One global party

An interview with Rev. Natee Tanchanpongs

As the global church reflects upon the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, even the most convinced Protestant Christian could be forgiven for feeling a lingering sense of tragedy. After all, any “protest” implies something “protested,” a point of logic that is less benign when professed disciples of Christ are on both sides. However courageous and faithful that renegade German priest was, however steadfast a leader one Jean Calvin proved to be, the resulting division in the body of Christ was – and is – a tragedy. Whatever else it did, the Reformation divided (Christian) brother against brother.

In one sense, this was nothing new. The church underwent something rather similar in 1054 AD, when “West” and “East” officially became church-identifying terms. Indeed, any historian faithful to her task would be hard-pressed to find a time at which the threat of faction was not an imminent threat to the precious communion of baptized believers.

Yet it would be just as disingenuous to play down the Reformation’s titanic influence upon the personal, social and religious lives of Western Christians since 1517. In a history that is too well-known to be rehearsed here, the spirit of the Reformers was one of faithfulness to an ancient spontaneity born of the Spirit, and to the Scriptures above all. No wonder, then, that such a movement often yielded the spiritual “sword” rather than “peace” (Matt. 10:34).

Although something of a sluggish cliché nowadays, contemporary Protestants are usually quite aware of a truly lamentable (if debatable) situation in the global church: Protestant “denominations” around the world number in the tens of thousands. Even if these numbers are inflated by idiosyncratic definitions of “church” or “denomination,” the point is clear. Whatever Jesus meant by his prayer “that [believers] may all be one” (John 17:21), surely this is not it.

Mere Protestants: A Reformed Catholic Confession
Enter the authors of the recently released “Reformed Catholic Confession” (RCC), an encouraging initiative designed to show Protestant Christians just how much they share with each other in terms of their deepest convictions about the truths of the Gospel. By “Reformed Catholic,” these authors do not mean some sort of ideological merger with the Roman Catholic Church. Neither do they mean to provide confessional support for yet another Protestant “denomination.” Instead, as the authors themselves point out, the RCC is “to honour the original vision of the Reformers by demonstrating that, despite our genuine differences, there is a significant and substantial doctrinal consensus that unites us as ‘mere Protestants.’”

Indeed, far from being a flimsy, “lowest common denominator” statement, the RCC dives headlong into topics as deep (and divisive) as sin, atonement, baptism and last things. Thanks no doubt to its recent coverage in Christianity Today, the document now has over 1,000 signatures by theologians, church leaders and laypeople representing a remarkably diverse array of denominations and traditions. More importantly for our purposes, there is also significant representation of theologians and church leaders from and in majority world nations.

Happily, Christian Courier was privileged to be able to ask some questions about the RCC with Rev. Natee Tanchanpongs, a member on the RCC Drafting Committee and Pastor of Grace City Church in Bangkok, Thailand.

Christian Courier: As someone who served on the RCC drafting committee, could you comment on some of the most important points in the document?
Rev. Tanchanpongs:
There are so many, but let me highlight just three points found in the explanation section. First, I think the celebratory tone of the RCC is alluring – an invitation to a global party that draws you in to RSVP. It does not define its distinctives over and against historical opponents, but moves beyond the disputes to rejoice in our oneness. Second, the RCC seeks to find common denominators, both at the lowest and the highest levels. At the core of the confession is Christ reflected in the solas of the Reformation. At the same time, the RCC wants to move beyond veneer agreement of words and to see how far it can go to find material catholicity of belief. Lastly, having been a small part of the drafting process, I resonate with Gwenfair Walters Adams [a church historian at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary], whose words to us concerned the spirit of corporation. This process reflects, verifies and demonstrates in no small part the truth claim of catholicity that the RCC is confessing.

Were there any points that posed special difficulty in the drafting process?
As you can imagine, trying to push to envelop of reaching the highest common denominator is not trivial. At times, strong (but always congenial and professional) opinions were expressed. The credit must go to Kevin Vanhoozer [a theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School] for his humility to take criticism and his ability to incorporate various opinions into this document.

The Reforming Catholic Confession is a powerful statement of Protestant unity. Can you comment on the unique benefits it might bestow upon churches in the majority world?
I think there are several benefits. Firstly, in parts of the world where deep theological reflections are not as accessible to the church leaders, a document such as the RCC would be a framework (set upon the biblical foundation) from which the church in the majority world could build her theologies in context. Secondly, the RCC connects us back to the biblical root of the Reformation. In many places, “Protestant” is just a social demarcation. Many do not understand the beliefs that bind us together. Thirdly, the RCC would help contest heterodoxies. Erroneous theologies, false beliefs and distorted teachings permeate the church today. Somehow the church in the majority world seems to be more susceptible to them. Creeds and confessions have always been written and used to direct the church back to the Scriptures. The RCC is a timely document as such.

Only God knows what the future holds for the “catholicity” of a Post-Reformation church, since only God can effect the faith that is the only principle for such unity. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel that the hard work embodied in initiatives such as the RCC will be part of any faithful solution.  

  • Joshua is a PhD Candidate at the ICS and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, a teacher of philosophy at Providence College in Providence, RI, and CC’s former Global News Editor.

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