This has really been an engaging issue; I'm so glad that several excellent conversation partners have surfaced to talk about this, especially those who are committed to working out of an explicitly Reformed identity. One of those conversation partners is Greg Thompson, senior pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Va., who thoughtfully responded to the previous post. To help us all track along, I'm going to reproduce his comments and then respond.
I especially like your question about the Pentecostals of the global south. For (while this question doesn't disprove the Reformed Catholic instinct) it certainly does show the complexity of the central question we're all wrestling with. And that question, if I read you rightly, is: How can one be biblically ecumenical and yet still have legitimate and necessary boundaries?
If I'm following you, your answer to this question is largely historical: the boundaries are set by the Scriptural habits, conceptual categories, and ecclesial practices inherent in our own historical tradition, and ecumenism comes in maintaining those boundaries while at the same time living charitably and even, as Schaeffer says, co-belligerently, with other traditions. You seem, in other words, to advocate a winsome and charitable way of being what Presbyterians have always been--Presbyterian. To the extent that I have it right this is compelling in that it takes both the facts of history and the law of charity seriously.
I sometimes wonder if another way to address this question would be to think not just in terms of historical development but also in terms of eschatological trajectory. That is, to understand our identity--and the boundaries essential to identity formation--not just in terms of what we were or even are, but also in terms of what we will be when the new world comes. The glimpses of this in the books of Psalms, Isaiah, Acts, and Revelation, and Paul's insistence on the determinative power of the future for how we think of ourselves in the present make me wonder if this eschatological starting point might not be a more fruitful approach than--or at least a supplement to--the historical approach you have suggested.
If this is so, given the breadth of the eschatological church (i.e. that it's not all Presbyterian), this raises some questions for me about the "historical approach ". These questions began to bother me as I considered your use of the term Reformed Catholicity (a term which I very much like, by the way). Reformed Catholicity, as you define it, seems to make "reformed" an identity category and "catholicity" an ethical category. That is, the key thing is to be reformed--whatever that might mean in our time, as you say--and from our reformed identities, to interact charitably with those in other traditions. Now, I much prefer this to what we currently have in our church. Given the history of American Presbyterianism, it is a very lovely vision. But I resist it theoretically for three reasons:
First, it seems to me to lack an appropriate eschatological horizon. This approach seems to me to risk cherishing identity boundaries that the eschaton will, in some sense, relativize.
Secondly, it seems to me to actually underplay the demands of charity. Catholicity, as you describe it, allows us to be what we are, to cherish what we are, and act from what we are in kindness toward others. That seems good to me. But what is lacking is the fact living charitably toward another often requires us to change what we are. The premise of sanctification is that the self is fully revisable in light of the law of love. (Incidentally, this does not involve a logical fallacy as you suggested--the "un-Presbyterian Presbyterian." It simply requires that one have an eschatological--and not merely historical--understanding of one's identity). But your version of charitable catholicity seems to make room for too much sameness. I resist this because charity is more disruptive than this.
Thirdly, "catholicity" becomes a bit anemic. Rather than the identity marker that Nevin longed for, it becomes either a winsome disposition of the heart or teamwork across fixed ecclesial boundaries. But catholicity is neither mere kindness nor mere co-belligerence. It is not merely a winsome disposition. It is the hunger for communion. The question is not how can we, being distinct, encourage one another. The question is how we can BE ONE. And further, how we can reflect that one-ness in concrete ways to the world around us.
...Let me sum up: I understand that there is an already-not yet component to all of ecclesial life. And there are necessary reasons--though many (not all) of them tragic in my view--for the boundaries we live within. So, I'm not arguing for a utopian sameness that ignores the deep trenches of history. Truly. There is a lot in those trenches that will find its way into the new world.I'm simply trying to argue against an essentially preservationist view of reformed identity and an essentially dispositional view of catholicity. Mere preservationism lacks a necessary eschatological imagination. And merely dispositional catholicity lacks both the self-sacrifice and the concrete union that love requires.
This is just a great, great post. And I'm so grateful that Greg cherishes friendship enough to share his thoughts with me and the rest of us. Here is some headway toward a response:
1. I think the conversation we are having (historical v. eschatological) feels very similar to categories that Nevin himself used (actual v. ideal). As I understand Nevin, the point he was making with these terms was that the "ideal" church (the eschatological church) was always a reality beyond us--what we have is the actual, that contains the reality of the ideal and yet has not fully fleshed it out. Utilizing the organic, developmental categories of his day, the actual church is always developing, in the process of becoming, moving toward the ideal, but never reaching it in this side of the eschaton.
That being said, I wonder if perhaps Greg might be underplaying the "not yet" and perhaps I am underplaying the "already." That is to say, I read Greg as saying, "Sean, you are not paying attention to the already-present unity of the body of Christ found in our common union in him. As a result, you are too content remaining within structures that divide that body and are too willing to be satisfied with partnerships and common worship services and good feelings." And I think that is probably fair.
On the other hand, I probably respond by saying, "Greg, I love what you are saying, but my goodness--I would love to have my Presbyterian church work together with the Evangelical Free church in our town and plant a church. That would be a major step forward. We don't even have that; shoot, we hardly work together with the EPC churches in our town. Further, I worry that your passionate desire for visible union can only lead to churches that stress 'historical unity' (namely Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy)."
2. I don't think that a stress upon Presbyterian identity need be merely preservationist. I've been working with a model of "Christ and culture" that seeks to move beyond Niebuhr's taxonomy to a sixth possibility, "Christ incarnate in culture." That is, as the Gospel and the church is incarnate into particular cultural systems, it will necessarily take on different forms and shapes as it interstices with various economic, racial, gender, educational, and political realities. I would expect that the basic doctrinal and polity contours of Presbyterianism will show up wherever the Gospel is fleshed out (which you'd expect believing that it is biblical); still, these will look different in Sudan as different from Japan as different from Brazil as different from the American South.
3. Further, I think Presbyterianism has within itself the resources necessary to express both the visible unity and particularity of the church. If it is biblical, I would expect this to be the case. It just so happens that belonging to a "grassroots" denomination, our version of Presbyterianism overstresses the particularity of the church (i.e., discrete congregations) over the visible unity.
It is odd thing, really, because if historian Jack Maddex is right, in the initial revision of the Revised Book of Discipline that the southern Presbyterian church started working on at the outset of the Civil War, James Henley Thornwell was actually advocated a strong, centralized General Assembly that would be able to enforce visible unity. That is "Thornwellian" polity was actually different from actually got the name. It is interesting to think what southern Presbyterianism would have looked like if Thornwell had survived the war.
All one needs to do is look at national Reformed churches like the Church of Scotland to see both the benefits (and liabilities) that visible unity can bring. On the one hand, the dynamic of John 17 is played out in a powerful way in a particular context--Christ's command that the church's unity image for the unity of the Triune God is brought to powerful realization. On the other hand, the unwieldy "Constantinian" approach to church-state (which seems necessary in order to have this sort of "visible oneness") has wrought disasters within the church itself. Still, the point here is that Presbyterianism can provide the eschatological unity in the present--again, because it represents a biblical doctrinal and polity stance.
4. What that does all this mean for the larger conversation about "catholicity"? Well, I don't necessarily think it means what the Baptist theologian, E. Y. Mullins, suggested in his Axioms of Religion--namely, everyone is a Baptist in the end (or a Roman Catholic or a Presbyterian or an Anglican or a whatever). Rather, all believers are "Christians"--that is the fundamental identity. By virtue of Spirit-wrought faith, they will one day realize by sight what we confess by faith now--that we believe in "one holy catholic and apostolic church" (we believe this even when our eyes cannot capture it now). And we live in the reality of this confession as we can--so far, so good theologically.
The problem comes--and this is where my own bent comes as a historian--in that we cannot escape history. Or context. Or space and time and location. Which means that we must be situated in a particular history in order to know what kind of Christian we are--what our beliefs are, why those beliefs and not others, what our practices are, why those practices and not others, and what are the stories that make all this make sense. It is not possible to be a "mere" Christian--there are groups that have tried that again and again. Nor is it possible to be a "catholic" Christian--again, that has been tried and history demonstrates that even this attempt leads to boundary-markers.
And so, it strikes me that the best possible solution--in this actual, in this history, in this cultural-systemic moment--is to identify consciously with a particular set of beliefs, practices, and stories--whether Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Lutheran.
This is not merely a "lovely vision," but what is actually true about us as selves (see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity [Cambridge: Harvard, 1989]). Speaking broadly about humanness, in order to converse meaningfully with others, we must be rooted in a sense of self that allows us to engage the other; otherwise, we are schizophrenic or bipolar, double-minded and unable to differentiate appropriately.
In a similar fashion, we must be rooted in a particular religious tradition and identity; otherwise, we are unrooted, shifting, uncertain, and ultimately unstable. And it is out of this particular religious tradition and identity that we are able to dialogue with others and demonstrate a genuine catholicity that prevents either Utopian sameness, undue self-hatred or religious insecurity, or a return to Rome. Rather, this particularity, oddly enough, grants an opportunity to participate meaningfully with others in the "one holy catholic and apostolic" church.