Doctrinal Indifference?

Doctrinal Indifference? August 27, 2015

More conservative Christians have often charged that ecumenically-minded churches and theologians are indifferent to doctrine, aiming for a LCD theology. Ecumenical theologian James Wagner (in the 1963 collection The Challenge to Reunion) argues that the precise opposite is true:

“there is probably no group within the Christian fellowship throughout the world which takes Christian doctrine in general, distinctive doctrines of the denominational and confessional families in particular, more seriously than those who are interested in Christian union. Their position is, not that any doctrinal conviction is unimportant, but that all doctrinal convictions are important” (20-1).

The mutual deference toward other traditions doesn’t arise from indifference, but from “the more sensitive awareness we have acquired in the ecumenical process by which we appreciate each others’ distinctive viewpoints and recognize the contribution of depth and richness each has made to the common treasury of our faith.” In short, the goal is not lowest common denomination but the pursuit of “a growing doctrinal deposit deeper, richer and stronger because, as we are beginning to learn, every conviction for which someone, sometime, somewhere, has been willing to suffer loss is a conviction at the heart of which is truth without which our own faith is impoverished and incomplete” (21).

Ecumenical theologians don’t treat doctrine with indifference. But the key is: Neither do treat doctrinal distinctives as important only for those who hold them. Rather: If they are important to one, they are important to all.

He refers to Orthodoxy to illustrate. He notes the difficulty that “free church” traditions have enduring “the seemingly unbending insistence of Eastern Orthodoxy that the only way to Christian union is by ‘the return of the communions to the Faith of the ancient, united, and indivisible church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils,’ and the collateral declaration of ‘our profound conviction that the Holy Orthodox Church alone has preserved full and intact the faith once delivered to the saints.’” Then, he says, one attends a Divine Service or speaks to an Orthodox priest or theologians, or remembers that “this Church has borne more, and more terrible persecutions and offered up a later number of martyrs to the faith than has any other Christian communion,” then “one cannot help but feel that from this source, too, his own faith and doctrinal insight will be enriched” (23). 

No doubt that will sound condescending to some Orthodox Christians, as if he said “Paul too has some insight.” Be that as it may, Wagner’s point stands: Ecumenical passion is not at all incompatible with doctrinal seriousness. Quite the contrary.

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