Unity (IV): Concepts of Unity through the Centuries (2)

By Ron Halbrook

Unity through Pietism

Pietism is related to mystical, inward, or intangible unity. Pietism is also related historically to the Quietist movement which promoted unity on the basis of saintly character-all who manifested good character were one regardless. of religious affiliation. The Pietists spoke much of an inward rebirth resulting in fellowship within “an invisible, ‘spiritual’ Church.” So, both rebirth and unity were experienced within the individual; he was united with others who knew this inward rebirth, though he and they might follow different forms of worship. As the inwardly reborn person grew, he was moving toward inward perfection. The idea that inward perfection could be reached led many to entertain millennial hopes-i.e., when enough individuals were inwardly perfected, visible perfection and unity would appear. Philipp Jacob Spener (1635-1705) is considered the father of Pietism. His personal work centered in Frankfort-on-the-Main, Dresden, and Berlin; but from Germany, his impact reached all over Europe. Pietism spread to the Netherlands, France, and England. It had a definite influence on the early Methodist and Revival movements. Its emphasis on unity on the basis of “Christian character” is still current in many quarters.

Unity through the “Holy Spirit”

Invisible unity through the so-called “Holy Spirit” .has a long history, and certainly overlaps with mysticism. But its more modern history would include Valdimir Soloviev (1853-1900). In his Russia and the Universal Church and Story of the Antichrist, Soloviev said that the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox Churches have in Christ a unity which “transcends history,” through the Holy Spirit. Some of the frontier revivals in America promoted the concept of unity through strange experiences supposedly caused by the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal movement of the early 1900’s gave great emphasis to certain works of the Holy Spirit such as “speaking in tongues.” In this Pentecostal movement can be seen elements of Pietism, Methodism, and Revivalism; in all these, subjectivism is prominent. Since the 1960’s, a resurgence of Pentecostal-type ideas and sentiments has occured. This is called the Neo-Pentecostal movement. It is not the old frontier or early-1900’s pentecostalism, but it shares significant features of those older movements: much subjectivism, “speaking in tongues,” and unity through some experience of the Holy Spirit.

Unity through Cooperation

An early form of this approach to unity can be seen in religious societies organized for individuals of diverse religious backgrounds. One of the most notable efforts was made by Johann August Urlsperger (1728-1806). He established the German Christian Fellowship at Basle, Switzerland. The concept caught on in England, resulting in the Bible Society and the Religious Tract Society. Beginning with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810), a great host of these religious cooperation societies were formed. Through these organizations, men who would not normally do so would call upon each other to lead prayer, would combine their resources in religious work, and would even get differing denominations to contribute moral or financial support.

Unity through the “Union” Movement

Our brief notice will not do this movement justice. In the early 1900’s, the effect of industrialization, urbanization, and other social changes began to be felt more and more by rural churches. Very small towns might have several small religious groups, even two or three varieties of the same denomination. The lack of money and manpower to keep these groups going led to the Union Movement. There were men who promoted this outright, but frequently it happened “by itself.” The members of the different denominations would agree to meet in the representative meeting houses (for instance) one time per month, i.e. one week at the Methodist Church, the next at the Baptist, and so on. “Union” meeting houses were erected in some communities and the various groups would “get the building” one week in the month. A good deal of “cross-fertilization” occured this way. Perhaps this was a contributing factor to the atmosphere in which more concrete union movements have taken place; the last several decades have seen several church mergers within certain denominational lines-as a number of separate Methodist groups uniting under one name and organization.

Episcopal Plan of Unity

The Episcopal plan was proposed by William Reed Huntington (1838-1918) in 1870 and is known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. The four planks in this plan are (1) the Bible should be recognized as the Word of God, (2) the primitive creeds such as the Nicene Creed should be used in place of more modern ones, (3) only two sacraments should be used: baptism, the Lord’s Supper; (4) “the historic episcopate” should continue to exist. At first only the Presbyterians responded in any serious way to this call, but actual union did not occur. Obviously, the emphasis on “the historic episcopate” tends to make this plan popular among Episcopalians and unpopular to others; but the plan has been discussed, debated, and modified, with some interest in it being shown, in the modern ecumenical movement.

Draw Arbitrary Lines as the Basis of Unity

Erasemus (1469-1536) reviewed the historic creeds and confessions in an effort to sort out some articles of faith “necessary for salvation” from others which might be secondary. Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) identified the “indispensable” doctrines as being contained in the Bible and the early creeds. Seeking to reduce the ground to some essential kernal, Fausto Sozzini (15391604) proposed the Unitarian idea as the basic “saving truth.” On the other hand, Matthias Hafenreffer (15611619) affirmed that belief in the Trinity is the one necessary fundamental. Johannes Hulsemann (1602-1661) reduced the essential to the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith.” W. Carl Ketcherside-a writer and speaker recognized mostly among Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, ‘ and Disciples of Christ-proposes “one fact, one act.” By this, he means faith in Christ and baptism; reducing the absolutely essential further, he affirms those who accept the “one fact” but have not submitted to the “one act” may still find grace in the eyes of God. In a similar vein, Ketcherside, Leroy Garrett, and Edward Fudge seem to think that after one accepts the “one fact” and “one act,” he can be excluded from fellowship only on one of three grounds: (1) outright denial of Christ, (2) immoral conduct, (3) divisiveness. The thing which all these approaches have in common is the drawing of arbitrary lines for the determination of unity. Of course, each line drawer would deny this and claim some concept of divine authority for his lines. As already presented, it is this writer’s conviction that all the Bible reveals and binds-in faith or practice-is necessary :or grace and unity. The Bible does not submit what it reveals and binds in faith or practice to arbitrary reduction on the part of men who seek some lowest common denominator for people who do not accept what the Bible binds.

Unity through Federation

The proposal of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) was a forerunner to modern federation. He suggested a common confession to reach across many lines, but did not require men, to give up their separate creeds. In this spirit, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America was formed in 1908 so that many denominations could act jointly upon their common beliefs without abolishing their separate creeds, clergies, and organizations. The next step came in 1948 with the founding of the World Council of Churches. The F.C.C. was replaced by the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. in 1950. These major federated groups were dominated by “progressive” or liberal Protestantism; more “fundamentalist” Protestant groups eventually established counterpart organizations on the federal model, since they could not be comfortable in the W.C.C. and N.C.C.

Ecumenical Unity

The idea of federal union increasingly gave way to its logical extension in the later 1950’s and the 1960’s. If “Christians” in separate denominations were brethren and could co-operate, why should they belie their true inward unity by outward division in separate camps? Why not let inward unity be seen by the world through outward unity? The Consultation on Church Union began meeting in 1962, with some denominations sending serious representatives and others sending only observers. C.O.C.U. did not have the power to form one great church by inherent authority, but was to work out a plan of union which each separate denomination might approve at will. After generating much enthusiasm for a time, the C.O.C.U. approach has fallen out of favor in many quarters. The problem of truly combining, submerging, and eradicating all the separate denominational machines is mammoth! But the ecumenical spirit is just as alive as ever, perhaps more alive than ever. The ecumenical spirit today says that while we recognize we may never remove our outward separations and even doctrinal differences, still we are “one in the Lord” and can feel free to “cross over the lines” for many joint activities. Some are even affirming the Lord never intended “one big universal church” and that C.O.C.U. was a misguided effort in the first place. The real solution is seen as defining some sort of inward unity in spite of outward disunity: “Love unites, not doctrine.” “We are one in the Spirit.” “Love unites, doctrine divides.” “Free men in Christ.” C.O.C.U. is not entirely dead and the spirit of ecumenicism is aflame, so anything can still happen. Future developments will be interesting to watch. More on these Councils in weeks to come.

Restoring Bible Unity

We dare not close this article without brief mention of the efforts made in the early 1800’s to get away from all human plans and back to the divine plan of unity. Independent efforts were made in many parts of this country to clear away the accumulated rubbish of many centuries and to return to the fountain of living waters. In most cases, the men making these separate efforts did not even know of one another. There were missteps and stumblings, but they all had their eyes on one goal: the Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things. They reasoned that if the ancient gospel could be restored to the lips of men in place of human creeds, then the New Testament church and original unity would have to follow. Human creeds, clergies, and churches could be deserted for the inspired Word of God, the simple priesthood of all believers, and the New Testament pattern for the church. For instance, Barton W. Stone and co-laborers in Kentucky issued the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery in 1804, and determined to be New Testament Christians only. In a sermon to a small gathering, Thomas Campbell expressed this rule of faith and practice, “Where the Scriptures speak, we will speak; where they are silent, we will be silent.” He published the Declaration and Address in 1807 elaborating upon this concept of restoring the original gospel, church, and unity.

LET US EMPHASIZE WITH ALL THE MIGHT OF OUR BEING THAT THIS WAS NOT JUST ANOTHER HUMAN PLAN. IT WAS PRECISELY THE REJECTION OF ALL HUMAN PLANS. IT WAS A RETURN TO THE BIBLE PLAN! The letters written by inspired men were meant to be preserved, read, and obeyed even after the death of those men (2 Pet. 1:13-15; 3:1-2). These letters of the love and law of God were holy scripture, written under the superintending guidance of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 3:15-16; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 2:13). The things written were meant to instruct the church even to the detail of its organization (1 Tim. 3:116, esp. 15-16). This Word of God is complete and eternal (Jude 3; 1 Pet. 2:24-25). In explaining “the kingdom of God” in a parable, Jesus told of a sower sowing his seed in order to reap the harvest, then added, “the seed is the word of God.” Wherever that seed and no other is sown, God’s will is done-whether in the First, Nineteenth, or Twentieth Century. That is the restoration plea-put the original seed in the hands of the sowers. That plea is scriptural to the core!

And, now, dear reader, each one of us must choose . . . between the way of God and the ways of men. “How long halt ye between two opinions?” “Choose you this day whom ve will serve.” (To be Continued)

Truth Magazine XXI: 40, pp. 631-633
October 13, 1977