Aagaard, Anna Marie, and Peter Bouteneff. Beyond the East-West Divide: The World Council of Churches and "the Orthodox Problem." Geneva: WCC Publications, 2001. Reviewed by Don Fairbairn
Since its inception in 1948, the World Council of Churches (WCC) has struggled--and failed--to live up to its name. The Council is not representative of all branches of Christendom: neither the Roman Catholic Church nor most Evangelical denominations are members. Since 1998 an additional crisis has emerged, as the Bulgarian and Georgian Orthodox Churches have left the WCC and other Orthodox groups have threatened to do so. This book, written collaboratively by American Orthodox theologian Peter Bouteneff and Danish Lutheran theologian Anna Marie Aagaard, lays out the major reasons for Eastern Orthodox ambivalence toward the WCC and a possible avenue for further collaboration between the two.
Bouteneff explains that the Orthodox understanding of the Church makes participation in the WCC tenuous at best. The Orthodox communion sees itself as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, from which all other churches are separated to a greater or lesser degree. As a result, the Orthodox demand that any true unity between the scattered churches involve the sharing of the Orthodox faith (with the Nicene Creed at the center of that faith) and the sharing of a common order (the apostolic succession of bishops stretching from the apostles to the present). Bouteneff argues that from an Orthodox point of view, churches cannot worship together until they have this common faith and common order.
Aagaard argues that in spite of different Orthodox and Protestant understandings of the Church, they do have a common worship that can be the basis (or at least the starting point) for real unity. This common order, she argues, arises out of the worship of the early Church, based on the pairing of Word and sacrament, preaching and Eucharist. This twofold pattern of worship, so obvious in Orthodox and Roman Catholic circles and also present in many Protestant traditions, is the basis for Aagaard's assertion that we have a united Christian worship.
What is not reflected in this book, of course, is an Evangelical Protestant perspective. I would like to comment briefly on two ways in which such a perspective might contribute to Bouteneff and Aagaard's discussion. First, Evangelicals agree with Bouteneff that there can be no true unity if there is not a common faith. Yet many WCC churches do not affirm the Trinity or the personal deity of Christ in the way that both Orthodox and Evangelicals understand these central truths. At the same time, Evangelicals will be quick to point out that the Nicene Creed, affirming the Trinity and Christ's divinity, is an occasional document, written to deal with particular heresies, not intended as a comprehensive statement of faith. Evangelicals affirm crucial aspects of the faith about which the Nicene Creed is silent (God's free acceptance of sinners at the beginning of faith is one that comes readily to mind), and insist that true unity among churches would require agreement on these aspects of faith as well.
Second, from an Evangelical perspective, both Bouteneff and Aagaard concern themselves with matters of structure, as if structure were the path to unity. Bouteneff insists on a unified church order (an apostolic succession of bishops). But if such a structure is so essential to the nature of the Church, why is the New Testament virtually silent about it? The pastoral epistles, of course, show enormous concern for the character of church leaders, but comparatively little concern for their functions and interrelationships. Aagaard insists that a common order or structure of worship (Word and sacrament) is crucial to unity. What she writes here serves as an important reminder to those Evangelicals who have forgotten the importance of sign or sacrament. But surely such structure will not provide a basis for true unity. If all churches were to have a common governmental system and a common order of worship, that would constitute only the superficial appearance of unity. Structure cannot bring about unity when there is no common content of faith.
Evangelicals believe that at the center of any real unity lies doctrine, not structure or worship, as important as they are. Worship is the central activity of the Church, but a unity of worship can be achieved only when we are clear and united about who is the God we worship, about what He has done for our salvation, about what He is doing in us, among us, and through us. A genuine search for unity among the churches must be concerned not primarily with ecclesiology or structure, but with theology proper, christology, pneumatology, soteriology. Such a search must look at the varied language we use in different churches and seek to discover whether we actually do believe the same thing about God, humanity, and salvation. Only in this way can we grasp the degree to which we are united or divided. Real unity is not something that human beings can forge; it (or its absence) is something we can only discover.
Don Fairbairn is associate professor of historical theology and missions at Erskine Theological Seminary, Due West, South Carolina.
Book Review, East-West Church & Ministry Report 12 (Spring 2004), 14-15.
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