Monday, August 30, 2021

Ecumenism and History


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….


  1. "...but, then bring the reading of the Scripture, the hymns, the fellowship, the community, into the Catholic Church with them."

    Imagine thinking that before Vatican II, the Church was devoid of any of this.

  2. Unfortunately, Catholics and Protestants can only come together so far.

    As to traditions. I respect traditions and to take a tradition down one must first understand why it arose.

    Then, there is a time to take the fence down.

    Mark 7

    7 Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. 2 Now [a]when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, [b]they found fault. 3 For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands [c]in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.

    5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?

    6 He answered and said to them, Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

    ‘This people honors Me with their lips,
    But their heart is far from Me.
    7 And in vain they worship Me,
    Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

    8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men[d]the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.

    9 He said to them, All too well you [e]reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, 13 making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.

    14 When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, Hear Me, everyone, and understand: 15 There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. 16 If[f] anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!


    1. " must first understand why it arose."

      I agree. This was one of Ashenden's key points. Go through the councils forward through time; understand these. Don't start the clock fresh in 1517 as if nothing was ever understood before that.

      In such a case, we would likely find justification for some Catholic / Orthodox practices and teachings and lack of proper justification for others.

    2. "There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. "

      What an amazing defense of the free will of man. No matter the origin of the words that enter your mind, you are responsible for them the moment they begin leaving your lips.

      I also wonder how true this is in regards to our biology. How much of the sickness we are afflicted with in this world is due to fear, stress and indulgence in sin? It seems to me probably most.

  3. From Ashenden's comments on Protestantism I don't think he understands it at all. The Reformers all thought they were going back to a more Apostolically pure church not something that started in 1520.

    I can't ever accept the traditions of the Catholic church personally. I have no interest to even try. I am actually very comfortable with the decentralized church we have here in the US.

    Now I would welcome working with Catholics to end abortion and other evils of our society. I would stand arm in arm with Catholics would want to end the Fed and reduce the size and scope of government.

    I don't have to worship with them on Sundays to do any of that.

    1. "From Ashenden's comments on Protestantism I don't think he understands it at all. The Reformers all thought they were going back to a more Apostolically pure church not something that started in 1520."

      Well, Luther's followers have always loved their heresies and errors, antiquarianism and archaeologism alike.

    2. "Well, Luther's followers have always loved their heresies and errors..."

      As have many of those who follow Rome...

      Really, this isn't necessary.

    3. "The Reformers all thought they were going back to a more Apostolically pure church not something that started in 1520."

      If I recall, Ashenden commented that the Reformers picked the patriarchs and councils that they liked, and ignored those that they didn't.

      I will offer my view more plainly: I don't believe that Protestants give proper weight to the tradition - to why things evolved the way they evolved. This isn't to say that I find all tradition conforms to my understanding of the Scripture.

      But much of the tradition was developed and sustained by extremely learned and godly men - working things out through the aid of council and the Holy Spirit.

      I offer a comment I made recently at PVK's site, when I raised a point about leaning on Sola Scriptura and received some push-back:

      "Maybe it is the Protestant church I grew up in - if I said where, I am certain PVK would know of it as a very solid (at least when I was growing up, I haven't kept up with it) Protestant church. The church and the pastor were both quite well-known, conservative, Reformed-based. As mainline as it gets, if that term means anything.

      "Scripture was tested with Scripture. Nothing about how to interpret based on early Church fathers. The word "Patristic" would have been foreign to me then, even the idea of Church councils was unknown. Certainly the pastor knew of these things; maybe he incorporated such things in his sermons. But neither in the sermon or in Sunday School were we exposed to any of it.

      "But I really learned the Bible!"

      At least for a layman.

    4. The reason Catholics and Jews are put in the SCOTUS.

      instead of looking first at the text of the Constitution and proceed from there they use stare decisis or prior cases.

      Sola Constitution or traditions of the SCOTUS?

    5. I think it is important to study the church fathers and church history. They were wise in general. But they were also fallible humans. We have to compare what they say back to the text. The text is the standard. If a church father says something contradicting the text then following the church father is drifting from truth. At least that's how I think through it.

    6. RMB, I agree with you on going back to the text. But I also believe that the early church fathers were closer to the context of what was meant in the text. Yes, we should jump over the hurdle if we think they were wrong...but I suggest that we should assume it is a very high hurdle.

      I am afraid that too often we (and Luther and Calvin and other early Protestants) look at the text through a (relatively or very) modern lens. Again, not to say that the early fathers were always right, but just that we should place a high hurdle before changing something.

    7. In my experience, in evangelical protestant churches, cultural/historical context was always part of the study.
      The Jewish Elders were closer to the context, especially the cultural, and still made a mess of things.
      In agreement with study the Church Fathers but first learn the Scriptures as the yardstick and measure against it.
      In carpentery, you use the the same piece of wood as a template. Otherwise, you multiply the error and tolerances quickly make themselves evident.

  4. Might I suggest you look into these volumes as an addition to your exploration when you have the time ?

    God, History, and Dialectic, Volume I: God, The Foundation of the First Europe by Joseph P Farrell

    God History, and Dialectic, Volume II: The Dialectical God of Augustinism by Joseph P Farrell

    God, History, and Dialectic, Volume III: History: The Theological Pathology of the Second Europe by Joseph P Farrell

  5. One of the great Orthodox saints of the 20th century, St Justin Popovich (+1979), had some thoughts on ecumenism worth reading:

  6. The events besetting 16th century England speak to the origins of Ashenden's "tremendous category error." "*Ecclesia semper reformanda est*," St. Augustine did write, but Merrie Olde England had more than a reformation in its hands. This was a full-on revolt.

    Edmund Campion, a recusant English priest, delivered the following words to the court sentencing him to death. They are unassailable in their logic:

    "The only thing that we have now to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are, and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had.

    "In condemning us you condemn all your own ancestors--all the ancient priests, bishops and kings--all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.

    "For what have we taught, however you may qualify it with the odious name of treason, that they did not uniformly teach?"

    Christendom never recovered. Today, the very word sounds quaint. I suspect "the West" and "European Civilization" will soon meet a similar fate.

    1. It took, in 16th century England, 1500 years before they began denouncing their ancestors. In the West today, it isn't more than 15 to 150 years.

      "I suspect "the West" and "European Civilization" will soon meet a similar fate."

      Quite so.

    Above, for anybody interested, is the link to my Aquinas Institute lecture on "St. Augustine, Antonio Gramsci, and the City of God". Hope it works!

  8. Coincidentally, this week's (8/30-9/3) Renewing Your Mind broadcast is airing part of R. C. Sproul's series Justified by Faith Alone.

    Additionally, last Saturday's program, Mary's Fiat, while from a different series, is worth listening to as well. (you can listen to previous programs by clicking the back arrow underneath the play button)

    By listening to these programs, you can see the clear distinction between what the Bible teaches and what Rome teaches. The same Holy Spirit that inspired the Word of God is not going to lead someone into "truth" and/or traditions and/or a "gospel" that contradicts scripture, which is what the aberrant doctrine of the Catholic church does.

    Ecumenism that includes Roman Catholicism will only lead to a watering down of God's word.

    1. Or it might lead to the opposite. As is offered in Scripture (paraphrased): If God is on your side, why do you fear?

    2. Thank you, Bionic, for your commitment to fairness and not allowing this site to become a "whipping post".

      It is certain that none of us has all the answers and, because of that, none of us should presume that those who disagree with us are wrong.

    3. Rereading through these comments, I was not able to find anyone that even appeared to "presume that those who disagree with [their opinion] are wrong."

      And while Roger is correct that none of us has all the answers, I wonder if he thinks some of us have some of the answers and what he thinks of those who disagree with scripture.

    4. "Ecumenism that includes Roman Catholicism will only lead to a watering down of God's word." -- Mister Spock, in his own words, airing his own opinion.

      Paraphrased: God's Word will be diluted and degraded if you include Roman Catholics in your study of it.

      Perhaps I am misunderstanding this statement, but it sure looks like a presumption that Roman Catholics are wrong, because they disagree with me, of course.

      Some of us do have some of the answers while others of us have some of the answers. By talking with and learning from each other, even though we disagree on some points, we gain greater understanding of the Truth as a whole. As it is, by separating ourselves according to sect or belief, we are like the six blind men of Hindustan attempting to describe an elephant. All of them were correct in their own way, but none of them was able to "see" the whole elephant.

      As to what I think of those who disagree with scripture, that is totally irrelevant to this conversation and I will not discuss it here.

    5. "...what he thinks of those who disagree with scripture."

      Mr. Spock, this is such a complicated statement. Start, first, with this:

      Further...Any of us can point to teachings or practices that seem to be, or in fact are, something other than - or contrary to - what we find in Scripture in every single tradition and denomination.

      Second, Scripture didn’t end with a complete “how to manual” for a Church that would eventually grow to well over a billion people in dozens of cultures and dozens of circumstances around the world. They were gathered in homes, a few at a time. And between Paul and Peter, they couldn’t keep even these small handful in line. Is it shocking that some system of hierarchy was established, and some common practices implemented? And that some of these would end up different than what we read in Acts?

      The model was the Temple. I find Catholic and Orthodox practice closer to that model than I do Protestant service. I find Protestants teach Scripture better than Catholic or Orthodox. Shoot me for seeing value in all three – and believing they each have something to learn from the other.

      It is interesting: the Orthodox have kept to a fairly uniform practice from what I can tell; the Catholics are in another internal big battle. But in a few hundred years, Protestants have made a total mess of things. I cannot help but consider what Protestantism has brought us. Hundreds of denominations, and daily divisions within those denominations. most, only one of these hundreds (and likely none) have it all figured out. All the rest "disagree with Scripture."

      And I know that Protestants say that they test Scripture with Scripture. Go back and look at the hyperlinked diagram. I call BS on anyone who is convinced he has a corner on this. Sola Scriptura doesn’t solve the problem of interpretation and understanding. Councils guided by the Holy Spirit are the only way to solve these problems. Clearly, Protestants have failed miserably at this, else we wouldn’t see so many denominations.

      Luther was frustrated – even angry – at what he saw happen within a few years after he used hammer and nail. How would he feel today?

    6. Mr. Spock, I should explain my strong reaction - and why today as opposed to earlier...

      I recently sat through a series on Protestantism in the United States during the last couple of centuries. The more I learn, the more frustrated I grow.

      We aren't doing God's work by everyone going out for a pass. Some have to block, some tackle, and there is only one quarterback and one coach.

      Councils guided by the Holy Spirit. Until Protestants (and, by the way, many Catholics) take this seriously, which means going back to and understanding ALL Church councils, the divisions will only get worse.

  9. I'm enjoying this discussion very much, and my thanks to all participants for the thoughtful comments. One does not have to be a believer to find these ideas of great interest. As always, thank you Bionic for your time and patience. Peg