Ulf Ekman’s conversion to the Catholic Church sparked a healthy discussion over how to hold the reforming impulse of Protestantism alongside the new ecumenical impulse.

The starting place for such a discussion is the recognition that the reforming impulse and the ecumenical impulse converge on the need for a ressourcement of historic Christianity as the way to affirm catholicity. This is the case regardless of whether one sees the Catholic Church (or Orthodox churches) as the most complete visible expression of the Body of Christ and all other forms as “lesser,” or whether one defines the Body of Christ in terms of the invisible communion with no visible form fully expressing that body. (The latter commitment does not imply that all ecclesial traditions or ways of doing church are equal.)

The question for Protestants concerns how to appropriate the traditions of historic Christianity in keeping with the reforms initiated by the Protestant Reformers. From a Wesleyan perspective, this centers on Wesley’s idea that the purpose of Methodism was “to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.”

The Wesleyan idea of spreading holiness finds precedents in the twelfth century with Cistercian writers like William of St. Thierry. One can see its outworking in women mystics like Hadewijch of Brabant and Rhineland mystics like Johann Tauler. These streams also fed a young Martin Luther so that medieval spirituality continues in a Reformation form. A Wesleyan vision, then, practices a ressourcement of the spiritual streams of historic Christianity as a way of promoting and advancing holiness and thereby renewing the churches.

The emphasis on holiness prompts a theology of immediacy in which the Spirit of God is the love that reorients human loves conforming them to Christ the divine lover. For this reason, Wesleyans maintain the historic Protestant emphasis of sola fide and sola gratia, because faith itself is an internal movement initiated by the Spirit that comes to rest in the divine promises. It is a movement of the heart, a turning of emotion and desire that marks initial turn toward the Son in the power of the Spirit.

To renew the church also involves a form of protest against the churches. In this way the church catholic emerges from the reform of the particular churches. One cannot understand the Gregorian reforms of the Eleventh Century apart from a protest against a way of doing church that was no longer acceptable.

Too often the debate between a Bernard of Clairvaux and a Peter Abelard is read in terms of the latter’s so-called heterodoxy when it was just as much about Bernard’s progressive vision of a church disentangled from the control of secular princes over against Abelard’s more conservative view of an ordered relation of patronage and rule between secular rulers and sacred institutions. Bernard protested what Abelard embraced.

Moreover, this protest represented a massive change in the very structure of the church in order to secure the life of the churches. The creation of the college of cardinals alone as the means to secure the transmission of the papal office free from secular interference was an innovation within the structure. The question of whether this innovation, as well as the elevation of the bishop of Rome to jurisdictional authority over the whole church, is a genuinely catholic move remains to be resolved. Nevertheless, all can acknowledge it was a genuine effort to reform the churches in the service of the church catholic.

This is where the global pentecostal-charismatic movement may enter because, at its best, it seeks to recover a catholic spirituality that fuses the sacramental and the charismatic. As Isidore of Seville notes, something is called a sacrament because “divine power (virtus) brings about in a more hidden way the “saving effect” of the sacrament. Isidore makes a move already found in Augustine’s differentiating between the sacrament and the power of the sacrament (virtus sacramenti). It is no mistake that Gregory the Great attributes miracles to the “powers” (virtutes) at work in the saint.

One finds this same use of virtus in the Anglican Tractarian R. I. Wilberforce who distinguished between the sign, the reality signified (res), and the grace or power within (virtus). The sign mediates Christ through the power of Christ at work within it and power is nothing less than the Spirit of Christ. What one finds is that charismatic grace and sacramental grace are two modes of divine power that transforms and makes holy. It is how scriptural holiness first takes root in the soul through faith alone by grace alone.

Vibrant forms of Christianity continually practice ressourcement even if they do so in ways commensurate with their own ecclesial and theological traditions. Conversions like those of Ulf Ekman should motivate everyone to engage in this task of reforming the churches by recovering historic Christianity. 

More on: Religion

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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