. But his themes began to be picked up once again in the mid 19th Century here in America. And one of the people who picked up these particular themes was a well known Lutheran theologian. His name was Samuel Simon Schmucker. 1799 to 1873 are his dates. He taught for many, many years, 1826 to 1864 at the Lutheran theological seminary at Gettysburg. Schmucker wanted to find a way for Lutherans and other Christians in America to relate to one another. In fact, he is -- his hopes were more pronounced than Kolext's two centuries earlier. What Schmucker hoped for was literal reunion of the various Protestant churches here in America. But unlike Kolext, Schmucker did not include Roman Catholics within the scope of his works. He thought that they were beyond the pail of what should be recognized as Christian. He simply rejected out of hand. On the other hand, said Schmucker, we should find a way for us to recognize one another both doctrinally and in practice. And in doing so we will bring about the reunion of the church and he believed, also, the dawn of the millennial age. Now, that's quite a purpose to have in life. And he attempted to achieve this by two means. First off, in 1838, he published a book, a little book. It came to be referred to by the title of "The Fraternal Appeal to the American Churches." And in this booklet he described the process of recognizing one another noticing amongst one another the fundamental doctrines that were held in common. And then affirming one another and fellowshipping with one another on the basis of those fundamental doctrines. In other words, he said we hold the basics together already. Now let's identify what those are, affirm them with one another and practice fellowship on the basis of them. To help achieve this, he actually developed a new document within this book, "The Fraternal Appeal." He published what he called the Apostolic Protestant Confession. And basically what he did in this text was to take statements from a variety of Protestant confessions, from the Reformation and post Reformation periods, and string them together in such a fashion as to develop one unified confession that had elements from a variety of confessions. So for example, he would take a statement from the Lutheran Augsburg Confession on the doctrine of justification. Follow it with a statement on justification from the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglicans. The Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians. The Methodist Articles of Religion. The Moravian confession, et cetera. Thereby allowing each reader to recognize their own doctrinal heritage in the confession as well as affirming statements of their confession from other Protestant confessions. Thereby demonstrating we're all in fundamental agreement. He was not received all that well in this respect. Simply because it was said: You've produced yet another text. We don't really need another text. We have lots of texts already. Perhaps it would be better simply to focus on what we already have at hand. In response, Schmucker turned to the Apostles' Creed as the basic statement of the church's faith. And then looked at the other creeds of the Protestant churches as supplemental and explanatory discourses on that Apostles' Creed. However, what he also recognized was that in these other creeds, there were a variety of things that were taught, some of which were already agreed upon. Some of which diverged dramatically. And so in his later work, he began a series of comparative symbolic works in which he would simply take one confession and place it upon another. In fact, ultimately what he did was to take all the basic confessions of the Protestant traditions, like the Augsburg Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Westminster Confession, Cambridge Platform and all of these various texts that we've been discussing at various points in this class, place them on top of one another and then point out that in these texts there was already a tremendous amount of agreement. Here comes the fundamental move for him. For these points upon which there is pre-existing agreement, these points, said Schmucker, are fundamental. And they are biblical. Points of agreement are fundamental and therefore, biblical. The points of disagreement between the various Protestant churches are non-fundamental and, therefore, not biblical. And as such, he said, every tradition should take a look at its confession. Find those points where it is teaching distinctively and differently from the other Protestant churches. And work to correct its confession. To bring it in line with the fundamental teachings of Scripture. Thus, for example, he would say to the Presbyterians and taking their Westminster Confession: Your teaching regarding double predestination is unique, distinctive, to you. And as such, it is neither biblical nor fundamental. If you would like to be a biblical and fundamental church, and most did in the mid 1800s, then you should correct these errors. Baptists with their emphasis on the subject and mode of baptism. Adult subject. Mode being immersion. Schmucker said the other churches baptize infants and use a variety of methods of applying water. All of which are valid. Therefore, the Baptists should correct their errors in their confession. If, again, they want to be a biblical and fundamental church. Now, not surprisingly folks said to him: Well, what about the Lutherans? What are their issues? And he answered there are five problems Lutheranism has. It does not teach the divine requirement of the Sabbath. And so that should be added to Lutheran doctrine and practice. And then in terms of four further points, he said these should be rejected. Namely, the Lutheran teaching of the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. Baptismal regeneration. Private confession and absolution. And fourth and finally, the ceremonies of the mass or the use of the older liturgical forms. These, Schmucker said, should be excised from Lutheranism. So one point added. Four points removed. For a total of five. Schmucker's approach I think is the key point as we talk about ecumenism. He was struggling to find commonalty. And having identified that, he said in regard to the secondary or the non-fundamental doctrines, it's not necessary that these be excised immediately or corrected on the spot. But rather, that the churches all be working towards purification and correction. In the interim, on the basis of the already shared fundamental doctrines, said Schmucker, we should declare church fellowship between ourselves. Since we already have that doctrinally speaking, let's simply put it into practice. At a meeting in 1846 of the so-called evangelical alliance, Schmucker is present. Other theologians from around the world are present, as well. And they begin to make this argument: Many see this meeting of the Evangelical Alliance as the beginning of the Modern Ecumenical Movement. Trying to find a way, a variety of ways, of commonalty and expression of that commonalty in practice. Now, as the years proceed, there are any number of further expressions of this ecumenical posture. That is a general acceptance of the various churches on a variety of platforms. And we'll talk about a few as we make our way through the next bit of questions. But for our purposes here, let me just draw this further to the present. Schmucker was trying to establish ecumenism on the basis of shared fundamental teachings. Over time what emerged was that most churches were not ready to give up their distinctive teachings and doctrines. And so as the 20th Century proceeded, Schmucker's fundamental doctrines approach was often and ultimately replaced by a perspective that was called reconciled diversity. In which churches recognized the basic agreement they shared. But allowed for continued diversity in a number of other points. That is to say they were allowed to read the Bible as they saw fit simply reconciling themselves as those in the faith. But allowing for diversity of opinions. In fact, as the modern ecumenical movement developed, many people would say: It's impossible for all to believe or think alike. And in fact, it's necessary that we have a variety of churches to fill the niches, if you will, of the various human perspectives that emerge as people read the Scriptures. So reconciled diversity became in many ways the order of the day. Still there are efforts towards some kind of resolution of this ongoing division within the church. And leading up towards the year immediately following World War II, there are strenuous activities on the part of many, including many Lutherans, to try to bring about some platform for there to be agreement and work together within the various churches. In 1948 this finds fruition, especially in the World Council of Churches. An important organization that has functioned as the ecumenical front for helping the churches recognize one another and work together. Oftentimes the WCC, as it is called, has downplayed the doctrinal differences between the various traditions. And ultimately has reduced these to very few saying that it is enough for the various traditions to recognize the baptism of the various churches, its application and practice of the Eucharist and the fact that there is a ministry present. These things being present, that is recognizably enough within the broader scope of biblical tradition and teaching for there to be church fellowship. Now, obviously not everybody agrees. There are a variety of ecumenical postures that we see in the present. In fact, here in the United States the evangelical Lutheran Church in America has worked very hard at developing relationships with a variety of other Christian bodies. In 1997, the ELCA declared fellowship, for example, with several of the Reformed churches. The Presbyterian Church USA. Reformed Church in America. And the United Church of Christ. It also later on entered into a fellowship agreement with the Moravian church. A few years after that, the Episcopal Church. It was very active in dialogue with the Roman Catholics in respect to the joint declaration on the doctrine of justification. And continues to work with Methodism in regard to trying to establish a formal relationship there, as well. Very active ecumenically. In one respect, however, and as you ask the question: What are the dangers of this? I think this comes out particularly in two of the relationships I described before in the ELCA. Specifically in the joint declaration on the doctrine of justification with the Roman Catholics. And also the formula of agreement with the Reformed. In JDDJ -- if you've not had an opportunity to read it, you will soon. In JDDJ, the language of justification being the central article of the faith, the article on which the church stands or falls, the material principle, if you will, that language is compromised by the ELCA as it talks about justification by grace through faith as "a" way of talking about salvation rather than "the" way of describing it. There the Lutherans have given up an enormously important point in terms of their own biblical and doctrinal heritage. And that we'll need to discuss at some length. On the other hand, when it comes to the Formula of Agreement with the Reformed, there are some problematic elements of that document, as well. For example, differences within the two traditions as to the nature of the presence of Christ in the celebration of the sacrament are recognized and simply taken as such. That is to say here we have an example of reconciled diversity. A fundamental doctrinal consensus -- those are direct words out of the Formula of Agreement. A fundamental doctrinal consensus is recognized. But that is not seen to extend to the manner that Christ is present in the Eucharist. The result being that the document will say in order for there to be fullness in terms of the church's witness, we really need both positions. So in a way in the Formula of Agreement, you actually see the remnants of the old Schmucker fundamental consensus coming forward as well as the reality of reconciled diversity. So those old patterns continue to impact the way the church functions ecumenically. Our own Missouri Synod has been much more strident in the way that it relates to other church bodies. Lutheran and otherwise. Stating that prior to there being fellowship with another church body formally decreed, that it's necessary to be agreed fully in doctrine and practice. Many have said that that shows a certain arrogance on the part of the Missouri Synod. I hope that we don't fall into that. Or into some kind of triumphalistic idea that we alone are the church. That's not what we are hoping for to occur on the basis of our actual positions in this regard. But what we, indeed, hope to do is remain faithful in our confession and hold up our reading of the Scriptures in such a fashion as to make a good and faithful confession before the world so that Christ may be held forth, elevated and kept at the center of all things. I don't know if we've always done the best we can in terms of engaging other Christians in dialogue. And there may be room for us to make better efforts in the future. Certainly that would always be appropriate. At the same time as we go forward making these dialogues and engaging in them, it would be most appropriate, also, to hold faithfully to our biblical position. It's a difficult thing to do. Very challenging. And to do so in such a fashion as always not to promote ourselves and our own positions. But rather, to hold forth Christ and the truth of the Scriptures. It's a challenging thing, as I said. But one to which I'm convinced our Lord calls us. I hope we can be faithful and aggressive and bold in achieving both of those ends.