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Cutting Edges: Ecumenism and Ecumenical Dialogue

From January 2019 Issue of Aware

By Dr. James L. Papandrea, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

On September 20, 2018, Dr. James Papandrea was installed as professor of church history and historical theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, following his promotion to full professor. The article here is excerpted from his promotion lecture entitled, “Common Ground: The Historical Foundation of Ecumenism and Ecumenical Dialogue.”

As many of you know, I was raised Protestant, and now I’m Catholic, so I like to think I’m “bilingual.” As a Catholic on the faculty at a United Methodist seminary, I see myself as a bridge-builder, and I have made it a priority of my teaching here these last 10 years to encourage my students to think ecumenically. My hope for all Garrett-Evangelical graduates is that they will find themselves in leadership in a community, and there they will meet other Christians. And they will reach out to those other Christians and pray with them, so that they can learn from each other, share the gifts of God, and work together – and not embarrass the cause of the gospel.

So for a few moments, let’s go back to when the Church was one – in the days of the Church fathers and mothers – and talk about the ecumenical councils of the early Church – councils that were [and still are] authoritative for the universal Church. 

The first two ecumenical councils were in the fourth century (remember that’s the 300s). The Councils of Nicaea (in 325) and Constantinople (in 381) literally defined the Church when they wrote the Nicene Creed. Christianity itself was defined according to orthodox (correct) belief in the Trinity, including the conviction that Jesus Christ is fully divine, no less than God the Father. This doctrine of the Trinity is the sine qua non of Christianity – the very identity of what it means to be a Christian. The third ecumenical council was in the fifth century, in the year 431. The Council of Ephesus was more specifically about the Second Person of the Trinity. In case any doubted, the council affirmed that Jesus Christ is also fully human and that the full humanity and full divinity of Christ are inseparably united in one Person.

The affirmations that came out of these three councils were the universal Church’s definitive answer to Jesus’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” So we are all one, as the Body of Christ, to the extent that we all have the same answer to that question. 

But why does it matter that we agree? Why do we need boundaries around orthodoxy? Why not just let all people believe what they want, especially in the twenty-first century? Because a savior who is not fully divine cannot bring God to humanity. And savior who is not truly human cannot bring humanity to God. To be a Christian means to believe in both the humanity and the divinity of Christ, and to accept that Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity. These are the historical boundaries of our common identity as Christians. And it matters because without this common ground, we would have no basis for the unity of the universal Church, the Body of Christ. 

The name Christian has never meant simply a “follower of Christ.” What it means to be a Christian was defined by those who came before us, and no one alive today has the authority to change it. The early Church was very inclusive of all people, but not all interpretations – because putting one’s faith in the wrong Christ is the same as having no Christ at all. The historic ecumenical councils are the authoritative interpretations of Scripture and the Incarnation, and the first three ecumenical councils should be accepted by all who call themselves Christians because together they are the very definition of Christianity. 

With these first three ecumenical councils as our foundation, we can work together in the spirit of Matthew 25 – sharing our abundance with the poor and homeless, providing comfort, prayer, encouragement, and human contact to the sick and isolated and imprisoned. We can care for the physical bodies of the dying and the dead, and in general work to improve the quality of people’s lives, both physical and spiritual. The Emperor Constantine did not convert the Roman Empire. Christians converted the Empire, by loving one neighbor at a time. And we can do that again, if we work together.