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24 February 2017

The Protestant Reformation and the effect on unity

by Dr David Hilborn, chair of the Evangelical Alliance's theology advisory group and principal of St John's, Nottingham.

Through this year in idea, we are marking the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's protest against the sale of indulgences – an event widely linked with the start of the Protestant Reformation, and thereby with the origins of evangelicalism. Certainly, Luther's emphases on biblical authority, justification by grace through faith and the priesthood of all believers would become hallmarks of evangelical belief. Yet while Luther gained numerous supporters, it would not be long before some of them diverged from him on significant issues. As they did so, tensions arose that raised profound questions about the limits of Christian unity.

Zwingli was significantly more radical on liturgy, Church government and politics than Luther. Yet at Marburg in 1529 they joined others to declare common convictions on 14 articles of doctrine. Only on the 15th and last article did they disagree. Luther believed that the true body and blood of Christ were "corporeally present" in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper, whereas Zwingli regarded the elements as symbols enabling believers to recall the past sacrifice made by Christ. This had led to serious disagreement. Because of it Luther had at times refused even to recognise Zwingli and his followers as Christians. The 15th article, however, commended a more charitable approach: "Although we have not been able to agree [on this point] at this time," it said: "Each party should display towards the other Christian love, as far as each respective conscience allows, and both should persistently ask God the Almighty for guidance so that through His Spirit He might bring us to a proper understanding." In fact, tensions continued, but importantly divine truth was not relativised in this article: both parties pledged to keep striving for a "proper understanding" through prayer and study - recognising that they each had a partial grasp of it, but that the definitive truth was there to be found under God.

Similar dynamics were evident between John Wesley and George Whitefield two centuries later. Whitefield called Wesley his "spiritual father in Christ", and later relied on his brilliant organisation to ensure that his own powerful preaching reached a mass audience. For his part, Wesley recognised Whitefield as his guide into the field preaching that would come so vitally to distinguish the revival. As J.D. Walsh has noted in the 1730s: "Whitefield and the Wesleys worked in the closest harmony." Yet by late 1740 they had fallen out. Wesley had long promoted Arminianism, with its emphasis on free grace, against the Calvinist focus on predestination. Whitefield, however, became increasingly drawn to Calvinism, and when Wesley intensified his defence of Arminian theology, Whitefield issued a firm critique of Wesley's view, which promoted Calvin's stress on election. Reconciliation on this specific issue was never achieved, and Wesley maintained to the end of his life that Whitefield had caused the "first breach" in the revival. Yet from 1742 relations improved. Whitefield received more invitations to preach from John Wesley's societies, and brokered an agreement with Wesley that Calvinistic Methodist chapels would not be built where Wesleyan societies already existed, and vice versa. When Whitefield died in 1770, Wesley preached at his funeral, as Whitefield himself had requested.

The formation of our own Evangelical Alliance in 1846 owed much to the aim of "unity in diversity" that had informed the Marburg Colloquy and the Wesley-Whitefield compact. Scots Calvinists like Thomas Chalmers and John Henderson joined the Wesleyan Jabez Bunting, the Anglican Edward Bickersteth, the Congregationalist John Angell James and the Baptist Edward Steane in striking a fresh 'keynote of love' across the diversity of evangelicalism. Crucially, they grounded that vision in a basis of faith that defined the shared biblical convictions that enabled them to undertake more effective mission together than they could have achieved apart. Even so, the strong global structure they had envisaged for the new body was diluted following a dispute on slave-holding between the British and American delegations to the inaugural conference. On that issue, the British party's belief that biblical teaching ruled out slave-ownership transcended the desire for institutional unity. A theological line was drawn.

More recently, the Alliance has faced various other issues that have tested its commitment to unity in the truth. Twice in the past 20 years we have published reports that have encouraged greater pastoral generosity towards gay men and lesbians, but which have reaffirmed the classical evangelical view that sexually active same-sex partnerships are incompatible with God's will as revealed in scripture. In 2000 we carefully considered whether the view that the unredeemed might eventually be annihilated could be recognised as an acceptable evangelical position alongside the more common evangelical affirmation of eternal conscious punishment in hell. We concluded that the holding of either view over against the other was 'neither essential in respect of Christian doctrine, not finally definitive of what it means to be an Evangelical'. At the same time, however, we rejected the universalist view that all will be saved as lacking biblical foundation. 

In these, as in other issues, we have sought to follow Luther in making scripture our key authority. As God's word written, the Bible points us to God's word incarnate: Jesus. As that divine word, Jesus embodies truth and calls us to uphold that truth (John 8:32; 14:6). Just as he himself used scripture to defend that truth (Matthew 4:1-11), so we are obliged to ensure that our theology and practice have biblical warrant. If we find that the approach taken by another individual or group lacks such warrant, it's legitimate for us to say so. But even as we "speak the truth" in such circumstances, we are called to do so in "love" (Ephesians 4:15). No doubt, scripture urges us to "contend" for the true faith (Jude 1:3), and even allows that we might separate from others when that faith is sundered by false teaching, ungodly conduct, or both (1 John 3:19-24; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13). But even with such separation, there is typically the hope of reconciliation and restoration in the truth (Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1). After all, unity belongs with truth and love as a fundamental mark of discipleship – from Jesus' prayer that we should be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:11) to Paul's instruction to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3).

These, then, are the basic principles we must follow when we differ with other Christians on doctrine and/or practice. The particular challenge for us as evangelicals, however, is that in making scripture the primary reference-point for settling disputes rather than church leaders, councils or traditions, we face the prospect that interpretations of scripture may vary, even among those who regard themselves as committed evangelicals, and who would affirm all of these core principles. Indeed, our proper prioritisation of scripture needs to be linked with a recognition that as sinners who "see through a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12) we may sometimes diverge in our understanding of scripture. It's then a matter of humbly discerning whether that divergence merits breaking fellowship, or merely "agreeing to disagree agreeably" within the context of continuing fellowship. That process of discernment is not always easy; sometimes, indeed, it's painful. But it's vital if we are to maintain our integrity as evangelicals who are passionate about the truth of the gospel and about the unity for which Jesus himself so earnestly prayed. 

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