Karen Wong has a YouTube channel, The Meaning Code. She recently had a conversation with Gavin Ashenden; I want to focus on the portion of the discussion on ecumenism – primarily between Catholic and Protestant, although he also touches on the Orthodox community as well.
I say up front: I don’t agree with all of the comments, but the discussion was quite valuable. There was, especially, a couple of insightful (at least to me) points made by Ashenden, which I will expand on when it comes up in the conversation.
Wong: Is there an ecumenical path possible between Catholic and Orthodox, and why do you leave out Protestants?
Ashenden: I leave out Protestantism because it makes a tremendous category error: it reads history backwards, and, therefore, makes some terrible mistakes. It starts history in about 1520, and then reads the Bible back into time, whereas that just isn’t what happened.
Protestants will say that the Bible takes precedence over the Church, and of course it does. But it was also the Church that said what was the Bible – which did not come together until the fourth century.
Ashenden: Jesus made a promise, that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth; that there were things that the apostles couldn’t cope with then. Whatever that means, it does mean that over the next 50, 100, 200, 500 years – what period of time was Jesus talking about – that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church into all truth.
This is one of the insightful points. The passage is from John. chapter 16:
12 I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. 13 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. 14 He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.
Understood as Ashenden explains, it kind of throws the Sola Scriptura idea out the door. Maybe, more precisely, it says that there is something to tradition. Or, maybe a Protestant might say that the “guiding into all truth” was the later inspired writing (by the apostles) of the Gospels and letters, nothing more. In any case, I find Ashenden’s point worth pondering.
Returning to Ashenden: if you start Church history from Pentecost, and go through Polycarp, Irenaeus of Lyon, Ignatius of Antioch, through Clement of Rome and the early popes, through Eusebius, what you have is a series of councils – “and the acorn becomes a tree.”
And you see the acorn becoming a tree, and you see the branches. And you see: that branch is a legitimate part of the acorn, I see where it comes from now. But Protestantism starts with the Bible in 1520, and a whole series of cultural norms of the Enlightenment, and says we are now going to reconstruct Christianity without the apostles, without the work of the Holy Spirit for 1500 years, we are going to recreate the Church ex-nihilo. But that’s not what Jesus said was going to happen.
To be fair to Protestants, and certainly the early Reformers: there was meaningful and significant corruption in the Church, corruption the Church was unwilling to address at the time Of Luther (or Wycliffe or Hus). Luther did not initially intend for a split – a protest. He was driven to it (of course, his personality also had something to do with it).
Protestants therefore have 1500 years of amnesia – like an amnesiac telling the family history. So we end up with arguments about the Eucharist, Mary, the saints, miracles, the pope, the patriarchates – Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome.
And this to me is the other insightful point – obvious once he said it: the ecumenical dialogue doesn’t work well if we begin with the dozens of different branches of the Church today. Begin at the roots, then the trunk, etc. Follow the early Patristic fathers, follow the Church councils. Understand their reasoning and justification.
The problem with the Protestant mindset is that it begins with a complete misconception about what the Holy Spirit did. So, we have a position that everyone is free to decide what the Bible means, and we end up with thousands of denominations. That’s not a good place to start.
It will be difficult to unscramble the scrambled egg. Instead, go back to the beginning, before the egg was broken. Build from there.
Ecumenism can’t begin with the presuppositional errors introduced by Protestantism; it has to go back to the first century, and go through the developments that the Holy Spirit led the Church through.
Wong then made the point in speaking of the Catholic Church: the laity are told that they cannot read the Bible on their own; it must be done by the priest. Catholic women would come to her Protestant Church for weekly Bible study because of this. Ashenden offers:
This is where Protestantism is more true than Catholicism. Catholicism has failed to develop hymns, praying, Bible reading, and Christian community. It has failed lamentably, and Protestantism has succeeded amazingly.
So, if it sounded like I was a narrow-minded bigot about Protestantism early on, let me say that Protestantism has all these gifts which Catholicism yearns for and needs. The tragedy is that both parts of the Church need each other.
He continues: if we only focus on the bad stories we have about the other, we can’t get on with any of it – there are plenty of bad stories to go around.
The road to ecumenism is to start history with the New Testament, and works one’s way through in a linear way to see what the Holy Spirit has led the Church into.
Ignatius and Polycarp were, by tradition, disciples of the Apostle John. Perhaps what they wrote, said, and did, should carry some weight.
Protestants should apologize for leaving Catholicism, but then bring the reading of the Scripture, the hymns, the fellowship, the community, into the Catholic Church with them.
Maybe Catholics can also apologize for the corruption that drove Luther out.
We have this dreadful situation where we have allowed a fragmented Church to weaken us.
And it is costing us dearly….