Ecumenism September 1, 2017

David Nelson and Chad Raith (both friends of mine) offer a concise, lucid guide for those perplexed by Ecumenism.

After an opening chapter defining ecumenism, the book traces the history of the ecumenical movement from its origins in the early twentieth century through the epochal shifts of the 1960s (Vatican II above all) to the present. Along the way, they stop to examine some of the key achievements of the ecumenical movement (the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, e.g.).

Part II confronts several recurring issues within ecumenism: How to deal with “basic differences”? What is meant by “reception” in an ecumenical context? A final chapter summarizes and rebuts a number of the main critiques of ecumenism that have been posed through the past century plus.

As the authors say in the introduction, their attention to Evangelical contributions to ecumenism sets their book off from most books on the subject. It’s almost a truism that certain strains of Evangelicalism defined themselves over-against ecumenism. Nelson and Raith show that it was not always so.

“Modern ecumenism would be unintelligible,” they write, “apart from the contributions of evangelical Christianity” (78; the chapter is from Raith). Evangelicals were favorable toward the World Council of Churches when it was proposed in 1946. “Lesslie Newbigin played a leading part in the discussions at Amsterdam and served as ‘chief drafter’ of the description of unity adopted by the WCC at New Dehli in 1961.” At a conference in 1966, no less a personage than Harold Lindsell “reminded participants that the modern ecumenical movement was in fact ‘evangelical in origin'” (79).

Relations between Evangelicals and ecumenists frayed as evangelism gave way to social justice in the ecumenical agenda. Still, “Even when the relationship between evangelicals and mainline ecumenism began to demonstrate the weight of severe strain in the 1950s and 1960s, a number of leading evangelical Anglicans such as John Stott, Lesslie Newbigin, and J.I. Packer kept an evangelical presence at the mainline ecumenical table” (79).

Stott spoke at the fifth assembly of the WCC in 1975, criticizing the Council because “evangelism has now become largely eclipsed by the quest for social and political liberation” (79-80). Still, Stott resisted calls from Martin Lloyd-Jones for evangelicals to separate from the ecumenical movement, and was instrumental in “encouraging evangelicals to stay ecumenically engaged within their present ecclesial communities” (79).

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