“Mere Christian Education”?: the Challenges and Possibilities of Ecumenism in Classical Christian Education

By Ian Mosley, Instructor of Latin, School of the Ozarks

“But there is one good point which both these churches have in common — they are both party churches. I think I warned you before that if your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don’t mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is, the better. And it isn’t the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up hatred between those who say ‘mass’ and those who say ‘holy communion’ when neither party could possibly state the difference…” — Screwtape the Demon, Letter XVI, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis.

All sects of Christianity have patronized and cultivated what is now referred to as “classical education,” though historically they have done so according to more or less rigid denominational identities. The Jesuits had their schools, the Lutherans had theirs, and sharing students or resources would have been unthinkable.

The resurgence of Classical Christian Education in recent times, however, has tended in a more non-sectarian direction. True, most of the recent theorists behind the movement have been Reformed Presbyterians of one stripe or another, and most of the teachers and administrators have come from the ranks of the Reformed, Baptists, and Evangelicals; but schools of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican conviction have all situated themselves within its orbit more or less, and many schools try to cultivate an environment where someone who was Eastern Orthodox would feel just as comfortable as someone who was Southern Baptist.

The challenge, of course, is formulating a doctrinal identity of some sort while maintaining this welcoming atmosphere. Any Christianity worthy of the name is inseperable from doctrine, and ecumenism must not come at the price of preaching a Christianity with all the firmness of warm mozzarella. Most schools meet this challenge by formulating some kind of distinction between primary and secondary doctrine: primary doctrine, summarized in some short set of articles, defines the minimum standard for Christian fellowship, and secondary doctrine includes everything else Christians may disagree about.

As far as it goes, this is a good plan, though it is often more difficult than it sounds to figure out where to draw the line. Does the Apostles’ Creed get specific enough about the Trinity to exclude Mormons? Is the Quicunque Vult too specific? Will a Roman Catholic get offended if we include the first chapter of the Westminster Confession, or if we get into debates about infused grace versus forensic justification?

What makes this even more challenging is that often a tacit school culture will arise that has nothing to do with what is explicitly specified in the statement about primary doctrine. This is especially common in regions of the country where one denomination tends to predominate and thus tends to have little interaction with other denominations. In such areas Christians may have a whole set of unspoken assumptions about what “all Christians” agree on, which is not necessarily accurate.

Sometimes this happens completely by accident. Many schools have been surprised to notice that they have defined nothing in their primary doctrine about hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage, and yet teach a hard line on such topics in their classes. There is almost a temptation to scratch your head and say, “I coulda sworn we had put that in there somewhere…” Even when it is completely inadverdent, however, the safest course seems to be to stay as upfront as possible in the document defining primary doctrine.

If there is one safe bet for classical Christian ecumenism, it is probably this: stick to C. S. Lewis. Not only did he popularize the term “mere Christianity,” his writings are, fifty years later, still one of the most salient examples of it. Roman Catholics love him. Evangelicals love him. He had a keen understanding of how to formulate Christian doctrine in a way that was still firm and meaningful and yet broad enough to encompass the teachings of most churches in existence.

At the same time, if someone tried to take Mere Christianity and boil it down into a set of articles all orthodox Christians could agree on, I think it would be a waste of time. We already have the creeds. The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene, and the somewhat neglected Athanasian (sometimes called the Quicunque Vult) represent the substance of the doctrine of Lewis’ mere Christianity, and not by coincidence. When Protestants think Lewis is a little vague on the atonement, and Roman Catholics think he is vague on the Eucharist, that is because Lewis is sticking to the creeds, which are vague on both.

Are the creeds sufficient, then, for classical Christian ecumenism? Most schools, I suspect, would want to supplement the creeds at least with some authoritative statements about Christian moral standards. The advantage of doing so is to avoid the impression that Christianity is a moral free-for-all where only beliefs and not behaviors matter. The disadvantage is that there is already a dearth of meanginful dialog between Christian believers on different sides of culture war topics, and making classical Christian schools forums for such dialog might be very beneficial.

Of course the curriculum of classical Christian schools is another opportunity for ecumenism. Most of our schools already do a great job here, so it’s just pleasant to remark in passing what a beautiful thing it is to see schools where Southern Baptists are teaching Aquinas and Roman Catholics are teaching Milton. What more hopeful sign could there be for a future of Christian concord and unity?

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