One of the more provocative addresses at the World Council Assembly in New Delhi was delivered by Dr. G. V. Florovski, who represented the Greek Catholic churches. Speaking at a sectional meeting on Church Unity, Dr. Florovski declared that the Eastern Churches view the whole matter of ecumenicity in a different manner than does Western Protestantism. The Protestant churches, he maintained, begin with the notion of a plurality of churches and from that point proceed to a discussion of their reconciliation; they assume that there are many churches who ought to find each other in unity. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, sees the problem of ecumenicity as a problem of schism. The Orthodox do not consider themselves one of many churches. The Orthodox church must think of itself as the Church. Hence, talks on ecumenicity do not begin with an assumption of a divided Christendom.
The Orthodox church considers itself as the Church which has maintained the unbroken line of succession with the one, undivided Church of the early days of Christianity. For this reason, the Eastern Orthodox churches are placed in a unique position vis-à-vis the ecumenical movement. They make a distinction between ecumenicity in time and ecumenicity in space. The ecumenical Church, viewed from the aspect of time, refers to the one undivided Church of the first few centuries, the Church of all ages, the Church, it is asserted, to which the Orthodox church remains and always has remained true. To this ecumenical body, said Dr. Florovski, the divided churches must return. The churches must come back to their common source, their one origin, back to the fulness of Christian faith and practice.
We are faced in this “ecumenicity in time” with a most pertinent and profound question. This is quite undeniable. For Florovski’s remarks have to do with the continuity of the Church in history. Florovski’s claims for Orthodoxy have their parallel in the pretensions of the Roman Catholic Church, which maintains that the true continuity of the Church is guaranteed by its apostolic character. It seemed to me as though Florovski made the claims of true succession stronger for his own communion than does Rome.
Florovski, however, was not the only strong Orthodox voice at New Delhi. The much younger, Nicos Nissiotes, assistant director of the Ecumenical Institute at Geneva, also had very positive things to say for the Orthodox groups. He talked about the service that has been rendered to the Church of Christ by the Eastern churches. He too emphasized the unbroken continuity of the Church of Christ through the centuries. But he wanted to make clear that he did not mean to repeat the familiar motto often displayed to non-Catholic churches as the key to unity: “Return to Us.” To say this, he confessed, is to deny the work of the Spirit among bodies of baptized Christians during the long periods of the Church’s history. He spoke more softly than did Florovski on the matter of schism. He declined to speak of “schismatics” and chose rather to talk of “the schismatic situation.” Perhaps Nissiotes betrayed the effect of his sustained contacts with Western Protestantism. But whether introduced softly or aggressively, the problem of the continuity of the Church remains one that the divided churches must honestly face.
The Eastern church, after all, is not the only one which is concerned to be the church in unity with the original Church. The churches of the Reformation were not in the least prepared to concede that they were anything other than the continuous Church. The Reformation, it was claimed, did not blaze a new trail for the Church; it was a return to the ancient Church. They identified themselves with the ecumenical councils of the first centuries: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451). The confessions of faith made in these councils were accepted by both Calvin and Luther and played a large role in their theology. Furthermore, both of these reformers were aware that the historical development of the Church had to involve a continuity with the past.
The problem of continuity is really the problem of remaining under subjection to the one Lord of the Church. But, and here lies the crucial difference between Catholic claims and Reformation insight, the reformers never assumed that the continuity of the Church was automatically sustained. They felt far more deeply that the Church in history was always tested by the Gospel. They did not assert: the Church is here and we are the Church, therefore no danger can threaten us in view of the Lord’s promise to abide with the Church forever. This promise, the reformers insisted, could be accepted only in faith, in fear and trembling, and in acceptance of enormous responsibility. Only as long as the Church submitted to the Gospel could it assume the guarantee implicit in the Lord’s promise that the gates of hell could not prevail against it. This is why both Calvin and Luther put the problem of the Church’s continuity in the context of the lordship of the Word of God in and over the Church.
The essence of the Church is involved in this question. Is the continuity of the Church guaranteed under all circumstances or are there real dangers for which the Church must be constantly alert lest it fail to preserve its own continuity with the Church of Pentecost? According to the Eastern perspective, as well as the Roman Hew, the continuity of the Church is rather implicitly guaranteed, an inherent quality of the episcopal office. We get the impression, in their views, of a continuity which is an objective fact. We would prefer to speak of continuity only in the sense of the presence of a living faith and the awareness of a continuing responsibility of the Church to subject itself in obedience to Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).
The Reformed churches have a duty to make clear that they are most serious about the continuity of the Church. The mystery of the Body of Christ extending throughout all ages commands her keen attention. This must be made clear, and unless this remains true of us we are forfeiting one of the characteristics of the Church. But we refuse to think of continuity in terms of an automatic guarantee. Only as the Church remains true to the truth and the love that is in Christ does the Church have a claim on continuity with the Church of Christ. We insist that the offices given to the Church are no reservoir of power that keeps the Church in line with the original Church. Only the Lord has this power.
The Reformation churches must be obviously as concerned about the continuity of the Church as are the Eastern and the Roman Catholic churches. But we must be equally as obviously concerned about this continuity, which is maintained only in the serving and listening Church, the Church under the Word
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