Grabriele Fackre’s Restoring the Center: Essays Evangelical & Ecumenical

Gabriele Fackre’s Restoring the Center: Essays Evangelical & Ecumenical has been sitting on my bookshelf for about a year now.  I picked it up a few weeks ago when heading out for a family vacation.  I was immediately intrigued when I started reading these essays and, now that I’m finished, can say that I found them at the same time encouraging, convicting, insightful, and frustrating. [ The book appears to be out of print and isn’t available through Amazon.  However, Christian Book Distributors has some copies for only $3.99 each.]  I’m familiar with Fackre’s name (I believe he spoke at chapel or at a conference at the Beeson Divinity School?), but, until this volume, I had never read any of his writings.

Now, Fackre is an “evangelical catholic.”  I take his use of this phrase to mean that he’s a “centrist ecumenist.”  These essays are largely devoted to that end.  Fackre is a member of the liberal United Churches of Christ denomination, which is a bit troubling, but he does not hesitate to operate as a “critic in residence,” a phrase I had never heard until I encountered it in this work.

One must be careful in painting an individual on the basis of his or her denomination, especially when that denomination was at one point orthodox but has since slipped into heterodoxy in certain areas.  One thinks, for instance, of J.I. Packer’s continued membership in the Anglican Church, a body that has certainly raised some eyebrows over the years (though their stance against the Episcopal madness of recent years is refreshing).  That being said, Fackre’s ecumenist passions and centrist desires occasionally cause him to have trouble “calling a spade a spade.”

For instance, in his essay “The Continuing Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr,” Fackre discusses Niebuhr’s surprising stance that Jews need not come to Jesus Christ for salvation, that salvation resides in the Lord’s covenant with Israel, and that Jews should not convert to Christianity.  Fackre comments on Niebuhr’s position:

“Niebuhr’s relevance here is his refusal to dissolve this covenant chapter of the story into either general revelation or special revelation in Christ, and his honoring of the prophetic tradition and its relevance to today’s struggles.  At the same time, he did not succumb to a relativism that would deny the particularity of truth in either Judaism or Christianity.  I believe there are ways in Christian theology to maintain both the scandal of Christian particularity and the continuing covenant with Israel, but that is a large subject in its own right.  For all that, here as elsewhere in his theology he managed to steer between the Scylla of imperialism and the Charybdis of relativism, again providing a wisdom that eludes the reductionists.” (157) [empasis added]

Is the deliberate evangelization of Jews and a conviction that they too need to know Christ Jesus “imperialism”?  Is the Scylla/Charybdis language helpful here?  Fackre is not uncritical of Niebuhr, but in his efforts to appreciate Niebuhr’s own centrist approach, has Fackre not all but insulted those who hold to the rich and long tradition of Christian exclusivity (a tradition that admittedly has a dark side as well)?

Furthermore, in his “A New Ecumenism,” Fackre discusses the “disputed question” of “ordaining practicing gays and lesbians.”  He writes:

“The status of this newly disputed question as one in which devout Christians disagree can be understood as an expression of the semper reformanda of Reformed churches that requires the scrutiny, ever and again, of tradition – accountable as it is to the sovereign Word, Jesus Christ.” (131)

Now, I believe that Fackre opposes the ordination of “practicing gays and lesbians.”  I notice, for instance, hisseemingly positive review of Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice, which is a plus.  Furthermore, when I earlier posted a positive quotation from this work over at Reformed Catholicism, Dr. Fackre entered the comment section, was questioned about the UCC’s stance on this issue by another commenter, and offered the following in response:

On same sex marriage see the website 30 of us created when the Massachusetts SJC approved such by a 4-3 vote and the UCC Mass Conference annual meeting endorsed it: “Marriage in the Christian Tradition,” citing the UCC Book of Worship itself as defining marriage as a one flesh union between male and female. While the General Synod and a Conference action of this sort may take a given view its only authority in our polity is to speak to, not for, the 6000 congregations, given our “covenantal congregational” form of governance.

How does one determine what a denomination like ours stands for?–a question posed by the Lutherans when noting the similar culture-war preoccupations of some of our leaders that grab the headlines..before the ELCA voted full communion with the UCC. The answer is by our corporate texts, not be anecdotes or passing fads. Hence our UCC Constitution with its doctrinal preamble, the Basis of Union that brought 4 Reformation streams together in 1957 to form the UCC, our Statement of Faith and Book of Worship are such defining documents.One of those streams, incidentally was shaped by the evangelical catholicism of the Mercersburg theologians who coined this language in the States in the 19th century, and one of our best-known theologians is the front-rank evangelical , indeed evangelical catholic, Don Bloesch, . Some of us formed a movement in 1993, “Confessing Christ” to remind the ideologues in the Church of our basic identity, and continue working hard at it.Don drafted a Dubuque Declaration some years ago with parallel intent. See the 7 volume UCC Living Theological Heritage series for the long theological lineage of the UCC going back patristic and creedal roots,up through Reformation confessions and catechisms to missionary and ecumenical commitments, albeit construed as “testimonies not tests,”those latter powers being vested in the congregation.

Gabriel Fackre

This is encouraging.  But can I say that I occasionally get frustrated with the occasional ambiguity of ecumenical discourse (not his comment at RC so much as his comments in the book)?  I want so very much to appreciate nuance and complexity, but, for the life of me, sometimes ecumenists sound as if they’re the ones Vance Havner had in mind when he spoke of modern ministers having “the amazing ability of almost saying something.”

This is unfair to Fackre, to be sure.  He does not have the air of the vapid politician.  I gather from these writings that he is an honest and passionate churchmen who wants to fight “tribalism” and to honor Jesus Christ in and through the church catholic.  Amen and amen.  But I wonder:  does Fackre’s ecumenism keep him from ever bringing the blunt and prophetic “No!” to something like homosexuality in the church?  I fully understand that great damage has been done in the name of “blunt and prophetic No’s!”, but is there never a time for such?

These reservations aside, I found much in Fackre’s writings that was truly inspirational.  He more than once commends the Evangelical contribution to the rebirth of systematics in the study of theology.  He even notes with a kind of sad irony that many Evangelicals seem more interested in understanding main liners and liberals than liberals ever seem to be in understanding Evangelicals.

I found the more straight-forward theological essays to be powerful in their succinct statements on the great doctrines of the faith.  I very much enjoyed reading his survey’s on current (though, at this point, somewhat dated) theological literature.  Fackre is a true student and observer, and he brings his observations to the table for all to benefit from.

I appreciated the frequent allusions to “evangelical catholicity,” and would love to know if Fackre is aware of the recent “Baptist catholicity” work of Steve Harmon, D.H. Williams, and others.  I also appreciated Fackre’s balance.  He was able on many occasions to show the strengths of an individual’s thoughts, while pointing out where somebody goes too far at the same time.  He does this well in his discussion of Walter Wink’s work as well as in his discussion of Niebuhr.

I’m glad I read this volume, though my own few reservations are significant.  I would like to understand Fackre better.  I do hope that his long years spent in what Richard Neuhaus calls “the rheumatoid left” will not keep him from being the “critic in residence” which he is obviously capable of being and which, frankly, we all need.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *