A good friend of mine who rather shies away from systematics in theology wrote to me a word of criticism about one of history’s greatest theologians and gave his criticism a nice turn of phrase: the theologian had the ability, my friend said, “To paint himself into a corner.” We all know the picture: a man begins to paint a room, and is doing very nicely, whistling a merry tune, concentrating on the swish of the brush immediately in front of him, only to discover to his chagrin that he has painted himself into a place where his only escape must be messy and embarrassing. You have probably caught yourself in an argument, especially in a theological argument, slowly closing yourself into a spot where you have no longer a neat logical outlet. Preachers have been known to raise more questions in the introduction than they can answer in the next twenty minutes—or the next twenty hours! Sometimes we dig up more snakes than we can kill.

I am wondering in all this about whether the World Council of Churches is not painting itself into a corner, and I mean a theological corner. Concern over the New Delhi sessions has centered primarily on the acceptance of the Orthodox Church of Russia. Will the Russians be able to be churchmen first and communists second or the other way around? Will the orthodox churches generally, simply by virtue of their numbers, carry too much weight in Council policies? Has the Council taken on a different total character by the nature of this new heavily liturgical thrust? Others have raised mild demurrers over the ease of the Russian entrance and the difficulty of the Pentecostal entrance at the time of voting. Does the spirit of ecumenicity really move happily in only one direction? So the questions go. But the real problems are theological.

“All our problems,” said William Temple (and Douglas McArthur said it too) “are theological ones.” The Council has recognized, however, and correctly, from the very beginning, that serious theological issues can be and usually are, divisive. The effort has been, therefore, to keep theological statements as bases for unity at an absolute minimum. But an indivisive movement can’t have it both ways: either you take a sharply delineated theology and have disunity, or you press for unity and loosen up your theology. The “unfortunate” nature of truth is its interrelatedness; no truth stands by itself. Therefore, as soon as an organization, the World Council, for example, makes one statement for sure, that statement is immediately related to many other statements. In other words, to say anything for sure, may lead to saying a great many other things for sure, and to denying other things with equal surety.

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No Truth In Isolation

Take the theological starting place of the World Council: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” This simple statement should cause no trouble, but surely the knowing ones in the upper echelons of the Council must have suspected that even this simplicity is heavy with theology and even with orthodoxy. Jesus of Galilee was or was not an historical person—there have been strenuous debates about the historicity of every item in the record of his life—but when “Christ” is added to his name we are already talking about “The Anointed One,” or “The Messiah,” or “the Logos” (the authority of Scripture is now forcing itself into the discussion) and we are facing theological questions on deity and kenosis plus the centuries of debate on how Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God and still one person. And is this person the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, or of Paul, or of the Church, or of the creeds, or the One made known by the Spirit through the Scriptures in the existential situation? And how does the Spirit get into this? We were simply talking about agreeing on Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the “lordship” of Christ raises other creedal constellations far from simple, and, says Paul (1 Cor. 12:3) “no one can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Spirit.” The Scriptures and the Spirit seem somehow essentially related to any simple creedal statement—“Jesus Christ is Lord”—around which we can unite.

The World Council began to venture into a systematic theology when “Jesus Christ is Lord” was changed to “Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.” The idea of “Lord” now has its interpretation defined specifically by the word of “God.” There is no wobbling here over the deity of Christ and, if memory serves, this theological tightening was pressed into the Council by the European churches, American churchmen, at least in worldwide junkets, being generally a little more lenient on such points for the sake of unity. But the addition of the word “Saviour” was the real addition. Now we are by necessity in the doctrine of man (and this means eventually a viewpoint on psychology, sociology, and even democracy vs. communism!) which is saying that man is lost, which means something very definite and very desperate, and man is to be saved from something to something. At the same time the word “Saviour” says something about God. Shall we speak of wrath? satisfaction? substitution? love? The many views of the atonement did not arise because men thought the matter unimportant. Our forefathers, who seemed to take undue pains with theological niceties were surely not motivated by the desire to get together for another committee meeting. And they were not naïve: many of them were very learned and all of them were playing for keeps. In all seriousness they made the discovery that one thing leads to another, that no single truth can stand in isolation. There followed, therefore, by necessity, systematic theologies, systems of ways of looking at things, looking at everything. These were not academic matters: a man could get burned at the stake for getting himself involved in the wrong system. There are differences, the differences are real, and one does not evade the problem by dreaming up a simple statement, because there is no such thing as a simple statement.

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“The World Council will be forced by the nature of truth itself along a road not of their own devising; the organization men feared, and rightly, what theology could do to unity.… They can’t have it both ways: either unity without theology, or serious theology and disunity.”

One bemusing incident along the way illustrative of all this, was the Council meeting in Evanston where an apparently unifying theme, the hope of the world, was to lead to helpful answers on how Jesus Christ is the answer to war, vice, bad housing, and the like. We were to “take the incarnation seriously” (a fine idea being worn to a frazzle in most contemporary Christian literature) and the Christian hope lay in bringing Christ to bear on the totality of life, and of all this I think we all approve. But the theologians from Europe almost ruined everything by making Christian hope something apocalyptic and eschatological. The findings at Evanston became quite wordy as two ideas of hope, for the sake of unity, were wrapped up together. One way and another the findings didn’t have much of an audience and really didn’t give people much more hope in this world and the next.

Recently I sat in on a group attempting to draw up a theological statement for one of the denominational confessional groups and I heard one of our best theologians, rather plaintively, I thought, suggest that possibly we had been tending recently in theological circles to a kind of Christological unitarianism, by which he explained that constant Christ-centeredness (a thing nevertheless to be greatly emphasized) could lead to the neglect of other great truths like the Fatherhood of God and the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit. Exactly. We cannot speak the truth about Christ without being forced into the truth about God, thus the Trinity, and maybe after that such theological specialties as the procession of the Trinity or even infra-lapsarianism.

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So what happened at New Delhi? The so-called “simple” statement “Jesus Christ is Lord” now has trinitarian theology imbedded in it and a fine phrase, “according to Scriptures”—not the “Word,” not “Word and Spirit”; that sort of thing will have to come later. Remember how Luther and Calvin said at first that the “notae” of a church are the word preached and the sacraments administered, but soon had to say the word “rightly” preached and the sacraments “rightly” administered. So now we confess together “the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to Scriptures (that is, “rightly”!) and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling (it’s a long way down that road) to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Truth Separates And Unites

Well, what is my argument with all this? Nothing at all except that they ought to say much more and I believe that they will have to say much more and that when they say the much more they will be creating ground for division and not for unity. All of us have to agree that we see “through a glass darkly,” so we do not see everything and we do not see clearly, but the fact remains that we must be true to what little we do see and we cannot be true to what we do not see. Men and churches get themselves really united around things they see together, and since men and churches do not see everything and do not see clearly, they are not together on all things. The fact of getting together on one thing does not eliminate eventually the built-in divisiveness of truth, at least as men see truth now. The World Council will be forced by the nature of truth itself along a road not of its own devising; the organization men feared, and rightly, what theology and theologians could do to unity. What they feared is beginning to show itself—and inescapably.

One truth leads to another. The simple statement of creed will force a system. The proponents of inclusive ecumenism cannot have it both ways: either unity without theology, or serious theology and disunity.

A word from Donald Day Williams (the italics are mine) seems relevant here:

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It is even necessary to see that the work of the Holy Spirit may create new divisions among men. Christ asserted a new perspective upon life against others. So we may understand the saying about his bringing not peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34). Men have some of their profoundest disagreements over what the Lord requires of them. Consider the divisions among the Christian churches. The Spirit does not blot out such divisions, though in the Spirit we are required to search for the misunderstandings and the sin which is in them. The Holy Spirit will be found where we learn to live in creative conflict, respecting one another’s humanity and faith even where we have profound differences over fundamental issues. (The Minister and the Cure of Souls, Harper and Brothers, p. 131.)

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