This week I am presenting a paper to the Socratic club on the campus of Gonzaga University which is my graduate school alma mater. It is entitled, “Christian Pluralism and the Person of Christ,” and I thought I would just take the opportunity over the next couple of weeks to share this presentation with my radio listeners, as well, so settle back and imagine yourself sitting in a college hall on a Friday afternoon with a bunch of philosophically-minded young men and women on a Jesuit campus, and here is how it goes:
In John 17:22-23, the Lord Jesus Christ offers a prayer to His father, which poignantly reveals the Holy Trinity’s ultimate desire for humanity. Jesus says:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent me, and the Glory that You gave Me, I have given them, that they may be one, just as We are one—I in them, and You in Me, that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent me, and have loved them, as You have loved Me.
To be joined to God and to each other in the same way that the Father and the Son are one: This is the exalted life to which Christians are called. St. Paul tell us, we were destined for it, before the foundation of the world. See Ephesians 1:3-10. And yet, the Christian world today is a place of doctrinal conflict: Pluralism, not unity, is the order of the day. But does not that put Christians at odds with their Lord’s call for oneness? Oneness, like the Trinity’s oneness? It seems that most Christians do not think so. Despite their diversity, they believe that they maintain the fundamental unity for which Jesus prayed. They operate on the assumption that despite their differences, they worship one and the same Christ.
But do they? I think there is good reason to question that. The question turns on the fact that, the Christ with whom we are to be one, is an actual person, and as a unique, distinctive person, he cannot be all the various and contradictory Christs that conflicting denominations honor. If that is the case, then there is no way the pluralist Christian world can be one, which puts it at odds with the desires of its God. The serious ramifications of that, for professing Christians, make this a question worth exploring.
Christ’s call to unity lies at the heart of this matter, so let us begin our investigation there. What, exactly, does it mean to be one with each other, and one with the Trinity, in the same way that the Father and the Son, and by extension, the Holy Spirit, are one? Obviously, answering that question begins by answering another. How one are the members of the Trinity? The eternal mystery of the Godhead is that three distinctive persons are so united in being that they are just one God. Somehow, the individuals interpenetrate one another. Each person is present within the other two. And so, Jesus Christ proclaims, “I and My Father are one.” John 10:30. He assures his disciples that, he who has seen Me has seen the Father (John 14:9).
The same unity of being exists between the Son and the Holy Spirit. At one point, Jesus tells his disciples that when He leaves them, He will send the Holy Spirit to be with them and indwell them (John 14:17). But in the very next breath, He consoles them by saying, “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you” (John 14:18). Evidently, the Spirit’s presence, is Christ’s presence.
According to Christ’s prayer in John 17, all those who are His are to experience oneness of this same quality—with Him, and with each other. This unity is not theoretical or abstract, it is experiential, practical, and observable. St. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians is unambiguous.
Now, I plead with you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no division among you, but that you be perfectly joined together, in the same mind, and in the same judgment. I Corinthians 1:10.
To be a Christian is to see the world through the Trinity’s eyes. To will what God wills. To act as He acts. When all believers do that, they exhibit the unity of understanding, judgment and action, which St. Paul describes here. The writings of church leaders show that the early Christians were dedicated to preserving this concord. For them, it was their oneness that established their identity as Christians. St. Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lyons, offers this description of the Church, in his day:
True knowledge is that which consists in the doctrine of the apostles, in the ancient constitution of the Church throughout the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the Body of Christ, according to the succession of the Bishops by which they have handed down that church, which exists in every place. The Church, having received this preaching, and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points of doctrine, just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them and teaches them, and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she possesses only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those who have been established in the central regions of the world. Nor will any one of the rulers in the churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these. Nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression, inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith, being everywhere one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one who can say but little, diminish it.
The early Christians saw doctrinal solidarity as the dividing line between genuine faith and heresy. That explains why they did not separate individual salvation from corporate unity. For them, salvation was not something purely personal. They had no concept of redemption as a matter which concerns, as they say, just Jesus and me. To be saved, is to be one in belief and worship, one in the practice of that handed down faith, that exists in every place.
St. Cyprian of Carthage, in the third century, minces no words: “If I am not one with other believers, I am not one with God.” He says:
And does anyone believe that this unity, which comes from the divine strength, can be divided in the church, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? He who does not hold this unity does not hold God’s law, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation.
Now, it does not take a talented observer to recognize that between those early centuries and today, something has seriously changed. St. Paul charges that there can be no divisions in Christian faith and practice. St. Irenaeus describes a Church that preserves doctrinal oneness across time and cultures. St. Cyprian inseparably links unity to salvation. But with the great schism of 1054, oneness begins to evaporate. Conflicts over the filioque and Roman claims to hierarchical primacy split the Church along East/West lines. Rome’s break with the Eastern patriarchates was followed 500 years later by the Reformation, which produced differing theologies and churches. The reforming of those Reformation churches and the various awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, resulted in a proliferation of doctrinally distinctive denominations. Today, the Gordon Conwell Theological Seminaries World Christian Database catalogs over 9000 Christian denominations. To these, we may add the many individual churches that bill themselves as non-denominational, and on top of that, there is the increasingly popular practice of avoiding church affiliation altogether, opting instead for a purely personalized, self-styled Christianity. Put that all together, and it is hard to imagine anything more divided than the contemporary Western Christian World.