Eighth Day Ecumenism: Toward a Concise Definition

Feast of Holy Pentecost

Peter_and_Paul_Square.jpgA DREAM THAT would eventually bloom into Eighth Day Institute (“EDI”) developed while I was serving as a short-term missionary in Latin America. In 1994, shortly after my twenty-first birthday, I left for Mexico with the intent of serving for two months. I ended up staying three years. During my second year, while serving in Colombia (1995-1996), the initial idea for what would evolve into EDI was born.

During my initial two months in Mexico, I served in a Protestant church. Over the course of those two months, this Baptist church divided three times. As a result, church authority became a significant question in my mind. And it set me on a trajectory that I would have never imagined.

I’ve been a bibliophile since the second grade of elementary school. So when I returned home to Wichita jobless in May of 1997, it made sense for me to apply for work at a bookstore. But I didn’t want to work at just any bookstore. I had fallen in love with Eighth Day Books in the early 90s. So I submitted an application to the owner, Warren Farha. Thank God I landed that job. It changed my life and shaped my vocation.

Three things stand out when I think about my eight years of employment at Eighth Day Books. First and foremost, I encountered the Fathers. And they changed me. Second, I encountered Warren Farha. And he shaped me. And third, I encountered ecumenism. And it was the best kind. I’ve started calling it “Eighth Day Ecumenism.”

 

Eighth Day Ecumenism Defined

I’d like to here define Eighth Day Ecumenism by emphasizing two elements. The first can be captured by the title of a recent book everyone should read, edited by John Chryssavgis: A Dialogue of Love. This book tells the story of the relationship between Catholics and Orthodox since 1964, when the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI broke centuries of silence with an embrace of love at a meeting in Jerusalem. The book ends with an excellent reflection on this historic meeting by Fr. Georges Florovsky, an important twentieth-century Orthodox theologian who was committed to ecumenism.

The first element of Eighth Day Ecumenism, then, is a dialogue of love. But it is a dialogue that is grounded in a second element: a return to the Fathers of the early Church. What does that mean? What do I mean by a return to the Fathers? What did Fr. Georges Florovsky and Fr. Alexander Schmemann mean when they labeled such a return a “Neopatristic Synthesis”?

 

Florovsky_Life.jpgReturn to the Fathers and the Common Tradition

Florovsky and Schmemann were both concerned that a return to the Fathers in the West would merely be a return to the texts of the Fathers. They were concerned that there wouldn’t be true fruit if the focus was primarily on patristic texts. So let me clarify what I mean—and what I think Florovsky and Schmemann meant—when I advocate a return to the Fathers.

Like Florovsky and Schmemann, I want to suggest that a return to the Fathers is something much larger than simply a return to patristic texts. As encouraging as it is to see so many publishers translating and printing patristic writings, including Protestant publishers, this is not sufficient. Florovsky and Schmemann both called for restoring a scriptural and a patristic mind. I agree. But I would go further.

I propose that a return to the Fathers means a return to the common Tradition all Christians shared before the Great Schism in 1054. But what is that common Tradition? It certainly includes a scriptural mind. And it definitely includes a patristic mind. But it also includes, at the very least, an iconic mind, a saintly mind, a conciliar mind, and a liturgical mind. So there are at least six components to our common Tradition. Let me, very briefly, set them forth.

First, our common Tradition includes the scriptures. While we may not all agree on interpretation, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants can all agree on the singular importance of the Scriptures.

Second, it includes icons. Simply put, icons are the Gospel in color. We have the Gospel in written words and we have the Gospel in painted colors. The vast majority of people in the early church were illiterate. They couldn’t study the scriptural text. Instead they experienced the scriptures visually in icons.

Third, the Church Fathers were, and continue to be, guardians of our faith. They are authoritative witnesses to the Church’s common Tradition. They interpreted the Scriptures and they refined the Tradition. And they did so in councils, in homilies, in commentaries, in poetry, in hymns, and also in icons. Early Christians received their faith from their spiritual Fathers who received their faith from their Fathers, just as Timothy received his faith from Paul (cf. 1 Tim. 1.2 and 2 Tim. 1.2).

Fourth, we have the saints, men and women whose lives displayed the glory of God in such a magnificent manner that the Church recognizes them as holy people. Part of the Tradition of the first millennium included daily commemoration and veneration of the saints. The early Church surrounded themselves with the saints who spurred them on to imitate Christ.

Fifth, we have the Councils, specifically the Ecumenical Councils. To this day, most Christians who recite a creed recite the Nicene Creed, a statement of our common Faith that was penned at the first and second Ecumenical Councils in 325 and 387 A.D. Our understanding of who Christ is as fully God and fully man and what it means to worship a Triune God is largely dependent on the exposition of these two central doctrines in the seven Ecumenical Councils.

Finally, we have the Liturgy. The common Tradition of the early Church prescribed hours of daily prayer, seasons of fasting and feasting, a day to gather around the Lord’s Table for the Word and the Eucharist, and even an established shape for that liturgical gathering.

There truly is a common Tradition that we all share. When I suggest a return to the Fathers, what I am really advocating is a return to this common Tradition.

 

william_j_abraham.jpgCanonical Theism and the Long-haul

Catholics and Orthodox are not the only advocates for this common Tradition. Alongside a growing number of Evangelicals who are demonstrating increasing interest in the early Church Fathers, the Methodist theologian William Abraham has spearheaded a project he calls “Canonical Theism.” The heart of Abraham’s proposal, in his words, “is that the church developed not just a canon of scripture or of doctrine but a manifold canonical heritage that really can do the job intended by God across space and time.”

What does this “manifold canonical heritage” consist of? William lists the very elements I’ve used to characterize the common Tradition: Scripture, Icons, Fathers, Saints, Councils, and Liturgy.

Abraham also characterizes Canonical Theism as “both a vision of church renewal for the twenty-first century and a long-haul, intergenerational theological project.” I like his emphasis on the “long-haul.” In fact, I want to add it to my definition of Eighth Day Ecumenism. Like Canonical Theism, Eighth Day Ecumenism is committed to the long-haul.

In his reflection on the 1964 meeting between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI, Fr Florovsky contrasts the sin of ecumenical hastiness with the virtue of ecumenical patience. Eighth Day Ecumenism is a patient ecumenism, committed to the long-haul. We must not minimize our differences. We must not rush the process of working our way through those differences. We cannot afford to be hasty.

 

Warren_and_Chris_Square.jpgEcumenism according to Warren Farha

I have defined Eighth Day Ecumenism as a dialogue of love that is grounded in a return to the common Tradition. I believe we must be intentional about this ecumenical venture. Catholics must come out of their Catholic world; Orthodox must come out of their Orthodox world; and Protestants must come out of their Protestant world. And we must all gather together to engage in loving dialogue.

This is precisely how Warren Farha defined ecumenism at a panel discussion at our first annual Eighth Day Symposium in 2010. He said ecumenism is a turning toward one another, looking one another in the eyes, recognizing each other as human beings made in the image of God, loving one another, and discussing our differences with respect and love. In other words, he defined ecumenism as a dialogue of love. And that is Eighth Day Ecumenism.

Let us all—Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants—engage in a patient Eighth Day Ecumenism through a dialogue of love that is grounded in a return to our common Tradition. And let us be committed to the long-haul!


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

Adapted from a reflection offered at the Fifth Annual Eighth Day Symposium at St George Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Wichita, KS on the Feast of the Veneration of the Chains of the Apostle Peter, Anno Domini 2015, Jan. 16

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