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Against Confessional Diversity

A common impulse in the face of the division of the Christian church is to look for unique pearls of distinctly Christian wisdom and beauty in the various different traditions of the Christian faith.  In so doing, we construct some notion of the divergent streams of the Christian faith as different and uniquely beautiful tributaries of one Christian stream, each of which has its own “distinct contribution”.  It is a common, and I think, profoundly modern liberal sentiment that each and every stream of the Christian tradition possesses shards of the Christian wholeness which should be appreciated and appropriated by the truly pious and refined Christian.

This tendency can lead one from a liberal sentimentalism about all roads leading the same place, or an ultramodern ecclecticism which plunders all the various traditions of their interesting bells and whistles for the sake of creating some new, perfect kind of church.  This is a particularly evangelical and American proclivity, exemplified, for example in Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy.  His egregiously long subtitle proclaims that he is a “missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed- yet hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.”  I will leave aside the obvious stupidities of such a cumbersome proclamation.  If people don’t realize that the concept of an “Anabaptist/Anglican” makes no sense whatsoever, I won’t be able to convince them of it.

The point is, however that this impulse to skim elements off the top of the various streams of the Christian tradition assumes that the existence of all these traditions is a fundamentally good thing.  That is the proposition I wish to call into question.  This is not to say that the church should not bear within herself the fullness of human diversity and culture.  Rather, it is to say that the various “traditions” of the Christian faith are only intelligible in the context of the church’s history of schism and division.  As such they are not goods to be celebrated, but the result of sin for which we must strive to repent.

The stains and scars of schism have left no part of the church untouched.  Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Anabaptism, all confessional streams of Christian fellowship have been shaped into the distinctive bodies that they are through their complicity in schism and division.  As such, the wholeness for which the Christian church longs will not be found by trying to figure out what distinctly Roman, Eastern, Reformed, Lutheran, or other such traditional distinctives we can all embrace.  Rather, the wholeness and unity to which we are called in Christ will only be realized when all Christians come together in the most abject posture of repentance and penitence.  There will be no reunion for the Church without repentance.  And they way toward such repentance is not to look for how we can all appreciate our distinctiveness as specific ecclesial bodies, it will rather be found in the abandonment of such distinctives in weeping, confession, and prayer.  How that might come about, only God knows.  But the Triune God is the one who calls things into existence which did not exist, who declares that those who were formerly no people are now the people of God, the one through whom the things that are nought bring to nothing the things that are.  Therefore I have hope.


  1. roflyer wrote:

    This is a good articulation of the problems with the McLaren/emergent movement. On the one hand, so much of me wants to affirm the recent trend in evangelicalism toward listening to the Christian tradition. I’d like to affirm this as a step forward. On the other hand, as you point out, picking and choosing what we like best from the various streams of thought obviously reflects how the evangelical mind has been shaped by capitalism – a sort of consumer approach to Christianity. Much of this sort of picking and choosing is, of course, theologically incoherent.

    All of this being said, shouldn’t we affirm evangelicals who find inspiration in the Catholic saints or the Church Fathers? Isn’t an appreciation of Catholicism from evangelicals better than the rampant anti-Catholicism that has existed in the past?

    Friday, November 30, 2007 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Certainly it’s better. My point would be that so much that makes our various traditions distinctive is rooted in our schism(s). What we should work to appreciate and avail ourselves is the Great Tradition of the undivided church. At least that’s where I’d start.

    Friday, November 30, 2007 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  3. Matt wrote:

    I disagree, I really think the whole mutual need presupposes that each denomination has something to offer. so does union with christ.

    Friday, November 30, 2007 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden,

    I am with you on the vacuity of trying to patch together something “new” by taking the “best” from every tradition.

    But I wonder if recognizing the good in other traditions, and importing their practices might be one way for those of us who are, say, Lutheran to take concrete steps toward that humble repentance of which you speak. I suppose the point of my question is to ask you what an “abject posture of repentant and penitance” looks like concretely, if not the recognition that “my tradition does not have a corner on truth, we need to come together.”

    Wouldn’t it, in other words, be a step toward unity for my Lutheran church to teach about icons (in a Lutheran way!). At the very least, it might bring more people to the ecumenical table with an attitude of openness. We can’t repent out of our traditions, even if they come from schisms of the past. It seems to me that real ecumenism happens when we are thoroughly “traditioned” but not in a narrow way.

    Friday, November 30, 2007 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  5. I guess you think Stanley Hauerwas is obviously stupid because he has called himself a “high-church Mennonite.”

    Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 8:14 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Hauerwas is one of the few people in the world capable of making those kinds of claims and being taken seriously.

    Monday, December 3, 2007 at 12:14 am | Permalink
  7. Jon wrote:

    As one of those odd ball eclectic Christians, I actually find that it’s seeing the good and beauty in various Christian traditions as one of the leading things which has brought me this far so far.

    Either that or I’m one HORRIBLE Pentecostal.

    Monday, December 3, 2007 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  8. roflyer wrote:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Halden is scolding Christians for finding richness in other Christian traditions. What he is confronting in this post is the attitude that suggests Christian disunity is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with Hauerwas calling himself a “high church Mennonite” in this view per se. The ecumenical point here is that we must work toward communion not the best amalgamation of the various traditions.

    Monday, December 3, 2007 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  9. Umm Hmm. And what precisely is the difference between McLaren calling himself an Anabaptist Anglican and Hauerwas calling himself a high-church Mennonite? Why should one be mocked for being “obviously stupid” and the other be praised for finding richness in other Christian traditions? I happen to find much of value in McLaren AND Hauerwas, and I don’t find Halden’s double standard in this regard to be very helpful. I guess I am just sticking up for McLaren against what I perceive to be unfair treatment. McLaren certainly never says that Christian disunity is a good thing.

    Monday, December 3, 2007 at 8:02 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Jonathan, having personally talked with Hauerwas about precisely this issue, I assure you that I have no double standard, and that he agrees with me about McLaren and the whole emerging/emergent thing. McLaren, in an ironically modernistic manner places himself above the whole litany of traditions and movements he seeks to embody “the best” of. Hauerwas is making quite a different statement (and, as always a characteristically rhetorically charged one) about what he, as a high church protestant has learned from the anabaptists. That is, to say the least, quite different from calling yourself a “post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic”. If you can’t see that, then I can’t help you.

    Tuesday, December 4, 2007 at 5:13 am | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    The other thing worth noting about Hauerwas is there is an ironic and aporetic quality to a lot of what he says. Here are two great anecdotes from a brief Cavanaugh piece:

    “During his Notre Dame years, Hauerwas imbibed the Catholic centrality of the Eucharist and became a weekly communicant. Ironically, however, he remained Protestant enough that, when refused the Eucharist by a priest because he was not Catholic, he simply got in another line.”

    “Hauerwas remains deeply and creatively conflicted about his ecclesial identity: “I don’t believe in Methodism, obviously. And yet I believe in my wife Paula’s priesthood, and she’s a Methodist, so I can’t say I don’t believe in Methodism. [...] Hauerwas claims that he cannot become Catholic as long as the Catholic Church will not recognize Paula’s priesthood, which he says he has seen with his own eyes. Confounding the issue is the fact that Stanley’s position would make Paula the only Methodist priest. Methodists do not believe in the ministerial priesthood; Stanley does.”

    Tuesday, December 4, 2007 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  12. Ben II wrote:

    Another thing to point out is the title of McLaren’s book. It is called a Generous Orthodoxy. Think about that title. He is advocating an orthodoxy (or literally right belief) that also leaves room for Christian charity with one another. While, I do not agree with McLaren’s conclusion, I understand where he is coming from.

    It is not a rampant pick and choose Christianity as some might claim. It is only a man willing to admit that the more explanations of Christianity he sees, the less he seems to know. He is openly vulnerable to essentially:

    “hey you know, there are a lot of good interpretations, I can see that. Let’s try to stop judging each others’ salvation and valid Christian priesthood and instead work to fulfill the commission of Jesus that doesn’t say ‘Go into the world and argue about points of doctrine and theory, so as to alienate the very world that I came to save’ but instead ‘preach the Gospel to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.’”

    (note that the word used here is not believe, but obey.)

    We are told to work out our faith in fear and trembling, even if we may not always understand all of the minute points of that faith fully. There is a place for theological discussion and discourse that is very important, but that can only be seen through the lens of pure religion, which is to “look after the orphaned and widowed”.

    I think that is essentially what McLaren is attempting to communicate through his lengthy diatribe of an identity. I think the most important part of that identity is found at the end where he states that he is,


    As are we all. . . And we’d be right to not forget that.

    “And these three things remain, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these things is love.”

    Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  13. Ben II wrote:

    Another thing of note that I forgot to note is that if you look at all of the Saints, even the doctors of the Church like Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Francis of Assisi; they all practiced the element of Christian charity, with each having devoted a life to giving to the poor, widowed, and orphaned, as well as to the royal priesthood around them.

    Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 12:19 am | Permalink
  14. Steve wrote:

    Like many other commentators, I agree and disagree. I agree that disunity is a bad thing. I agree that eclectically borrowing a bit of this and a bit of that is not likely to deal with the fundamental problem of disunity, because it is antiholistic, and ends up borrowing things for the wrong reasons. Yet the uimpulse behind it can sometimes help people to uinderstand each other better.

    Monday, December 31, 2007 at 7:44 am | Permalink
  15. scott gray wrote:

    you said such divisions are not to be celebrated, but rather are the result of sin for which we must strive to repent. usually when someone talks about repenting, it’s other people repenting they look for.

    for yourself, personally, what sins of yours have led to this result? and how, if at all, are you repenting for them?



    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 8:49 am | Permalink

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