Skip to content

Some Theses for Ecumenically-Minded Protestants

1.  The breakdown of denominational identity is a terrible ecumenical occurrence and further inhibits the visible unity of the church.  For all their flaws, denominations offer structural and institutional forms which can facilitate ecumenical dialogues.  As to date there is no other protestant proposal that could fulfill this function better.  The multiplication of non-denominational evangelical churches only furthers the fracture of the protestant churches and is parasitic on the church’s call to unity and mission.

2.  Protestants came from the Roman Catholic church.  As such their primary ecumenical responsibility is to the Roman church.  Aside from very specific issues of theological conviction and conscience, protestant Christians have no business converting to Eastern Orthodoxy in order to be rejoined to the historical apostolic churches.  We are part of a very specific division in the body of Christ and we must be faithful to address that division.  Bypassing the necessary struggle with Rome by fleeing to Constantinople does not further the cause of Christian unity.  The same could be said of the recent evangelical trend toward Anglicanism.

3.  Protestant churches and Christians who remain separated from Rome must have a clear theological articulation why they must persist in their separation for the sake of the gospel.  For all protestants we must have specific theological conditions in mind which, if met would mean that we must return to the Roman Catholic church.  Given the diversity of protestantism, there is no reason to assume that these reasons would be uniform, but regardless, it is incumbent on all protestants to be able to give an honest articulation about why faithfulness to the gospel requires their ongoing separation from Rome.

4.  Protestants who believe that there are no conditions under which they could be reunited with the Roman Catholic church have become schismatics and should be treated as such.  Schism is sin and protestants must be ever-vigilant against it.

5.  That Catholicism continues to deny that protestant churches are truly churches denies the manifest work of the Spirit of Christ and falsely locates the criterion of the church’s ecclesiality in its institutional structure rather than in the grace of God in Christ.  It is prima facie false and ecumenically tragic to admit that the Holy Spirit is present in protestant communities which are vehicles of “sanctification and truth” (Lumen Gentium, 8) and yet deny that such communities are churches.  As Irenaeus said “where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace”. (Adversus Haereses, 3.24).  Protestants must work with all rigor and effort to manifest in the lives of their congregations the presence of the Spirit in his ecclesially-constitutive activity even as Rome continues to deny their proper ecclesial status.  We must live in hope that the tree will be known by its fruits.

6.  Protestants must continue to immerse themselves in the Great Tradition of the church and the fullness of its history.  For the Reformers, the Reformation was an exercise in ressourcement, a return to the patristic and biblical roots of the Christian faith for the sake of faithfulness to the gospel.  The ahistoricism of protestants today is unfaithful to the essentially patristic and indeed, catholic intentions of the Reformers.  To that end, the protestant church must continually read afresh the patristic witnesses to the faith, not only to help illumine and enrich current church practices and theology, but to aid in discerning ecumenical and ecclesiological reasons for persisting in separation from Rome and what criteria should be held for a full reunion.

7.  Similarly, protestants must re-engage the writings of the Reformers themselves in a new and fresh way.  Most protestants today are woefully ignorant of Luther’s works, Calvin’s Institutes, and the writings of other key figures in the Reformation.  The biblical and patristic vision of these vital theological treatises and texts are essential for protestants today to retain their reformational identity and the essential sense of historical and ecclesial continuity with the church catholic. 

22 Comments

  1. Halden,

    This is a beautifully written piece. I am to gone after college to study theology and immerse myself in the study of Holy Scripture and in the wisdom of the Great Tradition of the Church catholic.

    Read this really was a conformation. Thanks.

    Saturday, November 10, 2007 at 8:40 am | Permalink
  2. Ben wrote:

    2. “Aside from very specific issues of theological conviction and conscience, protestant Christians have no business converting to Eastern Orthodoxy in order to be rejoined to the historical apostolic churches. ” — Which issues would those be? Do you imagine that many evangelicals are converting to EO for reasons OTHER than theological conviction? Icons are cool and all, but I don’t think they’re they real pull. Every new EO I’ve spoken to converts because they have realized the massive problems with Protestantism, and have not gone RC because they disagree with the status of the Pope etc. What SHOULD those people be doing?

    3. So, what if someone picked some list of demands which they knew would absolutely never be fulfilled?

    5. Catholics also admit that many of the world’s religions can also offer some amount of grace, do they also qualify as Church? Ecclesial status isn’t afforded to Protestants because by and large they deny any such need, and on the whole deny the root of ecclesia anyway: the Risen Christ Really Present in the Eucharist.

    Anyway, interesting post.

    Saturday, November 10, 2007 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  3. Patrick wrote:

    Your first item, about maintaining the “structural and institutional forms” within Protestant denominations, is an interesting one, though I disagree with your conclusion about it.

    I think the last few decades in American Christianity show that most people are not interested in inter-denominational battles as anything beyond a little (vaguely) intellectual gainsaying with one another – especially young Christians. The rise of denomination-free Christianity settles the question of “Luther, Calvin, Wesley or the Pope?” succinctly, which is good enough for most people and seems to be quite compatible with the spiritual outlook of members of this growing Christian interstices..

    God allegedly still loves them though.

    Sunday, November 11, 2007 at 8:52 am | Permalink
  4. Aric Clark wrote:

    Ben,

    Not all protestants deny the Risen Christ Really Present in the Eucharist. In fact, ‘Real Presence’ language is Calvinist. Catholics usually prefer ‘bodily presence’ language.

    Sunday, November 11, 2007 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Ben, some quick answers to your questions.

    2. My experience has been that evangelical often convert to EO because they want to be part of the historical apostolic churches but don’t want to deal with certain elements of Catholic doctrine and practice like birth control, celibate clergy, etc. For me, given the historical fact of the division between protestants and Catholics, I think I need to attend to dealing with those issues if I am ever to be part of the historical apostolic churches again. I don’t want to short-cut that task by migrating east. In other words, I guess what I’m really saying is that protestant ecumenism shouldn’t be about finding the “right” communion, but trying to make the communions one. I think the best way for protestants to do that is through engagement with the Roman church from whence they came.

    3. That would be most unfortunate and I hope to work against that impulse among protestants to eseentially insist that we can be unified when all Catholics become protestant. I think that kind of thinking is bullshit. However, can you really see any protestant “criteria” as something that would have weight with the Roman church anyway? In your view could there ever been any “demands” that could be fulfilled? Honestly curious here.

    5. I think the problem with that comparison is that Vatican II explicitly calls protestant churches “ecclesial communities”, granting them some sort of imperfect “ecclesial status”. I still don’t think a good explanation has been given (or at least not one that I accept) for how an “ecclesial community” cannot be a “church”.

    Thanks for the questions!

    Monday, November 12, 2007 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Ben wrote:

    Hi Aric,

    “Not all protestants deny the Risen Christ Really Present in the Eucharist.”

    Your “not all” in that sentence reminds me of Abraham haggling with the Lord over the destruction of Sodom, “What about ten?”

    You’re right of course, and that Protestants teach any kind of real prescence at all is a thing I’ve only learned about in the last few years, and I have to give respect to the VERY VERY VERY few Protestants I’ve spoken with who seem to accept this reality without quotey-quotes. By VERY VERY VERY few, I mean, like, less than ten in my life.

    …because when I say Real, I mean Kneel To It real. I was at my local EO parish last Sunday, some of them do a face-plant when the Eucharist passes by.

    If the denial of the Reality of the eucharist is somehow a misunderstanding of authentic Protestant teaching, then something went very wrong along the way, as (no exaggeration) 99.9% of all Protestants with whom I’ve spoken can whip out a fine-tuned laundry list of apologia against a real presence.

    If 99.9% of the mass of Protestants can hold to some teaching that is NOT authentic Protestant teaching, then I’m not really sure how to get a bead on what constitutes authentic Protestant teaching on this subject.

    Monday, November 12, 2007 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  7. bobby grow wrote:

    Ben,

    you should look at Luther, vs. Calvin, vs. Zwingli on this issue of the eucharist. All Protestants, yet very different approaches. Sounds like you’ve been exposed to the Zwinglians amongst us, which most Evangelical Prot., to one degree or another, follow . . . by default.

    Monday, November 12, 2007 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  8. Ben wrote:

    Hey Halden,

    2. I don’t really know what else to say here, though I think it’s kind of ironic, seeing as how I’m like “They need to follow their informed conscience in this matter” and you’re like “They should work it out in the church where they were baptised,”– a funny reversal of what one would expect our respective answers to be.

    3. “In your view could there ever been any “demands” that could be fulfilled?”

    –Well, I think that clerical celibacy is probably something that is at least theoretically negotiable. I also think that the Pope could “tread lighter”, taking a more “prima intra pares” role than has been habit. I think that the Curia/Cardinalate is certainly malleable, if not totally dispensable. (Not knocking the Curia or the Cardinals, I’m just saying that they’re obviously a later development, and not even really a necessary development.) I’m sure there are many other concessions that can be made, though the cynical part of me is also sure that as many concessions as the Church makes ten more will be demanded. Selling the ranch to pick up a few odd ducks.

    Of course, this is all dependent on Protestantism assuming something that at least begins to resemble an ecclesial structure. I’m not ignorant of the fact that there exist such structures historically, but currently they seem to be on the wane– the exponential, explosive, amazing, and other adjectives grow-grow-growth of Pentecostalism seems to point to the future of “structure”.

    Until there’s some group or person who can speak for all or, really any Protestants, then Protestant-Catholic reconciliation will happen one Protestant at a time. (Take the last two paragraphs as a quasi-answer to question 5, “Why don’t they call us churches?”)

    Monday, November 12, 2007 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  9. Andy wrote:

    Halden,

    Wonderful post. These questions have been consuming not a small part of my thoughts over the past few years. I am of the opinion that most Protestants do not think enough about these things. Not enough Protestant eyes looking longingly toward Rome. Your theses are a great prod. I’m especially fond of 3 and 4.

    I would only humbly suggest a slight revision, mostly with respect to the EO and Anglican comments (thesis 2). The problem is not with converting to Orthodoxy or Anglicanism, per se, it is the short-cutting. Not every move to Canterbury or Constantinople is a short-cut, though. Both communions retain apostolic succession without the problematic of papal hegemony. These are valid moves, IF the desire for communion with Rome does not end.

    I am not in communion with Rome because Rome will not accept me as I am (I cannot grant the Pope a monopoly on orthodoxy or catholicism). If we become Orthodox or Anglican, the problem remains–we are not all united. In truth, even if we become Roman the problem does not end.

    Your frame for the problem suggests an asymmetry, with Roman Catholicism as the ideal, Protestantism as the pariah. But from the Anglican or Orthodox communions I think we can seek communion as equals (even if Rome does not!). Some Protestants would say the same, but I think without the historic episcopate they are mistaken. The question is which division does one wish to be faithful to. I cannot any longer be faithful to the Protestant/Catholic schism over justification or indulgences. I can sign on to the Orthodox and Anglican rejections of papal hegemony. In other words, I judge these communions to be more faithful to the Spirit in their institutional constitution. (Maybe someday Newman will convince me. :))

    But this is as much the Roman communion’s criterion as it is mine. I cannot accept the Pope’s status, and for that reason, Rome cannot accept me. But I have much more in common with Rome than with Geneva. I am as critical of Protestantism as I am of Romanism. This is not a short-cut, but discernment. The only historical communion that values both Catholicism and the truth of Protestantism, but is likewise positioned to critique both is the Anglican Communion. But I think Orthodoxy is an equally valid option for those rejected by Rome who wish to be faithful to the apostolic church, provided they can ignore or deny the truth of the Protestant legacy as the Orthodox have tended to do. (Conversion to Orthodoxy could also entail an implicit assent to Rome over against the Reformation, but synchronously a passing to an assent of the East over against Rome.) Just a couple of thoughts on your second thesis, but really a fine job! Maybe these should be nailed to the door of a prominent Protestant church somewhere. :)

    At any rate, I enjoy your thoughts on ecumenism very much. Sorry I missed out on the apostolic succession conversation. Look forward to seeing more.

    Monday, November 12, 2007 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  10. Andy wrote:

    Ben,

    It is not as simple as Protestants rejecting Rome. Rome also rejects Protestants. Both sides need to seek reconciliation. The ecumenical dialogue in both directions is proof that that is happening. Protestants do ask that Rome recognize them as churches (as opposed to other religions) because they are cut from the same cloth: the good news of God in Christ for the world. Protestants worship the Triune God; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and confess Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God. A great many Protestants also subscribe to the Nicene Creed. That is why Protestants ask to be acknowledged as churches by Rome.

    Your comments on the Eucharist are a little off. It is true that Protestants differ considerably on their views of the Eucharist. It may also be true that many Protestants do not really affirm the Real Presence. It is, however, also true that a good number of Roman Catholics in the pew think if their stomach were pumped after Eucharist, flesh and blood would come out. This is not transubstantiation; the accidents of bread and wine remain. It is not clear to me that this superstition actually affirms the real presence, either, since it affirms not the living Christ, but flesh and blood of a victim. Alternatively, I know a lot of Catholics who just don’t believe in transubstantiation because they think it’s silly, and thus also deny the real presence. I actually know few Catholics who really believe Christ is fully present in the Eucharist.

    My point is this: Just as these mistaken views of Eucharist undermine the robust orthodox teaching of the Roman Church, so also the misunderstanding of Protestants in the pews cannot be the measure of “Protestant teaching.” (At the same time, yes, SOME Protestant schools do deny the real presence.) This issue at hand is far more complex and important than this.

    The problem, according to the most recent Vatican statement, is that Protestants do not have true sacraments. This has more to do with Apostolic Succession and Holy Orders than a theology of the Eucharist. Since there is no sacramental priesthood (b/c no apostolic succession) the Eucharist (regardless of theology) is invalid. In other words, in the Protestant celebration of the Eucharist, Rome denies there is a real presence, even if the Protestant performing the sacrament thinks there is one. Rome denies the real presence of Christ in Protestant Eucharist more than Protestants probably do.

    Monday, November 12, 2007 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    Just to offer a brief commentary on the word “church” and the issue of the ecclesial status of Protestant communities, I think the issue is largely semantic. Bracket for a moment the pronouncement that Protestant ecclesial communities are not “churches” and read the rest of what is said about our separated brethren in Vatican II (I’m adopting the Catholic voice here because I’m a Catholic). No one would deny that Protestants are apart of the Church (and there is only one Church). Therefore being upset over not being called “churches” by Vatican II seems pointless. The distinction being made between “church” and “ecclesial community” is not one of the presence or absence of the Spirit or of grace but a distinction of apostolicity. If one accepts that definition of the word “church” in this instance, I think it is rather unobjectionable, charitably understood. We have one word “church” that we use in reference to a whole constellation of concepts. In the particular case at issue, Catholics grant that Protestants worship the Risen Lord in authentic communities some of them in Eucharistic fashion and within the one Church of Christ. However, Protestants do not possess the microcosm of local apostolic identity represented by the bishop and delegated to the priests in a Catholic diocese. It is in this sense that Protestant “churches” are not “churches.” However, I’ll be going to church on Christmas Eve with my Lutheran parents at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, and as a Catholic, I have no cognitive dissonance between my full acceptance of the magisterial teaching of Vatican II and using that language to describe my holiday plans.

    Monday, November 12, 2007 at 4:30 pm | Permalink
  12. freder1ck wrote:

    5. I think the problem with that comparison is that Vatican II explicitly calls protestant churches “ecclesial communities”, granting them some sort of imperfect “ecclesial status”. I still don’t think a good explanation has been given (or at least not one that I accept) for how an “ecclesial community” cannot be a “church”.

    Halden,
    This is a great question, and a challenging one.

    The best way I can think of to grapple with it is to look at different realities in the Catholic Church, and ask why they aren’t churches.

    * A parish isn’t a church, but a ministry of the bishop.
    * Monasteries aren’t churches, but communities that bear a dual allegience to their order and their local bishop.
    * Movements, like Communion and Liberation, aren’t churches; in fact, they’re characterized as ‘ecclesial communities.’
    * Basic ecclesial communities aren’t churches.
    * National bishops conferences aren’t churches.

    If I got several friends together in the name of Christ on a regular basis that wouldn’t make us a church, but Christ would be there, and so it would be ecclesial (where the Spirit is there is the Church). Would it make a difference if I met with my friends in my living room or in our own building?

    In all of the above cases, the people involved form part of the Church, and so could be described as ecclesial.

    A local church is the union of the people in a given area with their bishop (Ignatius: Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. Smyrneaens 8).

    The diocese is an administrative structure to serve this relationship. And the Catholic Church is the totality of those churches whose bishops are in communion with the bishop of Rome.

    Monday, November 12, 2007 at 4:52 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    Andy,

    I wanted to address something you mentioned about theory and practice in Catholicism and Protestantism. This is a common thematic element, but I think a distinction must be made between Protestantism and Catholicism on this score. You said:

    “My point is this: Just as these mistaken views of Eucharist undermine the robust orthodox teaching of the Roman Church, so also the misunderstanding of Protestants in the pews cannot be the measure of “Protestant teaching.””

    The difference is that the “robust orthodox teaching of the Roman Church” is actually an intelligible, if somewhat complex, entity. It is proclaimed to exist and has a real conceptual identity. The same cannot be said for “Protestant teaching.” I would never claim that there has ever existed a perfect harmony between the teaching of the Church and the practice of every parishioner. However, at least such an analysis can be made because the two phenomena are distinguishable in the Catholic framework. Making various appeals to “protestant teaching” versus “protestant practice” even within a particular denomination is virtually impossible, even in the most ideal cases, as no protestant bodies claim any real teaching authority. Whatever authority is claimed is purely nominal. It’s tempting the make the comparisons you’ve made, but they end up being purely rhetorical. If someone were to make an argument against Catholicism by claiming that this or that Catholic or even this or that parish teaches that unbaptized babies go to Hell, I could convincingly refer you the “orthodox Catholic position” on the matter with some polemical force. The same can’t be said for the Protestant case. That being said, “orthodox Catholicism” is certainly not completely self evident. As far as concepts go, it is incredibly complex. That being said, it is a concept with some weight.

    Monday, November 12, 2007 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    Freder1ck always seems to make the same points I’d like to, but in a much clearer fashion. Thank you.

    Monday, November 12, 2007 at 8:22 pm | Permalink
  15. freder1ck wrote:

    Thank you, Hill. I wonder, why do you think that is?

    Monday, November 12, 2007 at 9:34 pm | Permalink
  16. Hill wrote:

    Probably because great minds think alike, but this great mind tends to peruse blogs after shotgunning an iced double latte and has an allergy to proofreading :-)

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  17. Andy wrote:

    Hill,

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t think you’re being fair to Protestants. Understand that I am a reluctant Protestant, and although I generally agree with you regarding the strength of dogma and the teaching office, I really think it is uncharitable to portray Protestant teaching as so indeterminate. In fact, some brands of Evangelicalism are VERY clear about what they do and do not believe. The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, has fairly strong doctrines. Simply because the clarity of teaching is not portrayed through the same channels as in Catholicism does not mean the dogma is any less codified.

    Now, the reason I was arguing this is because I felt Ben was not being fair to the Protestant side of the ecumenical relationship with Rome. Ben’s characterization of Protestant theology came from “Protestants he knew.” I can make as many arguments about Catholicism from “Catholics I know.” That gets us nowhere. We should be determined, out of charity, to see the best in each other, not the worst. There are Protestants who claim such a codified teaching or Protestant orthodoxy. We should respect that. To my mind, you’re repeating Ben’s mistake.

    Best,
    Andy

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  18. Andy wrote:

    Freder1ck,

    On the question of a “church” I’m not sure you’ve really hit the heart of the Vatican’s position. As I pointed out above, the Vatican’s claim (source above)is that Protestants lack “true sacraments” because they have not retained the apostolic succession of bishops. Therefore, they are not “churches” in the full sense. In other words, it is the Eucharist that makes the Church. And the Eucharist is only guaranteed by an episcopal ministry in the apostolic succession. That is, more specifically than union, the source of ecclesiality is sacramental union with a bishop in apostolic succession (in the Roman Church this also means the bishop must be in communion with Rome).

    Just a bit of a refinement.

    Andy

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  19. Hill wrote:

    Andy,

    I admit to what you are saying, but I also think that by and large, where Protestant teaching is clear and distinctly confessional, it is also most likely to be wrong, the Southern Baptists being a great example of this (lived the better part of half my life as a born again Southern Baptist, walked down the aisle after hearing a sermon on the wheat and the tares, and half of my family is SB). This isn’t particularly odd, considering that anything a Protestant confession would want to assert in a clear fashion against either Catholics or other Protestant denominations is certainly going to be controversial and less universal and hence more likely to be in error.

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007 at 5:36 pm | Permalink
  20. freder1ck wrote:

    (in the Roman Church this also means the bishop must be in communion with Rome).

    Andy,
    if you want to refine, then let’s be clear: the union of the bishop with Rome exists for the sake of catholicity not sacramentality per se… thus, the Catholic Church recognizes the sacramentality of Orthodox orders.

    Wednesday, November 14, 2007 at 5:43 am | Permalink
  21. Andy wrote:

    freder1ck,

    Correct. My parenthesis, however, was intended to address the rather embarrassing case of Anglicans. Regarding Anglicans, it is lack of communion with Rome and lack of the Roman form for the Eucharist that supposedly disqualifies their priesthood from true sacraments. Alternatively, the Edwardian form for ordination is blamed. Either way, it does seem to come down to communion with Rome for the sacraments to be valid.

    In this case it is true that in order for a sacrament to be valid in the Western Church an episcopal ministry must be in communion with the Roman Pontiff.

    My statement is mostly correct as written: “In the Roman Church” sacramental authenticity does seem to require the bishops communion with Rome. Perhaps I should have said, in the Western Catholic Church instead.

    Andy

    Wednesday, November 14, 2007 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  22. freder1ck wrote:

    Andy,

    I haven’t looked that closely at the Anglican orders controversy, but given their violent origin and secular governance, let’s just say that I’m not that embarrassed about the status of their orders…

    And there are churches in the West that aren’t in communion with Rome: the followers of Lefevre, Independent Catholic Churches, etc. I’m not entirely certain about the ecclesial status of these various groups… status would likely depend upon an investigative process to establish validity.

    I mention, by the way, that some Eastern churches are also in union with Rome. These Byzantine Catholic churches acknowledge the Pope but have their own governance and typically don’t say the filioque clause of the Nicene creed.

    Wednesday, November 14, 2007 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site