István Tatai is a Pastor of The Hungarian Reformed Church, serving the Lord in the Hatvan church and in its 12 small attached diaspora-congregations. He is working on his PhD dissertation under the supervision of Professor Dr. Ferenc Szűcs (Reformed University in Budapest). His thesis is: The Church and Israel - Correlational models in the Post-Holocaust theological thinking. As a part of his study he is dealing with Christian-Jewish Relations in the ecumenical movements.
Kolozsvár, Romania, July 3-8, 2007-07-07
Reflexion to the paper given by Rev. Dr. Setri Nyomi (WARC General Secretary): Ecumenical Theology and the Unity of the Church
Thanks and Introduction
It is a great privilege for me to have the possibility to reflect to Dr. Setry Nyomi's lecture. I fully agree with his logically structured and theological well balanced paper, giving us by this a Biblical theological foundation and some details out of the big ecumenical conferences. His overview about the ecumenical ministry of the WARC is a very encouraging contribution to our conference theme. I really appreciate it that the WARC is making efforts to create a Bible-oriented and ecumenical atmosphere for a dialogue for different churches. I want to express my special thanks for teaching us about costly and the cheap unity, which definitions also remind me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's statements about 'billige Gnade' (cheap grace).
Speaking about the unity of the Church, first of all we need to formulate clear aims which we would like to reach in a limited period of time. That is why I want to describe my dream about the theological content of 'visible unity'.
1. Why is it inevitably important to seek the visible unity of the Church?
- Unity is Jesus' desire. He prayed "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you" (NIV Jn 17,21). Giving up the vision of unity would be a denial of Jesus' prayer.
- God exists in His oneness: .]dj;a, hw:hyWnyheloa>hw:hyŇ . The Hebrew word ehad allows us to regard unity as a oneness of different identities in love. We can apply this approach to the Holy Trinity (Jn 10,30) and to marriage (Gen 2,25) and even to the Church (Mt 18,19; 1 Cor 12,12-13). Therefore unity is not uniformity in Christ.
- The apostolic teaching is asking us in the Body of Christ to avoid any hostile diversities. "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one other so that there may be no divisions (scismata) among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (NIV 1 Cor 1,10)
- The missiological aspect: visible unity is a question of our credibility: In The Lausanne Covenant, it is put like this: "We affirm that the visible unity of the Chruch is the truth is the will of God. Evangelism is also an invitation to unity, since unity strengthens our witness, just as disunity is a denial of our gospel of reconciliation."
2. What could be 'visible unity'?
The necessary preconditions for the visible unity of the Church should be a broad acceptance of the following points:
a) Acceptance of Sacraments. We need an acceptance of a balanced Biblical base of baptism and the Eucharist. As we all know, this theological topic has been causing a lot of tensions since the time of the Reformation until today. The Eucharist is a dividing wall between the Roman Catholic and Protestants churches. We have to confess the tragic fact, that our Eucharist-celebration has become not a communion-building tool, but a stumbling block in the Church. As we all know the controversial question of Baptism divides the Traditional and Free Churches. The Lima Document is a valuable base for further discussions about these very controversial issues, but we need to search further for a renewed and deep understanding about the sacramental (indicative) and the personal (imperative) aspects of Sacraments. Regarding the newest Ecumenical papers (Dominus Iesus, 2001), we do not see any sign of hope in short time.
b) Acceptance of ordinations and pastoral ministries. Visibly unity would be when ordained ministers of other denominations could share the pulpit and all ministers would be allowed to preside over Holy Communion;
c) Missionary activities. It should be necessary to make cooperative missionary and diaconical activities of different churches in loving and mutual acceptance.
d) Instead of uniformity we need the unity of the Spirit. We need a deep understanding of the text of NIV 1Cor 11,19. "No doubt there have to be differences (airesei") among you to show which of you have God's approval (dokimoi)". Divisions are not always wrong, sometimes they are necessary to discover God's will in our ministry and they can bring peace in the community.
3. Doctrinal unity is almost impossible
a) We as denominations do not have the same Canon. The principle of 'retro ad fontes' (back to the wells) would not lead us to the same collection of scriptures (Apocrypha's of the RCC and the Greek Orthodox LXX).
b) We do not have the same hermeneutical principles (question of tradition).
c) The Bible as a whole is not a systematic study, but a book of paradoxes. We have to confront these Paradoxes until the Parousy, until the second coming of Jesus. For example, it is extremely difficult to solve the problem of the free will and the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination.
d) We are human beings. Replacement thinking (supersessionalism) has been a spiritual cancer in the body of Christ from the beginning of the Church. What I mean is that since the first division (Jewish and Gentile believers) we are continually tempted to think more of ourselves than of others. We have to find a balanced denominational identity between 'cheap ecumenism' and 'denominational racism.' We confess that we have the same Holy Spirit, but it is difficult to understand that we do not have the same human souls. That is why our own visions are causing divisions and often no progress is made. Prof. Klaus Winkler might have been right (Bethel, Germany), that each of us is building our personality-specialized Creed (Persönlichkeitsspezifisches Credo), which in the best case is only a part of the truth.
4. Redefinition of identity of the Church in the presence of Israel (Rm 11)
Understanding the newest developments of the Christian-Jewish dialogue, we have to find the place and identity of the Church. According to Romans (9-11) the Church exists as a communion of different branches grafted into the good Olive-tree of Israel, within of the Abrahamic covenant that, even today, in God's purpose basically belongs to the Jews (Rm 9,4). The Church is the open continuation of the rest of Israel, consisting of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ, taking loving responsibility first for the Jews and also for the Gentiles. The Church believes that one day there shall be one flock and one shepherd (NIV Jn 10,16). The task of the Church even today is to honour God, to proclaim the Good News, to prepare herself for the big day of the wedding with the Lamb. One aspect of her preparation should be this: "make every effort to keep The unity of the Spirit through The bond of peace" (Eph 4,3). This metaphor has some consequences: The real ecclesiological centre of the Church is strongly connected to the Olive tree of Israel. The branches might be different, but the roots are the same. The Olive tree is a Jewish tree, on which we Gentiles are (only) "guests".
Signs of hope in searching for visible unity in the non-official ecumenical movements and at the grass-root level today
- At the All Nations Convocation in Jerusalem in 2002, I had a very touching experience. 600 conference participants could watch how young Messianic Jews and Palestine believers worshipped the Lord together, and then they washed the feet of on another. Is this not a message for all our Churches today?
- The persecuted Church in certain areas of the world shows more signs of unity. In Hungary, during the communist time, theological students at the military service found each other, knowing that they belonged together in Christ. The same can be said about the historical unity of The Reformed Church in Hungary.
- The TJCII (Toward Jerusalem Council II) movement is a sign of searching for visible unity. The main emphasis of TJCII is repentance for historical sins, and working for reconciliation. Finding the ecclesiological place of Messianic Jews in the Body of Christ could reverse the tragic church-tendencies to disunity. That is why TJCII is working towards a future reciprocal change of Acts 15, when the Gentile Church could, one day in Jerusalem accept Messianic Jews with their own "Jewish Expression".
- The Charismatic Renewal in the traditional churches creates a new spiritual atmosphere in Europe, in which people of different churches can accept the precious gift and work of the Holy Spirit in one another. I fully agree with Dr. J. Norberto Saracco: "The unity of The Church will be a work of the Holy Spirit, or will not be at all."
- Pásztó is one of our affiliated diaspora-congregations 30 km from the mother church of Hatvan. Here we keep have the good, traditional ecumenical prayer service every year in January. After the service, we invite all the different church-members to have a meal together and discuss a specific doctrinal subject which played a role in making schisms in church history. Each pastor (RC; Lutheran; Reformed and Baptist) has the right to deliver a short lecture about a specific subject, like 'Holy Communion' or 'righteousness by faith'. We have discovered that the Lord is among us and we all have only partial truths, and most of us have an open-minded attitude to listen to each other.
- At the beginning of this year in Hatvan, all the 4 pastors of different Churches came together in a restaurant just to eat together. Every guest could see us how the local pastors are sharing their stories about their own calling and experiences with God. I think this is a great promising sign of the visible unity in Christ, especially knowing the big burden of the past, when the Roman Catholic cemetery had to be 'redeicated' even after a Reformed funeral service. At that time the dead could not rest together in one place; today I see that the living can eat and pray together without the fear of desecration.
5. Isrealological ways to Unity of the Church
a) Doctrinal level. The Rediscovery of Hebrew Thinking (judaica veritas) would help us to better understand our Christian Heritage originally given in the New Testament Scriptures. Dealing more with Hebrew Texts and seeking better connections with Rabbis and Messianic Jews would help us to have a more balanced understanding of our Christian dogmatic developments and of certain overemphases or mistakes. A deeper understanding of our Hebrew roots would make us able to avoid our highly sophisticated but often incomprehensible theological thinking which was a temptation in our anti-Judaistic past.
b) Church structures. Under certain conditions the way back to Rome could be acceptable for some communities today. These conditions, first of all, should be mutual repentance and reconciliation. But the real Biblical solution of structural problem should happen on the level of the ancient church. The first apostolic Council was led not by Peter or Paul, but by James (Acts 15). The restoration of the seat of James would help us to create unity in the whole Church. The seat of James has not been burdened by historical sins and prejudices. We could accept that the Church was built on Peter's person and preaching at Pentecost, but she was led by James. He had the final decision, not Peter. This is the New Testament evidence. I think this move would be more acceptable for the Orthodox churches and Free churches than the simple returning to the Pope.
Visible unity is an impossible possibility (Karl Barth's saying) on our human level. Seeking it for it is joy and suffering; hope and hopelessness. While looking for it we experience a tension between our thinking head, our loving heart, and our complicated (sometimes sinful) conscience. We should see both our tragic church-historical past of disunity and God's future, when He will be all in all. We all really need a deep insight into God's weeping eyes in order to have a broken heart and humble mind which only He can restore and reunite. I am sure that our prayers are not in vain.