Faith and Order, andthe New Ecumenical Approach

IS THE World Council of Churches, and in particular its Faith and Order Commission, shifting from a "churchly" ecumenical orientation to a more social-activism form of ecumenism? Has the Faith and Order Commission, traditionally concerned with doctrinal and theological issues, set a new course away from an essential interest in faith in God and unity of the church toward an over-preoccupation with ethical action programs in the world?

-Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology and former dean of the SDA Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

IS THE World Council of Churches, and in particular its Faith and Order Commission, shifting from a "churchly" ecumenical orientation to a more social-activism form of ecumenism? Has the Faith and Order Commission, traditionally concerned with doctrinal and theological issues, set a new course away from an essential interest in faith in God and unity of the church toward an over-preoccupation with ethical action programs in the world?

There is little doubt that, as a commission of the World Council, Faith and Order has been led increasingly to put greater emphasis on the contemporary context in its investigation of the church's calling and mission. Some have reacted, strongly at times, against this shift of emphasis, described as a move "from God to man," while World Council leaders have retorted that it is wrong to impale the ecumenical movement on the horns of what they regard as a false dilemma.

Whether of not, in choosing greater involvement in secular issues, Faith and Order is following a new path in its approach to church unity, remains for many an open question. But its latest gathering held at Louvain, Belgium, in August, 1971, will probably be memorable for the energy with which the commission faced the issue and tried to define its mission and future in the modern world. It cannot but have a determinant influence on the future of the whole ecumenical movement. Of special importance for Christians interested in the development of the ecumenical movement, there fore, is the recent publication, by the World Council of Churches, of Faith and Order, Louvain 1971. 1 This 264-page volume provides us with most of the studies, reports, and documents submitted and accepted at Louvain.

In order to understand the significance of this meeting, one must keep in mind that the main theme selected for the Louvain gathering was "Unity of the Church and Unity of Mankind." This theme was discussed in five sections, each of which met seven times, and was debated in several plenary sessions. In addition to the main theme, the Louvain meeting considered a certain number of Faith and Order reports that had been requested by previous meetings and completed since the last meeting of the commission at Bristol in 1967. These reports were reviewed by five committees, each of which met six times. Each committee presented a report for general discussion at plenary sessions.

Two Major Concerns

In other terms, two major concerns retained the attention of the more than 150 theologians, church executives, and ministers from Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, and Roman Catholic traditions who came together for this two-week gathering. They are clearly reflected in the two parts of the book. The first part brings together nine study reports presented to the commission, all of great importance. They owe much of their interest to the fact that they are not the work of one particular individual, but the result of a long process of discussion on the national and international levels. These study reports cover some of the issues traditionally associated with Faith and Order.

Whether it sets out to investigate how far the Bible is authoritative for Christian thought and action (pp. 9-23), the meaning of baptism and the ethical implications of its full mutual recognition in the life of the churches today (pp. 35-53), the question of intercommunion, the common celebration of the Lord's Supper (pp. 54-77), the nature of the Christian ministry in general and ordination in particular (pp. 78-102), et cetera, each study has a way of forcing all churches to consider the formulation, relevance, and adequacy of their answer to each of these issues that still divide them. Although the reports sometimes do barely more than point to some of the most salient features of the problems, they all lie at the very heart of the Christian faith and are a concern of the ecumenical movement. They indicate the present state of discussion and suggest how efforts at a solution can be furthered. They should not be read independently from the committee reports that as mentioned earlier, each committee put before the whole com mission for its reaction (pp. 212- 238).

Apostolicity and Proselytism

All nine reports are of great interest to Seventh-day Adventists, although some of us will undoubtedly point out, and rightly so, the unusual importance of "Catholicity and Apostolicity," and "Common Witness and Proselytism." Both, interestingly enough, were completed by a joint theological commission on the initiative of the Joint Working Croup of the World Council and the Roman Catholic Church. The first study (pp. 133- 157) deals with one of the fundamental issues that continually arise between the Roman Catholic and the other churches: the concept of apostolicity. Quite open in its approach and marking a distinct advance beyond the traditional Roman Catholic concept, this document bespeaks an important step forward in bridging the gap between the World Council and the Roman Catholic Church. The second study (pp. 158-168), on "Common Witness and Proselytism," is bound to be of particular significance for us. It is an attempt to state what Faith and Order regards as the implications of the Christian churches' obligation to avoid in their mutual relations and evangelizing activities "whatever is not in keeping with the spirit of the gospel." Representing a wide area of consensus among World Council member churches, this paper is presented to the churches as a study document for their consideration, in order to arrive at a line of conduct where they live and witness together, "concerned to do nothing which could com promise the progress of ecumenical dialogue and action" (p. 164).2

In summary, some of the studies and reports presented at Louvain remain insufficiently mature and inadequately formulated. The wide range of convictions they express is often contradictory. But Faith and Order continues to pursue, slowly to be sure, its original aim of overcoming divisions among Christian churches in doctrine and in polity. While the old differences remain, it seems possible today to see them in a new light permitting theologians to discuss possibilities of progress.

Social Involvement

The second part of the volume deals with the more controversial aspect of the Louvain meeting, its social involvement. The main theme, "Unity of the Church and Unity of Mankind," had not been arbitrarily or hastily chosen. It grew naturally and gradually out of pressures inherent in Faith and Order and in other ecumenical spheres. The 1968 Uppsala assembly gave it an added impetus. In these pages of Faith and Order, Louvain 7977 we find Louvain's answer to the proposal that Faith and Order no longer seek to achieve Christian unity by dealing exclusively with the differences in doctrine, church order, and worship that separate the Christian communions. And it offers an affirmative answer, declaring that it is both possible and productive for the commission to view its historic theme of church unity in a new context, specifically in the secular context of contemporary man, willing to listen to modern man and to learn from him what the words peace and unity signify for both the churches and mankind.

The two opening addresses, of Cardinal Suenens (pp. 171 ff.) and Dr. Max Kohnstamm (pp. 179 ff.), touch on the main theme. Dr. Lukas Vischer's "Report of the Secretariat" (pp. 200 ff.) and the "Conspectus on Studies to Be Carried Out" (pp. 239 ff.) express a concern and an attempt to bring Faith and Order work more explicitly into the center of World Council thinking, thinking that has been dominated in recent years by items of the secular side of the agenda. The formal introduction to the main theme was given by Fr. John Meyendorff, the newly elected commission chairman. His address, unfortunately, is reduced to its main points. The Eastern Orthodox theologian's outlook, indeed, highly theological, contrasted sharply with the more anthropocentric and humanistic approach of the other speakers. 3

The main theme was also discussed in sections, five of them, each related to some particular aspect of the subject. They dealt with the "Unity of the Church and the Struggle for Justice and Peace," the "Encounter With Other Living, Faiths," "The Struggle With Racism," "The Handicapped in Society," and "Differences in Culture." The sections' discussions revolved around one major question: How can our common understanding of the unity of the church be illuminated, sharpened, and challenged by our experience of situations where human individuals are divided on such bases as social commitment, race, and cultural differences? (pp. 190 ff.).

A New Direction

In my opinion, Louvain's study is unfinished. Its results are in conclusive. But this gathering, and its conclusions, might very well be of decisive importance for the future of the World Council in general and of the Faith and Order Commission in particular.

The meeting carried on its deliberations with a keen realization that Faith and Order is undergoing a definite shift from a "churchly" ecumenism to a more radically world-oriented ecumenism, from an essentially ecclesiological basis for ecumenical cooperation to one of social activism. While the Orthodox seem to be opposed to the trend, and many Anglicans are at least hesitant, the Protestant majority of Faith and Order is convinced that the commission should intensify its involvement in the theology of life and action. For most of its champions this is not a new aim, but a new aspect, a new viewpoint from which to examine Faith and Order's historic theme: Christian unity. This approach is regarded as holding great promise for the churches in their quest for unity. It requires, however, that a new method be adopted. Thus, the commission was urged, several times, to make better use of nontheological disciplines in its future studies and meetings. Secular experts should be brought into fruitful dialog with theologians. "We have harvested what can be gleaned from theological 'advisers' and from earnest conversation in the Commission. Future work requires both more discipline and more deliberate inter-disciplinary approaches" concludes John Deschner at the end of his "Report on the Discussions" (p. 199).

Valuable though it may be, this approach does not meet with universal satisfaction. In discussion groups and in plenary sessions, some have expressed grave doubt about the wisdom of the path fol lowed more recently by Faith and Order. No one at Louvain seemed to deny that there is a legitimate personal Christian concern for peace and justice in the world, and that the ecumenical movement cannot remain indifferent to it. But some deny that the churches, as such, should involve themselves in social issues. Fr. John Meyendorff was not alone in raising serious doubts about the advisability of trying to learn from the world how to make the world better. Joseph Ratzinger, a Roman Catholic, and Roger Mehl, the veteran Protestant ecumenist, asserted that technological communication encourages a positivistic style of thinking that leaves little room for discourse about the ultimate and eternal destiny of man. This, underlined Ratzinger, constitutes a threat to the unity of the church and to the unity of man kind. Interdisciplinarity, affirmed Mehl at the final plenary, is fruitful only when each of the disciplines retains its own identity. Faith and Order, he pleaded, should first of all pursue its own task vigorously, in order to engage in helpful dialog with other bodies and other disciplines.

In Pursuit of Unity

That many feel that in its original orientation Faith and Order had a well-defined project still eminently worth pursuing seems evidenced in the fact that, despite some sharp disagreements, the commission, at a plenary session, adopted a recommendation declaring it "imperative for the future work of Faith and Order that members of the churches attempt to give account of that which they as Christians have received together, and are charged to offer" (p. 215). Considerably helped by some of the most pertinent remarks of Dr. Vischer's Report (pp. 205 ff.), this attempt to express what the churches share in common rejected intentionally any thought of a new creed, catechism or statement of confession. These usually presume a considerable degree of unanimity in doctrinal formulation. But by urging a common "account of the hope that is in us" rather than a confession of faith, the commission avoided unsurmountable difficulties from an ecclesiological, as well as from a practical, viewpoint. It remains true, however, that giving an account of the gospel together would probably make possible the growth of a common tradition, which could very well be one of the surest ways for the Council's member churches to reach the unity they seek.

There are, indisputably, some uncertainties regarding the project, and there will be difficulties to surmount. But if the project ever materializes it will have unmistakable repercussions on the perspective from which Christian unity will be considered. The very fact that such a project could be set up and has been accepted in principle by the commission indicates that, far from being moribund, Faith and Order has conserved a remarkable dynamic.

Much has been happening lately in ecumenical thought of which many of us are not always aware. Unprecedented and experimental doctrinal ventures have been taking place. Faith and Order, Louvain 1971 gives us a chance to reach a more comprehensive understanding of the initiatives currently taking place in the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. The volume makes interesting and informative reading for students of the Scriptures and of Biblical prophecy.


1. The volume is published in Geneva, Switzerland. It can be obtained in the United States for $5.95 from the office of the WCC, Room 439, 475 Riverside Drive, New York.

2. Ministry readers will find a very perceptive analysis of the document in Dr. B. B. Beach's "Proselytism Is a Dirty Word," Liberty, LXVI, No. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1971, pp. 18-25.

3. For the full text of this delivery see The Ecumenical Review, XXIV, 1, |an. 1972, pp. 30-46.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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-Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology and former dean of the SDA Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 1973

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