Concluding Response: “Opening Doors”
Ecumenical dialogue, at its best, should prompt each of us to examine more critically and reflectively our own tradition in response to the faithful sharing of another’s witness of faith from his or her tradition. That’s one way in which the Spirit works to renew the understanding and living of our faith, and to uncover the unity of the Body of Christ. That unity already exists but is hidden and repressed by pride, corporate self-righteousness, fear, and spiritual insecurity. Living encounters open space for this work of the Spirit.
I’m encouraged and humbled by how this space has been opened thus far in our interchanges through Respectful Conversations. In several responses to my sharing last month of following Jesus from the Reformed tradition, others have probed depths in their traditions in ways that I’ve found illuminating. Doors for important connections have been found and begun to open.
J. Terry Todd, last in the sequence of responses, offers the first question: “Who Speaks for the Reformed tradition?” That gets raised by Randall Balmer, David Gushee, and Christopher Gehrz who all wonder, in different ways, how various conservative evangelicals from different backgrounds seem drawn to forms of Calvinism. I’m puzzled as well. In part it must be a need for tight rational consistency in a persuasive, closed system of theological doctrine, as Balmer suggests. But their authoritarian and, frankly, white masculine version of a rigid Calvinism is not what draws me and millions of Christians around the world to the Reformed tradition.
The World Communion of Reformed Churches, comprised of 230 Calvinist denominations with 80 million members around the world, whose President, Rev. Najla Kassab, is a female Presbyterian pastor from Lebanon, places its focus on being “called to communion and committed to justice.” Their global public profile and Reformed witness are starkly different from the “young, restless new Calvinists” that shape the popular stereotype identified by Balmer and Gushee. In truth, diverse and divergent voices try to speak for the Reformed tradition; our differences, as Gushee suggests, stem more from non-Reformed tensions in the culture.
I’m struck by how David Ford and Michael King place an emphasis on the experience of children in their responses. Ford provides a beautiful, compelling picture of the Divine Liturgy in Orthodoxy, with a child’s perspective. Having participated in several experiences of Orthodox worship in my ecumenical experience, I can underscore how Ford’s description captures its rich sensory and emotive qualities, bathed in a spirituality that illumines its theology. All this is a stark contrast to many forms of Reformed worship which gravitate only toward words interpreting the Word.
Orthodoxy’s practice regarding children and the Eucharist, as Ford describes, finds agreement with my own understanding of covenantal theology. I find no compelling reason to justify separating the sacrament of baptism from participation in the Eucharist, at any age. Even in traditions like Michael King’s, which do not practice infant baptism, the covenant community can serve as a powerful counter-cultural reality against the prevailing individualism the dominates our culture and infects churches from all our traditions, as he demonstrates.
Farris Blount III presents a critique and nuanced view of covenant, however, from the experience of the Black Church which carries deep insight and power. Particularly when involving the victims of trauma and violence, he stresses that covenant needs to be continually re-appraised, and I agree. As I mentioned in my piece, the practical history of the Reformed tradition around issues of race, including slavery, has painful examples which demonstrate the dangers of dismembering covenant into a means of protecting forms of white supremacy.
It is heartwarming to read Christina Wassell’s points of common ground centering around practices of spirituality which can foster a spirit of communion between our two traditions. Catholic and Reformed theological dialogues reveal the difficulties of opening doors of relationship through doctrinal interchange, although significant breakthroughs have been made even on issues as central as baptism, which Wassell affirms and celebrates. But I see in Wassell’s response further reason to share approaches to spiritual formation and practices as ways to push open doors of fellowship in our historically fractured relationship.
My parents named me with John Wesley in mind, not so much for his Methodism as for his evangelical spirit. But it was personally refreshing to see how Sarah Lancaster locates the five points of the Reformed tradition comfortably within the heritage of my namesake.
From Mark Ellingsen I continue to learn so much from his careful and caring excavation of the Lutheran theological tradition, enriching the close commonalities I knew we shared. We’d still enjoy and be challenged by more dialogue around Luther’s “two kingdoms” understanding. For most of my life, first for a time in politics and then in the church, I’ve been pushed toward “political theology,” appreciating what a Reformed perspective can contribute—and also the voices of the Anabaptist tradition and others. Ellingsen’s consistent plea for an ethic embracing the “joyful spontaneity” afforded by grace still may feel like a reach for many traditional Reformed folk. But I suspect that this has more to do with genetic temperament, and the effects of living in environments saturated with gray skies and rain, like the Netherlands and Scotland, than with any significant theological differences!
It’s impossible to do justice to all that has been so graciously shared by these eleven partners. In closing I want to underscore important learnings. With several, including Robert Millet’s fascinating theological journey, the essential communal qualities of Christian faith have been strongly affirmed in contrast to highly individualized expressions of following Jesus. (I know Ken Woodward but had never heard Millet’s recounting of his biting quote about a personal tailor vs. a personal savior!) Yet, while not individualistic, following Jesus does have a personal dimension that goes far beyond the intellect. The Reformed tradition stands in continual need to develop and deepen its forms of spiritual practice which reach the soul as well as the mind.
There’s a deep dialogue to be had around the nature of sin and the pathways of grace within the human personality. That’s reflected in the responses of Ford, Wassell, Lancaster, and others to traditional Calvinist understandings of “total depravity.” My own theological journey today moves down these pathways, encouraged by grandkids on my lap, but also by the resources of the Orthodox tradition, the wisdom of contemplatives like Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr, and much more.
It’s fascinating that it is our Pentecostal partner, J. Terry Todd, reminds me, and all of us, of the relational, Trinitarian framework for our theology. I agree wholeheartedly. And for the Reformed tradition, I believe that at this point in history, our two most important dialogue partners are the Orthodox tradition and the Pentecostal tradition. In that vein, Todd encourages us to “bring on the whole cacophony of Christian voices, mirrored in the Acts experience of Pentecostal tongues.” I say, absolutely.