Minimalism: An Ecumenical Possibility


Donald Richmond:

A recent discussion, sponsored by First Things on “The Future of Protestantism,” has generated many important considerations. During one of the exchanges between the Rev. Dr. Peter Leithart and Rev. Dr. Carl Trueman, the latter questioned what appeared to be Leithart’s Christian minimalism— a challenge which Leithart rejected. Upon hearing this exchange, especially Trueman’s inquiries, I had an immediate response: Why not Christian minimalism?

minimalism-9Indeed! Why not? Although I am not an historian, it seems that the Church has repeatedly rejected simplicity. Instead, and unfortunately, we have complicated the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. Out of fear, much like Eve’s, we have consistently added to God’s revelation. This inclination is not in keeping with biblical revelation as evidenced at the first Jerusalem Council, and suggests (albeit under different categories) ongoing Judaizing tendencies within the Church. That is, in other words, we have established dogmas that are not biblically justifiable (strictly speaking) and enshrined doctrines that tend towards isolation. The systems we have created smother God’s simple revelation and retards relationships. We have, as such, built walls and not bridges.

The first Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) asserts a principal that must be prioritized. Having converted to Christ, Gentile Christians were being told that salvation in and through Christ was not enough. Specifically, according to the “party of the Pharisees” (vs. 5a), they needed to keep the law and its expectations of circumcision (vs. 5b). After hearing a presentation by Paul and Barnabas, Peter asserted that the Gentiles should not be “troubled” by additions to the gospel of Christ (vss. 12–19) but should embrace certain basic expectations. This “seemed good to the apostles and the elders and the whole church” (vs. 22); a position that had both theological and practical implications. Paul accepted and applied this emphasis upon minimalistic simplicity.

But the Church has not been so swift to assert such simplicity. Examples of this would, no doubt, fill a book. However, let me cite a few Socratic inquiries: Are Copts, because they reject all Councils beyond the 3rd, truly not Christians? Are members of our Orthodox family not truly Christian because they venerate icons? Are monks not Christian because some of their historic teachings MAY lend themselves to “works righteousness?” Is the Latin Church excommunicated because of the filioque? Is the Greek Church excommunicated because of its rejection of the filioque? Is the Eastern Church excommunicated because a Pope said so? Are Luther and Calvin heretics because Latin and Eastern churches reject them? Are Anglicans heretics because at least one Metropolitan, or even an entire denomination, said so? The questions are endless, and more often than not reflect an unwise and impractical emphasis upon pronouncing “shibboleth” properly (Judges 12: 6).

To be sure, issues of orthodoxy and orthopraxy DO matter. Essential shibboleths do exist. Theology and thought, liturgy and life, dynamically intersect. God IS interested in these things. Nevertheless, examples of hair-splitting exist to the point of producing baldness. And, by extension (pun not intended), the realization of our receding “hairline” has resulted in our applying a host of theological gels, goops, glues and sprays that render us ridiculous. Much of our Theology has become a sad yet obvious comb-over.

The question, among other questions, is “What is essential?” When Leithart was asked what his “Reformed Catholicism” would look like, his answers (no doubt tied to the schedule he had been keeping) were succinct yet scant. When offered, they were also far too broad (by and large) to be functionally applicable— although his emphasis upon local communities, while limited and limiting, was well taken. As such, adding to a cacophony of voices, I will add my own limited perspective.

An effective Christian minimalism will be bounded by the following guidelines.

Holy Scripture will be acknowledged, asserted and upheld for what it is: The “inspired” (2 Timothy 3: 16) “word of God” (1 Peter 1: 25) to humans, from God, through humans (Hebrews 1: 1). It must be admitted, however, that problems exist among fellow Christians regarding both the nature of the Text and the number of books that are contained therein. In both cases, however, a reserved minimalism should be employed. Regarding the latter, ALL Christians embrace the 66 books of the “Old” and “New” Testaments. These should be firmly proclaimed. Regarding the other books, varying in number between Greek and Roman Christians, we should have freedom to choose. I, as an example, hold to an Anglican perspective: The other texts, known variously as the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical texts, are good for edification but not for establishing doctrine. As such I would encourage their private reading— as did Athanasius. It must be stated, as well regarding these 66 books, that the Church has uniformly accepted the Holy Bible as “authoritative” and imperative to life in Christ in all of its socio-psycho-pneumatic applications (2 Peter 1: 3). Regarding the former, the nature of the Text, it is sufficient that we acknowledge and adhere to these texts as the inspired written word of God that has practical authority over our lives.

Historic Creeds are central to an ecumenical authority, antiquity and apostolicity. They are not, as they are rooted in the Sacred Text itself, disposable declarations. I recall some years ago hearing a minister (I use the word loosely), after urging us to recite one of the Creeds, encourage the assembly to sit or stand according to our rejection (sit) or acceptance (stand) of this Creed’s affirmations. Talk about misfiring “pistons”!! As CHRISTIANS we do not have an option on this matter. We either say “no” or “yes.” If we say “no” to these assertions, we are not Christians. If we say “yes” (keeping in mind that these assertions reflect significant head, heart and “hand” changes) we are Christians. Please know that I am well-aware of the need to wrestle with questions and issues. Some people, at times, struggle with certain articles of faith. As well, there is the unfortunate gloom of the filioque to be addressed— which, thankfully, has begun (but inadequately) to be rectified in some corners of the Church. When I was first “Commissioned” in 1980 my certificate suggested that this document would remain effective as long as I upheld “the three articles of faith (the Apostolic, Nicene and Athanasian)” and “shall be found living and teaching in accordance with Holy Scriptures.” This tri-fold expectation (believing…teaching…living) seems very reasonable to me, and I have found that such broad rubrics work well in a wide variety of denominational settings– including among those that are not, strictly speaking, creedal. I am reminded by my friend, the Rev. Dr. Chris Alford of the Epiclesis Community, that the Creeds are models of minimalistic simplicity. Amen!

Catholic Practice is also critical to ecumenism. Admittedly this is a difficult concept to embrace. One problem, among many, is the issue regarding the nature and need of being “Catholic.” My ROMAN Catholic friends assert an entirely ROMAN focus. My Protestant friends assert a far more “universal” application— even to the point of changing the word “Catholic” to “Christian” in the Articles of Faith. Some of my other friends, drawing from both, assert a catholicity that profiles Vincent of Lerins’ dictum. Each of these positions has advantages and disadvantages attached to them. The “catholicity” folk, as an example, cannot entirely assume or assert a time when all Christians subscribed to an essential Vincentian Canon— in its emphasis upon an all…everywhere…always experience. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, will have a hard time asserting its claims to sole authority, antiquity and apostolicity. Similarly, as well, my Protestant friends will need to account for their flat (quite accurately described) rejection of “Catholic” priorities and, instead, insist upon a tepid “Christian” qualifier. Properly understood, we are Catholic or we are not Christian. Christians must have distinct Catholic identifiers. As such, along with Holy Scripture and Historic Creeds, a viable and visible Catholic ecumenism will enthusiastically embrace biblical Sacraments. Baptism and Eucharist inform the day-to-day practices of committed Christians. While endless discussion and debate has been generated by the Sacraments, and their number, the Bible is quite clear about two. We are told in Holy Writ to be Baptized. We are told in Holy Writ to participate in Holy Communion. Both Sacraments, regardless of denominational nuancing, assign salvific importance to them (1 Peter 3: 21 and John 6: 53). As such, regardless of subtle nuancing, we cannot escape the biblical imperative attached to each. Quite frankly I do not care one whit about sprinkling, pouring, dunking, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or a whole host of other negotiable qualifiers. What I do care about is active, informed and transformative participation in them— leaving each assembly, even within denominations, to embrace the practice(s) suited to them.

Moral Imperatives are also crucial to Christianity— a word, frankly, to which I have some resistance. Our life in Christ engages “head,” “heart,” and “hands.” Faith is not simply a matter of belief (although proper belief is important) it is a matter of behavior. Walking with God has certain moral expectations. If we BELIEVE in God, we must strive to BEHAVE accordingly.  In other words, Scripture, Creeds, and Sacraments challenge us to live according to the calling of Christ (Ephesians 4:1–16). Christians do not get to do as they please. We are called to live in and by the Holy Spirit as a holy Catholic Church.

This calling has dynamic implications, and is found in the Apostles’ Creed. Here we say that we believe in the Holy Spirit, under whose creedal and practical subheading exist the HOLY (my emphasis) Catholic Church, the communion and saints and the forgiveness of sins. These affirmations are not arbitrary. It is not as though the composers and compilers, having arrived at the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, were scrambling as with an Appendix to draw their thinking to a swift but carefully notated conclusion. NO! To be a HOLY Catholic Church, who lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, will have dynamic impact upon our communion and upon our need to live lives of radical forgiveness. Our behaviors are not afterthoughts of our beliefs— they are inherent to them. To BELIEVE in God, as well as in each of the other creedal affirmations, places behavioral expectations upon us that dynamically intersect (and at times interfere) with the lives of other people. Morality is critical to a Catholic ecumenism.

The forgiveness of sins, for many reasons including “the life everlasting,” is where a robust Catholic ecumenism must begin. And, sadly, it must begin with ME. Near my community is a church that appears to be enjoying some evangelistic success. Their numbers are very high. Their programs are expansive. They do “good work” in our communities. However, when they are mentioned to me, I have frequently referred to them as the “Jesus Lite” church. This was and is not a holy response. It is not, properly speaking, a “spiritual” response. It is, quite frankly, biblical slander. Thank God for a brother who challenged me regarding my attitudes and actions! And maybe that is what we should do for each other. We could all use a good challenge to our pet doctrines, arrogant assumptions, bold assertions and militant dogmatism about the non-essentials. Leithart is correct: We need each other as communal and Christ centered correctives. (And, as Leithart also noted, we will have a lot to discuss.)

The Eucharistic Expectation provides a fitting conclusion to these thoughts. In 1 Corinthians 11, the setting of which is a divided Church, St. Paul’s review of “The Lord’s Supper” calls us to serious personal and social reflection (vs. 28). His warning, not to eat or drink in an “unworthy” manner, is chilling (vss. 27 and 29). I think most Christians are aware Paul’s cautionary statements. Unfortunately we all-too-frequently apply them personally, but not socially. We acknowledge, and seek to rectify, our personal guilt— but fail to do the same regarding our denominational guilt. We prohibit Christians who share a basic faith and practice, a “mere Christianity,” from the Table because they do not speak “shibboleth” with the same denominational accent. What nonsense! What SIN and unmitigated arrogance! Is it not enough to say, and agree upon, that we affirm what Jesus and St. Paul said about Holy Communion? It is, according to both, “body” and “blood.” Let us not get lost in a tangle of misguided philosophies and denominational qualifiers. It is simple: DO WE OR DO WE NOT ACCEPT AND BELIEVE WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS ABOUT THE TABLE? This same simplicity might be applied to a great many other theological issues that we have systematized and philosophized out of all practical reason or usefulness.

If we Christians are serious about the foundation of our faith and practice, Holy Writ, God’s written revelation, maybe we should suspend all Eucharistic celebrations until such time as we are reconciled (Matthew 5:24). No functional ecumenism = No Eucharist. I am quite aware of many of the difficulties with this proposal. I am well aware of the difficulties associated with confessional and denominational rewrites. History CANNOT be re-written, but much of it can be repented of. Come let us reason TOGETHER. No functional ecumenism = No Eucharist.


Image at top: “Minimalism 9.” Photography by Joe Lencioni. March 24, 2008.

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