To understand the ecumenical situation, one must distinguish between the Ecumenical Movement, which as a mighty current flows through the whole of Christendom, and certain conspicuous organizations it has produced, the most important and ambitious of which is the World Council of Churches. The movement itself, however, is noticeable also in those churches which for doctrinal reasons are and will remain outside the WCC. It is a strong power in the Roman church, and it may well be that the Second “Ecumenical” Council of the Vatican will be more important to the whole of Christendom than many of the “ecumenical” gatherings we have witnessed in our lifetime. At any rate, it would be wise for us Protestants to ask ourselves why it is that the decisions of a Roman Council are of lasting authority and even importance to the non-Roman churches, while the proclamations of our ecumenical assemblies are practically forgotten the day after their publication. Who remembers still the Message of Evanston, 1954, or the Theses of the Lutheran World Federation of Minneapolis, 1955? It could also be that an evangelical church just by staying out of the WCC for doctrinal reasons is showing the greatest concern for the true unity of the Church and is thereby serving true ecumenicity.


True ecumenicity does not ask for unity as such. Rather it asks for the unity of the Church. The Ecumenical Movement is essentially a longing for the reality of the Church of Christ, the Una Sancta which we all confess. “A process of inestimable consequence has set in. The Church is awakening in the souls.” Thus a great theologian of the Roman Catholic church in Germany, R. Guardini, has described in 1922 the beginning of that movement in his church. What is the Church? We must be able to ask this question in order to understand “the nature of the unity we seek.”

What, then, is the Church? “A seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their shepherd. For the children pray thus: ‘I believe in one holy Christian Church,’ ” says Luther. But when we theologians are asked to give a definition of the Una Sancta Catholica, our embarrassment is great. At the First World Conference on Faith and Order in Lausanne, 1927, it came as a great surprise to many delegates when Archbishop Germanos declared that the Eastern Orthodox church had no dogma on the Church beyond the words of the Creed, “I believe one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The question of the nature of the Church, he added, belongs to those subjects on which the Orthodox theologian is free to formulate an opinion. Even Rome has up to this day no dogma of the Church in a strict sense. There is a definition of the Church in the Catechismus Romanus, but the Catechism is not regarded as dogma. The attempt of the Vatican Council of 1870 to give a definition of the Church failed, and not only for lack of time. The “First Constitution of the Church of Christ” which resulted from the discussions contains only the doctrine of the papacy. It will be supplemented at the forthcoming Council by a “Second Constitution,” for which the material is now being prepared in Rome. Though the encyclical Mystici Corporis of 1943 may hint at what will be the content of the new definition, many questions for the time being are still open, as for example, the relationship of baptized heretics to the Church and the exact meaning of the designation of the Church as Body of Christ.

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The first doctrinal statement on the nature of the Church ever made in Christendom was the Seventh Article of the Augsburg Confession, which has influenced the Anglican Article XIX and the corresponding articles of the various Reformed confessions. The Reformers had to show why they regarded themselves as being within the true Church in spite of their excommunication by the papacy. But theirs is not an exhaustive doctrine of the Church. It is certainly not accidental that much of the controversies within the Lutheran churches of the last century center around Article VII of the Augsburg Confession.

Today the great embarrassment with which all churches of Christendom face the problem of the nature of the Church finds expression in Report III of Lausanne, where the most divergent and even contradictory views on the Church, as held by the participating churches, are frankly and carefully listed so that the reader gets the impression that there is more disagreement than agreement. Accordingly, the views on “the unity we seek” were divergent and contradictory, as already the solemn statements show that were made by the Orthodox and the Lutheran delegations. In his biography of Bishop Brent, A. C. Zabriskie gives a vivid picture of how Bishop Brent and Dr. Garvie assured the dissenters, among whom there were also Anglicans, “that no one wanted to override their convictions, and persuaded them of the wisdom of assenting to statements to which they could subscribe even though they seemed not to go far enough” (p. 171). Hence the reports with the exception of one were not “adopted,” but “received.” This was the spirit of Lausanne as it was embodied in Charles Brent who had conceived the plan of a World Conference on Faith and Order at Edinburgh, 1910. Brent’s concluding words, as he neared the end of his “pilgrimage for unity” and stood at the gate of eternity, expressed his personal conviction: “We are looking forward to the day when all these struggles for unity will have been consummated—we cannot say when or how—but we look forward to the day when there will be a great world gathering representing all the churches to consider how they can best in their unified form fulfill their responsibility to God and to man.… I venture to say that we have had glimpses during this conference of such a gathering. His words were received with deep respect.

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As I had to translate the speech, I stood beside him. I shall never forget the face of that saintly man who had to overcome the weakness of a failing heart. Eighteen months later he entered, at his beloved Lausanne, the peace and the unity of the Church Triumphant. To all who knew him, he was the embodiment of the Ecumenical Movement at its best just in the way in which he, as a man with strong Anglican convictions, repudiated union by compromise.


That was “Faith and Order” more than 30 years ago. “This is a Conference about truth, not about reunion.… As we differ greatly about cardinal matters, some of us must be wrong, and all may be to some extent wrong.… We seek God’s truth about the whole of Christendom,” as another Anglican, Bishop Palmer of Bombay, put it at the beginning of his address on the highly controversial subject “The Church’s Ministry” (Faith and Order. Proceedings of the World Conference, Lausanne, Aug. 3–21, 1927, by H. N. Bate, ed., London, Student Christian Movement, 1927).

But the negotiators of unions were, of course, already present at Lausanne. The great problem of the Ecumenical Movement was, who would prevail—the negotiators or the seekers for truth?


Ten years later, at Oxford and Edinburgh, when “Life and Work” and “Faith and Order” began to grow together into the World Council of Churches, it was clear that the future would belong to the practical work of uniting the churches. The Ecumenical Movement became in the Protestant churches a union movement on an unprecedented scale. The main reason for this was the strong desire to overcome splits and divisions, especially the crying need of some mission fields which were not prepared to wait until the theologians had solved the problems of Faith and Order. Another reason was the inability of the theologians to solve the problems which had not been solved at Lausanne and which, perhaps, are insoluble, at least with the means available. Already Brent had seen that the differences between the churches were much deeper than anybody had anticipated. Shortly before his death he declared that a comprehensive conference like Lausanne could never be repeated and that henceforth the work must concentrate on some very deep questions underlying the obvious dissents.

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The problem has proved indeed to be much greater than it was, and still is, assumed to be in ecumenical circles. It will take at least a generation until Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians have reached in their own churches a new understanding of the Church, the Word of God, and the Sacraments. This is also the reason why the method of a “conference” is insufficient. Conferences are necessary to bring people together for a common work. They can do a lot of good. But no conference has ever produced an idea. In this respect we can learn from Rome. For 50 years since the end of the modernist controversy, the theologians in Rome have worked on the problem of the nature and authority of Holy Scripture. Now they are reaping the fruits of their quiet, patient work. The Church can wait—300 years she waited for the doctrine of Nicaea; the sect cannot wait because it has no future. Only the patient work of many scholars against the background of the apocalyptic terrors of our age will give us a new understanding of what Holy Scripture teaches of the Church of Christ and her unity.


From here we look to the ecumenical situation of the year 1961 when the WCC will try to formulate anew its aims. The meeting of the Central Committee of St. Andrews has worked out the proposals which are now available in the Ecumenical Review (Oct. 1960). We discuss briefly two of them: (1) the tasks assigned to the Commission on Faith and Order and (2) the Basis of the World Council. Both are closely related.

As to the Commission on Faith and Order, the problem is whether this Commission should define for the WCC “the unity we seek.” Thus far the Council has abstained from giving such a definition, but has left it to each member church to understand the “unity which God wills for His Church” according to her own ecclesiological convictions. The main issue is whether “organic,” “churchly unity” should be aimed at by the World Council, or whether it should be satisfied with federation and cooperation. In other words, should the World Council envisage one united church or not?

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The idea of a united church in which the existing churches would be integrated is favored by all the champions of church unions on the mission fields and in America. It corresponds to the “Findings of the Ecumenical Youth Assembly in Europe” which was held at Lausanne in 1960. It would be the logical consequence of the endorsement of so many church unions by the World Council of Churches, especially since the Commission on Faith and Order has already, through “unofficial consultations” which henceforth would become “official,” assisted in the establishment of such unions. While men like Bishop Newbigin would ardently support the new course, Archbishop Fisher and Dr. Fry have expressed themselves more cautiously, the latter having warned against neglect of consensus of faith as precondition of unity, and the former having emphasized in a remarkable way “that God’s first will for His Church is the unity of spirit in the bond of peace, a unity compatible with a good deal of disunity of theological formulation or organizational rules.” One has the impression that here the realistic churchman speaks in view of a possible change of the relationship with Rome. Could it be that the proposal of a “fellowship of the churches” as a common front of Christendom against the antireligious and anti-Christian forces of our age, made by the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1920, will be revived in a form agreeable even to Rome? These are the two possibilities before those who in New Delhi have to decide the future of the World Council of Churches.

Whatever the outcome of the debate at New Delhi will be (the outcome will certainly not be a clear decision, but a compromise), it will not mean a change in the ecumenical policy of the Protestant churches within the WCC. They will go on in their process of unification. And to them the Faith and Order Commission will give both the program and, through consultation, the directives. “The Commission on Faith and Order understands that the unity which is both God’s will and His gift to His Church is one which brings all in each place who confess Christ Jesus as Lord into a fully committed fellowship with one another through one baptism into Him, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel and breaking the one bread … and which at the same time unites them with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such ways that ministry and members are acknowledged by all and that all can act and speak together.” This statement in the Report for New Delhi sounds very good. This is indeed the unity of Christ’s Church: One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Gospel, one sacrament of Holy Communion. The question is: What do we mean by that? What does it mean to recognize Christ Jesus as “Lord”? Have we one Lord, if some of us understand “Lord” in the sense of the Creeds and the New Testament as “Kyrios,” God as he reveals himself, God of God, very God of very God, and others, while attributing to Jesus Christ authority, are not prepared to ascribe to him the full divinity? Have we one apostolic faith and one Gospel if we allow so much “reasonable liberty” in the interpretation of Scripture that some deny the atoning sacrifice of Christ and “demythologize” the Gospel of Christmas and Easter to such a degree that they deny the New Testament message of the Virgin Birth and the Empty Sepulchre? Or let us take the example of the “one baptism” which the Nicene Creed confesses on the basis of Ephesians 4:5. How can we overcome the tragic situation that some regard baptism of infants as necessary and others regard it as invalid? that to some baptism is the washing of regeneration in the strict sense of an instrument and to others it is a sign of regeneration? Most certainly we cannot overcome this by that compromise suggested for the Church of North India-Pakistan and other union churches and already practiced in similar churches where both infant and “believer’s” baptism are recognized as alternatives. The thesis on “Baptism in Christ” adopted by the Faith and Order Conference at Oberlin, 1957, also amounts to the same thing. It cannot give a solution but simply claims “our deep unity in baptism” in spite of the existing differences. This “unity” includes obviously those also who do not practice any sacrament. The theses of Oberlin on baptism and the Table of the Lord could be adopted only because the Quakers did not protest against them but frankly stated that they interpreted them in accord with their belief in the non-necessity of outward rites and elements (Report, p. 205). We are obliged to honor any such serious conviction. But we must ask whether we honestly can claim fellowship “through one baptism” with people who refuse to be baptized. Has not the time come when the WCC and its National Councils must declare that this is a state of untruthfulness which must come to an end? Will the Commission on Faith and Order understand that no true unity can ever be attained through its present methods of compromise?

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The really tragic situation of the WCC becomes obvious if we consider the proposed alteration of its “Basis.” The present Basis reads: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.” Nobody was happy about this formula which had been taken over from the old World Conference on Faith and Order and which goes back to the nineteenth century when the term “to accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour” was used against Unitarians and others who denied the full divinity of Christ. It was a carelessly framed formula, meant to imply the historic Trinitarian faith but proving to be Christologically insufficient because it did not do justice to the historic doctrine of the God-Man Jesus Christ. In Evanston it was interpreted as implying the doctrine of the Trinity. A proposal made by the bishops of Norway could not be dealt with at that time for constitutional reasons. They suggested speaking of “churches which, according to the Holy Scriptures, confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.” This has now been incorporated into the text recommended to the Assembly at New Delhi: “The WCC is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This formula sounds better. But on closer examination it cannot be regarded as a real improvement because it lacks clarity and can be interpreted in various ways. What does “according to the Scriptures” mean? It means neither the sola scriptura of the Reformation nor the recognition of the doctrine held by our Lord and his apostles, by all Catholic churches East and West and by all churches of the Reformation, that Holy Scripture is the Word of God given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Everybody can understand the phrase according to his pleasure. The same lack of clarity is obvious in its Christology: “God and Saviour,” which can be accepted by all Monophysites and Docetists, does not fully render the orthodox Christology. If the “Basis” were to express the doctrine of the Trinity, “the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” could not be mentioned only in a doxological formula, which again anybody can interpret as he pleases, even in the sense of a modalistic or economic trinity. Moreover, if the Trinity were to be referred to as an object of faith, it had to be mentioned together with the Person of Christ as that which the churches “confess.” The formula, as it reads now, is obviously a compromise, theologically quite insufficient and in its ambiguity misleading.

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The confusion is not the fault only of the present leadership of the WCC. If this elite of Protestant churchmanship and theology is not able to produce anything better, then the fault cannot be in individuals only. The present writer, who has been active in the World Conference on Faith and Order for ten years, who has translated thousands of pages of ecumenical documents and papers and has himself written repeatedly on these questions, has come to the conviction that the reason for our inability to express doctrinal consensus is to be found in the tragic fact that modern Protestantism has lost, along with the understanding of the dogma of the Church, in her nature, her function, and her content, the ability to think dogmatically, that is, to think in terms of a trans-subjective truth which is given to us in the revelation of God. This is also the reason we are no longer able to reject error and heresy. Our fathers at the time of the Reformation had that ability. In spite of all the divisions and controversies that divided sixteenth century Christendom, there was the common Christian possession of “the sublime articles concerning the divine majesty,” that is, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Person of Christ “concerning which,” as Luther put it, “there is no contention or dispute, since we on either side confess them.” And, despite the various views of the interpretation of Scripture, there was on all sides the conviction that Holy Scripture is God’s Word and that nobody must teach against it. As long as we have not regained that amount of consensus in the recognition of an objective truth that is binding on us all, our endeavors to find agreement on matters of Faith and Order will only increase the doubts of our relativistic theologies and the disorder of present-day Christendom. The World Conference of Lausanne recommended as minimum requirement of unity the common acceptance of the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds. That the Nicene Creed should become the basis of the WCC was suggested in a recommendation for Amsterdam, 1948 (“The Universal Church in God’s Design. An Ecumenical Study Prepared under the Auspices of the WCC,” 1948, pp. 196 f.). Modern Protestantism is no longer able to confess this Creed which all great Protestant churches theoretically have in common with all Catholic churches East and West. Should ever the day come when this great ecumenical Creed which is thoroughly biblical, as it establishes the authority of the Scriptures, becomes again a living confession, there will be a basis for a sound ecumenical movement in a federation of Christian churches.

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Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

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