Saturday, September 5, 2009

An alternative to ecumenicity

On page 84 of Faith and the Vitalities of History, Philip Hefner writes, “It is clear that Ritschl does not acknowledge pura doctrina as the chief mark of the church, nor as the chief vehicle of unity or disunity within it. On the contrary, he considers several marks more important, including prayer. The chief mark, however, which distinguishes the church is its participation – first as a corporate entity, secondly as a group of individuals – in the reconciliation wrought by Christ.”

Frankly, this goes against my former presuppositions. I thought it paramount that I seek out the pura doctrina, the “pure doctrine,” that is, the correct interpretation of the Scriptures. But after several years of study I must admit that while I arrived at what I believed most closely approximated pura doctrina, I could not in good conscience declare heretical those who disagreed with me.

Seeking the pura doctrina can be a messy business if in the seeking you feel it to be the chief mark of the church, the chief means of salvation, the chief guide to who you are going to get along with in the Christian world. Yes, yes, you are saved through faith, but reading on you learn that faith comes through hearing the “word of God,” and that “word” is the pura doctrina. So it is important to get that as straight as you can. Isn’t it?

Here it is helpful to understand something of the history of the church. This emphasis, or perhaps overemphasis on doctrine became this way during the Reformation. Luther and Calvin both saw that the Catholic Church needed reforming. Over the years, the Catholic Church had become careless with their doctrine. Illiterate priests and monks abused the their offices. Something needed to be done, so Luther and Calvin did it.

However, and here we find the origin of our problem, they both thought they were “reforming” the Church, not replacing it. Eventually it became clear that there was to be no reconciliation; so what were these entities and how were they to relate to each other? As Ritschl points out, Lutheranism and Calvinism eventually, tentatively, took the position that they (sometimes independently and sometimes together) were the true Catholic church. The Roman Catholic Church had deviated too radically from pura doctrina and had therefore abrogated its right to be called the one true Catholic church.

Eventually there was a reformation in the Catholic Church; so now we have three entities, each claiming to be the true “Catholic” church, but feeling ambivalent about the others. They disagreed with each other but weren’t quite willing to declare the others heretical. Then, as time went on, thanks to Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament and the idea that each man was his own priest, the “denominations” proliferated.

Let’s look again at Ritschl’s comment. He doesn’t say that pura doctrina isn’t important, just that it is not of chief importance. Of chief importance is participation by churches and individuals in “the reconciliation wrought by Christ.” I take this to mean the Great Commission, but not just the evangelistic side of it, the teaching and discipling as well.

But wait. Did I just write “teaching”? What do we teach if not the pura doctrina? And how are we to determine which is the really “true” pura doctrina? Are we to accept the teachings of the Catholic Church? Or some teaching of one of the Lutheran denominations? Or some teaching of the protestant denominations that derive from Calvin? Or something else? How are we to know?

Today there are as many variations of pura doctrina as there are denominations, but I notice that most denominations do not declare the others heretical. Some do, and there are some pseudo-Christian sects that deserve that level of criticism, but if we just look at the broad collection of Christian Churches that do not declare each other heretical, what can we say about them? And how should they relate to one another?


At one time those who sought to baptize by sprinkling thought those who immersed heretical. Blood was shed and lives were lost over that one, but today sprinklers and immersers accept each other as Christian. They think each other wrong, but they don’t think that wrongness requires damnation.

Taking the different modes of baptism as a synecdoche (a part standing for the whole) for our differences can we Presbyterians work together with Baptists, and can we Catholics work together with Christian Orthodox “in the reconciliation wrought by Christ”? Of course we can. But to do so we need to be respectful of each others pura doctrina. We don’t need to agree with each other, but we don’t need to confront each other and begin arguments that end in animosity. Perhaps we won’t feel such a need to argue if we concentrate more on “the reconciliation wrought by Christ.” Was Christ being impractical when he said, “by this shall they know that you are my disciples: that you have love one for another”?

No comments: