July 13, 2010

The Frustrations of Ecumenical Dialogue

I believe that ecumenical dialogue is important. For one thing, the current divisions of the Church are not just a shame but a sin. For another thing, I think that Timothy Ware is correct in claiming that God intended for differing perspectives between different linguistic and cultural groups, and also between differing tastes and focuses to balance each other out. Instead (and let me, as a Protestant, admit that the Reformation only made this worse), we tend to congregate with people who think like us and look like us and talk like us and want the same styles of preaching and music we do. There are important theological differences between different churches, but there are also splits caused by unimportant theological differences, and even by matters of style, taste, or perspective without substantive theological disagreement at all. The Church is the body of Christ, his visible representation on earth, and we misrepresent him by splitting a hundred ways.

I have no idea how we go about un-splitting. But respectful dialogue can help to mitigate some of the damage caused by this state. First, by listening to and learning from other Christian traditions, we can help to balance out our own biases. Second, by showing respect and attention to other Christian groups, we can mitigate the scandalous public perception that different strains of Christianity are hostile and even hateful toward each other.

To this end, I try to frequent blogs that engage in dialogue on the issues that divide us. For instance, I regularly read Called to Communion (Roman Catholic), Energetic Procession (Eastern Orthodox), and Reason From Scripture (Calvinist). But I have a common complaint about all three of these blogs. All of the authors are quite intelligent and well-read. Yet each blog has a tendency to treat its own view as if it was obvious to anyone with half a brain (or, at least, anyone with half a brain who has read the Bible). Lately, Reason From Scripture has been the worst offender. For instance, a recent post includes the line, "If we take the baptists interpretation of this text then it would be incompatible with the Calvinistic doctrine of perseverance of the Saints which is clearly taught in Romans 8." (Of course it's true that Romans 8:29-30 does seem to affirm this doctrine, just as Hebrews 6:4-5 seems to deny it; the interpretive issues are complicated.)

Now, it's hard work to actually see thing's from the other side's perspective, and figure out which premises we can agree on and which we can't. It is also true that you can't defend everything at once. Called to Communion gets points for making a habit of building one post on another, and referring back to old posts to support controversial premises.

I don't have a problem with asserting one's own view as fact; it's not as if I'm trying to push some kind of relativism or pluralism here. I also realize that blog posts are often not really finished products - mine certainly aren't. But what I am saying is that if you want to have productive dialogue, it is worth the effort to clearly identify your premises and to give some sense of which ones might be controversial and who might controvert them. Once you have done this, it should take very little effort to adopt a respectful attitude toward those who reject your premises. (I've said that for treating controversial premises as controversial, Reason From Scripture gets the lowest marks; for respecting dissenters Energetic Procession gets the lowest marks. I no longer comment there.)

I take it that all three of these blogs want to engage in some kind of meaningful ecumenical dialogue, and doubtless there are many others like them. I don't mean to bash them; I value the enterprise they are engaged in, I read them regularly, and I commend them to my readers. I just often feel like they are talking past each other. In fact, I feel like even Reason From Scripture is often talking past me, and we theoretically belong to the same tradition. (Nathanael embraces that tradition much more fully than I do.) So what I really mean to do is to make these two suggestions to these blogs and anyone else trying to engage in ecumenical dialogue: identify your premises, and recognize that intelligent and well-informed people will disagree with some of them. If I could add a third suggestion as well, let me say that I'd like to see the blogs I've named engage each other directly, perhaps in a sort of symposium. I would be happy to act as moderator if one is needed.

Posted by Kenny at July 13, 2010 9:23 AM
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Thanks for this. Ecumenical dialogue is very important to us at CTC, and I fully agree that we need to be clear about our premises. In fact, at CTC, we are trying specifically to focus on the very fundamental points of disagreement, and then go behind them, to the underlying reasons for the disagreement about them. If you see any places where we are treating people as though if they had half a brain they would agree with us, please let us know. I hope we don't do that. If you find places where we are presupposing our premises, and not providing reasons and evidence in support of those premises, please let us know.

I'm really glad that you value ecumenical dialogue, and believe that it can be fruitful.

Thanks again for your post.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Posted by: Bryan Cross at July 13, 2010 11:13 AM


Thanks for stopping by. It is very hard to put this sort of thing into practice, and CTC's efforts in this direction are visible, and much appreciated. Often I find that I personally depart from the line of reasoning fairly early in a very long post, but I typically come away with a clear picture of where the disagreement lies, and typically this exact point of disagreement has been dealt with in an earlier post. This is why I wanted to specifically acknowledge CTC for the practice of building posts on one another; I find this very helpful.

The main reason why I nevertheless included CTC in my 'common complaint' is that I find that the later posts are often worded so as to make it sound like the arguments of the earlier posts were utterly conclusive, and I find this rather off-putting. This is a small complaint, as it is fairly easy to ignore (at least for me), but it does often cause posts to come off more hostile than I think is necessary. So perhaps in CTC's case the complaint is really that controversial premises are treated as if they should be obvious to any intelligent person who has read the previous posts.

On the whole, however, I think that CTC is doing great work, and I recommend it to my readers, and I hope that you'll keep it up!

Posted by: Kenny at July 13, 2010 11:50 AM


I am not sure if your remarks about EP reflect current or past offenses. There has been an alteration in management there this last year. I also try to be as dispassonate as possible.

I try to let just about everything through in the comment box, unless it is plain screaming and lacks any argument.

So perhaps you can help me make the blog better.
What did you find problematic and what would you sugges to fix it?

Posted by: Perry Robinson at July 14, 2010 4:18 PM

Hi Perry,

Thanks for stopping by. I have always found the main text of posts to be both respectful and informative, and that's why I have kept reading.

I agree with your policy of letting nearly all comments through. I wouldn't want that to change. I did, however, have several bad experiences with discussions in comment threads on EP, which led to my decision no longer to leave comments there (though, as I said, I have continued to be a regular reader). I think it was about a year ago that I finally made that decision. Basically what happened is that several times I asked a question or made a hesitant suggestion (making it obvious that I was hesitant), and got a response that led me to feel attacked and/or insulted. I understand and approve of the open comment policy (I practice the same here, though I have far fewer commenters, of course), but the offending comments often came from blog contributors, not visitors. In one incident I remember particularly vividly, I made a terminological error in my first comment and my attempt to correct myself became a quite hostile days-long exchange with one of the contributors (I honestly don't remember who). The contributor in question could easily have responded "don't you mean... [insert correct orthodox formula]" as soon as he saw that I realized I had made a mistake, instead of continuing to attack the wording I originally used long after I had disavowed it.

If there was a post on EP that I disagreed with and was quite confident of my ability to defend my position, I might not have qualms about commenting on it. But my experience has been that no matter how many times I have expressed a lack of knowledge and a desire to be instructed, I have always been attacked instead. Furthermore, the responses have not been even-handed - that is, they haven't recognized that there might be better versions of the position in question than the one I have inexpertly constructed off the top of my head.

So to give a more specific suggestion, I would simply say that when contributors interact with commenters, they should make more effort to distinguish between commenters who are presenting themselves as experts and picking a fight, and less expert commenters who simply want to have an informative discussion. I've felt that in the past, if I have said anything that might possibly be construed as disagreeing with any part of the post I have been treated as belonging to the first category, despite my protestations to the contrary. It is possible that this has already improved; perhaps I will try again. But let me reiterate that I am a regular reader and have always appreciated the post content, even when I have ignored the comments.

One more note: I did hesitate about dealing with this publicly, but there are two reasons I decided to do so. First, because I had good things to say about all three blogs and wanted to say them publicly, and second because I think these suggestions are generally applicable. They're things that everyone could do better at.

Posted by: Kenny at July 14, 2010 6:00 PM

But what if all of what is promoted as conventional religion just plain old aint true--beginning with the the origins of the Bible, and the essentially politic motives of the church "fathers" who put it together to consolidate THEIR worldly power and privileges?



Posted by: John at July 21, 2010 6:53 PM

Hello Kenny,

I think you make a good point that assume certain premises to be true and obvious but that is because I have already written previous posts on them and/or done a great amount of study on the topics in my graduate work. So I think I should reference previous argumentation when I make certain assert particular premises, so in that sense I stand corrected. You cited a sermon I preached for a Reformed/Reformed baptist audience so I have limited time to prove things so in the future when I make those assertions I shall reference previous posts even if they are in the sermon itself. And the reason why I act as if perseverance of the saints is true because it is and I have proven it here:


I would encourage you to interact and debate the issues on that blog post.

As for your Hebrews 6:4-5 reference that is a reference to falling away from the covenant (not salvation) as is established in the preceding and proceeding context of Hebrews chapters 3-5 and 8-10 (esp. 10:29). This is a good wake up call for me to extend out to other non-Reformed readers so for that I am most thankful for your critique. God helps us grow through correction and criticism. Thank you!

In Christ Jesus,


Posted by: Nathanael Taylor at July 24, 2010 11:20 PM

***I think you make a good point that I assume certain premises to be true and obvious but that is because I have already written previous posts on them and/or done a great amount of study on the topics in my graduate work. So I think I should reference previous argumentation when I make certain assertions on particular premises, so in that sense I stand corrected. You cited a sermon I preached for a Reformed/Reformed baptist audience so I have limited time to prove things so in the future when I make those assertions I shall reference previous posts even if they are in the sermon itself. And the reason why I act as if perseverance of the saints is true because it is and I have proven it here**** Sorry the last post had a lot typos...I should not have written after a couple of drinks...God Bless man.

Posted by: Nathanael Taylor at July 24, 2010 11:36 PM

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