Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Ecumenisms?

Carl Trueman, professor of Church History at WTS, has been writing some important articles over at First Things.  Important, I say, because of his strong stance on Presbyterian Confessionalism.  Other Protestant authors, such as Peter Leithart (advocate of a sort of Reformed Catholicism), tend to respect the classical confessions (Westminster, Heidelberg, etc.) while connected more strongly to the Patristic and Medieval influences on the Reformation.  However, for many, that has opened the doors to seeing the priority of authority resting in broader Church history, not with the Reformed confessions; that is, many (some? I don't have statistics) have crossed the Tiber, the Thames, or the Bosporus due to the ecumenical outreach of modern Reformation thinkers.  Trueman, while appreciating the influence of Patristic and Medieval sources on Reformed thought, stays committed to the confessional authority and heritage that the post-Reformation scholastics bequeathed to Reformed communions.  My own sense of where this sort of dialogue is going leads me to believe that there will be a Reformed retrenchment against moderate and soft subscriptionism: the Confessions will, I think, in short order regain their authoritative standing in Reformed churches (my reservations about such a move can be found here).  This is no prophecy, however; I could be quite wrong.

Trueman's latest article goes further by calling attention to the work of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (ECT), a group I have some passing affinity with (the former president of the college I teach at was a member -- it made him into a "lame duck" president in the eyes of the Board).  Trueman contrasts, very helpfully, the sort of ecumenism at the root of ECT versus the sort of informal, conference- and book-based ecumenism that seems to hold in broader Evangelicalism.  Think how many conservative Reformed pastors extol Mark Driscoll (Charismatic) or John Piper (Baptist), for an example.  A very, very important issue is raised here, but it isn't the one I wish to focus on.  Rather, it is a rather surprising inconsistency in his reasoning about doctrine.  He says, "perhaps the biggest disappointment about ECT is the fact that, like stadium evangelicalism, it disconnects matters which should be connected." By itself, there is much to be said about this.  However, as the article unfolds, we see Dr. Trueman doing the very separation he castigates.  He applauds Catholic theologians for getting the doctrine of God right, but says that the modern evangelicals, even those who totally botch the Trinity, get the doctrines of authority and salvation right.  In fact, he "still do[es] not see any advance beyond the sixteenth century" in matters of ecclesial authority or justification.  However, while the early Reformed may have held orthodox views about God (the charge of Nestorianism might be able to be leveled at Calvin and can certainly be leveled against Vermigli and others), the moderns by-and-large do not, which means that a separation has taken place: soteriology and theology are at odds in modern evangelicalism.  The problem, though, is that this is untenable: one's doctrine of God is one's doctrine of salvation.

In John 17, the Lord Christ [or St John in an editorial aside] says, "This is eternal life: to know You, the One True God and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent."  Knowing, as it well known among biblical scholars, is a participatory act, not a merely rational one: to know is to be in union with the one known.  To know God, to have eternal life, is to be in union with Him (the Father) and Jesus Christ (the Son) -- the assumption, spelled out elsewhere in Scripture, is that this done through the Spirit.  Eternal life, then, is not merely a gift, separate from God.  Since He alone has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16), to have "eternal" life is to partake in the life of God Himself, the Life that John says is Jesus (John 1:4).  Salvation, then, is participation or union with the Trinity.  To have your doctrine (or "knowledge" if you will) of God wrong is to not have salvation.  One can understand all sorts of things about the so-called ordo salutis and the relationship of justification to that (although I think that Chris Tilling's critique of both Old and New Perspectives as not being sufficiently Trinitarian is indispensable here), but if we have not God, we have nothing but sounding brass.  The two cannot be separated because, in essence, they are the same thing.

While Dr. Trueman may not be guilty of the separation (he seems to hold a more Catholic understanding of God, yet with Reformed soteriology), modern evangelicalism is.  The question of why, then, orthodox Protestants and orthodox Catholics disagree on the mechanisms of salvation becomes salvifically pertinent.  Both cannot be right (it is possible, as my Orthodox friends would aver, that both are wrong).  However, if we understand salvation as union with God (or, to use the Patristic term, as theosis), the question of imputation vs impartation becomes insignificant.  "Righteousness" is not something outside of God, either as a "created" grace or as a legal decree: righteousness is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who pours out the love of God in our hearts (Rom. 5:5).  The Orthodox distinction between Essence and Energy is helpful here.  How does one "become" righteous?  By being united with Christ in His death (His historical energy, as it were).  This union is accomplished by the indwelling of the Spirit at ecclesial baptism -- St Paul's argument in Romans 5-6 -- all because of the faith of Christ in the Incarnation.  More needs to be said about this, of course, but at the very least it pushes us to see that we need a third ecumenism that surpasses both ECT and the new evangelical consensus.

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