Part II

The discussion among Protestant churches themselves is a matter wholly different from the discussion between the Protestant churches and Rome. All the Protestant churches trace their origin back to the Reformation. Some do this directly, because they came into existence at the time of the Reformation. Others owe their origin to secessions from Reformation churches in later centuries. What caused the division of these Reformation churches is a very complicated matter. Hardly ever was the cause purely doctrinal; so-called non-theological factors nearly always played a decisive part.

More important is the fact that today there is a strong desire for unity in nearly all Protestant churches. This desire has found its most conspicuous form in the World Council of Churches, established at Amsterdam in 1948. At that time the only participants were Protestant churches from Western Europe, America, and South Africa, and some of the younger churches from Africa and Asia. At the Second Assembly at Evanston, Illinois (1954), more churches participated, including some of the smaller Eastern Orthodox churches. And in 1961 at the Third Assembly (held at New Delhi), the Russian Orthodox Church was admitted to full membership.

The admission of the Eastern Orthodox churches clearly shows that the WCC is not a “Reformation” council. Indeed, the Reformation-principle is permanently under pressure, for the Orthodox churches do not recognize it as necessary. Never having gone through the historical Reformation, these churches regard it as an essentially “Western” affair. John Meyendorff, an Orthodox theologian, writes in an article entitled “The Significance of the Reformation in the History of Christendom”: “The historical impermeability of the Orthodox world to the great movement of the Reformation simply illustrates the fact that the theological formulation of Protestantism—at least when it is seen in the light of Eastern Patristic tradition—is fundamentally dependent upon Western Augustinian problematics” (The Ecumenical Review, January, 1964, p. 172). The Eastern Orthodox tradition claims that it does not need such a reformation, for it never fell into the Augustinian heresy of “created grace,” against which Luther and Calvin rightly reacted. The doctrine of “Ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda,” essential to the Reformation, is only partly acceptable to the Eastern church.

It is obvious that in this situation the WCC cannot possibly take the Reformation, in both its historical and its spiritual nature, as its starting point. This does not mean that the Reformation is not taken seriously at all. Already in 1948, at Amsterdam, the report on “The Universal Church in God’s Design” stated as the great difference the difference between Catholic and Protestant. We also know that in the discussions within the WCC, the real questions and problems are not avoided. The different views of the ministry and the sacraments come to the fore again and again. And yet we cannot help wondering whether in these discussions between the Protestant and the Eastern Orthodox churches, the real nature of the Reformation is fully honored. What are we to think of the description given of the Catholic and Protestant views in the report of 1948, referred to above? Of the emphasis usually called “Catholic,” the report says that it “contains a primary insistence upon the visible continuity of the Church in the apostolic succession of the episcopate.” The “Protestant” emphasis, it is said, “primarily emphasizes the initiative of the word of God and the response of faith, focused in the doctrine of justification sola fide.” It is very significant that the Protestant view is called an “emphasis”! Here the existential, all-embracing, and all-penetrating character of the Reformation as the rediscovery of the Gospel of free grace is relegated to the position of one view alongside another view. Within such a context the Reformation-principle is paralyzed and virtually ignored.

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This is even more apparent in the WCC’s refusal to take a stand on present-day liberalism. If there ever was a denial of the Reformation-principle, it is in liberalism. This is true both of the older type of liberalism, which actually regarded Jesus only as the teacher of a new morality, and of the neo-liberalism of our day, as manifest in the theology of Bultmann and Tillich. Admittedly, for the new liberals Jesus is more than a teacher; in the man Jesus we find our “authentic existence” (Bultmann) or the “new being” (Tillich). One can even notice, in their emphasis on faith as “justifying” faith, that these scholars are from Lutheran stock! And yet, in spite of some reminders of their Reformation background, there is nothing left of the Gospel rediscovered by the Reformers. The whole history of salvation, upon which our redemption is built, has evaporated into existential categories. The Incarnation itself, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension—all, we are told, must be demythologized and deliteralized if we are to find their real, existential meaning.

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The Given Unity

Just as Eastern Orthodoxy, this liberalism—in all its variations—has a legitimate place within the WCC. From a certain point of view this is understandable. Does it not have the same legitimate place within many of the participating churches? Personally, we should even be willing to accept this situation, if the WCC were only a platform for discussion among the churches. We should always be willing to enter into discussion with others, even with those who deny the Gospel. But the WCC claims to be much more than a platform for discussion. It claims to be the manifestation of a community of faith. The 1948 report on “The Universal Church in God’s Design” opened with the following paragraph; “God has given to His people in Jesus Christ a unity which is His creation and not our achievement. We praise and thank Him for a mighty work of His Holy Spirit, by which we have been drawn together to discover that, notwithstanding our divisions, we are one in Jesus Christ.” This thesis was reiterated at Evanston and at New Delhi. This “given” unity is the premise of the modern ecumenical movement. Now, we should be the last to deny that there is such a given unity among all true believers and all true churches of Jesus Christ, transcending all denominational divisions. But may one claim this unity as starting point for a council consisting of churches that not only tolerate modernism but sometimes even honor and promote it? Is this the given unity of which Christ spoke in his high-priestly prayer in John 17? Was not that a unity-in-the-word of Christ himself and of his apostles (cf. John 17:6, 8, 14, 17, 20)? The WCC, although it has included a reference to Scripture in its basis, does not uncompromisingly insist on adherence and obedience to this Scripture.

We must therefore conclude that in the present structure of the WCC the Reformation-principle does not play a decisive part. On all sides it is thwarted and paralyzed. The existing structure simply does not permit the Gospel, rediscovered by the Reformers and confessed in the great Reformation confessions, to be the determinative starting point. And this is the reason why we believe that the WCC, as it now functions, will never lead to a truly scriptural unity.

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The same is true of the many negotiations for church union being carried on in our day. They are all patterned after the unity-approach of the WCC. Consider, for example, the present negotiations among the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists in Australia. The first report, submitted by the joint commission under the title “The Faith of the Church,” contains many valuable insights. But again the great antithesis between liberalism and orthodoxy is glossed over. The formulations of the new confession are such that all parties in the existing churches can subscribe to them, for they leave room for various interpretations. There is no frank statement of the Reformation Gospel. Although many good things are said about the Bible, the whole doctrine of Scripture is conceived in a Barthian sense, and “the truly ecumenical doctrine that the Bible is the Word of God,” to quote Hermann Sasse, is abolished.

Perhaps we could state our view in this way: The tragic situation of the modern ecumenical movement, in all its phases, is that it aims at union without preceding reformation, i.e., without the rediscovery of and the return to the Gospel of the Reformation, the Gospel of the sola gratia. We do not wish to be misunderstood. We do not desire a mere repristination or restoration. One cannot set the clock back and repeat history. No doubt, there are certain matters that today would be formulated differently than they were in the Reformation confessions. But whatever may change in our formulations, the Gospel, as rediscovered by the Reformers, is and remains the only true Gospel.

Visible And Invisible

What then is our task as children of the Reformation in our peculiar situation? It is twofold. First of all, we must work persistently for a reformation of our own churches. We should not try to escape into the doctrine of the “invisible” Church. No doubt the distinction between a visible and an invisible aspect of the Church is truly Reformed. But we should never forget that for the Reformers these two aspects always belonged together. As J. T. McNeill has said, “The visible and invisible are not for Luther separate entities. They interpenetrate one another, and, in part, his aim as a Reformer was to give visibility to the spiritual Church of God” (A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1517–1948, ed. by R. Rouse and S. C. Neill, p. 31). Likewise Calvin always keeps the two concepts together. Although the Church is essentially an object of faith and as such invisible (“Credo ecclesiam”), Calvin nonetheless states emphatically that “this article of the Creed relates in some measure to the external Church” (Institutes IV, I, 3). And immediately after that he writes his famous words about the visible Church as “the mother of believers”: “There is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels.” It is obvious that the Reformers would never allow us to escape from our responsibilities towards the visible Church by fleeing into the invisible Church. Nor would they allow us to seek our spiritual comfort and fellowship in interdenominational organizations, such as missionary societies and the like. We are members of the Church, which is the body of Christ. If our own church has deviated from the true Gospel, it is our duty to call it back to this Gospel. We should never weary of this task but, living by this Gospel in true faith, should discharge our task of witnessing to this Gospel with humble faithfulness. And we should do this on all levels, not only on the local but also on the supra-local level. We should realize that we may suffer the same fate as the Reformers, who were condemned by their own church because of their unwavering allegiance to the Gospel of free grace. But is not suffering for the Gospel a part of being a Christian?

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A Time To Say No

But, to turn to the second part of our task, what if our church refuses to listen to this call? What if it persists in misunderstanding and deviating from the true Gospel? Although we loathe the very thought of it, yet we believe that there will come a time when we have to say No to our own church. It should be clear at the outset that we may do this only when we are convinced that God demands it of us. We may never seek it as an easy way out. Separation as a principle is contrary to the Reformation. The Reformers never sought separation; it was forced upon them by the unrepentant attitude of their own church, which refused to obey the Gospel. Calvin, for example, has written sharp words against all capricious separation. But at the same time he refuses to maintain the unity of the Church at all costs. He strongly defends separation from the church of Rome, because the Word “has been destroyed from among them.” Here separation is a duty toward God, for in the Church Jesus Christ must reign supreme through his Word and Spirit.

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It must be admitted, of course, that in the days of the Reformation the issue was much clearer than it is in our day. Many of our churches are more a mixture of truth and error than the Roman Catholic Church of that day. Yet surely neither Luther nor Calvin nor any other Reformer would have tolerated liberalism or neo-liberalism in his church—not to speak of the Catholicizing tendencies in many Protestant churches today.

Separation, however, never means isolation, in the sense of remaining alone, separate from the communion of the saints. It is our divine calling to seek visible unity with all those who call upon the Name of the Lord from a pure heart (2 Tim. 2:22). It is our God-given duty to worship and serve God in the fellowship of all who accept the Gospel. Perhaps such a fellowship at first means tensions and even frictions. There may be many obstacles of a historical, sociological, traditional, or even national nature. But all such obstacles are not essential and may never keep God’s children apart.

Such was the view of the Church held by the Reformers. As Franz Hildebrandt has written, they “never broke away from the church to found their own sects or parties.… These men knew no plurality of churches, and they cared nothing for what Wesley would have called ‘singularities’; they knew only one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, by which they meant the congregation of faithful men where the Word is preached in purity and the sacraments are administered according to our Lord’s ordinance.… This to them was not a matter of new viewpoints versus old but a grim battle of truth against error; Luther, at the end of his life, insisted that ‘we are the true old Church’ of prophets and apostles, known by the seven authentic marks of Word, Baptism, Holy Communion, Ministry, Absolution [i.e., the word of forgiveness], Prayer, and Cross (meaning the suffering Church)” (“Reunion and Reformation, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, June 19, 1964, pp. 3, 4).

Just as there will always be tension between the visible and the invisible aspect of the Church, so there will ever be tension between the aspect of unity and the aspect of truth in the life of the Church. In faith they belong together: “Credo unam sanctam apostolicam Ecclesiam.” For the New Testament apostles, the Church was unthinkable without this oneness and this apostolicity. In utter amazement the Apostle Paul asks the Corinthians: “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). And with the full weight of his apostolic authority he declares: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4–6, RSV). But it is equally clear that in the New Testament the oneness does not qualify the apostolicity but, conversely, the apostolicity qualifies the oneness. There is only oneness in the common adherence to the apostolic Gospel. Wherever and whenever this Gospel is adulterated the New Testament sounds its anathema, and the oneness, though not broken, is denied (Gal. 1:8, 9; Titus 3:10, 11; 2 John 10, 11).

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What happened in the Reformation will happen again and again, when children of God accept the Gospel of the Reformation and show themselves willing to face all the consequences of this acceptance. Indeed, the Reformation is still of the greatest importance for the discussion between the churches. Only the Reformation knows the truly ecumenical nature of the Church, as this is so clearly expressed in Article VII of the Augsburg Confession: “Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. This Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught [purely preached] and the Sacraments rightly administered [according to the Gospel]. And unto the true unity of the Church, it is sufficient to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.”

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