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A Criticism of Scholastic Theology from an Eastern Orthodox Believer

Remember Francis Shaeffer?  The great evangelical apologist who, for example, helped galvanize evangelicals over the issue of abortion?  I ran across an old video of Francis Shaeffer’s son (much less known to evangelicals): Frank Shaeffer.  He turned out to be an author, screenwriter and film director.  He was a very adamant believer from a young age, but he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and wrote a book Dancing Alone about his reasons for this development in his spiritual life.

I found an old video where he talks about this conversion and his reasons for it with a Reformed Evangelical host on the Calvin Forum.  It was a very interesting interview, and I would recommend evangelicals especially listen to his story to try to grasp why conversions like this take place.  (Note: Catholics will likely take issue with his comment that the pope had no special role in church government from earliest times).  However, the most interesting part of the interview (for me) begins at 39:00 where he raises the question I’ve been struggling with for some time now about Protestantism: the problem of fragmentation.  It’s something most Protestants simply take for granted and admit is a shame, but accept it as an unfortunate reality of sola scriptura (letting people interpret the Bible for themselves without being told how they should be interpreting it).  Frank raises the question “Is this what Martin Luther or John Calvin had in mind?” with great eloquence and sincerity, and I think it’s worth a listen.

One of the reasons I’ve never been all that attracted to Orthodoxy is because it seems to shave off so much interesting doctrinal development that has taken place since the ecumenical councils.  I find scholastic theology incredibly interesting, but he blames the Western schisms in the church (especially in Protestantism) on scholastic methodology and offers an acceptance of mystery as the solution.  I think his critique may have more merit than I would like to admit.

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Aquinas’s Posture of Humility to the Tradition

Although one of the chief virtues of Aquinas’s Summa is its careful reason and rational consistency, there do seem to be areas of tension in spite of its exceptional logical rigor.  What I mean is this: Thomas has positional tensions, even if they are not necessarily logical tensions.  If one wished to be critical she might consider his explicit reasons for his positional posture as itself illogical inasmuch as he might appear to be somewhat arbitrary (although as I will argue in my conclusion, he is not being arbitrary).

I hope to show that Aquinas’s humility to the Tradition did not entail his absolute rejection of propositions contrary to the Tradition.  Instead, Aquinas sought to simultaneously defend the Tradition while aiming to parse in what senses contrary claims might also be true.  For a brief post, one example will have to suffice from his treatise on Charity (which is love for God as last end).

Proper Objects of Charity: A Positional Tension

Thomas excludes irrational creatures from the list of objects of charity on the basis that they can have no share in the rational life of man, since charity consists in a certain fellowship of life in the enjoyment of God; a life that irrational creatures have no share in.  However, Aquinas allows the body to be considered an object of charity even though he does not consider the body as having the capacity of reason.

Although our bodies are unable to enjoy God by knowing and loving Him, yet by the works which we do through the body, we are able to attain to the perfect knowledge of God.  Hence from the enjoyment in the soul there overflows a certain happiness into the body, viz., the flush of health and incorruption, as Augustine states (Ep. ad Dioscor. cxvii).  Hence, since the body has, in a fashion, a share of happiness, it can be loved with the love of charity.  (ST II-II.25.6.ad.2)

Here Aquinas concedes that the body does not know or love, but the person can come to know and love through the deeds of the body.  The instrumentality of the body in knowing and loving, then, is his basis for allowing the body to be considered an object of charity.  Hence the body, being “used” by the person for serving God, can in this way become an object of charity even though Aquinas does not consider the body to have the capacity of reason, which belongs to the soul.

This is not a logical contradiction, however, since in the same way Aquinas allows for irrational creatures to be objects of charity.

All friendship is based on some fellowship in life; since nothing is so proper to friendship as to live together, as the Philosopher proves (Ethic. viii. 5).  Now irrational creatures can have no fellowship in human life which is regulated by reason.  Hence friendship with irrational creatures is impossible, except metaphorically speaking.  … Nevertheless we can love irrational creatures out of charity, if we regard them as the good things that we desire for others, in so far, to wit, as we wish for their preservation, to God’s honor and man’s use; thus too does God love them out of charity. (ST II-II.25.4)

Thus, while considered from a logical perspective, Aquinas is being quite consistent.  For he affirms that in the most proper sense of the term charity, irrational creatures and the human body cannot be charity’s object since they do not posses the life of reason.  On the other hand, inasmuch as they are instrumental to charity, being used in service to God, they can be considered the objects of charity.

However, when we consider Aquinas from a positional perspective, he has postured himself contrary to the former position (that irrational creatures can be the objects of charity) and in defense of the latter position (that the human body can be the object of charity).  To say it yet another way, although the sense in which irrational creatures and the human body can be considered objects of charity—by reason of their being instrumental to knowing and loving—is the same in both cases, Aquinas postures himself contrary to the former and in defense of the latter in his dialogical structure.

Aquinas’s Posture as Humble, Not Arbitrary 

Is this arbitrary?  It may seem arbitrary to us, but most likely Aquinas postures himself throughout the Summa in such a way as to be defending what he considers to be the sacred Tradition.  Thus, he is trying to give priority to the senses of propositions that he thinks have been intended by the Tradition, while still conceding the same logic when found in other propositions set against the Tradition.

This seems the most satisfying solution to Aquinas’s otherwise arbitrary posture—his posture is one of humility to the Tradition.  Irrational creatures can be the objects of charity in some sense, but this isn’t as important to Aquinas as the fact that the deep fellowship we have with God, as creatures made in his image, is not something irrational creatures can have.  For the same reason the human body can be considered as not the proper object of charity by reason of its lack of the faculty of reason.  But this is not as important to Aquinas as polemicizing against the Manichean pretensions about the body having been created by an evil principle, thus in article five he postures himself as for the human body as a proper object of charity.

Aquinas did not simply reject the truth claim of the Manichean absolutely, however, for he concedes that if we consider the body under the aspect of sin and corruption, it must be loathed as an evil.

Our bodies can be considered in two ways, first, in respect of their nature, secondly, in respect of the corruption of sin and its punishment.  Now the nature of our body was created not by an evil principle, as the Manicheans pretend, but by God.  Hence we can use it for God’s service, according to Rom. vi. 13: Present … your members as instruments of justice unto God.  Consequently, out of the love of charity with which we love God, we ought to love our bodies also; but we ought not to love the evil effects of sin and the corruption of punishment; we ought rather, by the desire of charity, to long for the removal of such things. (ST II-II.25.5)

Aquinas is here trying to both defend the Tradition and also affirm what he sees as the truth in Manicheanism, which often quoted from biblical passages, as in objection 1:

It would seem that a man ought not to love his body out of charity.  For we do not love one with whom we are unwilling to associate.  But those who have charity shun the society of the body, according to Rom vii. 24: Who shall deliver me from teh body of this death? and Philip. i. 23: Having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ.  Therefore our bodies are not to be loved out of charity. (ST II-II.25.5.obj.1)

In his response to this objection, Aquinas again draws from his synthetically designed distinction.

The Apostle did not shrink from the society of his body, as regards the nature of the body, in fact in this respect he was loth to be deprived thereof, according to 2 Cor v. 4: We would not be unclothed, but clothed over.  He did, however, wish to escape from the taint of concupiscence, which remains in the body, and from the corruption of the body which weighs down the soul, so as to hinder it from seeing God.  Hence he says expressly: From the body of this death. (ST II-II.25.5.ad.1)

Conclusion

Are we to loathe the body or to love it?  Aquinas says, in a word: both (but in different senses).  This way of approaching theology might have its misfortunes (such as technical language and “death by a thousand distinctions”), but it has even more to recommend it.  By such a synthetic approach, Aquinas has done what so desperately needs imitating in the church today.  He fails to allow heat to block out light.  Instead of letting his zeal polarize truth claims by defending the Christian Tradition as “true” and attacking every other proposition that seems to contradict it as absolutely “false” or “unbiblical,” he was instead careful to affirm all truth he could see in the opposing positions set against his Tradition.

In doing so, he let as much light in as possible while maintaining the humility necessary in defending a Tradition.  If Thomas were to have been so zealous for the Tradition that he failed to look for the truth in other Traditions (which sometimes involved acknowledgment and affirmation of propositions that seemed to be contrary to it), his theological vision would have been myopic and his Summa would not have the synthetic brilliancy that gives it a great deal of its luster and theological durability.

Protestants especially could learn something from Aquinas’s method of synthesis.  It is not by accident that the Catholic Tradition (with Thomas as their leading theologian) has been considered the “both/and” tradition, and Protestants have been considered more of an “either/or” tradition (with Luther and Calvin as the leading theologians).  I would consider Thomas’s method especially resourceful for ecumenical dialogue, which requires a similar kind of humility that we find Aquinas striving for in his Summa.

:: The Sacrament of Baptism in Roman Catholic Theology ::

Baptism is efficacious—it removes the guilt of original sin and regenerates the soul, freeing one from the slavery of sin and conferring justifying grace, leaving an indelible mark on the baptized which can never be removed (not even by mortal sin) and marks the believer with the “seal.”[1]  It actually accomplishes that which it symbolizes—death to sin and the new birth of the Holy Spirit.  Baptism is therefore the Gateway to the Christian life—to justifying grace, to membership in the Catholic Church, to communion with Christ, his sufferings and baptism, to the common priesthood of all believers, etc.  Baptism is thus also necessary—for salvation, justification, sanctification, etc., and since children are born with original sin, they too must be baptized.  Christian Baptism is prefigured in the crossing of Jordan into the promise land, in Noah’s ark as a symbol of salvation, and above all in the Exodus as a symbol of liberation from bondage.  Water has always been a symbol of life and fruitfulness, yet the water of the sea is a symbol of death, and thus represents the death of Christ and consequently the death of the believer who dies with Christ through Baptism. 

Yet, although “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism … he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”[2]  Therefore, exceptions include 1) baptism of desire (those who die with the intention to be baptized, such as a catechumen who dies before he/she is baptized), 2) baptism of blood (those who die in martyrdom for their faith before they are able to be baptized), 3) those who seek the truth and do the will of God in accordance with his or her understanding of it (for such persons “would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity”),[3] and 4) probably unbaptized infants, since God’s mercy is so great, and since Jesus had a tender heart toward children.   

The Roman Catholic celebration of Baptism is extensive and detailed.  Although only a bishop, priest, or (in the Latin Church) a deacon ordinarily administers baptism, in case of necessity, anyone who sincerely wished to truly perform the celebration may do so.[4]  All not yet baptized are subject to baptism, but since baptism can never be repeated, only those not yet baptized can be candidates.[5]  For the celebration of baptism, many rituals must be performed—exorcisms, the consecration of the baptismal waters, confession of faith, triple immersion (or triple pouring) in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the post-baptismal anointing which symbolizes the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the white garment which symbolizes the putting on of Christ, the candle which symbolizes the enlightened neophyte and the transformation of this one from darkness to light (even the light of the world), and finally, the solemn blessing which concludes the celebration.          

Texts which on the surface seem to support Baptismal regeneration—which is directly tied to salvation—are used in support of the Roman Catholic understanding of Baptism as efficacious for purification and regeneration.  Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5).[6]  In addition to baptism being central to the Great Commission, Jesus explicitly says, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mk 16:16).  The apostles carried out their preaching in the same way.  The Chief Apostle Peter preached this way: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  Thus, it is no surprise that Paul would also strongly connect Baptism with dying to sin and being liberated from its bondage (Rom 6:4-7, cf. Col 2:12).  The Catechism suffers no shortage of proof texts for Baptismal Regeneration (see also Titus 3:5; 1 Pet 3:20; Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 6:11; 12:13; Eph 5:26).  For infant baptism, the Catechism first recognizes that infants are born with a sin nature which leaves them in need of salvation.  Secondly, it harkens to Jesus words, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mk 10:14).  Thirdly, it appeals to the “explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on.”[7]  Lastly, the Catechism appeals to “household” baptism of the NT (Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16).  A frequent theme in defense of the inclusivistic widening of baptismal grace is an appeal to the desire of “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:6).  This verse is reference more than once in the section on baptism.

            Compared to many other doctrines of Roman Catholicism which find not even a shadow of support from the NT, Rome’s support for her views on Baptism seems at first impressive.  Whereas much of the Catechism’s footnotes and quotes hearken more to Tradition, the majority of arguments in this section come straight from scripture.  Much of Protestant Evangelical Theology will differ immensely from the views summarized above.  There is no way to give a substantive critique of the mountain of biblical passages appealed to in the above mentioned summary, so I must only give a hint as to how certain Protestant Evangelicals would critique the Roman Catholic arguments employed in defense of their views.  Although on the surface the passages cited are very persuasive, in the end, the conclusions Rome draws from these verses violate her own canons about biblical interpretation—namely, to “be especially attentive ‘to the content and unity of the whole Scripture,'” and to “be attentive to the analogy of faith.”[8]  Passages in Scripture which teach that salvation comes at the moment of faith—not the moment of baptism—are overwhelming in number, and more didactic in nature.  Therefore, in spite of the plethora of proof texts, Rome falls short of her own standards of hermeneutics.  Rome’s arguments for Inclusivism, which are based on the general concepts of the mercy and compassion of God are in need of more exegetical input.  We should not assume God’s mercy extends beyond the explicit ways revealed to us in Sacred Scripture.  Finally, as the most frequently quoted verse in Rome’s whole defense for Baptismal Regeneration, John 3:5, the concept of being born of water and Spirit is drawn from OT imagery about the New Covenant.  Therefore, Jesus language of the necessity of being born of water and Spirit is tantamount to speaking of the necessity of being a part of the New Covenant (Ezek 36:25-26).  One should not, then, read water baptism into this apocalyptic symbolism.          

From an evangelical Baptist perspective, Jesus’ words about children are just that—words about children, not infants.  Jesus referred to children who were at least old enough to “come” to him (physically, not spiritually).  The passages about “household” baptisms are presumptuous in that they must assume that the households referred to include infants (which is not explicitly in the text), but also it seems clear from comparing parallel accounts of baptisms that when a household was baptized it was because the household also believed (Acts 16:34; 18:8).[9]  Beyond the fact that Protestants do not accept arguments from church history on equal grounds with Scripture, the evidence from church history can also be interpreted in a way which actually creates an argument against infant baptism.

Rome’s doctrine of baptism is not all bad.  Adult baptisms are likely to be handed with greater care than in Protestant churches by emphasizing the need for catechesis.[10]  Also, she emphasizes the importance of the responsibility of the church to help nourish those who join the church through baptism, as well as the responsibility of those who are baptized to respect church authority.[11]  She rightly sees a connection between faith and baptism.  She rightly sees baptism as central to the great commission, and as symbolizing our death to sin and resurrection to new life.  As is common with all sacraments and doctrines of Rome, she sees the mystery of the sacrament summed up in Christ: “In Christ’s death ‘is the whole mystery.'”[12]  However, while getting these less important details right, Rome has indeed presented quite a different way of salvation than that which so many evangelical protestants believe to be the biblical doctrine of salvation by her teaching of the efficacy of regeneration and forgiveness of sins through baptism. This leads many evangelicals to conclude that Rome’s doctrine of baptism, with her understanding of its efficacy, with her inclusive tendencies, with her practice of infant baptism, violently distorts the biblical gospel.  I would remind such Protestants that Jesus himself (his incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection) is the essential part of the kerygmatic gospel in the NT (1 Cor 15:3-4) not a specific view about baptism.  Plenty of Protestants also believe in the efficacy of water baptism for salvation.  In fact, Martin Luther himself believed this and taught it with a passion.  If we accuse Rome of distorting the very gospel of Jesus Christ on account of her beliefs about baptism, we will get more than we bargained for and end up condemning almost the whole pre-reformation church, including the early martyrs, the apostolic and patristic fathers, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther himself, and several Protestant denominations.  Perhaps Rome is wrong on her doctrine of baptism, but this does not mean Catholics deny the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Let’s not make too little of the gospel and too much of our different views of baptism.        


[1] Although the idea of “seal” seems to communicate that one is sealed for eternal salvation, if one does not “keep” the seal he or she receives then that person will lose his or her status in the state of grace, make shipwreck of their faith and go to hell—even though they would still have a permanent “mark” on their soul.  In other words, neither the seal, nor the indelible mark are any guarantee of salvation, just guarantee of a “mark” and a losable “seal.”  Catechism, par 1274.

[2] Catechism, par 1257.

[3] Catechism, par 1260.

[4] After all, it is better that a layman perform the sacrament unlawfully than that the one desiring baptism lose out on salvation.

[5] The church is only willing to baptize anyone who has never been baptized.

[6] This text, John 3:5, is appealed to more than any other verse in the section on Baptism—5 times total.  See footnotes 24, 25, 40, 59, and 64.

[7] Catechism, par 1252.

[8] Catechism, par 112 & 114.

[9] It should be noted that Rome seems hesitant to use these verses as prove her case, since she holds out the “possibility” that they may not refer to infant baptisms.  Catechism, par 1252.   

[10] Catechism, par 1216, 1233, 1248.

[11] Catechism, par 1255, 1269, 1271.

[12] Catechism, par 1225. 

What Martin Luther Really Said ::: Luther’s Sola Fide

Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification is all too often assumed to be the same doctrine that later wound up in the Reformed Orthodox creeds.  This sola fide (the one of Reformed Orthodoxy) tends to be read back into the magisterial Reformers, and in this manner the nuances of the original Reformation sola fide are missed.  

The excerpts below come from Martin Luther’s introduction and summary of the book of Romans.  Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Kregel Classic, Zondervan, 1954).  

Notice that Luther’s notion of justifying righteousness is faith itself because faith satisfies the law.  Luther’s notion of justifying righteousness, then, was not Christ’s active and passive obedience, as in much of the Reformed versions of the doctrine of imputation.   (more…)

Affectional Symmetry for Doctrine as the Foundation for a New Ecumenism

There is an ethical need for a certain symmetry of affection for truth.  This symmetry would lead to greater gospel unity amongst God’s people (The Church) and a greater gospel witness to a lost world.  If Catholics and Protestants, Open Theists and Calvinists, Complimentarians and Egalitarians, Calvinists and Arminians, etc. could decide that their unity in the gospel was more important than their disagreements on everything else, and actually live this conviction out consistently … (!) … there would be a New Ecumenism at work that could change the face of Christendom.  

Let me explain … 

One way of describing the essence of true godliness is this: godliness is keeping your priorities straight.  This is because keeping one’s priorities straight would include keeping God as the priority of your heart’s affection, and such love would entail obedience to the entire law (Mt 22:36-40; Rom 13:8-10; 1 Jn 5:1-3).  It is also true, by that same token, that when something of lesser value than God takes the place of priority in our affections, this is the essence of sin (Jn 3:19; cf. Mt 22:36-40; 1 Jn 5:1-3). 

Have you ever asked the question, “Why should we love God more than anything else?”  One true answer would be, “Because He commands us to,” but this would miss the design of the question, for we are asking a more penetrating question about just why it is in the first place that we are commanded to love God above all things.  The answer cannot be in any particular act of God’s redeeming love toward us (e.g. because he redeemed us and has sent His own Son to die for our sins, has loved us, etc.), for if we seek to ground the necessity for God to be the priority of our affections in any one of His redeeming acts, we would have no grounds for why Adam should have loved God above all things before the fall.  The answer is quite simply that God sees love for Him as the greatest of all commandments because He is more worthy of our love than all things; He alone possess infinite worth. 

It would be sin to love so many things which are good in and of themselves, and worth loving, if at the same time our hearts grew cold to those things which were far more worth loving.  It should be no wonder to Christians that depression is such a wide-spread epidemic, coupled with shocking numbers of suicide.  There is no quicker way to make the soul unbearably sick than to feed it with everything worth two cents while starving it from enjoying the most worthy of all things.  The human race was created for something infinitely bigger than those things we settle for in our desperate scramble for satisfaction-namely, The Uncreated.  As the saying of Augustine goes, “…you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  Thus, it is easy to see why God has commanded us to love Him above all things.  It is the most loving thing He could have commanded us.  In fact, all of God’s commandments have just this loving quality to them.  They are for our good.  God’s law speaks to us as divine council for our souls, pleading for us to know ultimate peace and exquisite happiness, and warning us of those things which expedite our own destruction.

Yet for those who have, by the great mercy of God, come to realize this great and ultimate truth, we should not think we have mastered this truth in our experience.  In addition to the human tendency to lapse in our affection for God by applying the strength of our hearts on lesser things, we often allow our affections for certain divine truths of God’s word to be destructively disproportionate to the level of affection such truths deserve.  For example, if those who are Calvinists allow their zeal for the doctrines of grace to exceed their measure of passion for the truth of the gospel such that they become bent more on Calvinism than the more basic message of the gospel, this would be a sin akin to idolatry.  Or, if some group of Southern Baptists, in despising a legalistic approach to abstinence, were willing to allow their zeal for Christian freedom to drink alcohol to divide the denominational unity and thereby ruin the pooling of resources which has been so effective in reaching so many people and nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ, this would be a great sin.  Freedom to drink alcohol cannot-by any sober biblical standard-be worth sacrificing such large scale Christian Unity, not just because of the unity itself, but for the sake of the prospering of the gospel message in the world which that unity affords. 

It is manifest, therefore, that a certain symmetry of affection with respect to various important truths is necessarily a part of getting a grip on the essence of real charity and godliness.

For too long Christians have been unnecessarily divided over secondary matters.  The history of the Protestant Reformation bears witness to schism after schism, resulting in a plethora of denominational zealots who devote themselves to defending and propagating the unique views of their denomination.  All this is done, of course, in good conscience of the individuals involved (we trust), and under a worthy banner: “the truth of God.”  Each denomination is fully convinced against another over some point of soteriology (e.g. Calvinism vs. Arminians, predestination and free will, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility), church government (e.g. legitimacy of the presbytery, plural eldership vs. head pastor as virtual C.E.O., congregationalism vs. elder-authority), legitimacy or mode of certain church ordinances (e.g. infant baptism, foot-washing), etc.  Each person deems his or her teaching with regard to these issues as vital to the health of the body of Christ. 

The effect this has on all true Christians everywhere is a mixed bag, but some of the negative effects include the following: a distraction from the most important Christian beliefs, a confusion about what beliefs are essential and what beliefs are non-essential, a lack of one denomination’s trust and respect for another denomination, perpetual characterizations and uncharitable assessments and accusations of various sorts against those in opposition to one’s denominational or personal position, a lack of appreciation for whatever unity exists in spite of the differences, a lack of cooperation among Christians on important social and political problems, a diminishing of the demonstration of Christian unity, a weakening of Christian influence in an unbelieving world, and the near impossibility of a unified effort to reach and nurture the nations of the earth with the basic message of the gospel.        

On the other hand, if the truth about God is more cherished by Christians than it is despised by unbelievers, it is no more surprising that Christians find themselves in the midst of heated controversy over doctrinally related differences than it is to find Christians in controversy with unbelievers over differences of worldview beliefs.  Those who believe the original autographs to be inspired and inerrant would lack virtue if they did not consequently take great measures in securing their understanding of what the Scripture teaches for the sake of the edification of the body.  If ministers have the responsibility of teaching the people, and one minister’s teaching about the role of women in the church, church government, or the legitimacy of infant baptism differs from another minister’s teaching, it is easy to see how they would find it hard to “do church” together-even if each is willing to esteem the other highly as a virtuous Christian. 

This is part of the result of the fall.  Even as Christians, our remaining sin keeps us from discerning God’s truth perfectly.  Many Christians, while recognizing that institutional divisions (denominations) are a necessary evil on this side of eternity for the sake of conscience have also longed for all Christians everywhere to unite in some significant way.  Perhaps the most successful trans-denominational unity which has been achieved has been by those who have tried to form a strong alliance by rallying around the most basic belief in all Christian doctrine-the basic message of the gospel.  This group of Christians are known as evangelicals (from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news” or “gospel”).  While evangelicals cannot by any means be accused of considering all non-essential beliefs as unimportant, they have considered unity in the gospel as the most basic kind of Christian unity.  This evangelical unity was one of the greatest (if not the greatest) by-products of trans-denominational movement of Liberal Theology in the nineteenth century. 

Evangelicals, however, are all too often guilty of not being faithful to this original vision of gospel unity.  When Classical Liberal Theology that no longer believed in the deity and resurrection of Jesus was at stake, it helped us to see how relatively unimportant the secondary issues amongst true believers actually were compared to the need to fight for the basic gospel truth.  But nowadays we are overly zealous for non-essentials.  Particularly Protestant Christians should give more thought to having an evangelical unity and cooperation with anyone who believes in the gospel, even if they happen to be Catholic, Orthodox, Open Theist, Emergent, etc.  Those who work for a New Ecumenism don’t have to give up their secondary convictions, they just have to value the gospel more than those secondary convictions.  They don’t have to love their -ism’s any less so much as they must come to love and value the gospel even more.  

 


St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans by John K. Ryan (New York, New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1960), 43.

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