At the beginning of the Octave of Christian unity, Carl d’Agostino made an excellent comment yesterday, which sets the scene for some meditation on the topic:

I cannot understand how some(and I never question their commitment to Christ in alternative perception and am resentful that mine is questioned and ridiculed as heretical in my general submission to the Presbyterian Westminster Confession) can declare with such authority, assurance and in exclusive possession of proper Christianity and are so concretely confident and dismissive . It seems to suggest that God submit to their doctrines suggesting that the earnest discernment of others, whether Catholic or Protestant are invalid.

That is a real problem – and cuts to the heart of what divides us; but it also suggests, I think, that if we understood aright, then it points to what unites us.

As SF and Rob have both noted, the Christian life is a journey, and one in which one either strives and advances, or ceases to and falls back. I want to leave aside the question of the assurance of being saved, partly because I have nothing remotely useful to say on it, and partly because I think Rob has, and I hope he might be persuaded to do a post on it. But I do want to look at this idea that God submits to the doctrines of any Church.

The Church would say that the doctrines are revealed. If we look at the history of the Nicene Creed we can see the reality of the messiness with which this revelation takes place; that is our fault, of course, not God’s. He works through us, and if, from this crooked timber, He builds straight, then the glory and the praise are to Him. The Creed set out at Nicaea in 325 was not accepted by all, and there were times in the next fifty or so years when it looked like it would be overturned; it was added to in 381 at Constantinople, and it was not until Chalcedon in 451 that its new form was widely accepted; in fact it was not until them that most Christians learned about the Constantinople Council. During all of that time there were proposals, counter-proposals and quarrels and excommunications without number. There is no doubt that those doing the excommunicating thought they were right and that they were damning their opponents to hell. Do they come under the remit of what SF has called ‘religious but not spiritual’?

This is difficult, because we have to concede, I think, that all these men were sincere and all were trying to be good Christians. Yet, undoubtedly, some were in error, and mortal error at that. To that there seem to me a number of possible reactions. Mine is that I can see why it was necessary in pursuit of the truth to insist on the evil of error, but that I can also see why those excommunicated resented it.

We, in the West, often think of the Reformation as the dividing line in religious history, but that was a late-comer. In 431 those who refused to accept the Council of Ephesus and the declaration of the ‘Theotokos’ found themselves outside ‘the Church’, even though many of them had never been to the Council and were really objecting to the treatment of Nestorius. In 451 large numbers of Christians in Egypt, Syria, the Holy Land and that area found themselves outside the Church. In 1054 the same happened with the Chalcedonian Orthodox. Yet, the descendants of all these Christians are there in the Churches all of which claim they are the Church, and all of which have survived horrible persecution.

Now I do not know how this can be so, but I also cannot understand how only one of this group of Churches can be the sole right one. I have a sense of seeing through the glass darkly here.