Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"One" Church (Continued)

In the previous article, I suggested that the current disunity among Christians is largely due to conflicting definitions of the meaning of unity itself. For instance, Roman Catholics define it based on communion with the central administration in Rome. Many Protestants use instead the Bible as the sole foundation of faith and Church unity. Others use a confessional approach, asserting that as long as we can say that “Jesus is Lord,” we are all part of the universal body of believers. And still others define unity in still broader terms, as a common belief in God revealed in a variety of ways, Christianity being only one.

All of these approaches are, I believe, problematic. The jurisdictional unity under a centralized authority in Rome may be useful in regards to discipline and order, but its claim to be a unifying doctrinal force among Christians is founded on the assumption that when the papacy speaks formally, it is incapable of error in doctrine. This claim to infallibility is a position that I and others find difficult to accept.

Using the Bible as the sole basis of the one Church, however, is equally hazardous. Foundational as the Bible is to Christian faith, it has not proven itself adequate as the sole means to Christian unity. If this were so, why are there literally tens of thousands of competing denominations, all of whom claim to be interpreting the same text correctly? The problem with basing a faith on a scriptural text alone is that the text must be interpreted, but who interprets, and whose interpretation is authoritative?

Why then can’t we just define the Church by the simple confession that “Jesus is Lord”? Or why can’t we go even further and talk about unity among religions in which God is made known in different ways, Jesus being one of those ways? If we define commonality of belief in general enough terms, isn’t that enough?

It may be for some, but not for me. I may call Jesus “Lord,” but so did Arius, a fourth century teacher who also proposed that Jesus was not really and fully God, but a quasi-divine being created at some point before the creation of the world. Another teacher, Nestorius, also called Jesus “Lord,” but he also said that Mary did not give birth to God in the flesh, but that Jesus assumed his divine identity later, when He came of age. These are not differences over which I can agree to “live and let live,” for they each result in completely irreconcilable conceptions of Jesus, none of whom I recognize as Saviour.

And as for defining unity in still more general terms that allow for other personal revelations of God other than Jesus, what can I say? If the Apostles and the martyrs of the early Church were content with that understanding, why would they rather be tortured and killed than confess that anyone else but Jesus was the full revelation God Himself? Why didn't they simply admit that God was revealed in the Emperor, just as He was in Jesus? Do we really want to follow a Christ other than the One who was confessed by the Apostles who knew Him and the martyrs who gave up their lives for His sake?

So again we must ask, what is the solution to Christian unity? And again, I must say: I do not know. But I can say that we must begin with the person of Jesus Christ. As Fr. John Behr, a contemporary Orthodox theologian, has said: “Christ is the subject of Christian theology,” which means He is the only real foundation of Christian unity. By clinging to “one Lord” through our “one baptism,” we also come to share “one faith” in the one Body of the Church. (see Eph. 4:4-16) Just as the spokes on a bicycle wheel converge at the hub, so too are we united in our common union with the same Jesus Christ.

It’s a simple point, but one we have missed to a greater or lesser extent. If we are going to take the first baby steps towards real Christian unity, I believe that we need to find a concrete and comprehensive and unified answer to the question that He asked His own disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

To merely recite the phrase, “He is fully God and fully man,” is not sufficient. After all, what do those words mean? Do they mean He is a schizophrenic Christ: two disassociated persons in one body? Or is He some kind of God-man blend—a superman ultimately alien from ordinary human experience? All of these questions are not merely abstract points of debate. They have real and serious repercussions on how God has made Himself known to us, and how we relate both to Him and to one another.

I would therefore encourage you to make a personal beginning at answering Jesus’ fundamental question: “Who do you say that I am?” For at least the first thousand years of its history, Christians struggled to respond, and the fruits of their labours are well-documented and freely available online (check out www.ccel.org). A good place to start is Athanasius’ 4th century classic On the Incarnation—a short, accessible and powerful reflection on Jesus’ identity by a universally respected teacher.

I also encourage you to challenge your pastors to provide solid answers to Jesus’ question in their preaching and teaching. In what sense is He both God and man? How is the divine and human united in Christ without confusing those natures or dividing His person? And please don’t accept abstract or vague answers. If you want real Christian unity based on the real Person of Jesus Christ, whose real Body is present in the world today through His Church (1 Cor 12:27 and numerous other references), I urge you to seek real historical answers to His question. Those who came before us, who suffered and died to proclaim the Jesus Christ of the Apostles, deserve no less an effort from us today.

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