Author Jordan J. Ballor is a doctoral candidate in Reformation history at the University of Zurich and historical and moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids. He also serves as the associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality, published by the Acton Institute. I have known Jordan for some time and read a good deal of his online. When he asked me to read and endorse this new book I was very happy to oblige. I knew that I would like the book but I did not realize just how much until I read it very carefully.
Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness is a critical engagement of the ecumenical movement’s approach to ethical and economic issues. By this engagement it becomes a sustained voice for new dialogue in the worldwide movement and speaks directly to all who are concerned that ideology often trumps true ecumenism. Ballor invites the reader to deeper reflection upon ecclesiology, ethics and economics, in a short and accessible way (142 pages), by updating a line of criticism advanced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Ramsey and Ernest W. Lefever. Ballor believes the ecumenical movement is important, just as I do, but he believes that it has lost its way and needs to address some significant errors. By imposing economic ideology onto the social witness of the gospel the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches have all failed to keep the important things central to the work of gospel ecumenism. Ballor’s work will thus open eyes and correct past mistakes. He is hopeful and courageous.
Here are a few paragraphs that I took from Ecumenical Babel that will underscore how valuable this book really is. See for yourself by reading this short paragraphs:
James M. Gustafson has noted that “pious Protestants can be virulent racists or civil rights activists. They can be militarists or pacifists, socialists or defenders of the free-market system, regardless of what church agencies teach about these matters.” On this basis he has described “the situation of Protestant churches with regard to moral teachings” as being “only a little short of chaos.” If this assessment was accurate when written three decades ago, the situation has progressed well beyond chaos in the intervening years.
It is precisely on this point, in addressing the chaos of contemporary Protestant ethical thought, that the ecumenical movement has been most ineffectual. This is not because of a lack of effort. But rather than curbing the chaos of unbound individual conscience, the ecumenical movement has contributed to the ethical cacophony through a seemingly endless and continuous stream of pronouncements, decisions, sermons, addresses, letters, reports, and confessions. These efforts are misguided in that while they rightly seek to bring to bear the church’s moral authority to bear on contemporary issues, they have done so time and again on matters of prudential judgment, where diversity of opinion ought to be respected rather than suppressed. Rather than addressing clear areas of morality, ecumenical pronouncements often attempt to make arbitrary conclusions morally binding.
In Ramsey’s view, the trend in ecumenical ethical thought has been to attempt to speak authoritatively and concretely on specific policies, particularly on topics in which there is no clear moral, Christian, or biblical mandate.
The problem is not that the ecumenical presumes to speak for the church, but rather that it presumes to speak for the church on such issues and in such a way that tyrannizes necessary ethical deliberation, both individual and communal. As Ramsey writes, “the specific solution of urgent problems is the work of political prudence and worldly wisdom. In this there is room for legitimate disagreement among Christians and among other people as well in the public domain—which disagreement ought to be welcomed and not led one way toward specific conclusions.” The confusion here is between ethics and economics, between moral mandates and political prudence.
In reducing its witness to advocacy for a particular set of policies, the ecumenical movement has abandoned the attempt to proclaim the Gospel, the true foundation of its spiritual authority. “This is surely a form of culture-Christianity,” writes Ramsey, “even if it is not that of the great cultural churches of the past. This is, indeed, the most barefaced sectarianism and but a new form of culture-Christianity. It would identify Christianity with the cultural vitalities, with the movement of history, with where the action is, with the next and even now the real establishment, but not with the present hollow forms.” In this way, the question of how the church’s prophetic responsibility ought to be expressed in a post-Christendom era has not received adequate attention from the ecumenical movement. Instead, it has simply assumed that the same form of prophetic pronouncement is as appropriate today as it was in the era of the Reformation, the medieval church, or the Old Testament monarchy.
The modern ecumenical movement began in the early twentieth century with great promise. By the middle of the 20th century that promise had been greatly misplaced because of the relationship of the movement, through many of its principal leaders, to ideology. The same happened on the right, from 1976 on, as conservative evangelicals increasingly embraced political and economic ideology in place of the gospel. If we are to get Christ and the gospel back into the center of our shared life and witness then we must take seriously what writers such as Jordan Ballor are saying to us. I heartily commend Ecumenical Babel, a truly readable and wonderful book. All who love Christian unity centered in the witness of the church and the gospel of Christ will benefit from this fine new book.