Each year, STILLPOINT and the Jerusalem and Athens Forum sponsor an essay contest open to all past and current students of the program. Topics are chosen that challenge students to address an important current issue in light of reading and seminar discussions. A winner and two honorable mentions are named each year, and you can read their full essays below. We also invite you to explore the contest archives where you can read essays from previous winners.
The Church's One Foundation: United as One Body or By Schism Rent Asunder?
At Gordon and in Christian communities around the world, the tenets of Christianity are recited communally in the Apostles’ Creed. The line “I believe in… the holy catholic church” inspired Samuel Stone’s 1886 hymn “The Church’s One Foundation.” The hymn declares that we are part of the same body—the Body of Christ—yet acknowledges that this Body is “by schisms rent asunder.” This spring, JAF students explored the discrepancy.
Winner: "Church, History and Blood Ecumenism: The Potent Desire for Union in Times of Peril" by Madeline Linnell ’17
Honorable mention: "Time Heals all Wounds" by Davis Metzger ’19
Honorable mention: "The Church, Guardian of Truth—Wait, What Church?" by Morgan Clayton ’19
Church, History and Blood Ecumenism: The Potent Desire for Union in Times of Peril
Madeline Linnell ’17
1934 Germany: tensions rose between church and state. Receiving Nazi support, a Protestant group named the Deutsche Christen addressed mainline Protestant churches, advocating for the abandonment of the Old Testament and the inclusion of an “Aryan paragraph.” The paragraph would essentially weed out any Jewish-sympathetic congregants or clergymen. Churches resisted, and the Deutsche Christen cause fell. This did not cease the government from desiring churches to adopt Nazi principles, though. Potent Nazi pressures pushed Church leaders and theologians together to ask the question, “What is the Church, anyway?” And so, The Barmen Confession on the Identity of the Church was formed.
In the face of tyranny, the Confession authors wrote, “We reject the false teaching, that the church could and should acknowledge any other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation, or as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God.” Christ is the ultimate authority. The Christian Church—not just the Protestant Church—is a band of “brothers and sisters,” they claim, and where Christ “acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament, through the Holy Spirit.”
If this is a true account of what the church is—Christ working in and through a “family” of believers—then why do schisms occur? How is it that one group of Christians, one type of church, claim they know the real gospel and others don’t—while the rest all say the same? Why do doctrinal spats splinter congregations? Surely, Christ is not in the words of the vehement; surely, the idea of one Church is an illusion, a nice story we can tell ourselves. Perhaps the dire situation from which the Barmen Confession springs inspired a rosy depiction of the Church.
It could be that many Christians agree with the Confession, that Christ is indeed the authority, glue and driving force of churches, but they find that how that authority actually plays out is highly dependent on interpretation. Moreover, what feeds an interpretation significantly ranges from personal, familial, sociological and cultural narratives. These factors coalesce in an individual’s and church’s theological perspective, in addition to church tradition, the heritage of doctrinal assertions and leadership. These divergences in belief, in other words, keep “the Church” from being whole.
The Protestant-friendly branch theory renders the view that there does exist one, true Christian Church, but it is something of an invisible adhesive absorbing all churches. Different churches—Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and so on—are branches to the singular tree-Church. Many Protestants contrive branch theory to be a condition to ecumenical efforts, yet, for the Catholic Church, which denies branch theory and asserts itself as the one, true church, is a proponent for the ecumenical movement. Pope Francis presses the need for “blood ecumenism” in the face of persecution: “When terrorists or world powers persecute Christian minorities or Christians, when they do this, they don’t ask: ‘But are you Lutheran? Are you Orthodox? Are you Catholic? Are you a Reformed Christian? Are you a Pentecostal?’ No! ‘You are a Christian!’ They only recognize one of them: the Christian. The enemy never makes a mistake and knows very well how to recognize where Jesus is. This is ecumenism of the blood.”
In the face of adversity, then, similar to the circumstances of the Barmen Confession, churches tend to define themselves on what they are united by rather than what separates them. The admission to their shared faith in Jesus Christ prompts individual churches to stand together as the Church. This is not to diminish the convictions unique to each sect, or to overlook the turbulence of schism, not at all. For, how dismal is it to say that unification is most palpable in moments of chaos? When communities lie riven from violence, and hope is near unrecognizable?
I pray that this does not need to be the case for unification, but when such trials do occur, as they are happening today, may Christians together fulfill the call to bear witness to Christ’s enduring power, love and forgiveness. May the 1934 Confession not be made in vain: “As the church of forgiven sinners, it has to bear witness in the midst of a sinful world, with both its faith and its obedience, with its proclamation as well as its order, that it is the possession of him alone, and that it lives and wills to live only from his comfort and his guidance in the expectation of his appearance.”
Time Heals All Wounds
Davis Metzger ’19
It has been 500 years since Martin Luther approached the Wittenberg Church with his protests in one hand and a mallet in the other. It is, therefore, a fitting time for Christians of all traditions to pause and reflect on the status of the Church. The universal body of believers is today more numerous and more diverse in thinking than it has ever been before in the history of our faith. While on its face, this may make the Church seem “rent asunder” (as the old hymn has it), in actuality the tensions between various Christian traditions are lower than they have been in centuries.
Though this is the 500th year of Protestantism, we should remember that the Church was broken long before Luther was excommunicated in 1521. The Church split in 1054 along an East-West rift that remains to this day. These three branches (i.e. Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism) comprise the Christian faith today. And though each has its own reason for holding to its own traditions, one thing is clear: we are all Christians. We hold to the ecumenical creeds, we worship one God who is three in one, we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins and we all look to the resurrection of the dead.
I do not mean to be reductionist. The differences in doctrine and dogma among these branches are still of significance and merits continued study and dialogue. It is, however, a misrepresentation and a misunderstanding to look at the Christian faith and claim that the faith has been “rent asunder.” It is tragic that the Church is not as united as she once was, but we have come a long way.
It has been a long time since the European wars of religion. There was a time when French Catholic kings would execute Protestant leaders, and English queens would exile Catholics. The gradual secularization of the West and the rise of liberal democracy as removed Christianity from its privileged position as center-narrative in culture. As its centrality waned, so did the tensions among the branches. The differences between Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants remain, but they are less divisive than ever before. For hundreds of years one might have said that the Church was in fact, rent asunder by schism. Such a claim could not be made today. The Second Vatican Council is evidence to this point. The Roman Catholic Church in this council and in other declarations since the turn of the 20th century has taken immense strides toward reconciliation with the other two branches. The Filioque clause has been dropped when the Pope meets the patriarch, Luther has been un-excommunicated and the salvation of Protestants is no longer in question.
Division was not unknown to the early Church, but division was never meant to punctuate the Church’s history as it has. We may begin to take some solace in the progress made toward reconciliation in recent decades. All Christians may confidently claim the same God, the same salvation and the same hope in Jesus Christ. Paul anticipated this and experienced this fear of division in the Church at Corinth: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
The Church, Guardian of Truth—Wait, What Church?
Morgan Clayton ’19
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
I’ve long struggled to reconcile two realities: that the Church is the guardian of truth, and that its members do not agree about many details of truth.
The Church is the guardian of truth, since she has received ultimate Truth in the person of Jesus and in Scripture. The Church keeps truth against the vicissitudes of all other standards of reality. For example, historically, an indispensable component of Christianity has been to care for the marginalized—widows, orphans, the poor—because we recognize in them the truth of the imago Dei. Because this responsibility is rooted in truth, it overrides the variable social standards of time and culture. Caring for the marginalized is a way of guarding truth by applying it.
The Church also guards truth by defending it, not only through refuting falsehood but through explaining and clarifying the truths we already know. Sometimes all these may be accomplished together; I think of the Council of Nicaea, where the assembled clergy debated and specified terms until they produced the Nicene Creed.
But wait—what is the Church that holds this truth? The second reality I’m considering requires little explanation. Empirical evidence is enough to show that Christians are not even united in our understanding of how united we should be: Some view differences in ecclesiastical and liturgical structure as evidence of healthy diversity, whereas others see them as the continuation of tragic schism.
One attempt to solve the disagreements is to suggest that truth is relative, that Christians may hold different truths. I cannot reconcile this either logically or theologically. This claim is not consistent with Scripture, and it presents a logical catch-22: the claim that truth is relative is itself an absolute claim. To be consistent within this claim, one would have to argue that truth is in some circumstances relative and in others not relative—a contradiction.
Christians do disagree about what is true. I do not think that the solution to these disagreements is to say that truth is different for each of us or for each branch of our faith. If we each stand upon different understood “truths,” we will each stand upon an island. Instead, we must acknowledge not merely “difference,” which is often an unthreatening and even positive word, but also the separate matter of real disagreement and even division. We must admit that we and others may be wrong, and that in some matters definitive answers are elusive. The lack of such answers does not render the questions relative or irrelevant, nor negate the existence of any certainty, but it does mean we must tread with humility.
My earlier statement demands a qualifier. Christians disagree about what is true—but not about everything that is true. Today, most Christians adhere to the ecumenical creeds, and we acknowledge one another to be “Christians.” Our faith, not only its individual branches, is a recognizable entity. There is some debate about how Christians practice their faith and about the details of that faith, but there is little debate about what makes a person a Christian. We may have disagreements within and even about the Church herself, but on one point we are united: we are under the reign of the same King.
The phrase “by schism rent asunder” in this prompt is a quote from a 19th-century hymn. Its opening line describes the Church from a different viewpoint: “the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” This is what defines and indeed creates the Church. The existence of a common foundation does not negate the significance of other matters. Instead, it makes it possible for us to consider them while maintaining charity and even, though incomplete, unity. Only in Him will our schisms be healed.
1 John 16:13, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016), Copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles. Accessed online at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16&version=ESV (accessed May 15, 2017).
2 The idea that truth is ground on which we stand is from my classmate Davis Metzger (here, I have adapted it from a metaphor he presented during a class discussion).
3 I have taken this point from Peter Kreeft, www.peterkreeft.com, podcast audio, Ecumenism Without Compromise, accessed May 15, 2017, http://peterkreeft.com/audio/03_ecumenism.htm.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles. Accessed online at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16&version=ESV. Accessed May 15, 2017.
Kreeft, Peter. www.peterkreeft.com. Podcast audio. Ecumenism Without Compromise. Accessed May 15, 2017. http://peterkreeft.com/audio/03_ecumenism.htm.