Ecumenism, education, culture-engagement and the “slippery slope” argument

Do ecumenism and culture-engagement lead to a loss of the gospel? Let’s put this to a historical test (article previously posted at Christianity Today’s history blog):

Ecumenism, education, culture-engagement and the “slippery slope” argument

The vision of John Comenius and the story of the Unity of the Brethren give us a good way to test a hypothesis.

by Chris Armstrong


History is a great place to go to test “slippery slope” arguments–claims that “Questionable Belief or Practice A” will inevitably lead us to “Horrifying Situation B.” One way to answer the argument is to appeal to precedent: “Let’s look back and see whether things like ‘A’ have led to situations like ‘B’ in the past.”

These days evangelicals with a heart for (1) ecumenical dialogue, (2) liberal education, and (3) cultural engagement are being told by fundamentalist watchdogs that they are leading good, faithful, Bible-believing people straight down the road to “liberalism.”

Let’s put this to a historical test.

Our focus: a small, persecuted, pietistic sect to which “father of modern education” and Protestant bishop John Comenius belonged in the 1600s.

This was the Unity of the Brethren, which descended from the pre-Reformation reformer Jan Hus. At a key point in their history, this pietistic Protestant group, exiled from its own lands (Bohemia and Moravia) during the Thirty Years War, made a decision NOT to pull in its horns and retreat into a culturally marginal fundamentalism. It decided instead to engage the culture around it.

It was this single decision more than any other that allowed Comenius to forge a highly effective Europe-wide program of Christian-based, ecumenical education that earned him the title “Father of Modern Education.”

Comenius’s educational plan transformed the way children were schooled, created an ecumenical vision for scholarship that inspired Britain’s Royal Society (which fostered “fathers of modern science” like Isaac Newton), and today is honored by a pan-European educational initiative that is named after Comenius.

Comenius believed that we are often involved in strife with groups culturally unlike us because we have not been educated to understand one another. He understood that lack of education as part of a larger pattern of sinfulness. And he integrated into that educational vision a priority for godliness and a distinctively Christian morality. Essentially, he brought Europe a new and effective plan for Christian liberal education, from cradle to graduate school.

Comenius’s Christian vision broke through what we might call “the Scandal of Confessional Education” that had contributed to the Thirty Years War, and contributed to the tolerant denominationalism that followed the Westphalian Settlement.

Now, in response to the fundamentalist “slippery slope” argument: To create this vision of Christian education, Comenius had to turn away from any bitterness he felt at his small sect’s persecution and exile during the religious wars that marred his youth. He had to find the resources turn to his persecutors in Christian love and show them a better way. Where did he find the courage and vision for this?

In my forthcoming book Patron Saints for Postmoderns (IVP, September 2009), I conclude a chapter on Comenius with these words:

The second paradox of Comenius’s life lies in reaction to the slaughter and exile of his small, fringe Christian community by others bearing the name ‘Christian.’ This sectarian leader certainly could have done what so many others persecuted Christians have done: retreated in rage and bitterness, licked his wounds with his people, and set up legalistic fences to keep outsiders out. Instead, he insisted on the ecumenical slogan: ‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.’ And he poured his life out for church unity and international peace.

Before his often tragic life was done, John Amos Comenius created a breathtaking vision of international peace and cooperation. At the heart of this vision was a comprehensive educational program that already, in his lifetime, began to transform the way Europe’s children were taught. We have asked how Comenius could possibly do this, given his background in a small persecuted group who were hounded, killed, and exiled by fellow Christians. It seems a paradox that a persecuted, pietistic sect could form a person such as this!

The key to this paradox seems to be something that had happened to the Unity of the Brethren by the early sixteenth century. Now flourishing and increasingly influential, the Brethren were forced to confront the perennial question of the relationship between Christ and culture. Many devout Christians believe growth and cultural power cannot happen without compromising the radical nature of the gospel. The church must, such folks argue, forgo all attempts to ‘transform culture,’ for such attempts inevitably suck the life out of the church. Was this the case with the Unity and Comenius?

Certainly in the decades of their peasant origins, the Brethren had distrusted all people of other classes and all trappings of culture. But as a new diversity of folks – even nobles such as Count Zerotin – were drawn by these people’s strong devotion and joined with them, the group moderated its views. Inevitably, some Brethren felt this moderation as a betrayal. They pushed the group to ‘hold up its ancient standard’ of enmity against all structures of worldly culture. But this group of world-renouncing conservatives did not win the day. Instead, a schism occurred, with the majority taking the progressive (though still theologically conservative and experientially pietistic) position.

Had this social widening not occurred among the Brethren, Comenius would likely never have developed his unique mix of deep piety and broad (‘liberal’) culture. Nor, very likely, would the European Union today be acknowledging Comenius as its teacher in this matter of international liberal education. But in fact, it is doing so: the European Commission of the EU has created a government-supported, pan-European elementary education initiative, named ‘Comenius’ after the Brethren bishop and educator. The program promotes the same values that drove its namesake’s reforms of the 1600s: pedagogical innovation, transnational cooperation, and equal opportunity for all students. Comenius, and his Lord, seem still to be at work.

Now, fundamentalist watchdogs of today who would look back at that key moment when the Unity decided not to go in a fundamentalist direction would doubtless trot out a “slippery slope” argument: “Any denomination that went in this liberal, culture-engaging direction could not last as an evangelical, pietist denomination. It would become liberal in theology and disappear from history as an effective gospel witness.”

So it’s worth asking: What did happen to the Unity of the Brethren?

Answer: the ragged, exiled remnant of this group showed up on Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf’s doorstep in the mid-1700s. Initially they found themselves not getting along at all with the other religious exiles at Zinzendorf’s estate. But through a kind of “Pentecost experience,” they joined with the German pietists and other exiles and formed the Moravian Church.

Was this a liberal denomination that sold out the gospel? Hardly. They started a 100-year round-the-clock prayer meeting, sent missionaries all over the world, and inspired John Wesley, who birthed evangelicalism in England. They did all of this while maintaining a strong ecumenical testimony. Zinzendorf used to talk about the many Protestant denominations as “facets of a gem.”

The Moravians, anything but theologically liberal, held to the dictum Comenius’s Brethren had espoused: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” And yet they believed and practiced an evangelical orthodox faith that affirmed Reformation essentials such as Justification by Faith and Sola Scriptura, and preached the need to be born again.

Engaging culture and opening the ecumenical windows are closely-related enterprises. Both require an openness to higher education and a desire to see our sons and daughters educated in a “liberal” mode – meaning not theologically liberal, but open to “all knowledge as God’s knowledge,” and seeking understanding across the boundaries that separate people and even drive them to violence.

Again, the heirs of the fundamentalists are criticizing evangelicals more and more for “selling the farm” theologically because they stick firmly to both an agenda of cultural engagement and an openness to finding true Christians within a broad array of denominations and churches – perhaps even among the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

Such critics tell us that by such openness we will cut ourselves off from essential truths of the gospel and cease being effective for God’s kingdom. Comenius’s Brethren and Zinzendorf’s Moravianism – two key genetic precursors of the evangelicalism that nurtured these very same modern fundamentalists – are proof that this critique is false.

And when we get to John Wesley, one of the two “fathers of evangelicalism,” we see him furthering this same impulse. As he said in one famous sermon: “If your heart be as mine, then give me your hand.”

A subtext of this fundamentalist critique: any attempt at liberal education will inevitably work against the gospel.

If this is true, then isn’t it odd that Oxford-trained John Wesley could pick up the ecumenical, evangelical pietist vision, which had its roots in Comenius’s vision of a liberal, educated, culture-engaged pietism, and start the most significant religious revival in modern history?

Did John Amos Comenius put us on a slippery slope?

Yeah, right down into evangelicalism.

* * *Related elsewhere:

Bethel University recently convened a conference on pietism. Read about it here and here.

Jan Amos Comenius was the featured topic of Christian History Issue 13. Find an index of online articles here. To purchase copies of Issue 13, click here.

* * *Public domain image of J.A. Comenius via Wikimedia Commons and taken from Aug. Schorn and Herm. Reinecke, Pedagogikens historia (1895)

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