The Unfinished Reformation

An Analysis

Neil Girrard
Scriptures Referenced in This Article:
          (Follow the Scripture links if you want to study the Scriptures for yourself.)
Jn. 10:27 π Jn. 16:13 π Gal. 5:17 π Gal. 5:20 π Eph. 1:22 π 1 Ths. 5:21-22 π Heb. 8:10 π 1 Jn. 2:27

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from The Unfinished Reformation by Charles Clayton Morrison (Harper Bros., New York, 1953)

As far back as the 1950s, the idea that denominationalism was a sin and that the Reformation of the 16th century was incomplete was being discussed in Protestant American circles. Charles Clayton Morrison was the editor of the Christian Century for forty years and, as such, observed and interpreted religious and world affairs. His book, The Unfinished Reformation, contains some excellent analysis and asks some of the right questions even as it suffers from some ideological inadequacies in its underlying premises.

Before we begin this analysis, one convention used throughout this series must be noted. There is great confusion brought upon the body of Christ through the usage of the word “church.” The original Greek word is ekklesia and it is used in this series to refer to that which is genuine assembly in the name of Christ, assembly that truly attends to the affairs of His kingdom of light and righteousness. The English word church has simply acquired far too many additional meanings that are quite contradictory and even in opposition to ekklesia’s original meaning. “Church,” (with attending quotation marks) in this series, is therefore used to refer to the counterfeit, the apostasy, the great falling away from the faith routinely practiced today in His name. As Morrison did not have any sense of that distinction, his usage of the word church will remain in his original quotes and the reader will have to determine, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, which usage – genuine or counterfeit – is more appropriate and to what degree one or both might apply.

In the Epilogue of his book, Morrison wrote:

“Thus every partial achievement of union becomes an example and an earnest of the more ultimate consummation.” (p. 226), and,

“The only restraint on such free expression [of one’s constructive imagination about the form of the united church] should be the admonition to a humility which recognizes that our conceptions of the end in view must be held tentatively, as working hypotheses, subject to change and discard as the total movement of God’s Spirit in the ecumenical awakening more fully unveils His own, the only true ideal, for the unity of His church.” (p. 227)

Morrison’s work, like the ecumenical movement itself, indeed represents a “partial achievement of union” that serves as an example of divine spiritual revelation mixed with mere human interpretation and serves as an earnest, a down payment, on “the more ultimate consummation” of unity yet to come. It is sometimes difficult to draw a line between constructive imagination and divine revelation when it concerns a future event or condition such as the one before us – a unified ekklesia around the world. That is, the question of where one’s imagination draws from the Spirit of truth and from one’s own intellect can sometimes be blurred when viewing such a large-scale concept. But this was the heady stuff which Morrison and the other ecumenicals of the 1940s partook of regularly. Our task then is to set aside, with the help of the Holy Spirit (who leads us into all truth – Jn. 16:13 ), that which is merely our own intellectual understandings (as well as the merely intellectual understandings of Morrison and the ecumenicals) and seek to clarify, confirm or reject our ideas so as to bring them in line with truth as He knows it to be. Indeed, it is not only our conceptions of a unified ekklesia that must be held “tentatively as working hypotheses,” but – especially in the province of intellectual thought, where the inherent conflict between flesh and Spirit ( Gal. 5:17; top ), aided along by the demonic, is perhaps the most experienced – we must also submit to the Holy Spirit every doctrine, opinion and practice we have been taught through the agency of some man. For the average “church”-goer today, that would involve nearly everything they know of God and the Bible!

“My sheep hear My voice,” Jesus said. ( Jn. 10:27 ) And God has said, “I will put My laws in their minds and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” ( Heb. 8:10 ) John wrote, “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him.” ( 1 Jn. 2:27 ) And Paul wrote, “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” ( 1 Ths. 5:21-22 - emphasis added; top)

Sixty years after Morrison’s book was written, we will be evaluating how much, how little and which part of his views need to be kept, amended or discarded. As we will see, there are parts of his work to keep, parts to discard and parts to modify. Perhaps the best way to describe this book is to see it as a milestone by which, as we measure (from our vantage point 60 years later) where he stood, we can measure our own progress toward ultimate truth.

In our day God is unveiling more of the call to and direction for true unity among His true people. The answer to that call is not to be found, as Morrison and the ecumenicals supposed (and still suppose), in some global representative organization built on the sin-stained building blocks of our denominations (dissensions and heresies – Gal. 5:20; top ) Morrison said,

“The overarching ideal of [the ecumenical] movement is to bring together into one church from our many churches those whom Christ has received into fellowship with Himself.” (p. 199)

This ideal espouses two fundamental errors –

1) attempting to re-organize what Christ alone is to organize (and has already organized!) and

2) doing so with elements organized contrary to His organization.

Instead of the ecumenical movement’s conclusions, organization and implementation, the answer to the unity of the ekklesia is found in simply letting the head be the Head and the body be the body. “Let the Church be the Church” was the “unofficial slogan” of the men who launched the ecumenical movement according to Willem Adolph Visser’t Hooft, General Secretary of the World Council at the time of Morrison’s writing. (Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 1982, p. 465) Had the “church” paradigm not had such sway over nearly all the ecumenicals, they might have been able to truly let the ekklesia be the ekklesia and Christ Jesus truly be the Head over all things for His people. ( Eph. 1:22; top )

In retrospect, we can ask: Was there a genuine call from the Lord to a body-wide unity that was heard by the people in the ecumenical movement? Absolutely. Was that call fully understood and obediently implemented by the ecumenicals? Absolutely not. As we analyze and evaluate their “partial achievement of union,” let us utilize whatever we can from their experience. This is the driving reason behind this series – and I believe even Morrison himself would approve of this usage of his book, even where he is shown to be in error from God’s own “only true ideal” for the unity of His people.

Let us begin with the underlying flaws that first come into view so that the wonderful truths he saw dimly and in part might be all the more clearer to us now.

1. Introduction
Table of Contents

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