The ecumenical structure, if it is to have any solidity, must be built on a sound theological basis. Of this fact we have fittingly been reminded by two distinguished European theologians, Bishop Gustav Aulén and Professor Wilhelm Niesel, in books which have appeared in recent months. The voices of these scholars will command not only respect but also, it is to be hoped, response, for their approach is one of depth as they earnestly address themselves to the present ecumenical situation. The value of their contributions is enhanced by candor in analysis coupled always with charity of temper. The cause of unity is never well served by theological double-talk or evasion of doctrinal issues.
In his book Reformation and Catholicity, Bishop Aulén emphasizes that “the Reformation confession, like that of the ancient church, is a defence of the biblical confession of Christ. Its biblical character is obvious and unquestionable.” It is true that, in contrast to the Nicene Creed, the Reformation confession does not enjoy universal recognition. Is it not presumptuous, then, to designate it as a principal Christian confession? Bishop Aulén replies that the claim is justified “on the basis that it stands in positive agreement with the confession of the ancient church and especially with that of the New Testament.” Indeed, he contends that these “three chief confessions of Christendom” are in reality one: “They are all confessions of Christ as Kyrios.”
He points out that the appeal to the authority of Scripture on the part of the Reformation was nothing new, but was in fact “in line with the constant practice of the Christian church through the centuries.” That the Reformation returned the Bible to its central place in the life of the Church was due to “its clear conception of the Word as a means of grace.” This necessarily involved the restoration of preaching to its rightful function as “a means of grace.”
So far from the transmission of grace being dependent on episcopally conferred orders (valued though they may otherwise be), the Word and the Sacrament do not lose their power if these are lacking. “They have their validity in themselves”; for “it is not the office of the ministry that makes the means of grace a means of grace, but rather it is the means of grace which enables the ministry to function according to the commission and authority of Christ.” Christ, Bishop Aulén explains, “is not and cannot be tied down to any one form of ordination to the ministerial office.”
“There is no such thing as an impartial study of denominations,” Professor Niesel observes in his book Reformed Symbolics: A Comparison of Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. “Ecumenical thinking,” he maintains, “far from making everything relative, requires each of us to take seriously the truth which has found him and to speak frankly about it to the others.” Thus, he sees his task as essentially a critical one: “We must ask the denominations how they respect the Gospel entrusted to them, how they relate themselves to it, and how they communicate it.”
Important in this connection is his insistence that “the Church is a mission or it is nothing at all.” “It stands here on earth in Christ’s stead. Not that the Church itself has to accomplish, extend, or complete His work. It has all been done already by Christ Himself. It is finished. What the Church has to do is to proclaim this news ‘to all men.’ ” On this the Church’s very existence and survival depend, for “the Church is the congregation of those who hear and accept God’s Word.”
Dr. Niesel speaks of “the great scandal caused by the inability of Christendom to sit down together at the Lord’s table”—in large part occasioned by particular theories of ministerial validity, sacramental grace, and “apostolic succession.” But he hopefully asks: “Can unity still be impossible when men submit together to the Word of Scripture?”
Bishop Aulén refers to the common devotional services which are a regular part of ecumenical meetings as having “more than anything else revealed an inner fellowship which no confessional boundaries are able to destroy”; but he calls attention also to the “deep schism” that is apparent at these same gatherings: “Nothing can emphasize more forcefully or more accusingly manifest this schism than the fact that fellowship is broken off at the Table of the Lord.” Recent developments within the ecumenical movement lead one to expect that this scandal will prove to be more rather than less intractable in the future.
How can this impasse be overcome? Certainly, as has been suggested, only by submission to the Word of Scripture. But that submission itself is not a human act. It results from the working of the sovereign Holy Spirit in the hearts of men. And therefore what is needed, and what we should constantly pray for, is a powerful movement of God’s Spirit over the troubled face of Christendom. This will assuredly unite Christians in the truth of the Gospel and also in the fellowship of the Lord’s table.
Because of the respectability and complacency and cheapness of the profession of Christ in our Western world, it may perhaps be that this experience will be recaptured by the Church only in circumstances of persecution. This was the case with Wilhelm Niesel and his fellow believers in Hitler’s Germany when the crushing pressure of the Nazi tyranny closed in from all sides against the Church. It was in these circumstances that representatives of the churches met at Barmen in May, 1934, and drew up the memorable Barmen Theological Declaration. As Dr. Niesel explains, however, this gathering was not concerned with the theoretical formulation of doctrine: “it was concerned rather to testify that in that treacherous time it had heard out of Holy Scripture the voice of the Good Shepherd.”
Barmen was essentially a declaration of the faith which had become so precious—and so crucial—for those who professed it. It was not a matter of bargaining or apology: those present were arrested by “the truth which proves its power in life and in death.” Face to face with this, they were confronted by God himself, present in power in their midst. They “knew that they stood in the presence of this God; they listened to Him and were therefore His people. So in Barmen, and always whenever Christ comes on the scene, it was a question of faith and obedience. At Barmen then there was no negotiating with opponents in order to reach a theological compromise. The faith was simply confessed to them.” We too need to know that inner compulsion which caused the Apostles to declare: “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
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