Peter Beyerhaus gives his analysis of recent developments in Western Christianity to the FiF Assembly, 1996

IN A HUNDRED YEARS, when the history of the Christian church is written anew, the sixth decade of our present century will most likely be evaluated as one of the great junctures, comparable only with the time of the Reformation and counter-reformation in the 16th century. Remarkable changes were introduced that affected the course of all confessions and denominations throughout the world, some for better, some for worse. I mention just the most significant ones:

1. The Second Vatican Council that brought the RC Church on the course of aggiornamento, opening it both to the quests of the modern world and to the challenge of the Ecumenical Movement.

2. The WCC the conferences at New Delhi 1961, Geneva 1966 and Uppsala 1968 undertook a wholly new orientation, sensitizing Western Christianity to the sociopolitical revolution in the Third World and with the renaissance of the world’s non-Christian religions.

3. The Evangelical Movement regained and even doubled its former strength that had been weakened by the Fundamentalist controversy. At the two congresses in Wheaton and Berlin, both convened in 1966, the evangelicals made impressive efforts towards unifying their forces for world evangelization.

4. The Pentecostal Movement swapped over its sectarian borders and ignited the so-called Charismatic Renewal in virtually all Christian churches, reaching even the Vatican. At the same time the sixties saw events and developments partly in connection with the movements just mentioned partly originating from other ideological cross-currents, events that generated a deep crisis in all sections of Christianity with the exception perhaps of Eastern orthodoxy. I am referring to the new wave of rationalism, which sometimes was called the New Enlightenment.

In the field of theology it caused the appearance of radical types of modernism, expressing themselves in the hegemony of higher criticism and de-mythologization in exegesis and in the formation of fashionable schools of thought like the theologies of secularisation or even of the “death of God”; the theologies of revolution and liberation, which were later followed by the various brands of contextual theologies, by the theology of inter-religious dialogue and by feminist theology. Some of these schools were inspired by neo-marxism and cherished by the New Left which in the wake of the world-wide student revolution conquered the headquarters of many ecclesiastical organs and institutions. It even reached the Headquarters of the WCC in Geneva, which in fact served as a port of transshipment for most of these currents. If you want me to summarize the bewildering multitude of these trends, I would call it the overturn of the basically vertical dimension of the Christian faith into the horizontal. The fundamental concern of modern Christianity changed from the relationship between God and man, the reconciliation between our heavenly Father with his sinful children to the solidarity between man and man, or correctly expressed in new speak: between all fellow human beings. The Kingdom of Heaven in its present transcendental and in its eschatological aspects became overshadowed by the concept of the new humanity, transformed according to the three ideals of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

This short address does not permit me to elaborate on the sources of this complex movement in the history of ideas and on the various hidden or open channels through which they are transported. It must suffice to say that they now determined our intellectual climate, leaving little contrast between the popular concepts and motives inside or outside the churches. For the churches this meant a spiritual revolution that left no stone untouched, no matter whether those stones belong to the foundation, the walls or the spire. It profoundly questioned the classical Christian systems of dogmatics, ethics and church-order, adapting them to the demands and standards of our emancipated modern society. By a breath-taking speed incredible changes were accomplished, introducing into the churches the rationalist dissolution of the Creed, libertinistic sexual behaviours and the democratization of the ministry. These changes were hailed with satisfaction by one section of the church. This group appeared to constitute a growing majority both amongst the clergy and through their influence also amongst the laity. They called themselves the “progressives” and held that this was the only way to render the church relevant for the human struggle towards a just and sustainable world society. On the other hand there were still those Christians and ecclesiastical groups that remained deeply committed to their classical heritage, or rather to the Triune God to whom this heritage bears witness. To them this development appeared to be detrimental, and they observed it with growing anxiety as a deadly threat to the integrity of the Biblical faith and to the saving mission of the Church in a world dying in its estrangement from God.

These concerned Christians were reassured in their familiar convictions by the prophetic ministry of some spokesmen of confessional Orthodoxy, who shared their concerns and raised their voices in the wilderness. They were persuaded that the Lord had called them like Ezekiel to act as watchmen for the House of Israel.

These men very soon drew upon themselves the ridicule and contempt of the modernist theologians and church-leaders. They were branded as traditionalists, fundamentalists and fanatics who tried to reverse the course of history. They were even accused of constituting a threat to justice and peace within church and society. At the same speed in which the established church officials succumbed to the modern trends, it became more and more difficult for those confessional spokesmen – at least in Protestant and Anglican bodies but sometimes even within Roman Catholic dioceses – to find an ecclesiastical platform in synods, church councils and ecumenical assemblies to voice their views. Very few of them were selected for promotion to hierarchic positions. To give one symptomatic example: When the Church of Sweden opened the priesthood for female ordination by governmental decree, only theologians who had subscribed to this new policy. For several decades the Bishop of Gothenburg, Bertil Gartner, was the single exception; but after his retirement in 1994 this last traditional bulwark was demolished. Out of a group of candidates the only non-conservative aspirant was chosen – one who was prepared to ordain women also for this diocese and who, as a re-married divorcee, personally embodied the new sexual morality.

Such appalling discrimination by those in ecclesiastical power did, of course, not diminish but rather increase the confidence placed in orthodox spokesmen by like-minded people in the pew. The outcome was the spontaneous formation of circles in which laypeople, clergy and theologians of unabashedly conservative convictions shared their spiritual concerns and tried to give them a public hearing. Through the communication between these circles soon wider groups were created which would vary in names, numbers and strength, sometimes also according to the specific concerns that brought them together.

In Sweden, for example, the one basic issue that engaged the Church Gathering around Bible and Confession and more lately the Free Synod was and still is the ordination of women. Traditionalist movements within the Roman Catholic Church were started because their members had taken offence at the Novus Ordo of the Liturgy and its trendy popularization, and who pleaded for a return to the Tridentine Mass. In Germany various conservative groups were founded at about the same time, around 1966. The Confessional movement “No other Gospel” voiced its protest against the erosion of Biblical authority by the demythologisation programme of NT scholar Rudolf Bultmann. The Church Gathering around Bible and Confession was concerned about the compromise regarding the Lutheran insistence upon the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion by the Leuenberg Concord between Lutherans and Calvinist denominations, whilst the Protestant Emergency Fellowship protested against politicising the Gospel and synthesising it with Marxist ideas in the Church’s preaching, teaching and acting.

Soon enough, however, it become obvious that those particular distortions of Christian truth and values were, in fact, aspects of one basic attack upon the Church’s faith, ethics and order. In its deepest analysis this assault was waged by the spirit of an anti-divine humanism. From a wider perspective this attack appeared as a systematic strategy which aimed at dethroning Jesus Christ as revealed in the canon of the Bible and testified to by the Church’s creeds and replacing Him by the dominion of the human mind with its quest for self-realization. The ministry of the Christian Church was reconceived by the WCC to assist both at home and world-wide in the restructuring of society towards an seemingly egalitarian new world order. This one-world community, however, even as a utopian dream betrays already a spirit of totalitarianism that bases its legitimacy on the imperative quest for justice, peace and preserving our environment.

It can be shown from the documents of the WCC meetings from New Delhi in 1961 until Canberra in 1991 how the original goal of reuniting the churches for the sake of oneness in faith, worship, witness and service was widened and horizontalised to imply the setting up of a new world community. According to the ecumenical programme of dialogue as presented at the WCC Nairobi Assembly in 1975, even the non-Christian religions and ideologies were to render their contribution to accomplish this goal. The Swedish theologian Folke Olofsson has called these contemporary efforts, which we find both in secular and religious institutions, the “syncretistic project”.

This project, which has not found a unified organizational shape yet, is gradually replacing or complementing the former “secularistic project” of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. I am persuaded that this penetrating analysis can provide us with the hermeneutical clue to understand much of the confusing and agonizing trends in church and society both on a national and on a global scale.

The invasion of the secularistic and syncretistic project into Christianity and the divided reaction of church leaders to it has far reaching consequences to the Church’s life and ministry. There is a deep rift that runs both through the clergy and the constituency at large, although there remains a considerable number of those who have not yet become sensitized to the vital issue at stake.

We had a similar situation in Germany during the national-socialist rule: The German Protestant Church was divided into three sections: Firstly the Nazi infected “German Christians” under Reichsbischof Ludwig Müller, a faction that had the control over several provincial church councils; secondly the Confessing Church under the leadership of Martin Niemöller, a fellowship which claimed to be the legitimate representative of the Reformed Church in Germany, and thirdly the neutral pastors who shunned the dangerous conflict.

During that famous period in German history we had the remarkable situation that under the roof of the established church, which held all the legal titles of ownership and who ran the ecclesiastic administration, there were in fact theologically speaking – two churches, each with its own leadership, clergy and lay constituency. Those churches stood in sharp spiritual conflict against each other, each one denying the ecclesiological legitimacy of the other. Dietrich Bonhoeffer even referred to the classical distinction between ecclesia vera et falsa.

Today many churches, not only in Germany but in fact in most European countries, and especially those with a state church tradition, find themselves in a analogous situation. Many of them are internally divided by a deep spiritual conflict, although they are still united externally by the constitution of their churches, by their legally appointed church government and by sharing ownership of institutions, buildings and income.

But there are significant differences, too, when we compare the situation of the first church struggle in Germany and the present state of affairs:

1. The spiritual issues at stake in the present conflict are far more vital than those around which the battle raged between the German and the confessing Christians. Whilst by that time the main issue was essentially the freedom of the church from Government control and the ideological tainting in the doctrine of general revelation, in the present battle there is not even one central dogma which is not threatened by dissolution through the demythologisation of the New Testament. In fact, the goddess movement in feminist theology even perverts the biblical image of the triune God into the idolatrous conceptions and objects of worship derived from a neo-pagan, naturalist mythology.

2. The conflict cannot be pinpointed by singling out one or two main bones of contention. Confessing Christians find themselves attacked by a great variety of opposing forces, the anti-Christian nature of which is sometimes clearly recognizable, sometimes concealed behind sublime differences in theological formulations. This complex situation makes the battle very enervating and hard to endure by one isolated Christian group left to its own resources. The late presiding bishop of the Evangelical Church in Germany Hermann Dietzfelbinger famously remarked as early as 1971 that Christians today find themselves at the opening of a new faith struggle, in comparison with which the first church battle in the Third Reich was just a skirmish.

3. The German bishop’s saying is proved to be true also by the outer extension of the spiritual conflict. As I said before: The contrasting reaction to the threat of modernism and postmodernity has created a rift that runs through nearly all Christian confessions and denominations. Even within the Roman Catholic Church the popularity gained by modernist theologians like Hans Kung, Eugen Drewermann and Schillebeckx, by the ecclesiastical plebiscites in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy and by the feminist movement even with in American nunneries has caused the Vatican to fear a new church split and the creation of a “third confession”.

That very expression indicates that Rome regards the heretical views held by modernist theologians to be of a severity that matches the deviation from the official catholic dogma represented by the Protestant reformers. In fact it may be asked whether the heterodoxy of present modernists even in papal eyes should not be regarded worse than that seemingly presented by Martin Luther. For recent research in Lutheran teachings and a new evaluation of the Augsburg Confession has led RC ecumenists, including the present pope, to consider a certain rehabilitation of Martin Luther. At his recent pastoral visit to Germany he even called him a reformer:

4. In spite of their spiritual integrity and their doctrinal legitimacy the situation of confessing Christians in the present international faith struggle is much more vulnerable than the position of the Confessing Church in the Third Reich. Up to now they have been satisfied with organizing themselves as opinion movements that publicly voice their spiritual concerns, but who do neither possess nor seek ecclesiastical status. As for their pastoral needs they are still dependent on the parish system, and they do not have any synodical representation that could claim to speak in the name of the true Church. The situation is similar in other European countries, with the exception perhaps of the Svenska Kyrkans Fria Synod, which, however, by its very name still recognises the juridical authority of the Swedish State Church and of its heretical bishops.

This shaky status might be endurable as long as the Established Church allows a certain degree of freedom for confessing Christians to live out their own spiritual persuasions and to seek the ministration of those pastors who share their orthodox views. But in fact these confession minded associations find themselves more and more in a position in which they are marginalized, and excluded from participation in the church’s public events. Moreover: In some countries this situation even shows signs of a beginning persecution. a persecution by those in control of the ecclesiastical boards and institutions. This affects especially those young theologians who are excluded from ordination on account of their view regarding female pastors, priests and even bishops. In Germany we also have cases of clergy who have become defrocked because they followed strictly their own church’s regulation regarding the installation of unbelievers into the office of elder. Our established churches tend to become heretical in their teaching, tyrannical in their discipline and anti-apostolic in their order.

At a recent meeting of evangelical Lutheran and Roman Catholic traditionalists, Bishop Graber (the RC Bishop of Regensberg) drew our attention to the famous ecumenical vision of the Russian Orthodox philosopher Wladimir Solowjew, who in 1899 – shortly before his sudden death – wrote his remarkable “Short Narrative of the Antichrist”. Ever since then I have heard confessing Christians from different churches refer to the same vision when confronted with the vexing problem of uniting the three main confessions within Christianity: The Roman Catholic, the Orthodox and the Protestant churches. Solowjew in his narrative tells us in a blending of prophetic and poetic style about the coming appearance of that ominous biblical figure – ironically enough at a final ecumenical council in Jerusalem – who by his fascinating offer to restore the three historic confessions to their former glory will cause both the final polarization within Christianity and its re-unification at the same time, a re-unification in a contradictory way: There will be majority groups from each of the three confessions who enthusiastically hail this religious world ruler as the true Saviour of Christianity, and who by accepting his offer find their corporate unity in their loyalty to Him as their sole protector. At the same time there will be three minority groups within those confessional blocks – each one represented by a symbolical reincarnation of the three Apostles Peter, John and Paul – who by spiritual discernment realize the fraud of his offer and recognize Him as the predicted Antichrist. In the moment, when the wrath of him turns against them, they also realize their basic oneness amongst themselves that consists in the unfainting loyalty to the biblical Christ, who is the eternal Son of God incarnate in the Son of Mary. Thus the utter persecution of Christianity will be the fiery test by which the genuineness of faith in its threefold confessional expression will be revealed and realized in the unification of the true flock of Christ.

To us in our meeting at Regensburg it appeared that this narrative contains not just a wishful dream, a utopian vision. We found in it a wisdom and reality, which we were already experiencing in our spiritual communion and in our common concern and witness.

May God help us that in our present quest for true unity we need not wait until the final day, but that we by discerning the signs of our present time realize the leading of our Lord already now, and that our obedience to it will help to make his prophetic promise come true that ultimately there will be one flock and one shepherd. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches” (Rev 3:6)!

Peter Beyerhaus is Professor of Ecumenical Theology in the University of Tubingen. This article is excerpted and adapted from a paper which he delivered to the 1996 Forward in Faith Assembly.

The paper in full can be obtained from the Director, FiF at 7, Tufton Street, London SW1P 3QN on the receipt of a stamped addressed envelope (Size A5)

It is the first of a series of such papers and addresses which will be available as a result of the Christ Our Future Conferences in July 1997, 1998 and 1999.

Details of those Conferences and of the availability of papers will appear with New Directions in January 1997