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Faith and Order yesterday, today and tomorrow

Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon sets out the context of Faith and Order and proposes some particular challenges emanating from his perspective as a modern Orthodox scholar of church history and theology.

11 August 1995

by Metropolitan JOHN (Zizioulas) of Pergamon

This paper was prepared for a Faith and Order consultation with Younger Theologians held at Turku, Finland, 3 - 11 August 1995.

I. The Heritage

Faith and Order was born as a Movement within the Ecumenical Movement of our time. Its counter-part bearing the name Life and Work contributed, to some extent, to the formation of its identity: Faith and Order was supposed to deal with theological-theoretical concerns, while Life and Work was supposed to be of purely practical orientation. This dichotomy between "faith and works" - familiar to the Western Church already since the Reformation - was itself questionable and problematic. The formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948 as a merger of these two movements has helped a great deal the overcoming of this dichotomy. Yet, the specific identity of Faith and Order was retained even after the formation of the WCC. It is an identity constantly requiring re-affirmation and re-definition. For it is never absolutely clear to most people's minds what Faith and Order is and what it is not, particularly in relation to other manifestations and activities of the Ecumenical Movement.

It is a widespread assumption, particularly among the Orthodox, that Faith and Order is a platform of theological debate, usually understood in terms of comparative theology. It is also widely assumed that Faith and Order's specific task is to promote Christian unity, as if Christian unity had little or nothing to do with the other areas of ecumenical activity within the WCC. The departure from the comparative theological method after 1952 (Lund) and the emphasis on what has been called "horizontalism" in 1968 (Uppsala) have thrown into confusion the identity of Faith and Order. If theology is not to be understood in a comparative way, how should it be understood in an ecumenical context? And if theology is in the final analysis nothing but a servant of the Church's task to respond to social issues (horizontalism), what would the importance of Faith and Order amount to, given the fact that its function is basically a theological one? Furthermore, if the main task of the WCC is to deal with social issues, what would be the position of Faith and Order in the scale of priorities of the WCC, given that its main task is, in accordance with its constitution, to promote Christian unity?

All this resulted in a critical situation for Faith and Order. I happened to work in the Secretariat of Faith and Order as a young lay theologian precisely at that critical period (1968-1970). Two things stand out in my mind from my experience of that time. One is the restructuring of the WCC and the incorporation - with a clear danger of absorbtion - of Faith and Order into what was named "Unit I". Faith and Order had to struggle to survive as a particular identity in the new structure. The other thing was the apparent difficulty to relate the rich and extremely important theological projects of Faith and Order to the rest of the work of the WCC in an organic way. Studies on the Holy Spirit, the Council of Chalcedon, Worship, the Councils, etc. stand out as Faith and Order achievements of that time which never found their way into the broader WCC work. It was also at that time that we experienced the rise and fall of the idea of conciliarity as a tool for ecumenical progress.

This period was followed by certain developments that have marked the work of Faith and Order ever since. One of the interesting, though perhaps not so significant, things that happened was that the Orthodox came out strongly in support of Faith and Order in whose integrity - structural and otherwise - they tended to see the protection of the church unity issue and of theology in general from the danger of "horizontalism". The other and by far more significant thing was the full membership of the Roman Catholic Church in Faith and Order, which started as a result of Vatican II but began to show its significance and fruits only later on. The impact of Roman Catholic participation in Faith and Order was both psychological and theological. Psychologically many people, including the Orthodox, saw in this participation a strengthening of their concern for the issue of church unity and of theology over against what came to be regarded by them as an enemy, namely "horizontalism". Theologically on the other hand it became gradually clear that the agenda of Faith and Order and its impact on the WCC as a whole would be marked by this fact in a considerable way.

Yet, these were nothing but external, albeit not insignificant, circumstances. The essential and decisive developments that marked Faith and Order ever since, constituting as it were the heritage bequeathed to the younger theologians interested in its work, are related to the themes that have dominated it ever since Nairobi. It is to these themes that we must turn our attention now.

First of all, it was the emphasis placed by Nairobi on the local Church and on visible unity. Nairobi clarified the vision of the Ecumenical Movement and the WCC in its historic definition of the unity of the Church as local churches visibly united. This vision of unity made it clear that it is not enough for the Christians to unite in the struggle for social issues; they must not abandon their efforts to unite in church structure, ministry, sacraments, confession of faith, etc. All this placed Faith and Order at the very centre of ecumenical work, for it was mainly through this instrument that such a vision and goal would have to be promoted.

Secondly, as a result of this direction Faith and Order was in a position to put forth work done over decades and leading to what is now known as the Lima document of BEM. The importance of this document is universally acknowledged, even by those who have reservations as to certain points of it. What we should stress here is that this document has not exhausted its significance with the passage of time. It is a starting point on which Faith and Order will have to build in the future. We cannot go back to the situation before it; we can only go beyond that. Particularly issues relating to ministry, among them thorny ones such as apostolic succession and episcopacy, will have to be tackled by the new generation of theologians on the ground and with the potential provided by this document. Baptism as a basis of Christian unity will also have to be acknowledged in all its implications.

Thirdly, we have the project of the credal confession of the Apostolic faith, This project supported particularly by Lutheran theologians, satisfied the concern of the Orthodox to take seriously into account doctrine as formulated by the Fathers of the Church and the Ecumenical Councils. We cannot be truly united unless we are able to confess the same faith in a creed accepted by all. This, of course, leaves open the question whether we can express the same faith in more than one creed. Such a question calls for further work on hermeneutics, and this seems to be a task lying before the new generation of Faith and Order theologians. It constitutes, however, an important beginning to be able to acknowledge in common that the Creed of Nicea-Constantinople, on the basis of which a great part of Christendom finds its unity, is not objected to as a confession of faith by the rest of Christians in the WCC at least.

Finally, we have the emergence of the theme of koinonia as a key idea in ecumenical theology. On the significance and the implications of this theme I had the opportunity to say something in my address to the Faith and Order World Conference in Santiago de Compostela two years ago. It would be unnecessary to repeat here what I said at that time. The important thing in my view about this concept of koinonia is that it provides us with a key to deal with almost every ecumenical issue in a theological way based on a common faith on God as Holy Trinity. Thanks to this key-concept we can interrelate subjects such as Christology, Pneumatology, anthropology, ecclesiology, etc. in an organic way. This concept can help us tackle issues such as Church ministry, primacy, mission, etc. in faithfulness to our Trinitarian and Christological faith and in openness to the concerns of human beings in social and everyday life. With the help of this concept we can liberate Faith and Order from its bondage to a "theology" which concerns only a cast of academics and clergy, and remains indifferent and irrelevant to practical matters and existential concerns. Thus, the potential of such a concept for the Ecumenical Movement can be almost inexhaustible, and in any case quite exciting, I believe, for the generation of younger theologians.

II. The new challenges

The above brief review of the Faith and Order heritage so far makes it clear that the original comparative and confessionalistic approach to the problems of Church unity belongs definitely to the past. We cannot proceed by erecting fences of confessional defensiveness. This is dictated not only by the history of Faith and Order but by the new challenges of our time, to which the Christian Church must respond, if it is not prepared to become marginalized in history. For one of the fundamental questions that the new generation of theologians will be raising to us is, I would expect, the question of the broader cultural relevance of the work of Faith and Order. What relevance does Faith and Order work have for this period in history in which we live? To what extent 16th and 17th, or even 4th and 1st century theological debates are meaningful today? For even if divided Christians manage to reach agreement on issues of the past, their unity will leave indifferent the rest of the world if it is not relevant to the challenges of the time. I happen to belong to a tradition shaped by the Greek Fathers, and I cannot overlook the fact that the theology of these Fathers transformed the culture of their time. This makes me feel deeply sorry and disappointed when I come across my contemporary fellow-Orthodox who, usually in the name of faithfulness to the Fathers (!), refuse to open up theology to the challenges of our culture. It is indeed tragic that in the name of faithfulness to those who were bold enough to introduce the unprecedented and non-biblical "homoousios" to the Creed we refuse to day to apply hermeneutics to tradition, thus condemning it to cultural irrelevance. Faith and Order, and for that matter Christian theology as a whole, will soon become irrelevant and marginalized, if it does not wrestle with traditional questions by trying to respond to them in a way that would be meaningful to the challenges of our culture. This requires creative theological minds and a hermeneutical approach, and it is a most encouraging and welcome sign that hermeneutics has become part of Faith and Order work, which should be applied not only to Biblical and textual material but to all tradition as well.

This means that we must be prepared to open up the frontiers of theology to other sciences and cultural concerns. At a time when all sciences realize that they cannot operate as closed units any longer, theology cannot afford to remain indifferent to the challenges coming from the non-theological world. Such challenges include those coming from, for example, the natural or the anthropological disciplines to which theology must open up its frontiers. Questions such as the meaning of personhood or the ecological problem must be introduced into the theological problematic of, for example, Trinitarian theology, Christology, Pneumatology, or even ecclesiology. The concept of koinonia in its broader meaning can easily serve as a bridge between the strictly theological and the so-called "secular" or non-theological scientific concerns. Judging from my own Orthodox tradition, I can say that, for example, the Eucharist has had and can still have important cultural significance. It created in the past a cosmological outlook displayed in almost all cultural manifestations, and can undoubtedly provide with the ethos required so badly today in order to face the ecological problem. Would it be going too far, if for example the discussion of the Eucharist in documents such as BEM were to extend to a consideration of the ecological problem? My generation, brought up in the traditional "scholastic" understanding of theology as a compartment containing its own problematic will probably laugh at this suggestion. But I trust that it will not be so with the younger generation of theologians. This would give me hope for the future of theology - and Faith and Order!

If we take the hold step towards such an opening up of theology to cultural challenges, we shall have to take seriously the challenges that other faiths and religions present from the broader perspective of culture. It has been said, not without reason, that the twenty-first century will be a period of clash of cultures. Religion will undoubtedly play a decisive role in this. What is the Christian Church going to do in this case? If we follow the traditional conception of mission, we must be prepared for a confrontation and a battle. This will probably result in a defeat of Christianity because the secular powers that were ready in the past to support our missionary activities will no longer do so, since the State and the Church have distanced themselves from each other for a long time now in our Christian societies. In addition to that, we have come to realize now that whenever Christian missions were supported by Christian States, the result was negative and the reactions of the indigenous peoples almost revolutionary. Christian mission can only be faithful to the Gospel if it is done by way of koinonia, i.e. as an incarnational assumption and transformation of a given culture. Mission can no longer be confrontation and conquest. The trumpet of the Crusader and the aggressiveness of the evangelist will no longer do. Dialogue with other faiths is the only way to avoid the clash of cultures lying ahead. Faith and Order must do that without delay.

But what would the "agenda" be in such a dialogue? Are we going to pass in this case too through a period of "comparative method" only to realize later that it has led us nowhere? I fear that this is going to be the case, but I hope nevertheless that an alternative method might be followed. This method would consist of an approach from the angle of the cultural aspects of the faiths, i.e. by way of debating the cultural consequences of doctrine. I know that such a method would be strongly resisted by conservatives and "evangelicals" on all sides. I fear that the real division awaiting Christianity will be that between "evangelicals" and "non-evangelical" of all kinds (one can already sense a secret "alliance", for example, between evangelicals and certain ultra-conservative Orthodox: both share the same spirit and mentality). Since all religions include "evangelicals" of some kind or other, dialogue with other faiths will not be an easy matter. It is nevertheless an imperative stemming not simply from expediency (avoiding the clash) but from the very nature of the Christian faith.

III. The task ahead

All that has been said so far makes the task of Faith and Order look formidable. Fortunately it is not a task that would require a revolution in the actual work of of Faith and Order but a deepening and an extension of it to broader and more creative endeavours. (We would not need "younger" theologians if this were not the case.) In summing up the previous remarks and observations, we can now underline the following points:

(a) Faith and Order is and must remain a theological enterprise. It must always employ the best and most creative theologians of all traditions. But the adjective "theological" must no longer point to a closed and self-sufficient discipline. Theology must open up its frontiers and become meaningful and relevant to culture.

(b) The unity of the Church must remain at the centre of the Faith and Order's work and it must continue to concern the visible unity in all its fundamental aspects (structure, ministry, sacraments, etc.). But this should not be a unity irrelevant to the lives of human beings - Christians as well as non-Christians. It should be a unity that would offer the world eschatological, i.e. ultimately hope and meaning. a unity that would have an impact on human existence and culture. We should, therefore, never be satisfied until our agreements on traditional questions dividing us reveal also their broader significance for the life of the world. The balancing of the "unity of the Church" with the "unity of humankind" in Faith and Order work has been very important in this respect. It must be now, however, extended to include concern also for the non-human world, as the presence of the ecological crisis makes it more and more clear.

(c) We must intensify our effort to achieve a common interpretation of the Christian faith with the help of a hermeneutical re-reception of Tradition. This makes it obvious that the notion of reception in its broader sense will have to pay an important role in Faith and Order work. What we began with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed must be continued to cover other aspects of Tradition. It is only in this way that the real difference between Tradition and traditions, proposed by Montreal, will emerge.

(d) The concept of koinonia must be turned into a common tool in all studies of Faith and Order, and even the WCC as a whole. It is a notion that can link up doctrine with ethics, a subject that emerges gradually as a problem that may lead to new divisions in Christianity. Before the evangelical fundamentalists determine what is "ethical" and what is not, we must be ready to work out an ethic based on koinonia and through it on the fundamental aspects of our faith in the Trinitarian God. God as koinonia in His very being, which is what the Holy Trinity is about, has important ethical implications which have not yet been worked out. Ethics is usually determined either by the concept of nature or with criteria of textual evidence in a more or less fundamentalistic way. The notion of koinonia points to personhood rather than nature as the ground on which to decide what is right or wrong, good or bad. I hope that one day Faith and Order will address itself to the notion of personhood as a concept that brings together Trinitarian and Christological doctrine on the one hand and ethical issues on the other. It is also a notion that plays an important role in ecclesiology and through it in our understanding of the unity of the Church.

(e) The subject of ecclesiology will also have to continue and to occupy a central place in the Faith and Order agenda. It is a subject that dominates also many bilateral dialogues, the fruits of which must be taken into account by Faith and Order. Again in this subject the notion of koinonia must play a crucial role. The relation of the local Church to the "catholic" Church has become extremely important especially since Vatican II. It is a subject involving questions of Church structure, ministry, primacy, etc. It is only with the help of the notion of koinonia that these matters can be treated properly. But again ecclesiology should not remain a closed theological or "ecclesiastical" matter. The relation of the Church to the world not only in the sense of humanity but also in its "cosmic" sense is an aspect awaiting exploration, again with the help of the notion of koinonia. The Church exists for the entire creation and not simply for itself or humanity. In this sense the Church does not differ from the Kingdom, since her raison d'etre and her purpose is to be an eikon of the Kingdom and to be identified with it in reality at the eschaton. The study on ecclesiology is bound to reveal differences among Christian traditions and confessions as to what we mean with the term "Church". These differences, lying hidden under the protection of the famous Toronto Statement, will be exposed to the light by such a study. Faith and Order must be prepared to face this in the future, and the idea of koinonia


These are but a few thoughts coming from the "older generation" and submitted to the younger one. Their purpose is to give younger theologians an idea as to where we are in Faith and Order at the moment and where we hope to move in the future. My personal hope and expectation is that the younger generation of theologians will be more provocative and more creative than we have been. It is my conviction that in order to be so the younger theologians need not depart essentially from what Faith and Order has been doing so far, but deepen it and extend it further as they face the new challenges of history. I am personally convinced, and I have tried to show this in my brief paper, that the potential for a creative encounter with the challenges of our time, with which the younger generation of theologians will soon have to wrestle, is already there in the Faith and Order programme. This paper has ventured to suggest some ways in which this potential can be creatively used by a generation of theologians who will be called to relate theology and the Church to new situations and new problems.