visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)The Theme of Humanity and Creation in the Ecumenical Movement
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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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I.C. The Commission on Faith and Order in the Seventies and Eighties

For a while after the study on "God in Nature and History" the subject of creation receded into the background in the work of the Commission on Faith and Order. The Commission was involved in the study undertaken by the Department on Church and Society. It organized the theological consultation in Mexico City (1976) jointly with Church and Society, for example. But it did not carry out any studies of its own on the subject.

One important statement was made in 1978 at the Commission Meeting in Bangalore on the theme "Giving Account of Hope." One of the working groups dealt with the question of how the Christian hope could be asserted in the dialogue and encounter with science, the report being intended as a contribution to the World Conference in Boston.

The text says that faith and science each have their own way of asking questions and understanding. They are complementary rather than in competition with one another. "The scientist in his professional capacity does not ask questions which look for purpose. Some actions, for example in biology, may look purposeful, but they do not require explanations involving purpose. The presence of purpose in the development of the universe cannot be read off directly from science. It is, however, a permissible interpretation of the data, if anyone should choose so to interpret them... For the theologian, on the other hand, the idea of purpose is a central conviction which is not derived from the observation of the natural world, but from the history of the acts of God. It is an anthropocentric statement, focused on human destiny, not on the natural history of the cosmos." [Bangalore 1978. Sharing in One Hope, Faith and Order Paper 92, p. 158.]

Some people found this view simplistic -- Charles Birch described it in Boston as the "disjunct view of faith and science." Why should the nature and intention of God be observable only from history?

The Commission on Faith and Order returned to the theme of creation from a new standpoint in the eighties. It had been decided at the Commission meeting in Bangalore to set up a study on the "Apostolic Faith," for which the chosen starting point was the Nicene Creed, as the fundamental statement of the faith recognized by all the churches. The intention was the bold one of attempting an explication of this text for our times. The theme of creation was dealt with extensively in this context.

The text is characterized by its strong affirmation of the trinitarian faith. The Commission on Faith and Order shows that the trinitarian understanding of God is the essential precondition for a proper understanding of God's relation to the world as his creation -- an emphasis of some importance in view of later developments in the World Council of Churches: "The one God both transcends and is present in his creation. Moreover each divine person, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, of the one God participates in both this transcendence and this immanence. When Christians speak of God's works concerning creation in relation to the divine persons, they should always insist that the three persons fully participate in that work... The not only made for use by mankind: God the creator rejoices in his work; all humankind shares in this joy and in some way perceives the eternal power and deity of God in his work.... All this means that the entire creation, through the presence and activity of the Triune God in it, is full of his glory and in the end will be transformed by participation in God's glory. Therefore, in Christian Trinitarian perception, creation is not to be seen in any sense as standing apart from God, as the deistic view asserts, nor confused with God, as the pantheistic view claims. Rather, creation though other than God, and still in bondage to decay and groaning in travail can be properly understood only in relation to God as its creator, redeemer and sustainer."  [Confessing the One Faith, Faith and Order Paper 153, p.38 f. ]

The text stresses that this view necessarily implies the ethical obligation to preserve the creation. "In Jesus Christ God has acted to save creation." The renewal of humanity therefore naturally also includes responsible stewardship of creation. The environmental crisis is mentioned, but it is obvious that the members of the Faith and Order Commission were much less exercised by it than the people responsible for the work of the Department on Church and Society. With relatively unshaken confidence they speak of the human calling to bring creation to its fulfilment. "Understood in its true context and meaning, the biblical command calls human beings to become co-operators with God's work and to preserve and consummate his creation.... Women and men are continuously set free to rediscover and renew their stewardship in relation to God's creation." [Ibid. p. 41.]

To Beginning of Document

II. New developments in the eighties

The Church and Society study came to an abrupt end with the World Conference in Boston (1979). Its findings played little part in the preparations for the Vancouver Assembly (1983) and were mentioned only briefly at the Assembly itself. [Gathered for Life. Official Report, Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Vancouver. Geneva 1983, pp. 77-78.] Nor were the threads of the earlier study picked up at a later date. Initiatives of the eighties were on a different level.

II.A.The Conciliar Process of Mutual Commitment to Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation

The Vancouver Assembly (1983) called emphatically on the churches to make a common commitment to justice, peace and the integrity of creation. In view of the extreme levels of nuclear armaments during those years it laid particular stress on peace-keeping in its statements. In one text, which was subsequently to become important, it also called for a commitment to the "integrity of creation." [Ibid. p. 225.] It is not clear from the Assembly report just how the formula "justice, peace and the integrity of creation" came into being. It was not the result of any real debate, nor was it ever knowingly adopted by the delegates. (It is not even mentioned in the index of the Vancouver Report!) It was not until after the Assembly that it began to attract attention. The idea of a "conciliar process" in which the churches would

join together in a common commitment to justice, peace and the integrity of creation met with an unexpectedly enthusiastic response in many churches, especially in the northern hemisphere, and particularly in 1984, after the German Protestant Kirchentag in Düsseldorf had spoken of the need for a "Council for Peace." For a long time the WCC was uncertain what to do about its own proposal and decided only after long hesitation to take steps to put it into effect. After a difficult preparatory period the World Convocation for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation finally took place in 1990.

Four aspects of the conciliar process are important in relation to our theme here:

II.A.1.All the statements made in the course of the process assume the urgency of the situation. Time is short. If the necessary measures are not taken soon the very survival of humanity is in danger. "We live in a moment of extreme jeopardy. Human activity is slowly closing down the life support systems of the planet." [Pre-Assembly Consultation in Kuala Lumpur 1990, Ecumenical Review XLII, 1990, p. 313.] Something must be done. All forces prepared to defend life must be mobilized. The churches have the task and duty to draw attention to the impending danger and call for conversion before it is too late.

II.A.2.Two concepts which have played an important role in Christian tradition were enlisted to underline the urgency of the task. On the one hand it was said that it was important for the churches to call to mind God's covenant with his people and find an appropriate common response to it and, on the other hand, echoing Dietrich Bonhoeffer's suggestion in the thirties, there was talk of convening a council for peace. However clear the intention, the use of these two -- theologically and ecclesiologically loaded -- terms led to almost insurmountable complications. Instead of increasing the enthusiasm for common action they sparked off an interminable discussion on the legitimacy of using them.

II.A.3.The linking of the three concepts of justice, peace and creation was a way of expressing the fact that in our commitment for survival we must never lose sight of all three aspects. The crisis in which we find ourselves cannot be reduced to one aspect only. Commitment to justice and peace always has to go hand in hand with commitment to the preservation of creation, and vice-versa. Concern for the environment cannot be divorced from the commitment to justice and peace. In this respect the "conciliar process" anticipated something of the perspectives that were later to underlie the UN Conference on "Environment and Development" in Rio de Janeiro. All in all, however, it did not get beyond the general statement that Christian commitment had to be maintained in all three areas at once. The conciliar process did not manage to clarify how exactly the link can be established.

II.A.4.The sense of urgency concerning the issues meant that the conciliar process concentrated first and foremost on describing the dangers and urging the need for immediate action. Important as further research and theoretical reflection are, the practical measures that must be taken here and now cannot be postponed. As was rightly stressed, the change of direction must begin before it is too late. The conciliar process therefore deliberately addressed itself to the people at the "grass roots" and allowed itself to be guided by the idea of "resistance from below." There is no doubt that this way of doing things brought movement on more than one front. It is largely thanks to the conciliar process that consciousness of responsibility for the future could take root in the life of local congregations. The weakness of the process lay in the fact that because of the concern over the implications of the impending dangers, no consistent reflection took place on theology and society. Demands were made without any indication being given of the kind of society that would be needed in order for them to be realized. The conciliar process was unable to suggest any practical solutions and consequently did not really get beyond the stage of issuing exhortations.

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