Through Ecumenical Glasses

August 28, 2014 — 3 Comments

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In George Marsden’s fascinating book on the first twenty years of Fuller Seminary he briefly covers one of their faculty members who was hired in 1948 and then dismissed, Béla Vasady.

Vasady was a highly accomplished Hungarian Reformed theologian. Fuller was trying to position itself in the midst of fundamentalism as a non-separatist school because separatism had plagued the movement and Fuller increasingly viewed the rifts as destructive and embittering. Worst of all, separatism hurt evangelism.

Harold Okenga, the president, was therefore made a bold move in hopes of cultivating their image and gain an entree into the mainline denominations. He offered a faculty position to Béla Vasady, a man of international credentials. But Vasady, according to Marsden, had two strikes against him. First, he had some admiration for Karl Barth. Second, he was among the founders of the much-maligned World Council of Churches, feared by most evangelicals as part of a modernist effort to dilute the faith.

Marsden says the episode between Fuller and Vasady was a microcosm of Fuller’s struggles to determine whether Fuller was a fundamentalists movement or if they were more open.

Vasady came to Fuller, but he became puzzled over the divisive state of American churches. He published in Religion in Life a short essay called “Through Ecumenical Glasses,” which contributed to his dismissal.

501618He sought for unity, but his Presbyterian friends were telling him his work at Fuller made him too “divisive” to be fit for the local Presbyterian ministry, while his colleagues at Fuller concluded he was too ecumenical to remain with them.

Ecumenism Today

These historical happenings are interesting for a number of reasons. One reason is because in every generation ecumenicism is a topic of conversation. Learning from past theologians about their reasons for ecumenism can both encourage ecumenical efforts and guard against missteps.

Most recently Peter Leithart has called for more solidarity between Protestants and Catholics, and a few Baptist theologians are working towards more unity. There will even be a session at ETS on the topic.

Through Ecumenical Glasses

Because I found Vasady such an interesting figure in Fuller’s history, I did some research and found his short article which contributed to his dismissal. The entire article is linked here, but I have highlighted the main points.

Vasady begins with the following.

Now that the World Council of Churches has been formed in 1948 at its First Assembly in Amsterdam, the question of what it means to be an “ecumenical Christian,” a member of the universal church of Christ, must become a pressing concern to all of us. We must examine ever more closely just what obligations are involved in viewing and evaluating all national and international, all economic, social, cultural, and political issues, but chiefly all churchly and theological problems, always through ecumenical glasses.

The aim of this article is to answer these questions in three concise statements.

Through ecumenical glasses! This means, first of all, the consistent fostering and cultivation of a one-church-consciousness.

Christ himself did not think in terms of the “fold,” i.e. the institution, the external, visible organization and its oneness. Rather did he anticipate the oneness of the “flock,” which is oneness ins spirit and in truth. Ubi Christus, ibi Ecclesia–“Where Christ is, there is the church. The one, ecumenical church! This is the church of which we read in the New Testament that it is the “body of Christ – Corpus Christi. Its members stand in a living, organic relation, first of all with Christ, the one head, but also with one another. This is how the communion of saints (communio sanctorum) comes about.

It must be apparent this one-church-consciousness is not quantitative, but qualitative; that it is the awareness not of a physical, but a spiritual, dimension. For this reason it requires, first of all, a superdenominational attitude. To view and appraise all things through ecumenical glasses demands that we become more than just Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, Eastern Orthodox, or what have you.

Through ecumenical glasses! By this we mean, in the second place, to live constantly in a state of creative tension.

To be seeing everything ecumenically presupposes, then, that I must live in a historically and geographically determined denomination and congregation. I must take part in its worship services, its prayer meetings, its Sunday-school work, its administration and its benevolences. At the same time, however, the mainspring of all my church work must be found in my own divine dissatisfaction, to wit, that my congregation, my denomination, my historically and geographically determined “church” is still very far from being identical with Christ’s “one church”!

The more deeply I experience this creative tension between “the church-as-men-have conceived-it” and “the church-as-God-intended-it,” the more powerfully I shall confess the new evangelical catholicity and the more irresistibly I shall seek spiritual communion with other congregations, with other denominations, with members of which which differ from my own geographically, historically, racially or nationally; and the more diligently I shall strive for a community of prayer and work with them, that we may come to know each other’s faith, each other’s soul, every more fully. In so doing, I shall become increasingly aware of the implications of being an ecumenical Christian.

Through ecumenical glasses! By this we mean to see everything from this catholic standpoint requires a daily about-face for the sake of Christ, right in that congregation and denomination in which God has called us to serve.

Our world and churches are threatened with disruption…[But Jesus] refuses to be party to any individual, racial, national, or denominational self-centeredness. He is insists on being the Shepherd of the whole flock, the Head of the whole body….No single denomination or church can appropriate him. Rather, he expects the members of every church to run the risk of a complete about-face, to subject their so called human, economic, and social values, all their accustomed national and international prejudices to a radical revision, until these no longer stand in the way of an absolute obedience to him, of an unconditional surrender to him as the Lord and Savior.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

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