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As the subtitle suggests John Armstrong’s book focuses on the unity of the Church. The book is comprised of three sections: past, present, and future with a total of nineteen chapters which are quite manageable. Each chapter is further broken down into clear sections which could be read meditatively. Each chapter concludes with three or four questions for discussion and reflection. J. I. Packer wrote a very strong forward for this book which is readable online.
Armstrong’s thesis is that Jesus intended his body to be one as indicated by his prayer in John 17. He has created a ministry that works toward that end; desiring cooperation between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox. He writes firmly planted within the United States context and would include Evangelicals among Protestants, including all mainline Protestants. I began this book desiring to see Armstrong succeed in his quest to explain why all Christians need to think about being one and to provide us with practical impetus towards that goal. That is why this book has been very hard for me to review. I want to see Armstrong’s goal but I don’t think that this book will convince those who are sitting on the fence with regards to this issue. It raises more questions than it answers when it comes to dealing with actual churches and actual people within actual confessional groups. I found the third section to be powerful and would recommend that all pastors read it but the first two sections left me in confusion as to method and the foundational basis that we can work from. Let me interact with the book as I encountered it.
First let me say that I was surprised that Armstrong did not say more about his own church background at the beginning of the book. We soon learn that his childhood was spent in an all-white southern church and that they were anti-Roman Catholic, something that he explains coming to grips with. It is also helpful to watch the short video on his website. It becomes clear that the impetus for his ministry stems from his early years of being a zealous defender of “the faith” and an antagonist of Roman Catholicism. Nothing is said about his current church affiliation until page 141 that we learn his denomination is the Reformed Church in America. It is important that we do not prejudge him based on his church but in such a book I do not think we can ignore it.
The first section of this book deals with the past: the biblical and historical basis for Christian unity. Not surprisingly he sees Jesus’ prayer in John 17 as vital to the realisation of this unity. At the heart of this prayer is Jesus’ desire that, “The church will be a visible example of the relational and spiritual unity of the triune God” (44). Armstrong states that in times past he stressed Truth over Unity at the expense of relationship. This statement gets to the heart of his desire to unite the church: “Jesus’ prayer for unity teaches us that even when we disagree on matters of doctrine or practice, we should avoid building barriers between ourselves and other Christians. We must be willing to accept those who are accepted by God and belong to him” (49).
He believes that Christians must have a “core orthodoxy” and “when we have clarity on the essentials, we are free to confidently move forward into a deeper understanding of the church, one that can be lived out in our congregations without fear or the need to condemn or avoid others” (51). The foundational doctrine for unity is love. He distinguishes between three kinds of unity: unanimity, uniformity, and union. He takes the last view which “emphasizes the goal of Jesus’ prayer—to bring all of us into one visible, united church” (56). This is a very admirable goal and one that I think most Christians would agree with.
In the following chapter he makes it clear that union involves two commitments. The first is “to work in every conceivable way to demonstrate and express the God-given spiritual oneness I share with other believers through our union with Christ” (60). The outworking of this is that “I begin by recognizing I am one with them in Christ if they call him Lord (1 Cor 12:3). Armstrong’s second commitment is to not just have union with other individual Christians but have union with other churches –Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. I agree that this is ideal but there is no one Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox church to be in union with. We may view the Roman Catholic church as a single entity but it has at least as many divisions as there are mainline Protestant denominations.
Armstrong states that “for the first thousand years of its history, the church universally maintained an interest in unity. However, in 1054, this unity was radically and tragically altered by the East/West split” (62). I appreciate that he wants to ground his call to unity in the early church but this ignores the many divisions in the early church beginning within the New Testament period. The letters of Paul and others directly address these conflicts and unity was only maintained through subservience to apostolic authority and the subsequent appointment of bishops. The fact that in the early centuries many heretics were thrown out of the church, with even bishops being banished, speaks loudly against his contention that division is only a recent phenomenon. He explains in further detail in chapter nine what he means by unity in the early centuries (86ff) but fails to address such events as the expulsion of the Nestorians who were condemned in 431 at the First Council of Ephesus and again in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon.
I agree with his statement that “I find it helpful to think of the worldwide church as a large circle. At the centre of this circle is Christ. As people on the outer edge of the circle move inward toward Christ at the center, they grow closer to one another” (64). Notice that this takes an individual approach, not a corporate approach. It also fails to mention that some people are moving away from Christ not towards him.
Thankfully in the second section on the present: restoring unity in the church today, Armstrong begins to answer some of the questions he has created in the first section. He begins the section with a chapter asking how we can restore unity. He opens with quotes from Cyprian and N. T. Wright, the latter of whom said “the doctrine of justification is in fact the great ecumenical doctrine” (76). I find this ironic given how much debate Wright’s book Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision has engendered, particularly between Calvinists and Wright’s Evangelical/Anglican supporters. Armstrong turns to the Apostle’s Creed as his basis for unity, saying “there is plenty in it that offends the sensibilities of modern culture, making it the perfect ancient-future way of establishing fidelity and unity” (78). I have a soft spot for the Apostle’s Creed as I had to memorise it for my first theology class during my undergrad. I have to agree that it is often ignored by churches/denominations to their detriment.
As Armstrong clearly points out in chapter ten the enemy of a united church is sectarianism. By this he means “mutual exclusivity, an exclusivity that thrives where people and groups believe they have a superior claim to truth. Sectarians believe their church/denomination can best ‘represent the body of Christ, to the exclusion or minimization of other genuinely Christian groups’” (92) with a quote from Rex Koivisto, One Lord, One Faith, 14f. Of course this begs us to ask the question of who determines whether a group is genuinely Christians or not. So far we have seen two qualifications: they call Jesus Lord and adhere to the Apostles’ Creed. I unstated presumption is that they also read and understand the Bible in the same way as Armstrong to be confirmed by their adherence to the Apostles’ Creed.
He says that problems arise when we have intellectual certitude that we are right and others are wrong. Essentially he is saying that problems arise when we unnecessarily create dichotomies such as God wills infant baptism or believer’s baptism. E.g. If I practice infant baptism I am right and any other forms of baptism are wrong. This doesn’t even get into other possibilities such as baptism in the name of Jesus is right and Trinitarian baptism is wrong. Armstrong advocates that we resist intellectual certitude and engage with others who are different but not in a postmodern relativistic manner. I hoped that he would expand on his basis for this because it is not enough to “believe,” even the demons do that and tremble with fear; it has to be worked out.
Armstrong has stated two foundations for unity; his certitude that Jesus is Lord and that the Apostles’ Creed conveys Truth but not everyone will understand even these things in the same way. Some would consider Jesus lord but not Lord in an exclusive sense. Others accept the Apostle’s Creed but reject the literality of statements such as “he descended into hell.” Our sectarianism originates in our tendency to maximise non-essentials and minimise essentials but at the end of the day there are lines to be drawn and the question is not whether you will draw them but where. Armstrong admits that “my sectarianism is not entirely gone” but I think he errs when he states that “I daily seem to find new ways of expressing religious pride” (93f). Must we equate exclusivity to Christ with sectarianism and see it as religious pride. Christianity has beliefs that exclude others and Christians can therefore be seen by outsiders as religiously prideful. It is not clear how Armstrong differentiates between those who are eligible and those who are ineligible. Sectarianism is not be helpful when it excludes those whom God includes but it demonstrates clarity of belief. I think of the great religious “sectarians” (fundamentalists, Nestorians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christadelphians, Christian Science, etc.) and it is clear who is included and who is not. Armstrong’s stance seems to include anyone who is not a “sectarian.” What about those individuals and churches who want to be included in the Church but must be excluded because they approve and engage in sinful practices?
Armstrong goes on to define church as a place where the Word of God is preached, the sacraments are administered, mission is engaged, and there is a deep commitment to justice and the poor (106). He explains the nature of the church and then distinguishes the church from the Kingdom of God. In the last chapter concerning the present he deals with the question of the role of tradition. He explains that everyone stands within a tradition, even those who claim to have no tradition but the Bible. He identifies four components of Christian tradition: biblical tradition, tradition in classical Christianity, the role of scripture, and the wisdom of the church fathers. Under his discussion of the role of scripture he explains that he always starts a discussion with a group of minister or priests by asking if they agree with the truths confessed in the Apostles’ Creed. In doing so he discovers those who engage in “destructive theological liberalism and ethical and moral compromise” (125f). I am not sure how adherence to the Apostles’ Creed reveals ethical and moral compromise but it is clear that for Armstrong adherence to the Apostles’ Creed = adherence to biblical mandates.
The third section concerns the future: searching for the true church. As I mentioned in my introduction this section is the strongest of the book and he answers some of the questions we have been left with in the first sections. In the first chapter Armstrong calls for a balance between Truth and unity. “Unity in Christ and the truth must be our pattern. Uniformity is not healthy. But some forms of diversity must be understood as illegitimate too or the church’s mission is adversely harmed” (138f). He finally directly addresses the problem that “one Christian’s ‘nonessential’ is another’s ‘essential’” but has no further answer than that “this is why I have made such a concerted effort to push us back to the Scriptures and the earliest ecumenical creeds. These will not solve everything, but these standards provide a historical context” (139). The difficulty with this is that I do not know of any current divisive issue where both sides do not appeal to their standing in the Bible and the early creeds. We’ve already “weeded out” everyone else by consigning them to “cult” status and even they claim to adhere to the Bible or they would not be “Christian” cults.
As I reflect on this I am reminded of our local Anglican diocese. The bishop supports the marriage and ordination of homosexuals but many local churches have rejected this in the name of Truth and have placed themselves under the authority of another bishop. In response the local diocese took them to court and attempted to take away their church buildings. What a witness and a direct violation of Paul’s command not to take fellow believers to court. A confirmation of Armstrong’s statement that “A disunited church is a direct and public contradiction of the gospel of the kingdom” (154).
As a Christian which Anglican group should I seek to be in union with? Both claim to be under the lordship of Christ and to be expressing love for God and people through the inclusion or exclusion of those who practice homosexuality. I was frustrated that Armstrong never got down to brass tacks and used a case study to show how to discern which beliefs and actions (praxis) remove a church from the sphere of Christ. The fact is we cannot have inclusion with exclusion. That said, both Anglican groups participated in the Vancouver 2010 Olympics More Than Gold campaign. Obviously Christians can work together even if they disagree on certain issues. I think this demonstrates the possibility of what Armstrong is doing. Although doctrinal and practical issues may divide us we can still work together on projects. This seems very pragmatic but it is a beginning.
In this section Armstrong finally made some statements that I think should have come much earlier, perhaps in an introduction. First he states clearly how he defines a Christian: “In defining a Christian, a simple answer works best: A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and follows his teachings” (146). Secondly, he affirms the use of scripture to teach and rebuke: “I believe the Scriptures reveal that godly leaders should expose false teachers, especially if their teaching denies core orthodoxy. (The category of heresy still matters when properly used)” (150f). There is still the weakness of how to discern what it means to “follow his teachings” as per the Anglican story above but conservatives will be heartened to know his beliefs on this. As far as I can see his inclusion boils down to a couple of questions which really need to be flushed out.
Do you agree with the Apostles’ Creed?
Do you understand it the same way I do?
Do you agree that the Bible is God’s only revelation to humanity?
Do you understand the Bible the same way I do?
Another point that needs clarification is when Armstrong refers to the practice of interpreting the Bible allegorically. Of course some parts of the Bible are allegory, for example Paul states in Galatians 4:24 that he is using Abraham’s two wives figuratively/allegorically but to go beyond the authorial intent as many early church fathers did is not acceptable. A cardinal rule of biblical interpretation is that a text cannot mean to us what it could not have meant to its original author. I recently read a chapter from Klaus Bockmuehl regarding how Luther and the other Reformers dealt with Scripture and their relationship to the Roman Catholic church. It is must reading for anyone who wants a brief introduction to how they read the Bible and ended up sectarian. The chapter is “The ‘Great Warning’ of the Protestant Reformers” in the book, Listening to the God Who Speaks (Helmers & Howard,1990), 119-137.
In conclusion, finally, aren’t you glad, Armstrong has written an admirable book that tackles a divisive subject – the lack of oneness in the body of Christ. I wish that all Christians were as concerned about loving their Christian neighbours as they are about proving their fidelity to the Word of God. If this book motivates you to meet with your local Reformed, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Church brethren then his job will have been accomplished. I would love to see a sequel in which he deals with some of the hard ground that needs to be hoed and provides a hermeneutical method by which pastors can know they are being faithful to the Bible whilst embracing Christians with whom they have not been in fellowship with for centuries. This would assuage the fears of “sectarians” such as Armstrong was to be confident that they are in God’s will. Let us walk in the Spirit and make him known by our love! Amen?
Full disclosure: Zondervan provided me with a free Advance Reading Copy for the purpose of writing this blog review and participating in their blog tour and have promised my a final copy of this book and also Ethnic Blends by Mark DeYmaz which I am really looking forward to as it looks at building a healthy multi-ethnic church and is co-written with Harry Li.