REMINDER: Commenters should remember that the future interview segments will cover many topics.
A few days ago I asked Catholic blogger and philosopher Bryan Cross to do an interview here at IM on the subject of Christian Unity. Bryan blogs at Principium Unitatis. Bryan is a prolific writer and was gracious to do the interview. He’s given me enough content for several posts, so I am going to divide the interview into three parts. In part one, Bryan will talk about his journey from Pentecostal to Calvinist to Anglican to Catholic. Then I’ll post his answer to my first question on his personal passion for Christian unity.
Bryan is a patient teacher and apologist. Obviously, many IM readers will disagree with parts of his presentation while others will applaud. Having given articulate Lutherans and Anglicans space this year, I want to give Bryan time to talk about his personal mission of promoting church unity and reunion in the Catholic Church.
Some of you may want to read Bryan’s response to the “All the Romery People” piece at Mockingbird.
Thanks for coming to Internet Monk.com for this interview, Bryan. Take a couple of paragraphs and tell us your basic story, what you are doing now and about your family.
Thanks Michael for the invitation. I’ve enjoyed reading Internet Monk.com for the last couple years. I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to it in this way.
I was raised in the Pentecostal tradition. On both my mother’s and father’s sides my family was involved in the early stages of Pentecostalism in the first part of the twentieth century. In our family it was considered essential to know Scripture. My siblings and I were consistently taught Scripture since as early as I can remember. We attended church twice Sunday, and Wednesday nights, and attended Sunday school every week. We went to all the revivals and all the vacation Bible-schools. So my family and the Pentecostal tradition gave me a thorough familiarity with the Bible, a healthy fear of God and a disposition to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit.
During my undergraduate education at the University of Michigan, I was exposed to Christians of all different traditions, and this raised a number of questions for me. By the end of my senior year, I was reading various books on theology, and I became convinced that Reformed covenantal theology was more biblical than the dispensational theology in which I had been raised. For the following three years my wife and I led an international student fellowship composed of students from Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan. During that time I continued to read books on Reformed theology. By the end of that three years, I came to see that if I was going to be a pastor, I needed much better theological training. So we moved to St. Louis where I studied at Covenant Theological Seminary for four years, earning an M.Div.
In my last year of seminary, I took a graduate philosophy class at Saint Louis University on the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas. Studying Aquinas raised many questions regarding the Reformed tradition. I couldn’t answer those questions at the time, but it was clear to me that there was at least a deep tension between the philosophical and theological positions and methods of the Reformers, and those of Aquinas. I had hoped that a rigorous study of the biblical languages and exegesis would provide the means to resolve interpretive disagreements between the Christian traditions. I had poured myself into exegesis with that hope, so much so that at graduation the seminary faculty honored me with the exegesis award. But I began to see the implicit role that philosophy was playing in our interpretation of Scripture. My belief as a seminarian was that other Christian traditions didn’t agree with us (Presbyterians) primarily because they didn’t know exegesis as well as we did. At the seminary we believed that exegesis was on our side, that it was exegesis that validated our position over and against that of all the other Christian traditions. But when I began to see the degree to which philosophy was playing an implicit role in our interpretation of Scripture, my beliefs that exegesis was a neutral objective science, and that it was sufficient to adjudicate interpretive disputes, began to crumble. So I decided to study philosophy, in order to get a better understanding of the relation of philosophy to theology throughout the history of the Church. If I couldn’t avoid bringing philosophy into exegesis, at least I was going to do my best to bring in true philosophy.
I completed the internship required for ordination and continued to teach Sunday school at the Presbyterian church we were attending. But at that point I decided not to pursue ordination, because for me there were too many theological questions unanswered. Two years after finishing seminary, my youngest daughter went through a very seriousness illness, and during the following year I went through what I would call an intellectual crisis concerning theology and the ecclesial practice of Christianity. It wasn’t a personal faith-crisis; my belief in Christ and love for Him was never in question. At the time, I couldn’t have explained exactly what was the problem. Anglicanism and Catholicism were not even on my conceptual horizon. I knew that I didn’t want to go to church to hear any more “man-talk,” i.e. opinions of men. If church were primarily about “man-talk,” I could go to the library and find much more erudite thinkers and writers. With what I was learning from ancient philosophers and medieval theologians, I found myself mentally refuting sermons point-by-point as they were being delivered during every service. Of course I knew we are not supposed to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, and yet existentially I couldn’t see any good reason to “go to church.” At one point I stopped going to church altogether because I was so frustrated with the whole scene, a scene that to me seemed spiritually vacuous and human-centered in its continual “man-talk.”
Eventually a friend of mine suggested that I visit an Anglican church, so I did. I went by myself. It was completely different. It was quiet and reverent before the liturgy began. The liturgy itself was beautiful, rich, and meaningful. Here for the first time I found freedom from “man-talk.” There was no personality at the front of the church with a microphone, saying whatever came into his head at that moment. There was no speculative exegesis or theological argumentation which I could critically dismantle. The liturgy is God’s speech spoken back to Him by His people or by one representing them. Of course Holy Communion is the climax of the liturgy, and it too is not “man-talk.” In this sacrament God was speaking to me not through words and propositions, but through a physical action, giving Himself to me in a very intimate way. This was not something toward which I could take a critical, disengaged stance. I could only receive it humbly and gratefully. In that respect, this sacrament almost bypassed my intellect and went straight to my heart. We received Holy Communion at the front of the church, on our knees. The very form of worship communicated something altogether different from the way of taking communion I had previously known. I found God to be present there in the beauty, reverence and silence of the liturgy. In that sacredness my heart, which had been starved under a diet of mere propositions, was drawn anew toward God.
The initial problem was that the Anglican church seemed to have no position on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, matters on which we could not compromise. Eventually we found an independent Anglican parish that was in agreement with the natural law on these issues, and we were confirmed there in 2003. But I was still thinking about unity, and had started reading the Church Fathers. Already by the following year I found myself with serious questions about Anglicanism, as I sought to understand the underlying reason for the obvious disunity among Christians. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about the differences between Catholics and Protestants. Around that time I started to see ‘ecclesial consumerism’ for what it is.
My Anglican bishop seemed to have no interest in dialogue with the local Catholic bishop with a view to eventual full communion with the bishop of Rome. That troubled me. I knew from reading the Fathers that the bishop of Rome had a unique authority and role as the Church’s principle of unity, because of his succession from the Apostle Peter. When I asked myself why I was following this Anglican bishop, rather than the successor of St. Peter, I didn’t have a good answer. When I asked my Anglican bishop which ecumenical councils we [Anglicans] accept, his answer also troubled me. He said something like “we believe the first four, but are selective about what we believe from the others.” That seemed entirely arbitrary to me. How could we pick and choose from an ecumenical council, or from among ecumenical councils? Either we should treat them as good advice, or we should accept them all. Picking and choosing from them, and then saying that the ones we have chosen are authoritative, was to my mind self-deceiving. Finally, every Sunday while reciting the Creed, when we would get to the line “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” I couldn’t say it, because my conscience was telling me that we (as Anglicans) weren’t saying the word ‘one’ with the same meaning that those bishops who wrote the Creed intended it. We were treating what was a collection of groups not in full communion, as though it were a true unity. But I had come to believe that this was not how the early Church conceived of the unity of the Church. Real unity meant full communion of the bishops, especially with the bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome.
On April 22, 2005 I reached the conclusion that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded, and decided that day to seek full communion with the Catholic Church. But my wife wasn’t ready, and it took her about a year to do her own reading, and be ready to enter the Church. Finally she and I and our two daughters were received into full communion with the Church on October 8, 2006. Presently I am teaching philosophy full time at Lindenwood University, while completing my dissertation in philosophy at Saint Louis University.
1. Your passion for Christian Unity is clearly a special part of your own understanding of the Gospel. Talk about how “unity” fits into your understanding of the Gospel.
When asked about marriage, Jesus refers back to the beginning. And here too, in order to understand the place of unity in Christ’s gospel, we have to look back at the beginning. When God made man, He established man in a unity, that is, an order consisting of various harmonies. There was friendship between God and man, shown by the fact that God walked with them in the cool of the day. They also enjoyed an internal harmony such that their lower appetites were ordered to reason, and their bodies were ordered to their souls so that they were immortal. They also enjoyed a harmony with the rest of creation; they exercised dominion over nature in a way that we do not presently enjoy. And finally they enjoyed a social harmony between the two of them. Had they not sinned, every child that would have come into the world would have become a participant in that social harmony, and in that way the initial harmony between them would have spread over the whole world, as a peace and harmony between all peoples. (CCC, 376)
Adam’s sin destroyed each of those harmonies. We see that in Cain’s murder of Abel, and especially at what happened at Babel. Origen points out, “Where there is sin, there is multiplicity, there are schisms, there are heresies, there are dissensions.” St. Augustine likewise, says, “Adam himself is therefore now spread out over the whole face of the earth. Originally one, he has fallen, and, breaking up as it were, he has filled the whole earth with the pieces.” The prophet Isaiah likewise says, “We had all gone astray like sheep, each of us was following his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6) The result of sin is described by the prophet as each one following his own way. Contrast that with Christ’s statement in John, where He refers to the Gentiles being joined to the New Israel, and says that they will become “one flock with one shepherd. (John 10:16)
God’s purpose in Christ is not only the salvation of the individual human person, but the restoration of the human race to unity in Him. We see this already at Pentecost. Peoples of all nations were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, and the Apostles were given the gift of speaking in all their languages. In this way Pentecost reveals how the Church is to be a reversal of Babel. Isaiah spoke of this, saying, “The mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it.” It will be a “house of prayer for all the peoples.” (Isaiah 2:2; 56:7) Being reconciled to God through Christ is also the means by which all human beings are to be reconciled to each other; it is in this way that the Church reverses Babel. We refer to this universal character of the Church, by which every division effected at Babel is healed in Christ, as the catholicity of the Church.
For this reason, unity is at the very center of the gospel of Jesus Christ, because the unity of God and man in Jesus Christ is at the center of His gospel, in the greatest union of all time, God united to man in the incarnation of Christ. Through union with the incarnate Christ, our friendship with God is restored, and so likewise is the social harmony between one another, as one family of God, the household of faith, the Body of Christ. In Christ God has reconciled us not only to Himself but also to one another. To become a Christian is to be incorporated into this unity, the New Israel, the Church. Christ’s desire for the unity of His followers can be seen clearly in John 17, where He prays infallibly that we would be one, as He and the Father are one, so that the world would believe that the Father sent the Son.
I am coming to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, which You have given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one. … I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one, I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me. (John 17:11, 20-23)
By our unity with one another, across every tribe, tongue, people and nation, we demonstrate to the world that something supernatural is at work here, because we transcend the sort of nationalism and racism that views others who are different as a threat to be defeated or subdued. When nations are joined to Christ in His Body, they no longer take up weapons against each other. Natural man tries to do this through the United Nations, but this can be done only by a supernatural unity, which is the Body of Christ. So the unity and catholicity of the Church are together a sign to the world that the One whose Name we bear as Christians was from God, because this kind of unity cannot come from man, but only from God. On the other hand, when Christians are divided against each other, we obscure the gospel and diminish its credibility. Disunity among Christians is an offense against Christ and His gospel, not only because it hides the gospel of Christ from the world, but especially because it contradicts the unity at the heart of the gospel, and in that sense denies the gospel.
(More of the interview coming….)