Christian TraditionsChurch HistoryEcumenismReformedTheology & Spirituality

Self-Interrogation and Writing on Conflict in Christian History

I find “Meaningful Dialogue Across Christian Traditions,” the headline at Conciliar Post, to be a simple and beautiful way to capture much of what we write here. The common ground of faith in Christ, accompanied by a sense that various Christian traditions have potential strengths others can benefit from, makes for a wide-ranging and charitable field of discussion of which I am glad to be a part.

Considering my appreciation for this kind of harmony, I find it strange that I am always drawn to read and write about conflict in Christian history, especially theological conflict in which groups are drawing the line between who is Christian and who is not. Theological controversy has been a very painful thing in my life. For some, a personal history of devastating religious controversy can turn them away from their own tradition, and even from the faith itself. For myself, however, it has developed within me a strong, deep love for mediating figures, as well as for those who represent a third way in the midst of a polarized field.

I grew up in churches where we considered old-school Presbyterians—such as B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, and J. Gresham Machen—as our forebears. These men were often commemorated as the last vestiges of a true Christianity that just barely survived the denominational split of the northern church in the 1930s. So, it was with delight that I recently got to learn about mid-century Presbyterian moderates, like Robert E. Speer and John A. Mackay. Speer I learned to appreciate as someone staking out a middle ground in debates over US foreign missions in the 1920s and 30s. On the one hand, he opposed those who believed the existing Presbyterian mission board had to be abandoned as hopelessly corrupted with doctrinal error. Alternatively, he was critical of aspects of the enormously influential “Hocking Report” on contemporary missions (1932), which he feared compromised the Christian necessity of belief in the historicity and uniqueness of Jesus. Mackay I learned to appreciate as one of the earliest mainline Protestants to recognize value in early Latin American pentecostalism and to foster pentecostal dialogues with other Protestants, far in advance of his Presbyterian peers. I don’t have exhaustive knowledge of these men’s careers by a long shot, but I mention my impressions of them as a representation of a middle way I find myself searching for.

I suspect I am not alone in this desire to find intermediary figures. My own tendency toward amelioration, however, is something for me to re-interrogate and to keep in the front of my mind. Since I am working in history, it is in looking through primary documents that this tendency primarily crops up for me. For instance, as I work through the issues of an early Brazilian pentecostal magazine, I have my antennae up to assess how they are interacting with other Christian groups. I am so glad to run into the story of how a pentecostal evangelist, itinerating in the Amazon, enjoyed the hospitality of a Presbyterian brother. When the periodical advertises some high-quality classes at the Presbyterian seminary, or celebrates the work of pan-Protestant Bible societies, I am there to celebrate too. Alternatively, when the editors reprint North American articles describing other Protestants as basically non-Christian for not accepting the idea of spirit baptism, or headline the story of an “ex-Baptist pastor” who had been just a “blind man leading the blind” before accepting the message of the pentecostals, I just sit back and ask myself sadly why we Christians are so often taken up with a polemical spirit.1

What to do with the difficulty of describing intra-Christian conflict is something I will continue to struggle with, probably for the rest of my life. But for the time being, in light of what I observe about my own tendencies, I would like to offer one idea for people who, like myself, strive for amelioration. An early model for me in how to write history was George Marsden’s Johnathan Edwards: A Life (2003). In the introduction, Marsden presented his methodological procedure this way:

If there is an emphasis that appears difficult, or harsh, or overstated in Edwards, often the reader can better appreciate his perspective by asking the question: “How would this issue look if it were really the case that bliss or punishment for a literal eternity was at stake?”2

Marsden urged his readers to ask this test question when they found Edwards’s statements and actions too extreme, as a way to see some possibility of logic or charity behind polemical language.

While I have no intention of setting aside my disposition toward looking for exemplars of Christian harmony and cooperation, the question Marsden recommends using when reading Edwards is a helpful one to use in cases of religious controversy. After all, early pentecostals did believe that spirit baptism was absolutely vital, and that it would provide the necessary power to energize mission work.3 If I downplay their contention, I will not only miss part of what made them who they were, but I might also miss the opportunity to seriously consider what they said about the work of the Holy Spirit. The important work of using history to promote mutual appreciation between Christian groups has to avoid the pitfall of being unfaithful toward the genuine theological concerns of the groups in play.

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Morgan Crago

Morgan Crago

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