Page 4 - Moravian Messenger January 2019
P. 4

In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty; In all things, Charity:
Why the Moravians claim this formula as their own
Livingstone Thompson Part
4
This is the final part of an article about the Moravian motto
The simplicity and clarity of stating essentials, however, proved extremely vulnerable to the theological ferment especially in Germany around 1900. This theological ferment showed that the limits to diversity could be breached even within the Moravian Church. Of particular concern to the Brethren was the thought of Albrecht Ritschl, which sought to frame a new apologetic synthesis between the Christian faith and the new knowledge.
Though the General Synod of 1909 reaffirmed the principles of 1879 Synod, the tensions at the Synod indicated that a new dispensation in Moravian theology was dawning. However, it was not until the Synod of 1957 that the new dispensation was officially ushered in. Rather than detailing the essentials in doctrine, as was customary, the Synod approved what was called the 'Ground of Unity', effectively shifting the emphasis from clarity in theological fundamentals to mission, as the vocation of the church. The Church was understood as an instrument of God's kingdom and the specificity of doctrines was further de-emphasised. This vocational emphasis in the understanding of the church took the place of the reference to specific doctrines. For example, the 'Ground of Unity'
asserts that:
‘The Unitas Fratrum is, therefore, aware of its being called to serve mankind. ... With the whole of Christendom we share faith in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ... We recognize ourselves to be a church of sinners. ... The Unitas Fratrum realizes that the mystery of Jesus Christ to which the Bible bears witness cannot be fully comprehended in any human statement. ... The Unitas Fratrum recognizes in the creeds of the Church the thankful acclaim of the Body of Christ.’
Despite the approval of the 'Ground of Unity', which for some may be very vague, the formula 'in essentials unity, in non- essentials liberty, in all things charity', is still treated as a succinct description of what it is to be Moravian. As the history of the formula shows, for nearly two hundred years prior to 1957 distinguishing 'essentials' from 'non-essentials' was an important theological task for the Unity. The Bohemian Formula should then be treated as a classical description of Moravian understanding. Therefore any use that is made of it in theological discourse today should refer to its subsistence in the Moravian Church.
The Ecumenical Significant of the Formula
While the Moravian Unity was moving to substitute the idea of a hierarchy in doctrines, as expressed in the old Bohemian Formula, for a more general statement of ecclesiology in the Ground of the Unity, the idea of the formula was resurfacing as a leading concept in ecumenical relations. In the Second Vatican Council Pope John, Cardinal Bea, and others drew to the attention of the Roman Catholic Church the important
distinction between the unchanging deposit of the faith and the changing, changeable manner, mode, language etc., in which it is presented. Alluding to the idea in the formula, the Decree on Ecumenism calls attention to unity, liberty and charity with respect to doctrine: while preserving unity in essentials, all members of the church, according to the office entrusted to each, should preserve freedom in the variety of liturgical rites, and even in the theological elaborations of revealed truth; and that in all things charity be exercised. This distinction between the essentials of the faith and the elaborations of the revealed truth, in which there is variety (in consequence of which there must be freedom), was further developed and applied to the relationship between Catholics and 'separated brethren.' The section of the Decree dealing with the practice of Ecumenism asserts that Catholic theologians engaged in ecumenical dialogue, while standing fast by the teaching of the Church and searching together with separated brethren into the divine mysteries should act with love for truth, with charity and with humility. When comparing doctrines, they should remember that in Catholic teaching there is an order or 'hierarchy' of truths, since they vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith. This idea of truths organised around the centre or foundation of the faith is reminiscent of the distinction between 'essentials', 'auxiliary' and 'accidentals', which was made by the early Bohemian Brethren. It is also reminiscent of the Reformation period in which churches summarised the truths of the faith in catechisms meant for the edification of the people of God.
The conclusion of the Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church alludes to the need to go in the direction of the Bohemian formula. The Working Group argued that a 'hierarchy of truths' may also be a means of ensuring that the necessary expressions of the faith in various cultures do not result in any loss of its content or in a separation of the Christian truths from the foundation. In other words, the formula, which preserves the notion of a hierarchy of truths, may be a useful means for addressing different expressions of faith in different cultures. The notion of
hierarchy of truths, which for the Moravians is preserved in the formula, 'in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity', gives the church an approach to deal with differences, not only those internal to the communion but also differences that may arise in the wider ecumenical and interfaith contexts.
Br Livingstone Thompson
Minister at Kilwarlin and University Road Belfast Congregations
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