Essays on the History and Future of Ecumenical Theology
- ISBN: 9781532618888
- Published By: Wipf and Stock Publishers
- Published: April 2020
The essays in Generous Orthodoxies: Essays on the History and Future of Ecumenical Theology examine the style and substance of theologies that advance unity among Christian churches and traditions. The “generous orthodoxies” of the title, a term originated by Hans Frei, signal commitments to giving and receiving across confessional, cultural, intellectual, and disciplinary boundaries, while remaining centered on the core beliefs of the tradition.
The book consists of sixteen essays, organized into four sections. In each chapter of the first three sections, the work of a single theologian is explored in the context of personal biography, and with reference to developments in church and culture. Part 1, “Ecumenical Reform Theologies,” examines Yves Congar, Edmund Schlink, Otto Hermann Pesch, George Lindbeck, and John Zizioulas. The benefits of engaging the complex theological and ecclesiastic landscapes through the lens of a single theologian are on good display in the chapter on Congar by Andrew Meszaros, who explains how Congar’s theological account of degrees of ecclesial incorporation, rooted in common baptism, enabled Catholic theology to go beyond an all-or-nothing approach in relation to other Christian traditions and ultimately join the ecumenical movement. While Congar is shown to have not transcended the “ecumenism of return” assumptions of the Catholic theology in which he was formed, Congar’s own dispositions of humility and patience nevertheless exemplify the posture needed for genuine ecumenical engagement.
Part 2, “Overcoming Liberal-Conservative Polarities” (on Hans Frei, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Stanley Grenz), and part 3, “Boundary Crossing in Philosophical, Systematic, and Ethical Theology” (on David Tracy, Robert Jenson, Stanley Hauerwas, and Marilyn McCord Adams), are essentially on theological method. While these thinkers were less engaged in institutional ecumenism than those in part one, the contributors show how each developed an approach to theology that enabled them draw from sources and speak to constituencies beyond those available to previous generations.
The thematic essays in part 4, “Ecumenical Theology Today,” explore Pentecostalism, shifting ecumenical paradigms, interreligious dialogue, and Lutheran engagement with doctrinal ecumenism. Wolfgang Vondey’s chapter on Pentecostalism helpfully shows how that tradition’s quest for renewal brings insights from the margins for the benefit of a wider Christianity, which stands in some contrast to a more general revivalism that cannot be sustained sociologically. The very brief chapter by Michel Amaladoss points to how an ecumenical theology in India arose in response to the pastoral demands for interreligious encounter.
This book was not what I was expecting. Despite signals in the subtitle, foreword, introduction, and back cover, the volume is not really about ecumenical theology as developed in multilateral and bilateral dialogues, progress between churches, debates about forms of unity, or even theological concepts such as koinonia (communion), save brief discussion in the Zizioulas chapter which themselves emerged from inter-church discussions. The focus on individuals helpfully locates theologies in particular contexts but risks advancing a “great man” (and one woman) approach to Christian unity, driven forward by ideas and books.
If this volume reflects the future of ecumenical theology, that future is strangely disconnected from actual churches. (The chapters on Pentecostalisms and interreligious dialogue in India are partial exceptions, though they are still focused primarily on the conditions for “right belief,” orthodoxy is a narrow sense.) To take one example, in the essay on Pannenberg, which in itself is a helpful overview of key themes in his oeuvre, the author claims that the “way in which Pannenberg discusses the filioque problem shows how he employs Scriptural exegesis to solve dogmatic questions and controversies” (127). Of course, regardless of the brilliance of Pannenberg’s approach to the filioque (the issue of the addition of the phrase “and the son” to the Nicene creed), as an ecumenical controversy, it is not one that can be solved in a scholar’s study. In part this is because divisions between East and West are not only about the filioque as a theological problem, but about faith communities which have embodied and entrenched a range of differences over time that might be epitomized by the filioque controversy, but not reduced to it. This chapter and others do not explore why have such “solutions” have not really been received by the churches, nor which conditions might facilitate reception.
Furthermore, how have political and ethical differences inhibited mutual understanding? How does the logic of markets shape how churches articulate their identities and difference? In their focus on right belief and the world of ideas, what do the contributors imply about the capacity for shared service and witness for justice and peace to shape ecumenical theology, let alone advance actual Christian unity? Johanna Rahner’s chapter on future ecumenical challenges names several of these issues, but with limited space cannot develop the tools necessary to think through how the important methodological insights of the theologians discussed in this book might be integrated for the sake of ecumenism on the ground.
Overall, it appears that a framework of “generous orthodoxy”—the willingness to engage seriously and charitably with thinkers from other Christian traditions—serves as the standard by which most of the contributors assess the significance of key theologians, rather than criteria that might be more specifically defined by the ecumenical movement. This is an observation, not a criticism. Not all boundary crossings need to be ecumenical impulses in order to have value. Even with this reframing, the book would have been strengthened by greater (that is, more generous!) representation of the voices of women, LGBTQ+ persons, persons of color, liberation theologians, and those who more deliberately pushed the boundaries of received doctrine. Nevertheless, the chapters assembled here are a positive and welcome recommendation of a “generously orthodox” theological method.
Jeremy M. Bergen is associate professor of religious studies and theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.Jeremy M. BergenDate Of Review:January 31, 2022