Church and “Ecumenical Protestants”

Recently the Christian Century interviewed David Holinger, about his work in American intellectual history specifically his thoughts on “Ecumenical Protestants”.  “Ecumenical Protestant” is his prefered term from what is sometimes called, the Mainline, liberal, or Modernist.  Thanks to the Anglobaptist I was part of a Facebook conversation around the meaning of Holinger’s account of the success of the Ecumenical Protestants in the mid-20th century, and the meaning of the continued conflict between Ecumenical Protestants and Evangelicals. (side note on terms, while I like his term Ecumenical Protestant, I think his choosing to not find an alternate term to “Evangelical” is problematic since I think “evangelical” has similar problems to the terms “mainline”, ‘Liberal” etc.).

Holinger speaks of the achievement’s of Ecumenical Protestant leaders but also the failure to bring along a number of their constituents.  He frames the achievements in secular terms mostly, and  doesn’t seem to entirely understand the how or why of this failure (at least in the brief interview, I have not read his work.)   I glean from Holinger that  the issue is about Protestantism and its impact on the history and future of the United States along secular  Enlightenment values.  But this might be the issue with the Ecumenical Protestant, it was simply the American version of the Classical Liberal European theology that Barth, Bultmann, Bruener, and Bonhoeffer (I hadn’t realized before so many names begin with B from that period of German theology) appreciated but all found wanting and deficient as Christian faith.

Side note: he names among the values of the Ecumenical Protestants, anti-imperialism, but I’m skeptical, in part because his “Enlightenment-generated standards for cognitive plausibility.” while sounding nice are a form of cultural imperialism.  Cultural imperialism is what others do we simply have standards of cognitive plausibility, but how did we  come to these standards if not based upon cultural presuppositions and assumptions. you can’t divorce the Enlightenment from a particular European culture.

I think “Ecumenical Protestant” is problematic as it basically says that Evangelicals aren’t or can’t be Ecumenical.  The label excludes a certain type of ecumenical Evangelical.  I’m thinking of my own concrete formation in ecumenism at the Evangelical and fundamentalist (heretical to most Fundamentalist) seminary Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.  I have yet to encounter a more diverse setting both denominationally and ethnically than Fuller in the late 1990’s.  Hauwerwas and Moultmann at the time were all the rage in this Evangelical seminary, Moultmann’s student Jaroslav Wolf was one of the  professors of systematic theology.   President Richard Mouw would say to each wave of incoming students. “You all have been told you shouldn’t come to Fuller because it is too liberal…. and you all have been told you shouldn’t come because Fuller is  too conservative.”  The room always erupted in laughter because it was true, we all had been told both those things.  The unfortunate thing for Fuller Seminary was that it was (and I think still is) caught in the Modernist/Fundamentalist divide.

Fuller had managed a limited escape from the divide through  seeking the Church and the mind of Christ by being ecumenical and non/denominational.  I now wonder though if  it’s unique character was somewhat parasitic off the controversy.  Fuller sought to heal the divide  but to heal it, it had to convince enough people that they hadn’t abandoned Evangelicalism/fundamentalism ( that was still their funding base ), and had to convince enough other people they were open enough to Higher Criticism, feminism, post-modernism German theology etc. to be able to engage the “Ecumenical Protestants” on their own terms.  However, the time the truth on the ground had little to do with siding with either side of the controversy.  One only remembered the controversy in the  rhetoric of the institution that said “We are Evangelicals and not those scary ones!”.  In the classroom we engaged preaching, ministry, pastoral counseling, Biblical studies, and Theology without reference to either  the Ecumenical Protestants or the Fundamentalists.  Inside the Theology and Biblical studies classrooms and among the Theological student body we weren’t learning to be either Ecumenical protestants nor Evangelicals, we were learning from each other as members of the Body of Christ (Orthodox, Catholic, Presbyterian,Assembly of God, Lutheran, Episcopalian, etc, there were too many to list here).

(At Fuller at this time, the school of World missions and the School psychology were each their own worlds, Missions had many more of the died in the wool Evangelicals)

For me the issue isn’t whether or not one is able to advance progressive ideals, nor if one is “evangelical”.  I’m certain in part based on my experience at Fuller that simply  being X sort of Protestant isn’t where the truth lies, rather it is in being the Church, in continuity with the Apostles.  I believe both sides of this divide in american Protestant religion were always expecting and hoping that the Kingdom of God would be established through the Nation State of the United States of America.  If Ecumenical Protestant leaders cared little for their institutions and the congregational identity, it was because they did not believe the church was anything that needed tending.   And they had also replaced a sense of church with their faith in a nation that could be reformed to be that which they didn’t believe the Church could be.  The Evangelicals simply conflated and many still do so conflate Church and nation: America has to be a Christian Nation to fulfill its ecclesiastical destiny of bringing light to the world.  In truth though it is the same thing Nation replaces the body of Christ as sacrament of the Kingdom of God.  Granted this may be the result of Protestant ecclesiology but that is another but related topic and post.

As to letting an institution demise: if Bishop William Temple was making the claim that the ultimate purpose of  the Church is a sign and Sacrament of the Kingdom of God, then when that comes the church is fulfilled, then I heartily agree with Temple, though I think then Hollinger misunderstands what Temple meant about any church being willing to accept its demise if by that demise its ultimate purpose is served.

So, I want a different conversation, I’ve experienced in pockets this different conversation.  I strongly urge us not to pick up a Fosdickian stance, but for us to seek the mind of Christ.  Stop trying to take on the standards of cognitive plausibility generated by Enlightenment and stop resisting those standards. Take up the standard generated by and in Christ! Christ is the the Christians standard of cognitive plausibility.  Taking Christ as our standard and our Mind means we have a great deal of work to do, and that we’ll always be translating for those who aren’t Christians.   Such probably won’t ever work well as a sound-bite, or a rallying cry to reform the nation.  However, Christ is our standard of justice, mercy and compassion.  American Christianity perhaps never understood the radical notion that Jesus Christ is the Justice of God, the one who transforms the world into the Kingdom of God, and that the church is to be the Sacrament of that transformation and dimension of reality.  If we don’t take up this radical idea of the mind of Christ and the sacramental reality of the Church, we will simply be fighting over the control of  a nation and power that like all things of this World is simply passing away.