Modern Ecumenism I: The Current Landscape

Several months ago, Emily and I attended a lecture by Peter Kreeft at Biola. As we walked into the auditorium, I remarked to her “This has got to be the first time that Biola has invited a Roman Catholic to speak.” I have no way of verifying that, of course, but it is at least a very rare (and therefore significant) event. I'm not suggesting that Biola is going soft on the errors of Catholicism, but the spirit of ecumenism which the invitation embodies has been showing up in more and more places lately as a wide swath of Protestants become more accepting of Catholicism. The breadth of traditions that this move covers is remarkable: high-church Calvinists, standard Evangelicals, and Emergent Church postmodernists. Many young people are leaving the evangelical churches they grew up in for high-church Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Signs of the change are all over the place. In 1994, First Things published the declaration Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which refers to Evangelicals and Catholics as “brothers and sisters in Christ.” The document, which was signed by such prominent evangelicals as Charles Colson, J.I. Packer, and Bill Bright (founder of Campus Crusade for Christ), encourages cooperation between the two traditions, emphasizing their similarities and common goals.

The ecumenical movement in Evangelicalism has so much momentum behind it that it has prompted Mark Noll (also a signer of ECT, by the way) and Carolyn Nystrom to write a book titled Is the Reformation Over? examining the improving relationship between evangelicals and the Catholic church.

All of this is well-represented in the blogsphere. Sites like ReformedCatholicism offer what they call “A reformational contribution to catholicity”. The Internet Monk (a southern baptist, though not a theologically typical one) is on record admiring the Christianity of many Roman Catholics (in particular he's a huge fan of Thomas Merton). And the emergent movement has more blogs than churches.

All of this rabid ecumenism has caused a backlash in the Reformed blogsphere. If you don't know, it seems to be part of the Reformed ethos to be rather bulldoggish about doctrine. There is a party line, and the gatekeepers are very strict about any deviation from it. I'm not sure if it has always been this way, but it is now. Anyway, an ecosystem of Reformed bloggers has sprung up whose entire purpose is to combat whatever deviates from the party line. The most common targets these days are the emergent church and those who flirt with calling Roman Catholics Christians.

The dialog between these party-line Reformed and the more catholic (small 'c') regions of the blogsphere can be uncharitable and vindictive. There is a lot of name-calling on both sides, and rhetoric that is frankly unbecoming of Christian believers. This is the current landscape of ecumenical dialog in America. It is a mess, but a hopeful mess. The hope does not lie in convincing everyone to just get along. The hope as I see it lies in crafting a theology of Christian unity which acknowledges that Christianity is wider than many Protestants have traditionally believed, while maintaining the doctrinal distinctives of historic Protestantism. Do the recent ecumenical trends outlined above represent a break from the fundamental principles of the Reformation? Are they a denial of our heritage as Protestants, and the truths the Reformers fought for? Is the Reformation, indeed, over? They needn't be, and it isn't.

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