Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Protestant Free Church Christians and Gaudium et Spes: A Historical and Philosophical Perspective

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Protestant Free Church Christians and Gaudium et Spes: A Historical and Philosophical Perspective

Article excerpt

Introduction

GAudium et Spes affirms a commitment to the fullness of the vocation of human persons, drawing upon the breadth and depth of Christian theological reflection on vocation. (1) In so doing, it embraces a vision of human persons bound together under God for the welfare of all, and hence articulates important commitments to justice within the social order. However admirable this conciliar document is, the Protestant "Free Church" tradition (i.e., Anabaptists, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and others that arose apart from the dominant Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed traditions) is generally skeptical of the value of encyclicals and other official pastoral documents arising from the magisterial Christian traditions. Furthermore, twenty-first-century Protestant Free Church Christians have no such document of their own to express either our common vocation or our shared understanding of social justice and its implications for the ministry and life of the church.

In this article, we will argue, however, that for much of the nineteenth century, Free Church Protestantism had such documents, that today there are good reasons why Free Church Christians can no longer rely on those earlier documents, and that they (that is, we) should turn toward Gaudium et Spes for insight and instruction in the ways Christians can respond to the moral fragmentation of our age. The nineteenth-century documents we have in mind are the collective moral philosophy texts used prolifically in Protestant colleges and universities throughout the United States. The most important and widely used text was The Elements of Moral Science, written by Francis Wayland, a Baptist churchman, philosopher, and president of Brown University (1827-55). (2) Indebted to Lutheran and Calvinist views about vocation, it is a didactic text that aims to make clear to its readers, especially students, one's moral and social duties. Like Gaudium et Spes, it provided substantive moral guidance on social justice from a Christian perspective. Thus, Wayland's work served for nineteenth-century Free Church Protestants a somewhat analogous role as Gaudium et Spes has for Roman Catholics during the last forty years. (3) And thus, it might reasonably be argued that Free Church Protestants at one time generally subscribed to a widely shared, intellectually rigorous, and theologically inspired document evincing healthy commitments to social justice.

Whatever commitments and/or consensus may have existed in Protestant texts like The Elements of Moral Science, they nonetheless appear to have been fragile, for Free Church Protestants by no means have anything approximating shared commitments regarding the important issues of social justice today. We Baptists, for example, may be found committed to a wide range of conflicting positions on poverty, welfare, international peace, nationalism, environmentalism, and consumerism (to say nothing of beginning- and end-of-life questions) with some holding economically and politically conservative views, and others espousing more traditionally liberal views. Is such diversity a sign of health or of incoherence? While either possibility could be the case, we find even more troubling the deep disagreements about the fundamentals to which all Christians should appeal in adjudicating disagreements, justifying intermediate moral positions, and guiding moral and social action. (4)

While accounts like Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue offer a general explanation for the phenomenon of diversity bordering upon fragmentation, a number of influences within Baptist life in the twentieth century have compounded the problem, further frustrating any shared commitment to redress socially significant problems of justice. (5) Those influences include a radical, "Restorationist" aversion to tradition as a source of faithful Christian understanding and practice; an abiding, though often unintentional, propensity for anti-Catholicism; a tendency toward an experiential and individually oriented pietism that concerns itself more with personal salvation than with the reformation of the social order; a church polity that privileges the life of the local congregation to the virtual abandonment of the church universal; and an identification of the spirit of Christianity with the spirit of Western, liberal democracy. …

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