Ecumenism is perhaps the hottest button in the contemporary church. As I have written before, I have no trouble with a biblical unity. It is “false unity”–love at either the expense or perversion of essential biblical doctrine–that causes me to wince, cry out or run.
Ecumenism in the Beginning
Ecumenism is nothing new. Ecumenical councils have taken place since the beginning of the Church and originally served Christianity’s need to contend for the Faith by formulating clear statements of Christian doctrine, based on the Old Testament Scriptures and the Apostles’ (big “A”) doctrine. The practice of ecumenical councils continued as attacks were made on Christ, Christians and their beliefs from 33 A.D. until the deaths of the Apostles’ direct disciples (ex. Timothy, Mark, Titus, Polycarp). They were necessary and included significant efforts, especially the purpose of Developing the Bible’s Canon, which was completed (397 A.D). Once the Bible was compiled and considered complete & “closed,” the collective body of Christian believers everywhere could depend on it to be the sole Authority in matters of faith and religious practice. Unfortunately, many errors had already crept in, especially at the Church of Rome during the reign of Constantine. The failing Roman Empire/Church entrusted its linguistics, texts, knowledge and societal structure to the British Isles (esp. Ireland).
The Dark Ages and The Enlightenment
Councils were held on into the Middle Ages (c. 400 – 1300 A.D.) and throughout the Ages of Empire and Discovery (c. 1300 – 1500 A.D.). Not all of the councils, particularly during these ages, reached biblical conclusions. Why? In a word, corruption. The Roman Catholic Church had long departed from the Bible as the sole authority for faith and practice but officially stated it in 1229; and they had long resorted to allegorical readings of the Bible according to the teachings of Augustine. The councils throughout these times only served to promote “the Dark Ages” on the Isles and the Continent, (i.e. the Holy Roman Empire, Absolute Monarchy). Divine Right to Rule had anchored itself not only in the Anglo-Saxons (The House of Plantagenet & the Tudor Dynasty) but also in central and eastern Europe by Charlemagne, the Habsburgs and the Austria-Hungary Empire. From these times, we hear little of Church ecumenism but much of consolidation efforts and power plays by the RCC. Examples include crusades and inquisitions (not only on the heathen but on dissenting Christian sects) and splits between Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy (1054) as well as the RCC’s sacking of Constantinople (1204).
Gutenberg’s Printing Press was not available until 1450 A.D. and was not fully utilized until the early 1500’s. But as soon as this tool was harnessed, the Reformers officially rebelled where others had resisted before. Understandably, there was a lull in ecumenism while Europe experienced the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and Inquisitions of the 16th & 17th Centuries and early years of the 18th Century. In the mid to late 1700’s, Revolution exploded against Divine Right of Rule, Aristocracy and State Religion; & a spirit of Democracy grew from whispers to shouts. Make no mistake that behind and intertwined in these political movements were religious influences, particularly what would later be called “Evangelicalism.” Democracy and Revolution took violent root politically, along side of its religious counterpart, evangelicalism, in the 18th Century western world. That’s why works such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables are at once so very religious and so very political.
The Dawn of Evangelicalism
Even though the Encyclopedia Britannica attributes evangelicalism to a mid-19th Century to late 20th Century movement among protestants, I agree with Theopedia which rightly places its earliest roots in the 1700’s and 1800’s. According to Wikipedia,
Evangelicalism is a world-wide Protestant movement maintaining that the essence of the gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ‘s atonement. The movement gained great momentum in the 18th and 19th centuries with the emergence of Methodism and the Great Awakenings in the British Isles and North America. Pietism, Nicolaus Zinzendorf and the Moravian Church, Presbyterianism and Puritanism have influenced Evangelicalism.
The Rise of German Rationalism & Liberal Christian Theology
By the mid-1800’s post-enlightenment “modernity” was the cry of the masses. Protestant and Non-Protestant denominations alike wished to appease the religious and social philosophies (Nietzsche & Marx) and science (Darwinism/Naturalism). German rationalism, transcendentalism, and liberal theology entered the mainline denominations and/or created their own sects. This allowance started what was known as “the Downgrade Controversy” and other struggles among England’s most prominent protestant leaders (see Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon; also, see John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel [Crossway], pp. 197-225).
Whereas “evangelicalism” was a title little said up until the Downgrade Controversy, some conservatives in this controversy became widely known as “evangelical protestants” — those who held to the essential tenets and supernaturalism of (early) biblical Christianity about the Gospel of Christ, embracing neither ecclesiasticism nor theological liberalism.
The tensions which gave way to the Downgrade Controversy also led to the bloom of textual criticism, “advances” in systematic studies and biblical archaeology, all of which (despite their negative aspects) provided wonderful data that affirm the Bible’s veracity (ex. the Dead Sea Scrolls, study of and cross-verification of the New Testament manuscripts, the notoriety of Dispensationalism and Futurism [C. I. Scofield, John Nelson Darby], Biblical Theology).
The Rise of Neo-Orthodoxy and Neo-Evangelicalism
The early 1900’s saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The wars that surrounded and followed that collapse were beforehand unimaginable. The Germanic peoples sought redefinition amid the economic and political vacuum. World War I broke out when England (historical Absolute Monarchists) joined in with similar religious-political interests to those of the ancient Crusades in the fertile crescent. All of this proof of man’s lack of moral evolution AND the evidence that Judeo-Christian values would NOT “bring in the kingdom” resulted in a re-examination of the Reformers’ work and a long, second gaze at the skepticism of rationalism, c. 1910-1918.
Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy had arisen, out of which sprang a new controversy much like that of the late 1800’s. This time, instead of “evangelicals” vs. “liberals,” there were (old) liberals, proponents of neo-orthodoxy (distinct but friendly to liberal thought) and “separatist fundamentalists” (ex. J. Gresham Machen, R. A. Torrey, B. B. Warfield). Later, these men would found dissenting, (evangelical) free, or independent protestant churches.
These things aside, the 1920’s and 30’s brought great social corruption, as Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engel’s materialism and Darwin’s naturalism were, at that time, 2 generations matured… passed on as “life” to the children and grandchildren of those who first embraced it. This newfound hedonism was the seed form of an equally insatiable philosophical complex that we now call post-modernism. But, postmodernism would not take hold until the Great (Silent) Generation, scared stiff by war but still too enlightened for the Bible, had tried out “morality minus God.” German protestant liberal theology and Nietzsche fueled Hitler’s twisted Mein Kampf, the Third Reich and the Holocaust. We all know how the 1st and 2nd World Wars concluded.
Again, this pseudo-spiritual pendulum swing of the Great Generation’s moralism was like water on the seeds of materialistic hedonism planted in the 20’s and 30’s. It opened the door to the rebellion and social anti-establishment of the Baby Boomers and Hippies, which is quintessential postmodernism. The experiential is above the doctrinal. Charismatic theology and churches would answer their need.
The Fundamentalist Split & the Reclaiming of ‘Evangelicalism’
To recap before describing the division of early 20th Century fundamentalism further, the evangelicals of the mid-to-late 1800’s were indeed the spiritual ancestors of the separatist fundamentalists of the early 1900’s. By the 1930’s, some within the fundamentalist movement (even its greatest champions like Machen) realized isolationism was not a good stewardship of the Gospel. There were two fronts in this split.
Firstly, during the Industrial Revolution and (later) the Great Depression, some fundamentalists were only willing to help their own flocks and refused to help congregants from other churches, let alone the suffering masses. Others within fundamentalism wished to provide social and humanitarian aid along side their declaration of the gospel message. They also wished to engage culture with the Gospel in ways that did not change the Gospel but were well adapted methods of reaching the lost. Other fundamentalists desired to take the “Amish” route of “greater personal holiness” and “greater separation.”
Secondly, some fundamentalists within fundamentalism thought withholding true doctrine from the lost is the most heinous kind of isolation. If liberals and neo-orthodox proponents truly are non-believers along with the rest of non-believing society, then apologetic “engagement without accommodation” was the approach to take. The essentials of Christian doctrine were upheld, and the non-essentials (such as views on futurist prophecy, modes of baptism, church governance, conservative trinitarian charismatism, and dispensationalism) were purposefully categorized as areas of acceptable disagreement. On the other hand, the “confrontational” fundamentalists insisted on separation and simple public rebuke of apostasy, and they often held on to dispensationalism and futurism in prophecy.
It is a simplification, but these two fronts of contention split fundamentalism in what was known as The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. The more culturally engaging fundamentalists assumed the historical title “evangelical” (instead of new-evangelical) and the isolationist fundamentalists kept the title, “fundamentalist.”
For more information on this era, please see the article by Theopedia.
Postmodernism, Pluralism and the Moral Majority
Consequently, the mid-to-late 1900’s witnessed a strange and confusing mix of religious trends. These trends can be traced back to The battle for Princeton Seminary from 1926-1929 and what happened to Foreign Missions from 1930-1936.
In 1930, as a result of widespread second thoughts about missions in general, a group of Baptist laymen at the request of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. concluded that it was time for a serious re-evaluation of the effectiveness of foreign missions. With Rockefeller’s financial backing, they convinced seven major denominations – the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Northern Baptist Convention, the Reformed Church in America, the Congregational church, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the United Presbyterian Church of North America – to participate in their “Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry”. They commissioned a study of missionaries in India, Burma, China, and Japan and launched a separate inquiry under the chairmanship of the philosopher and Harvard professor William Ernest Hocking. These two inquiries led to the publication of a one-volume summary of the findings of the Laymen’s Inquiry entitled Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years in 1932.
Re-Thinking Missions argued that in the face of emerging secularism, Christians should ally with other world religions, rather than struggle against them. (Wikipedia)
Of course, Machen denounced these blasphemous findings and made new pushes for ascribing to the “Fundamentals.” But, the wheels had already begun turning. Christianity had sold itself out to secularism, pluralism, and the Rockefellers.
Out of Hand
By the end of World War II & nearly 2o years after its inception, the “social gospel” of evangelicals was demonstrating its disturbing and twisted nuances. “Engagement without accommodation” had failed. When evangelicals now referred to social engagement and a social gospel, they meant socio-political movements that did not necessarily accompany the Gospel but rather forwarded the moral influence of the “Covenant Community” of God’s people. This was something that ecclesiastical churches, mainline protestant churches and evangelical protestant churches could agree on. Parachurch ministries burst on the scene. Theories and movements (even in education) arose across the evangelical spectrum, and they were based on variations of Covenant Replacement theology (ex. Christian Re-constructionism, Kingdom Now Theology, Theonomy, etc). By the 1970’s and under the Gerald Ford administration, sociopolitical Catholic-Evangelical collaboration gained traction.
In the 1960’s, the Roman Catholic Church followed the evangelical suit. It began an onslaught of what might be called “heathen accommodation” but better defined as Ecumenical Developments between Roman Catholics and Non-Christian Religions.
Pope Paul: In 1972 the pope proclaimed that the worldwide cause of Christian unity is being menaced by divisions within the Roman Catholic Church. He told a delegation of the Russian Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow that Catholic and Orthodox Christians share a common faith which they are obliged to preserve, understand and transmit to future generations. (Present Truth Magazine)
Eventually, the evangelicals, in the spirit of a perverted ecumenism, (unlike the councils of the early Church), agreed to “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994). Evangelical leaders like Chuck Colson, Bill Bright, and J. I. Packer signed it (see Bible.org). ETC was an effort to establish a “moral majority” that would politically and socially change the shape of nations everywhere, but especially the sexually revolutionized and ‘liberated’ North America.
In 1992, the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) essentially patted Freemasonry on the back. In the late 1990’s, it was Promise Keepers.
By 2001, the ecumenical mania went super nova. The Episcopalian and Lutheran churches merged–something that works itself out even today. In 2003, the World Council of Churches brought everyone and everything “Christian” together… all at the sacrifice of essential Truth. And, the Catholics declared “Fatima.” Suddenly, doctrine and history didn’t matter.
… to be continued, Part 2
|Religion NewsService (@RNS)|
Three Reflections on Evangelical Academic Publishing by Themelios