Unity of the Spirit, Unity of Faith: Larry Hurtado on Ephesians 4
Following Rob’s piece last week about ecumenical dialogue, I’d like to highlight a fascinating article exploring Christian unity in light of Ephesians 4. Larry Hurtado, a historian of the early church and New Testament scholar in Edinburgh, suggests an intriguing path forward for Christians who disagree and, as a result, find themselves divided.
Central to Hurtado’s case are what we might call two different types of unity: the unity of the Spirit and the unity of faith. Ephesians 4, verse 3 exhorts the reader to be about “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” As Hurtado highlights, this unity is referenced in the present tense. As believers in Jesus Christ, we have all received the Spirit he sent – we already share this unity as a gift from God in Christ. Additionally, it is simply assumed that this unity will take work on our part. As Hurtado carefully traces, the Christian church has faced differences since its very inception. Beginning with the variations in theme and story of the four Gospels, through the early Church, and on down to our day, the faithful have often found themselves holding significantly different perspectives. What the author of Ephesians makes clear is that these differences do not invalidate our unity in the Spirit – but that it will take every effort to maintain the peace which we have already been given.
Later, in verse 13, the author points to a time in the future: “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” It is apparent that this unity – a sharing in full knowledge, and, by extension, understanding, is an expression of the coming Kingdom of God. This unity of faith is an eschatological hope – one which we Christians share, and for which we together wait expectantly. Just as the unity of the Spirit is a gift we share in the present, unity of faith is a gift we will share in the future.
In practical terms, this means a number of things for us. First, we ought not to be surprised or dismayed by our differences. The early church struggled with difference, as evidenced by these New Testament calls for unity. Christians have apparently always differed, and until the coming of the Kingdom will continue to do so. Second, these differences actually create the occasion for ongoing discipleship (specifically, by expressing our unity in the Spirit) – we are challenged to extend God’s grace to those with whom we disagree (sometimes even vehemently so!). Finally, we share with these believers a hope that one day we will, in fact, share in the unity of faith. We will understand one another, and the gifts of God, in such a way that our differences are overcome. And, having spent our lifetimes practicing the unity of the Spirit, we will be prepared for the joy that will be ours in the unity of the faith.
“You’ve Got to ‘Accentuate the Positive’: Thinking about Differences Biblically” is available on Hurtado’s personal blog, followed by an interesting comment thread. The article was originally published in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, volume 30 number 1 (Spring 2012).