Did Catholic Theology cause Secular Humanism?
Part 3 - Greek Philosophy in the Bible

Greek Philosophy in the Bible

There is a strong current in the Evangelical Churches to "dehellenize" Christianity. Which means to strip it of its Greek influence and the "reasoned" approach that was incorporated into the faith. Leading this charge in the last century was Francis A. Schaeffer.

In his last days, Frances A. Schaeffer came closer and closer to converting to Catholicism. His last book was called "The Great Evangelical Disaster."

Listen to this recording of his son Frank talk about his father's change of heart towards the Catholic Church. Click here.

His son Frank converted to the Orthodox Church in the early 90's. That is about as close as you can get to Catholic.

It is a mistake to criticize traditional theology that takes into consideration the Greek context into which Christianity was born. Both Paul and John specifically quote Greek philosophy in Scripture. The New Testament is interweaved with Greek philosophical concepts (more about that below). It was written in Greek and 80% of the references Jesus makes to the Old Testament are from the Greek Septuagint translation. To consider the Bible in a vacuum devoid of Greek philosophy is impossible.

Let's examine Paul's dialogue with the Greek philosophers.

In Athens ...[Paul] reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, ...A group of Epicurean and Stoic [Greek] philosophers began to dispute with him ... brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean."(Acts 17:18-20)

Here we see the the Bible talking about "the God-fearing Greeks." God is capitalized to make it clear which God the Bible passage is talking about. The location where he meets the Greeks is important. It was the hub of Greek Philosophy and is often mentioned in Greek tragedies. These were great thinkers, and they were open to what Paul had to say. The Bible said he "reasoned" with them. He didn't do spectacular healings like in other regions, he used his intellect and helped them use their intellect. Intellect is not a bad thing. Notice how the Bible acknowledges the open and honest searching questions of the Greek Philosophers. So Paul answered them.

..."Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you...From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:22-28)

Here Paul is honouring their search for Truth and telling them that their search has been completed and purified in Jesus. Paul did not say only Jewish people would seek him, he said that all people would seek him. He didn't say "your search was wrong ." He is saying that the "unknown God" that they have sought in their philosophy is the God of the Bible who is the Creator of everything. Here we see Paul laying down a framework for what Augustine and Aquinas did hundreds of years later. He is completing and purifying Greek philosophy, he is not telling them to abandon their philosophy. Certainly, he is displeased that some Greeks had built idols. Certainly the idols were inadequate and they knew it, that's why in the midst of them they had built an altar TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.

Paul also sees the brilliance in much of their quest, and he is quick to acknowledge when they talk about "AN UNKNOWN GOD". The Greek philosophers were honestly seeking before the time of Christ and were not guilty of any spiritual wrongdoing. This was not rebellion, it was honest seeking. They had never been told about the transcendent God, yet they had come to some amazingly accurate conclusions about the nature of God simply by witnessing the world around them in which God was reflected.

"...'for in him we live and move and have our being.'
As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.' "
(Acts 16:28)

Here Paul quotes the Greek poet Epimenides (500BC) and Aratus (300 BC)

Yes, Greek philosophy is found in the Bible!

Paul quotes the Greek Philosopher Aratus in Titus 1:12. He says "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons." Many Greek philosophers were counter cultural in the best sense of the word and Paul acknowledges that. Socrates was put to death for not caving into the moral degradation of the day. Aristotle rejected the multi Gods. Plato went against the moral degradation of his day and spoke about moral absolutes. Paul often talks to the Jews and Greeks in his midst together. (Rom 10:12, Gal 3:28, Col 3:11)

In his famous speech where he spoke critically about the Muslims, Pope Benedict's says:

The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10) - this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

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Why did Christian theology pay attention to Greek Philosophy? Why not just draw everything from God's people, the Jews?

We must consider the time in history which Jesus came to earth. The Bible says:

...When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son... (Gal 4:4)

Jesus chose to come to humanity soon after the the peak of Greek philosophy. In Acts 16: 26 Paul says "[God] determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live." This is the historical context into which Jesus chose to enter the world. We don’t think that it is an accident. Here are a few of the characteristics of this "fullness of time."

  • The history of the Jewish people had come to a head
  • The philosophy of the Greeks had matured
  • The civilization of the Romans had advanced technically and politically

fullness of time idagram

In this "fullness of time" there were 3 prominent cities; Jerusalem, Athens (Greece), and Rome. From Jerusalem we have the story of salvation history. We get the Old Testament, we learn about the family of God. In Greece, humanity learned to ask the most penetrating questions about the most important issues such as: What is just? Does might make right? How do we know what something is? How can we know the truth? From Greece we also are provided with our Christian vocabulary, i.e., Logos (Jn. 1:1). From Rome we get the social structure through which all of this flows into our own time. It is the basis of secular law and even the organization of our Church from its earliest beginnings with the apostles.

Likewise, science is purified in this context. From Jerusalem we understand that man is created to have dominion over all the earth, to know and understand the created order. In Greece we find the beginning of science and the organization of philosophy into various disciplines. From Rome we find the application of that knowledge in public works for public law, with limits codified in law. With all of these in combination, faith and reason find there complimenting balance and we become fit citizens of the new Jerusalem.

In this "fullness of time" everything ties together. If Jesus had come earlier simply to the Jewish people without the context of Rome and Greece, Christianity may have been a failure. All of these conditions (among others) were necessary for Christianity to succeed.

The New Testament and the Septuagint (Old Testament) were written in Greek

The New Testament of the Bible was written in Greek, the Greek Septuagint had been translated from the Hebrew OT just before the time of Christ. The Greek Old Testament was Jesus' choice when he referred to the Old Testament. Greek was the language of choice for the new Christians. Any linguist will quickly point out that language and the philosophy behind that language are inseparably linked. It was preciously the richness of the Greek language which was infused with a wealth of deep philosophical overtones that made it the language of choice. The Greeks were light years ahead of the rest of humanity in these matters and this brilliance was a gift from God.

We should be quick to see God's plan in all of this. It in no way subordinates the Jews who are the original chosen people of God. In the New Testament we learn for the first time that God has a plan of salvation for all people, he is not locked into the closed Jewish system. The New Testament would have been a failure if it did not incorporate Greek concepts. That's why Paul, John and other writers draw upon Greek philosophy in the Bible. Many things in the emerging Christianity would have to be done differently and thought of differently in the New Testament, and part of that includes influences from the rich wealth of Greek philosophic concepts that are not well defined in the Jewish writings. For instance let us consider one of the most famous Scripture verses.

In the beginning was the word (Logos) and the word (Logos) was with God. (John 1:1)

His use of the word Logos in Greek, introduces an explosion of meaning and depth. Any Greek philosopher of the day would have known about the Logos. The Stoics (Greek Philosophers) saw the Logos as the cause which shapes orders and directs the entire universe and the lives of those who inhabit it. For them, the Logos is the reason for everything that exists, the ultimate principle imminent in things. John was not at all worried that the word Logos had been associated with Pantheistic concepts. He simply claimed it and overcame their concept of the imminence of God, and fulfilled it with the transcendence of God. In other words, he said "Although God created the box (this universe), God is outside the box." In Verse 14 when John says "the Logos became flesh" it was amazing. It was a completion of the Greek Philosophy, not a rejection of it. This laid another piece in the framework for Augustine and Aquinas who further took up this approach to theology in later centuries.

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The Box model

Below is a view of the Ancient Greek view versus the Christian view of Creation. Francis Schaeffer and also most Catholic theologians would accept these diagrams.

Imminent_trascendent God

Francis A. Schaeffer would say that the Greeks couldn't come to any Truth about the nature of Creation or of God because their world view was confined to the box. On the other hand, for 2000 years theologians have said it is possible to come to some understanding of Truth from within the box because the box was made by God. By looking at the box you can understand something about its maker. For instance, even if someone doesn't know me (Hugh) personally, they can get some understanding about me by listening to the songs I write. The Reformer Martin Luther would agree with this.

Schaeffer would say that because the ancient Greeks did not know Christ they could not understand anything about the True God. But in 300-500 BC Jews didn't know Christ either. Scripture says:

"From one man he made every nation of men .. so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him (Acts 17:22-28)

There has been a desire to seek God within every human being from the dawn of Creation. This includes the Ancient Greek philosophers. There are many times before Christ where God showed some aspect of the Truth to non-Jews. (i.e. Ruth was a Gentile, Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon)

Then Nebuchadnezzar said, "Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego...for no other god can save in this way."  (Daniel 3:28)

The word theology comes from the Greek word theologou derived from Greek philosophy. John uses it in the title of the Book of Revelation, apokalupsis ioannou tou theologou, "the revelation of John the theoLogos".

It hardy seems like God has a problem with using Greek philosophy as a context for Christianity. Greek philosophy is in Scripture and is part of God's plan for his Church.

Martin Luther, who said:

"Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor."
— Martin Luther, quoted in Martin Marty, Martin Luther, 2004, p. 114.

The father of the Reformation, Martin Luther maintained a deep reverence for Augustine his entire life. Francis A. Schaeffer's criticism of theology is also a criticism of the founder of the Reform of which he speaks so highly. He is contradicting himself on this. Theology is "faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum)." - Anselm of Canterbury.

Isn't Jesus all about the Heart - Isn't the Intellect Useless?

I often hear from Evangelicals that a personal relationship with Jesus as "all about the heart" and has nothing to do with the intellect and that the Catholic CHurch should never have paid any attention to the usefulness of the intellect. Let us think about the most influential "born again" Christian in history. The Apostle Paul was authentically "born again" on the road to Damascus. Jesus could have chosen anybody. He chose a supreme intellect. Even secular scholars would agree that Paul was one of the greatest intellects in the history of mankind.

Paul did not throw out his intellect after his encounter with Jesus. He used it. He went to Athens to dispute with the Greeks in Greek. He went to Rome and argued with the Romans in Latin as a Roman citizen. He always spoke with groups in the context of their socio/political framework. He used his intellect to win souls. He used his supreme knowledge of the law. We don't believe it was "all about the heart" for him. He used his powers of reasoning to convert pagans and to lay down the foundation of our Faith, God's Holy Word, the Bible. 

It is true that Paul let Jesus speak through him. But Jesus chose one of the greatest intellects of all time through which to speak. God is not at all afraid of the intellect. The Bible is full of powerful demonstrations of how God uses human intellect to win souls. The Catholic Church places value on human reasoning that was given to us by God. God invented the intellect. It plays a role in our surrender to God. There are many circumstances where an intellectual argument is presented to a non-believer. Their intellectual defenses drop and they surrender to Jesus. Paul used human intellect to help build the kingdom. Let's not throw theological scholarship away. We don't think Paul would want us to do that, nor does God. The use of reason is a powerful part of the faith.

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Did early Christians practice Syncretism?

Well that depends on how you define syncretism. It is interesting that Schaeffer is using a Greek word (Synkretizein). It means "combine" and it comes from the federation of Cretan communities. (Kres. Cretos). It infers that the two or more philosophies or religions are equal. Schaeffer's accusation is that the Catholic Church (which was the only Church at that time) practiced syncretism with the pagan religions. Martin Luther turned barroom popular pagan songs about love, sex and humanity, into glorious hymns to God. What he did was take the beauty that belonged to God and he claimed it for God.

Augustine and Aquinas's purification of Greek philosophy

Augustine and Thomas Aquinas held that whatever there was of Truth in the writings of Greek philosophers should be taken from them, as from "unjust possessors", and adapted to the teaching of the true religion (Summa I:84:5). Their genius was the ability to pick out the Truth found in Aristotle's writings, like sifting for gold, and throw away the garbage.

Nothing that Augustine and Aquinas gleaned from Aristotle is at odds with Scripture. It illuminated it in the Tradition of the Apostles John and Paul who used Greek philosophy.

In 397AD when the books of the New Testament were being decided upon, Augustine had a voice those decisions which all Christians accept today. These guys were totally into the Bible. Some Evangelical writers accuse Augustine of mixing neo-Platonism which was a deviation from ancient Christianity, with his theology. But these criticisms to not survive a reading of his texts.

The Humanists of the Renaissance rejected Aquinas. We have trouble understanding how Mr. Schaeffer can say Aquinas created humanism.

As an analogy we might compare the Greek philosophers discovery of universal truths to the discovery of the Grand Canyon. If the Grand Canyon was discovered by a non-Christian we would not say the Grand Canyon is not of God. It would still be a beautiful creation of God even if it was discovered by a non-Christian.

Another analogy would be that a 12 year old Muslim boy discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. We don’t say, “The Dead Sea Scrolls are Islamic writings because a Muslim found them.” That would be ridiculous logic. Likewise the rejection of all Greek philosophy because non Christians stumbled on these Truths before the time of Christ would be ridiculous. A Truth can only be discovered once and these Truths happened to be discovered by Greeks before the time of Christ. The only alternative would be to plagiarize the concepts and say they were originally Christian, which would be lying. God revealed aspects of himself before the time of Christ. This is not unbiblical. He had done it before with Ruth and also Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3:28)

Aristotle caught the drift. Good for him. Let’s not throw him out just because he hadn’t met Christ. It was no fault of his that he didn't know Christ. Jesus had not yet been born. The same could be said about the Jewish people.

Naturally, there are limits of philosophy because it lacks the transcendent characteristics of God and of course it is not informed by a knowledge of Christ because it predates him. If the Greek philosophers are considered in isolation, outside of the context of the Church's filtering through the message of Christ’s salvation, then Schaeffer would be right in his criticism.

Secular Humanists came along centuries later. They picked up Greek writings and mixed the garbage back in with the gems of Truth. Then they went off the deep end into full blown paganism, materialism, and rejection of Jesus. In the Renaissance humanists disdained Aquinas.

Where Mr. Schaeffer at odds with his own words, is when he says that nothing good could come from Greek philosophers because they didn’t know Jesus. This is contrary to his own words that Plato discovered the “Truth” that morals cannot exist without absolutes. Therefore Schaeffer acknowledges that something good did come from these philosophers.

In ancient Greece people got married. They did this before Christ existed. But we wouldn't say let's abolish marriage because it was practiced by ancient Greece. Of course not. What we do is we claim it. That is what Jesus did. Marriage is a Truth from God even though it predates Christianity. The same is true about some fundamentals of Greek philosophy.

I found a great article by The Family Research Council in the US, which is a non-denominational conservative think tank. Here is an excerpt:

One noteworthy difference between the two works (Francis Schaeffer and Russell Kirk) is their divergent assessments of specific episodes in the history of the West. Their judgments about the Middle Ages and the Reformation differ since Schaeffer was Presbyterian and Kirk was a Roman Catholic-leaning defender of religion until the later years of his life, when he entered the Catholic Church. One of the points on which Schaeffer hammered away throughout his writings was the unfortunate separation of nature and grace in Thomas Aquinas's thought, a point that has caused some to question Schaeffer's understanding of Aquinas. A dominant theme in Schaeffer's argument was the rise of human autonomy in the West and its destructive consequences for philosophy, art, and social order. He believed that Aquinas' formulation of the difference between nature and grace tended to make particular things autonomous and so lose their reference to God, a relationship that alone could supply those particulars with meaning. Schaeffer believed that Renaissance humanism and, later, the Enlightenment, did far more to sever the connections between human flourishing and divine purpose. Even so, he argued that Aquinas planted the seeds of secular humanism's stress upon man's autonomy, which inevitably led to licentiousness and worse. Conversely, the Reformation recovered a true perspective on the philosophical problem of the one and the many and placed human autonomy in its proper context. Schaeffer wrote:

As the Reformation returned to biblical teaching, it gained two riches at once: It had no particulars-versus-universals (or meaning) problem, and yet at the same time science and art were set free to operate upon the basis of that which God had set forth in Scripture. The Christianity of the Reformation, therefore, stood in rich contrast to the basic weakness and final poverty of the humanism which existed in that day and the humanism which has existed since.[13]

Kirk's judgment of medieval philosophy and the Reformation differed from Schaeffer's in part because his concerns were, as the title to his book indicated, with social order in America. Unlike Schaeffer, who was trying to account for the breakdown of Christian culture, Kirk was attempting to lay claim to various developments in the West that would vindicate American political ideals and inspire their maintenance and defense. Even so, Kirk's judgments make for a lively contrast to Schaeffer's. For instance, unlike Schaeffer, who saw Aquinas introducing an unhealthy dichotomy in Christian reflection on the meaning of things, Kirk asserted that, for Aquinas, "There was no wall of separation between theology and philosophy: those studies differed merely in method."[14] Kirk said that Aquinas "perceived that the universe was ordered by divine wisdom and love," thus supplying the created order with regularity and stability.[15] For Kirk, the real villain of medieval philosophy was William of Occam, who divorced philosophy from theology. When Kirk turned to the Reformation, his interests in social (as opposed to philosophical) questions are apparent. He highlighted the Protestant character, which encouraged self-reliance and "godly endeavor in the secular realm"[16] as well as the Reformation's tendency toward democracy. These features of Protestantism led Kirk to speculate on its particular contribution to American political order, asking whether the Protestant spirit in fact "created" American civilization. He hypothesized that a set of Irish-Catholic colonies might have also produced similar results, though slower to develop the economy and without the pronounced republican politics of New England's Protestants. Still, the social circumstances of the New World, combined with a Christian--as opposed to a Protestant--spirit helped contribute to America's political and cultural order.

12. Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Old Tappan, N.J.: F. H. Revell, Co., 1976) 19.
13. Ibid., 86.
14. Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (1974; Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2003) 211.
15. Ibid., 207.
16. Ibid., 236.

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Plato

It should be noted that Catholic theologians would agree with Francis Schaeffer's criticisms of Plato. Catholics would agree that dualism (body bad, spirit good) is not a Christian ideal. However, Plato was right about some things and Frances Schaeffer acknowledges that in DEATH IN THE CITY.

“They [The Jews the time of Jeremiah] turned to false gods, but at least they still knew something was there. In a similar way the Greeks built their culture. Of course their gods were inadequate, so that, for example, Plato never found what to do with his absolutes because his gods were not big enough. Plato was entirely right when he held that unless you have absolutes, morals do not exist. Here is the complete answer to Plato's dilemma; he spent his time trying to find a place to root his absolutes, but he was never able to do so because his gods were not big enough. And the Greek writers did not know what to do with the Fates because the gods were not great enough always to control them. But at least they knew something was there. It is only our foolish generation that lives in a universe which is purely material, everything being reduced to mass, energy and motion.”)

Plato only saw the partial Truth, but what he saw was valuable because he said that Truth is absolute, which was different from his pagan peers. Plato said that our life was like being in a cave and seeing a shadow on the wall (Theory of Forms). This world is a shadow of something greater. And naturally, because Christ was not born yet, Plato did not know what the “something greater” was. 

However, Plato has little to contribute to Catholicism, and Augustine moved away from Platonic influences in his later life. (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05573a.htm) Plato's main contribution was that he spawned Aristotle who did have quite a bit to contribute, through the discerning spirits of Augustine and Aquinas.

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Aristotle

Aristotle's huge contribution to philosophy was inductive reasoning, observing as many examples as possible and then working out the underlying principles. Aristotle was the first major thinker to base his thought and science entirely on the idea that everything that moves or changes is caused to move or change by some other thing. The implications of this are huge in the realm of God. Therefore, the big bang theory would not have worked for Aristotle unless it was caused by something. We Christians know what that cause of creation was -it was God.

Aristotle integrated the spiritual and physical realms much better than Plato. Augustine and Aquinas and looked to Aristotle rather than Plato for the bulk of their examination of Greek philosophy. Aristotle had an astonishingly acute concept of God, given that he was

It should also be mentioned that Aristotle rejected all pagan Gods and looked at Truth simply by what he observed. It is an unfair association to link Aristotle to modern materialism and Mr. Schaeffer acknowledges that above in this quote where he says it is only our generation that lives in a universe which is purely material. His philosophy were based on simply observable facts. Since all of the facts of the world were created by God, it is simply an examination of God's handiwork, as manifested in the world and human relations. This is not a bad departure point for Philosophy.

God created everything, therefore everything in creation is a reflection of him and reveals something about his nature. Aristotle observed that.

Here is part of the summary of Lesson 2 of the Truth Project, a Focus on the Family production.

Philosophy, according to Dr. R. C. Sproul, is "a scientific quest to discover ultimate reality." This would seem to indicate that philosophical ideas about Truth are closely aligned with the biblical definition given in Lesson 1: Truth = reality. In this connection, it's worth noting that the 1828 edition of Webster's Dictionary included the following affirmation: "true religion and true philosophy must ultimately arrive at the same principle." Significantly, Webster's original definition of the word also asserted that philosophy aims "to enlarge our understanding of God."

This is right on. Truth cannot be inconsistent with God. Aristotle was not about materialism which is the pursuit of money, physical pleasure and wealth. He was about looking at the physical world as manifestation of Truth. Mr. Schaeffer says “only our foolish generation that lives in a universe which is purely material…” We would say this is evidence that deep down Schaeffer knew that Aristotle’s practical approach to philosophy which approached the absolute by looking at the material world was not the same as modern day people chasing the material things. On one hand Schaeffer criticized Plato for his disdain of the material world and on the other hand he criticized Aristotle for his observance of the material world.

As for Socrates, he was executed by the state because he would not cave into their moral depravity. Not a bad example for a non-Christian.

In many respects Francis Schaeffer's "Reform of the Reformation" is a return to a Catholic approach

  1. He wanted to reinstate moral absolutes (which he acknowledges to be articulated by Plato)
  2. Schaeffer wanted Evangelicals to take back art (which is what Catholicism did during the middle ages)
  3. He wanted Evangelicals to take back politics (he called this Dominionism, which is what Catholicism did after Constantine)
  4. He wanted Evangelicals to understand that the full use of the intellect is completely consistent with a life of faith and that both the intellect and faith will arrive at the same Truth, because Truth is Truth. (this is the Catholic exegesis form of theological analysis)

So naturally we are in favour of these proposed reforms to the Reform. But where we differ from Mr. Schaeffer is that we don't think the Catholic Church is to blame for the problem of Secular Humanism.

Conclusion

In summary, we say to Evangelicals, by all means listen to Schaeffer's call to action, and join us in our assertion that morals are absolute values that are defined by God and articulated in the Holy Bible. Join us and let’s get involved in politics together. Evangelicals and faithful Catholics alike voted against John Kerry who wanted to gut marriage and legalize human cloning experimentation. Join us in our fight against abortion and euthanasia.

Let’s fight together against secular humanism and stop pointing fingers at each other as to its roots.  I say "join us in taking back art into the Christian realm." And we also say let us embrace together the roots of Christian theology which are found in the apostle John's writings in the book of Revelation, which was embraced by the earliest Christians and which was embraced by the Protestant and reformers and Catholics alike, who unanimously revered Augustine and Aquinas as the greatest pillars in Christian thought. If anything has laid a foundation for the current rise of Human Secularism, it is the lack of unity and resolve found among Christians of all denominations to work together in the name of Christ. So let's come together and fight this thing.

The rest of this series of articles

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen