visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)The Theme of Humanity and Creation in the Ecumenical Movement
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by Lukas Vischer

At the time of the 1993 consultation, Dr Vischer was Professor Emeritus of Ecumenical Theology, University of Bern, Switzerland. He was Director of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches from 1961-1979.
Section headings:

dot.gif (101 bytes) Background dot.gif (101 bytes) II.C The Canberra Assembly (1991)
dot.gif (101 bytes) I.A. The Commission on Faith and Order in the 1960s & 70s dot.gif (101 bytes) III. Three Open Questions
dot.gif (101 bytes) I.B The Commission on Church and Society in the 1960s & 70s dot.gif (101 bytes) III.A Sighting the end of human existence
dot.gif (101 bytes) I.C The Commission on Faith and Order in the 1980s & 90s dot.gif (101 bytes) III.B. The meaning of human freedom in the context of faith, service to community, and responsibility for the gift of creation
dot.gif (101 bytes) II.A 1980s Conciliar process of commitment to Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation dot.gif (101 bytes) III.C Breaking limits in striving after life causes death -- first of our environment, and ultimately of ourselves.
dot.gif (101 bytes) II.B Feminist Theology in the 1980s


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To what extent has the subject of creation been taken up in the ecumenical movement? Since the Vancouver Assembly (1983) the World Council of Churches (WCC) has talked about a "conciliar movement for justice, peace and the integrity of creation," and in recent decades it has spoken at length on the aspects of "justice" and "peace." But what about "integrity of creation" ? Can we point to an equally rich and varied discussion in this area, as well?

This is by no means obvious. For a long time the theme of "creation" took a back-seat in ecumenical discussion. Attention focused on the understanding of Christ and his Gospel, on the salvation bestowed by it on humanity, and above all on the church and its unity which had to be shown in a new light. The theme of "creation" is a latecomer to ecumenical discussion.

How did this come about? The reasons are not hard to find. Firstly, in this respect as in many others, the ecumenical movement mirrors the churches. In recent decades the message of the New Testament has been understood in theology first and foremost in terms of interpreting history and human existence in history. In discussion with the exact sciences we have increasingly backed away from the subject of creation. Of course, God continued as always to be confessed as the Creator. But it was taken for granted that the spheres of nature and history were different, not to say even separate and distinct from one another. It was left to the sciences not only to investigate nature, but to interpret it as well. The real relevance of the Gospel was seen in its claim on human beings -- as individuals and as a community. The encounter between theology and the sciences was not seen as an urgent task in the ecumenical movement any more than in the churches.

There was, however, a further reason why the ecumenical movement was not immediately brought face to face with this theme. Its prime concern was, after all, to seek the unity of the church and common witness in the world and in this its starting point was Jesus Christ, the source of salvation. For many years the Basis of the ecumenical movement was formulated in purely Christological terms. "The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess Jesus Christ as God and Saviour..." He is the foundation on which the churches stand. He is the power that can lead them out of confusion and restore their unity once more. "The closer we draw to Jesus Christ, the closer we come to one another," as an early publication of the ecumenical movement puts it. Jesus Christ is also the content of the message the churches have to proclaim to the world.

For a long time the doctrine of creation was not considered urgent because it did not divide the churches. Church unity had broken up over other issues. And even in regard to common witness in the world there seemed to be no immediate need for further clarification of the understanding of creation -- the foreground at that time was occupied by the building of human community in church and in society.

I. The new departure in the Sixties and Seventies

From the beginning of the sixties the picture changed somewhat. After the 1961 WCC Assembly in New Delhi, two lines of reflection began to emerge, one in the Commission on Faith and Order and the other in the Department on Church and Society.  

I.A. The Commission on Faith and Order

At the New Delhi Assembly Professor Joseph Sittler had been asked to give one of the main addresses on the theme "Jesus Christ -- the Light of the World." He tried, on the basis of Colossians 1: 15-20, to present a cosmic Christology, and I can still remember the surprise that greeted his exposition. Reactions ranged from delighted agreement to disapproving frowns. People were not sure whether they had heard a fruitful and forward-looking presentation, or an intellectual exercise. In retrospect, I would say that with that intervention the ecumenical movement crossed an important threshold.

Sittler stated: "In propositional form it is simply this: a doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation. For God's creation of earth cannot be redeemed in any intelligible sense of the word apart from a doctrine of the cosmos which is his home, his definite place, the theatre of his selfhood under God, in corporation with his neighbour, and in caring relationship with nature, his sister." And he quoted Allan D. Galloway: "Unless one is prepared to accept a dualism which condemns the whole physical order as being not of God and interprets redemption simply as release from the physical order, then one is forced to raise the question of redemption, not in contrast with but as an implicate of personal redemption. Physical nature cannot be treated as an indifferent factor -- as the mere stage and setting of the drama of personal redemption. It must either be condemned as in itself evil, or else it must be brought within the scope of God's redemptive act." [Called to Unity, Ecumenical Review XIV, 1962 , p. 178 f.]

Later in his address Sittler added: "The way forward is from Christology expanded to its cosmic dimensions, made passionate by the pathos of this threatened earth, and made ethical by the love and wrath of God." [Ibid. p. 186. ]

The suggestion did not go unheeded. From then on the Commission on Faith and Order began working on the question of how far joint theological reflection on the relation between creation and redemption belonged within the subject of church unity. Before long the work developed into a study entitled "God in Nature and History." Hendrikus Berkhof was one of the moving lights behind this undertaking, and Joseph Sittler was actively involved. In my view, the report, published in 1967, is still one of the more noteworthy texts produced under the auspices of the World Council of Churches. [God in Nature and History in: New Directions in Faith and Order, Bristol 1967, Faith and Order Paper no. 50, Geneva 1968, p. 7 ff.] Presented to the Fourth Assembly in Uppsala (1968), it shared the fate of much ecumenical study work and fell victim to the WCC's short memory, in view of priorities at that time.

The study starts from the assumption that the God revealed in Christ is at one and the same time God of creation and God of history. In the Bible creation and history are related in a special way. "In worshipping a God of history, Israel inevitably developed an attitude to history different from that of religions of the nations around; but her attitude to nature was also different.... Nature is not so much the realm where God is revealed to man, as the realm in which man, created in God's image has to realize God's purpose for his creation." [Ibid. p. 9.] Of the Christ event it says: "The deepest driving powers of history are revealed in the double event of cross and resurrection. The witnesses see history as the battlefield of God with the powers of guilt and destruction. They see how God seemingly yields to this rebellion, but in reality uses it and gears it to his redemptive purpose. They see how God overcomes the resistance and makes grace and life triumph over sin and death... To take seriously the final events in Christ, must also mean that he is confessed as the ultimate secret of creation. The key to the understanding of history must at the same time be the key to the understanding of creation, since both are essentially one." [Ibid. p. 12]

In other words, it defends the thesis that the great drama unfolding between God and humanity in history is also the drama of nature. Nature is included in this history, in a sense, "historicized." God speaks to human beings through history; nature has no voice of its own with which to speak of God. But does this not almost inevitably mean that nature is subordinate to humanity? The study rejects this conclusion. It does stress that although, by virtue of creation, human beings are part of nature, and indeed need it for their survival, they do at the same time have dominion over it. "Man guides and transforms nature. This is an unparalleled event in the age-long history of evolution: the product becomes the leader." [Ibid. p. 18.] But at the same time it emphasizes that human beings may not for all that forget the significance of nature as "their sister." Above all, they must live in the constant awareness that "nature's meaning surpasses man's understanding." "God also has his own relation with nature. The pedestrian way in which the Enlightenment tried to prove that all phenomena in nature are there for man and for man only, has served to prove just the opposite. The very fact that so many phenomena are meaningless and incomprehensible to man, is extremely meaningful, in so far as it teaches him the limits of his knowledge and task." [Ibid. p. 18.]

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