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Points of Christian Re-FormationPoints of Christian Re-Formation

Points of Christian Re-Formation

On Monday night during a panel discussion at McGill University’s Newman Centre in Montreal, Cardus Executive Vice-President Ray Pennings set out five points that he, as a Reformed believer, considers vital if Christians are to re-form a divided Church into unified faith. 

Ray Pennings
9 minute read

The 500th anniversary of the catalyzing events for the Reformation prompts appropriate reflection within various church communities, undoubtedly with very different assessments from our various perspectives.  However, discussing these matters with those who were on a different side of the issue challenges us to destroy the straw men we so easily create about those with whom we disagree.  Events such as this challenge us to refine our own thinking on what is essential and what is secondary, and convict us regarding the ease with which we lay aside the burden that we ought to have for unity in the body of Christ here on Earth, as the high priestly prayer of John 17 reminds us.

I’ve been dubbed the “Reformed” voice on the panel so it seems appropriate to organize my remarks around five points. 

  1. The Need for a Hermeneutic of Humility

When heading down the road of ecumenical conversation, there are two ditches that we need to avoid.  On the one side, there is the ditch of relativism that minimizes every difference, and is eager to declare whatever common ground we find as unity.  The other ditch is to re-litigate ongoing disputes, making arguments that we hope will convince others that our side was right all along and that unity will only come when everyone joins our team.

I come to this conversation seeking to stay on a path that I am calling, to borrow a phrase that others have used in various ways, a hermeneutic of humility.  I’m a Reformed believer who belongs to a church that takes its doctrine seriously, requires its clergy to “subscribe” to catechisms and creeds penned over four hundred years ago, and still exercises Church discipline for those whose doctrine and life contradicts their confession.  

In advocating for a hermeneutic of humility, I am not questioning what I confess. I hold it dear, believe it to be right and true, and seek to live it in every aspect of my life.  But part of that confession is that I am finite, and we are talking here about matters which the Psalmist describes as “too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.” (Ps. 139:6). I am also a Calvinist. I realize that such labels unhelpfully suggest that I hold a man to be an authority. I don’t. But the label provides a convenient shorthand in discussions of this sort. I believe in the doctrine of total depravity, that when I was born, my mind was not John Locke’s tabula rasa but rather predisposed to selfish idolatry.

If I can make an applicatory comment, especially to those of my own Reformed tribe, it seems to me that our 500 years of history provides a track record in which we may have spent a bit too much time in the ditches, and not enough time engaging our neighbours with whom we differ, honestly answering their questions.  I say this, not because I’m on an ecumenical panel and it seems generous to open with a self-critique, but rather out of conviction that this is what faithfully living a Reformation theology requires of us.  I will leave it to those who do not identify as Reformed to determine the extent to which similar challenges exist in their community.

  1. Doctrine Still Matters.

Recent decades have seen unprecedented energy and effort on ecumenical conversation. The friendship between Father Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson resulted in documents such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994) that stimulated significant debate. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between Lutherans and Catholics, the ongoing Anglican-Catholic dialogue, and regular symposia in journals such as First Things ­– where provocateurs such as Peter Leithart opine on the need for a “Reformational Catholicism” ­­­­– are examples of the ongoing conversation. 

 If I understand my history correctly, this is a very different context than the discussion that would have taken place during commemorations of the 100th, 200th, 300th or 400th anniversary of the Reformation. And while I applaud the conversation and have learned from it, I do caution that many of the agreements that have been signed in an effort to signal unity proceed from a contextual incentive rather than a doctrinal one.  

This is a sweeping generalization and there is lots of nuance regarding the specifics of these initiatives.  However, my overarching concern is that when our motivation is overcoming sectarian strife so as to show a united front to the world in an increasingly hostile culture, we have created a precarious foundation for ecclesiastical unity. Much good has come from these initiatives in promoting a more accurate understanding of the beliefs of others who confess Christ. But sometimes the gravitational pull of these discussions results in a downplaying of doctrinal precision, a shrinking of categories and a muddying rather than purifying of the waters.  

Doctrine matters, and there remain honest doctrinal differences that have and continue to divide the Church.  It is an uncomfortable reality but not one that we should minimize in order to achieve an external show of unity.

  1. The Institutional Church has a necessary voice in today’s context.

Is this simply an acquiescence to the presence of multiple Christian denominations, an accommodation of the modernist consumerist mindset also in spiritual matters, allowing individuals to choose the brand that most suits their tastes? Not at all.  I fear that in the present context, too many churches have adapted to this broken reality with the result that their identity as Church – the bride of Christ whom He loved and died for, and which gathers corporately for worship with their betrothed bridegroom – is lost. While well over 70 per cent of the population self-identifies as Christian of one sort or another. Yet the data suggests that just 11 per cent of Canadians – six per cent Catholic and five per cent Protestant –participated in any form of communal worship over the past seven days.   

Church matters, even though the majority of those who identify as Christians demonstrate by their behaviour that they disagree.  As our various denominations grapple with these challenges in our own contexts, may I suggest that such a conversation consider whether the answers rest not in lowering, but in raising, standards.   A few months ago I was speaking with a leader in the Sikh community regarding religious freedom issues and he said, “Now the Christian community is being challenged in ways that are familiar to us.  With a beard and turban, I’ve never been able to hide, but have had to live my faith publicly.  You’ve been able to hide and have your faith invisible to your neighbour if you chose to.  That is increasingly becoming impossible and that may be a good thing for you.”

I think he was providing sound advice. Yes, our faith may be a scandal to modernist thinking, even considered weird by some. I put my trust in a Jewish man born 2,000 years ago from a virgin. I believe he was God-Incarnate, died and rose again, and is alive today to provide salvation that transforms me from a sinner to a saint. Weird stuff by almost every definition, and certainly modern ones. But it is what Christianity understands as the Gospel. I remain convinced when the Church makes the Gospel the main thing, it will find its relevance and voice in the midst of a culture where it seems increasingly marginalized. 

  1. A Lived Worldview provides plausibility.

While doctrine and our ecclesiastical practices and understanding of worship patterns continue to divide us, it is important to remember that the events of 500 years ago were not simply ecclesiastical events but impacted all of life and society. The social, economic, and political consequences were real and are well documented.   What is striking today is how the differences between the various streams of Christianity have found a way to complement each other. They do so despite us being in a very different post-modern world where the assumptions and framework for public dialogue generally excludes most considerations of the transcendent. That provides hope, I suggest, for a stronger witness.  

One can find evidence of Christian witness in the Canadian public square today. Consider the Catholic emphasis on natural law, subsidiarity, the theology of the body; the Anabaptist impulse for social justice and creating an alternative community to the mainstream; the Reformed emphasis on transformation, the priesthood and responsibility of all believers, or theories of federalism, to mention just three.  

At Cardus, we understand our mission to be the renewal of social architecture applying the wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian social thought. We spend our time mapping the space between the individual and the State, looking at how organizations such as churches and families, businesses and unions, schools and community groups contribute to social flourishing and the common good.  That is an inherently religious project because without convictions about what is good and true, you cannot have a common good.

In forming Cardus, we recognized that while motivated by our own Reformed faith, the time was opportune and our witness would be more effective if we utilized an Apostles Creed foundation for our understanding of Christian social thought. Today, our team of almost 30 talented individuals represent a considerable range of Christian denominations, Protestant, Catholic and Greek Orthodox, able to work in common cause with a shared mission. 

We are not able to develop doctrinal agreements nor do we worship or take communion together. We are not a church and, as we have been reflecting this evening, our division and brokenness remain. But we can pray and do devotions together, and from the orthodoxy of our own perspectives, work with and learn from each other in a way that I trust provides a faithful witness in the public square. And that difficult work begins with personal respect and relationships, dealing with each other honestly, using Matthew 18 principles to sort through disagreements when they arise, living out of and relying on the grace that we all confess to need, and which only God can provide.

  1. Worship and Conformity to Christ remains the greater point.

“From Reformation to Re-Formation of Christian Unity” is the title we’ve been asked to respond to. You might rightly summarize my contribution as being keen on dialogue, conversation and understanding each other; sceptical about the likelihood of finding doctrinal or ecclesiastical unity that is meaningful or lasting; but finding reason based on my own experience for robust collaboration – co-belligerence to borrow a term others have used – on public square issues.  

But let me conclude with the more foundational question: Why is there urgency for unity? Why does this question matter? Our answers inevitably go to the implications of unity and disunity. Church attendance, social impact, the extent to which we are able to influence the culture as the “salt of the earth” and the perception that a unified Church provides a stronger witness to the world,these are the usual places this conversation takes us. And they are all important.

But the allusion in the title of this panel is to John 17. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus prays to His Father that his people may be one as the Son is one with the Father, in order ”that the world may believe that you sent Me and the glory which You gave Me I have given them.” The reason to desire unity between God’s people is that the communion and fellowship that the persons of the Trinity enjoy with each other may be lived and experienced by God’s people, and that through this witness, God’s glory may be increased.

Might I suggest that progress towards unity is most likely to be achieved not when we pursue it as an end in itself, but rather as a consequence of the communion and fellowship that we enjoy with God. It is a consequence of our worship and communion with God that we live transformed lives. The aim is not that you become like me, or I become like you, or that we agree that we both should change to become something new, but rather that we all are conformed to the image of the God who made and redeems His people.  And then our unity will be real, experienced, and expressed.

Solo Deo Gloria.

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