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Doing Theology After the Ecumenical Movement

It’s impossible to read the works of most prominent Christian theologians from the latter half of the twentieth century without noticing a common theme: the ubiquity of distinctly ecumenical considerations. That is to say, such texts are animated by a strong sense of the possibility that longstanding distinctions between Christian communions might be overcome at last. At its zenith, this ecumenical movement gave rise to resources like the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. While not accepted by all Lutherans—or, for that matter, all Catholics—the document at least represented an openness to the idea that some of the Reformation’s dramatic anathemas involved theological misunderstandings.

Over just the last six months of my reading, the ecumenist impulse has shown up in the work of the Lutheran Wolfhart Pannenberg, the Catholic Henri de Lubac, the Orthodox John Zizioulas, and many others. And in almost every case, I’ve found myself struck by a sense of anachronism. While interdenominational dialogue isn’t completely dead (to name just one example, my own Missouri Synod has recently had talks with the Anglican Church in North America, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and Evangelical Lutheran Synod), the robust ecumenical theology of prior days feels, for the most part, like yesterday’s ballgame. Virtually nobody, in short, is doing this kind of large-scale work anymore.

Ecumenism, simply put, is no longer the order of the day; just over two decades into the 2000s, the prospects for reunion of the world’s self-professed Christian churches appear fairly bleak. On the mainline side of things, divergent understandings of the church’s relationship to LGBT individuals have not only made ecumenical reconciliation more difficult—perhaps even impossible—but also led to schisms within existing denominations. On the more conservative side, the last several years have been marked by the rise of ressourcement movements within the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Baptist traditions, just to name a few. Such movements necessarily stress the distinctiveness of particular faith traditions over against others, by calling adherents to carefully reflect on why certain doctrines have been preserved in the form they have. As important as such work—the promotion of internal doctrinal stability through enhanced theological education—may be, it does tend to represent the methodological opposite of the ecumenical tendency.

I don’t mean to suggest that this work of confessional retrieval is unimportant or should stop—quite the contrary! Indeed, I’ve frequently found myself amazed that major works from major figures in my own Lutheran tradition (Johannes Andreas Quenstedt, Abraham Calov) have still, centuries after their initial publication, never been translated into English. Over the years, vast treasure troves of the church’s intellectual riches have been almost forgotten, except among specialists with fluency in the original languages.

But there’s a flip side to this. If retrieval projects are the only (or even just the principal) forms of theology that come to take center stage within denominational traditions, theological “muscles” inevitably start to atrophy. I found myself, once upon a time, canvassing the range of theological journals published by some of the very tiniest Lutheran denominations in this country (many with only a handful of congregations). Almost inevitably, these journals were characterized by the same set of authors writing in issue after issue, putting out various iterations of the same defenses of their own denominational identity over against others. And to be blunt, I couldn’t help thinking it would be functionally impossible for any of the insights provided by these small traditions, no matter how profound, to speak compellingly to the rest of Christianity or to the world at large. There was simply no “entry point” to be found; these denominations were talking only to themselves.

By contrast, the concerns of the ecumenical movement forced discussion participants into ever-deeper reflections on the core doctrines and practices of the faith. I may not agree with Pannenberg, for instance, that questions of Eucharistic fellowship can be bracketed off from many of the metaphysical debates of the past, but I can’t attend worship services anymore without thinking of his discussion of the centrality to the Holy Communion rite of anamnesis (remembrance) and epiclesis (lifting-up in consecration). The spur to that discussion, of course, was Pannenberg’s interest in developing a way of thinking about the Eucharist that virtually all Christians could endorse—and a way that decidedly did not slant in the direction of lowest-common-denominator theology.

The years ahead are likely to require that sort of theological “extension” work just as much as they will require rediscovery of past wisdom (crucially, the latter is an important prerequisite for the former!) For instance, within traditionally-inclined American Protestantism, the most notable recent example of actual theologizing that I can recall—mostly concentrated in the Anglican Church in North American and the Presbyterian Church in America, but spilling over into other denominational corners—involved the question of whether “identification as” LGBT, in some form or fashion, is appropriate. That precise question, of course, did not have any direct analogue in the preceding tradition, thereby requiring theologians to extend underlying dogmatic principles “forward” to novel circumstances.

And if present trends are any indication, that debate was likely a harbinger of more to come: a great deal of theological work remains to be done on the interaction between, on the one hand, individual persons’ incorporation into the Body of Christ, and on the other, the distinctly modern set of categories that fall under the heading of “identity.” Surely the particularities of human life and experience are not all dissolved into an utterly homogeneous Church, but then which identity categories should be affirmed and which repudiated? The answer is, to say the least, not immediately obvious.

Perhaps what is warranted is a movement in ecumenical discourse that does not necessarily aim at a goal of reconciliation, but that draws on the insights of many Christian traditions to examine unprecedented issues like these. In many ways, something like this is already emerging, thanks to the increasing proliferation of collaborative theological projects on the internet. God willing, such efforts will bear good fruit; without them, the theological work of the decades to come is likely to be far less successful.

John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post [1], an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms [2]. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.