This summer marks the 500th anniversary of the Leipzig Debate between Martin Luther, then still an Augustinian monk, and Johann Eck, one of the leading Catholic scholars of his age. The issue at hand was the legitimacy of indulgences, but much deeper and sharper theological differences between the two men soon became clear.
The debate resolved nothing. Instead, it quickened the pace toward a breakup of Christian unity, decades of religious conflict, and a revolution in European thought, culture, politics and economy.
Five centuries later, we live in a “developed” world that’s vastly different and far less formally religious. If conflict among Christians seems less fierce today, it’s often because — as Henri de Lubac once said — too many of us have transferred our passion for God to politics, “and the very substance of our faith no longer interests us.”
The modern heart may thirst for meaning, but it’s instinctively skeptical about anything that claims to be binding and true. This makes a certain kind of ecumenism easy. If doctrines and creeds are simply human approximations of God’s will, then no one needs to take them too seriously, and generous sentiment trumps niggling doctors of the law.
The trouble is that God gives us brains as well as emotions, and he calls us to use both in seeking him. Thus, doctrines and creeds matter profoundly, no matter how they might differ among the various Christian traditions, because they embody the best of the Christian mind seeking to understand God and apply his will to the task of human happiness in this life and salvation in the next.
Christianity is not simply a good system of ethics with a veneer of supernatural teaching. The content of Christian teaching matters. Christ’s physical Resurrection matters. The reality of an afterlife with a heaven and a hell matters. Thus, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations and the issues they grappled with matter, even half a millennium later, because questions of truth matter.
Where does this leave us as divided Christians in the face of Jesus’s hope that “all may be one”? This month we celebrate the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25). It’s a time I devote to gratitude for my many Christian friends who are not Catholic, but who have challenged me through their own faith to be a better Christian myself. Carl Trueman, a distinguished Presbyterian scholar and minister, is one of those friends. And as I prepared this column, I asked him to share his own thoughts on Christian unity:
It seems clear that there likely will never be institutional unity between the Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations. The issues that divide us are serious; and Catholicism is too internally divided and Protestantism too fragmented to create the conditions necessary for the serious discussion of doctrinal differences that would need to precede even the most minimal form of rapprochement.
Yet if institutional unity is impossible, and even in a sense undesirable, room still exists for real friendship and positive engagement in less formal ways. In my own tradition, that of the Reformed Church, one of the exciting developments of the last few decades has been an increasing appreciation among theologians for the patristic and medieval sources that feed in to the best Protestantism of the Reformation. Athanasius, Augustine, the Cappadocians, the great Catholic Creeds, are now common features in Reformed discussions, along with the magisterial insights of Thomas Aquinas into both the doctrine of God and natural law.
Speaking personally, I find the work of Catholic scholars such as Lewis Ayres, Thomas Weinandy and Matthew Levering, to be vital theological and spiritual sources. And it’s my impression in conversation with Catholic friends that there is growing appetite in many Catholic circles for the Bible and for good teaching. These developments offer hope for the future and point me to one other great pleasure — that of good personal friendships with Catholics with whom I disagree on significant issues, but who share a common love for Christ and for the great Trinitarian and Christological doctrines of the early Church, and a desire to live in a manner which honors God’s word and God’s people.
Again, unity at an institutional level is probably impossible; but informal unity among friends is not. In my own life over the last few years, such has provided some of the best and most touching moments of Christian friendship; a friendship built on a mutual respect that grows from a deeper knowledge of some of the commonalities of our traditions, and from recognizing the love of Jesus Christ in others with whom I differ on (often important) points.
Heartfelt and well said. So the point of this week’s column is simply this: The differences among Christians matter — but the love of Jesus Christ and the friendship among Christians it creates matter more. Today, in our lifetime, this is what the best kind of Christian unity means. To some, it may seem modest. But it’s rich, it’s a thing of beauty, and it’s enough.
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