One of the very few modern writers who have discussed in English the Protestant religious history of Strasbourg was struck by its anti-ecumenicity. Franklin L. Ford contrasts the “broad humanity” of the first-generation Reformers there (Martin Bucer in particular, who attempted an amalgam of Luther and Calvin) with “the tightlipped orthodoxy” of the Strasbourg religious establishment in the later sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth century: “the population remaining in the city, once the Judentor was closed for the night, was all Christian and overwhelmingly Lutheran” (Strasbourg in Transition, Harvard University Press, 1958, p. 18).

But the capital city of the Alsace, on the French-German Rhenish border, was too centrally located to remain uninfluenced by diversity. Today Strasbourg, the seat of the Council of Europe, the Common Market, and the European Court of Human Rights, seems an inevitable choice for ecumenical activity. The Lutheran World Federation maintains there its Institute for Ecumenical Research, under the direction of Vilmos Vajta, a transplanted Scandinavian who knows little French but who energetically uses his German and English to promote ecumenical endeavor. Vajta has personally displayed admirable Reformation scholarship; his book, Luther on Worship, is the finest modern treatment of the Reformer’s liturgical convictions. But in more recent years he has edited a number of Augsburg and Fortress Press volumes of theological essays whose loose views of the consistency and reliability of Holy Writ would have caused Luther to throw his proverbial inkwell (The Gospel and Unity; The Gospel and Human Destiny; The Gospel and the Ambiguity of the Church; The Gospel as History).

In July, the LWF’s Ecumenical Institute brought together some fifty theologians and pastors—from as far as South America, East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia—for its Ninth International Ecumenical Seminar, under the significant but hardly fetching title, “New Transdenominational Movements: Their Ecclesiological and Ecumenical Significance.” Normally I would have found it difficult to pry myself loose from the glories of the Alsatian countryside for such a conference, but this one was unique: by “transdenominational movements” Vajta meant the broad theological trends in the present church picture—more especially, the evangelical movement and the social-actionists. Here, finally, was recognition on the continent that evangelical vs. non-evangelical belief could be of greater ecumenical significance than ecclesiastical structures and denominational barriers.

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The opening essay was devoted expressly to the evangelical position. Gordon Landreth delivered it in his capacity as general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance (London). Inevitably the paper began with personal testimony, but (fortunately) it soon proceeded to set forth a clear and winning statement of what evangelicals stand for: the Gospel, the Scriptures, and personal commitment to Christ. “We see ourselves,” emphasized Landreth, “as in the line of Augustine, of Luther and Calvin, of Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley in the English Reformation, of the Puritans, of Wesley and Whitefield.” Landreth noted the impact of evangelical witness both on foreign missions and on social concern, reminding his audience of the dynamic influence of Billy Graham, the Berlin Congress on Evangelism in 1966, and last year’s Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne (Landreth saw to it that the Lausanne Covenant was distributed to each of the participants at Strasbourg).

As a survey of what the evangelical position is, Landreth’s paper could not be faulted. Unhappily, as is usually the case in our circles, the essay was essentially a testimony, not a theological justification or an apologia for the evangelical stand. Landreth could not speak as a trained theologian (before serving the Evangelical Alliance he was with the English Inter-Varsity; before that, he was a British Colonial Service officer in Africa); and the result was that his contribution seemed less sophisticated and compelling than it might have been.

Fortunately, other contributors who shared Landreth’s biblical perspective were able to supplement his efforts. Andre Birmele of the Ecumenical Institute staff did a superlative critique of “action-centered Christianity”—the secular, political, revolutionary theology that “no longer bases its faith and actions fundamentally in the completed act of salvation by God in the world but expects salvation as a result of the actions of men, which represent the dead, absent, or non-existent God.” Birmelé struck powerfully at the loss of the reality of sin and of any serious Christology in such a viewpoint: “Would it not be more correct to talk simply of ‘Jesuology’?” He observed that in action-centered theologians like D. Solle the Scriptures are reduced to “giving pointers for building another world”: they are demythologized—not on a Heideggerian, existential basis as with Bultmann but on a Marxist, political, revolutionary model. In this endeavor to “demythologize them from the standpoint of modern history, so that their political intentions can be more clearly set out,” biblical reality is “bypassed” and theology “misses its goal.”

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Johannes Hempel, an East German Lutheran pastor from Dresden, contributed a paper on “The Role and Function of the Ministry in a Changing Church and Society”; it well demonstrated that persecution and difficulty can act as a refiner’s fire. Against the backdrop of the lofty biblical conception of the ministry set forth in the Augsburg Confession, Hempel noted “the simply impossible diversity and multiplicity of the pastor’s duties today and the expectations made of him”; in light of this, the confessions should establish for the pastor “a catalog of priorities,” so that he will not waste his ministry on unscriptural goals. “The pastor as the ultimately responsible person [in the parish] is the last man who can exempt himself from his work on behalf of the credibility of the Gospel and Christian existence; his personal welfare should come second to this.”

At least one of the concluding discussion-group reports betrayed discomfort at the high standard of biblical orthodoxy in an impressive number of the conference contributions. The report rang the changes on the theme which (in my judgment) is the most fundamental fallacy in non-evangelical biblical scholarship and church life: “The New Testament testifies of diverse christologies and diverse types of primitive Christian communities at the heart of the Church itself.… The Churches have for their essential mission to offer a place of dialog … whereby one can avoid absolutizing the choices.” But the absolute need to confess the biblical Christ came through loud and clear at Strasbourg anyway—praise to the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever!


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