A Guide for the Perplexed

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R. David Nelson, Charles Raith II
Guides for the Perplexed
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , July
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this volume, R. David Nelson and Charles Raith II seek to provide a pedagogical tool that introduces students to the “events, figures, themes, and issues ingredient to a basic comprehension of the field” (vii). While some use the term “ecumenism” to refer more broadly to things like interfaith dialogue, Nelson and Raith refer specifically to the pursuit of Christian unity that sees ecclesial division as a scandal (6–8). They follow Karl Barth in arguing “we are divided within the same faith” (2–3). They argue that ecumenism is not only about theology, but about the shared life of Christians.

Part One sketches the history of the modern ecumenical movement, beginning with the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910 through the first meeting of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam in 1948 (though the chapter also reviews some of Edinburgh’s precursors in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Second, Nelson and Raith explore the shifts in the movement that arose in the 1960s, such as the writing of the New Delhi statement, the merger of the International Missionary Council with the WCC, and the Orthodox Church becoming a full member of the WCC in 1961. They then discuss Unitatis Redintegratioand the Roman Catholic Church’s entrance into the ecumenical movement. Next they discuss two major achievements of the movement since the 1960s: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry(1982), the most significant multilateral statement, and the growth in bilateral dialogues, chief among them the Roman Catholic-Lutheran World Federation Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification(JDDJ; 1999). Finally, they focus upon evangelicalism’s relationship to modern ecumenism. While some histories focus largely upon evangelical criticisms of ecumenism, Nelson and Raith emphasize evangelical contributions to the formation of the ecumenical movement, especially on the missionary front. The chapter gives considerable attention to the Lausanne Movement and to evangelical-Roman Catholic dialogue and responses to it, especially as seen in Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT).

Part Two addresses some challenges to the ecumenical movement in light of what some have called an “ecumenical winter” (97). While some see this winter as a negative, Nelson and Raith follow Emilio Castro, the fourth general secretary of the WCC, by suggesting that we can see this winter as an opportunity to act. They respond to three sets of challenges.

First, they discuss “basic differences.” While some differences between churches are secondary, a basic difference “has to do with the base-work of Christianity’s theological architecture” (103). Examples through the centuries include the trinitarian differences between East and West as a result of the filioque controversy, soteriological differences in Reformation era conflicts, and those on ecclesiology or the sacraments. Nelson and Raith argue that churches need to more fully consider issues of basic difference in order to better address their disunity.

Second, they treat ecumenical reception, which has two meanings: “(1) a church’s sanction and assimilation of a dialogue’s recommendations for Christian faith and action as an effort on the way toward (2) the mutual reception of churches by each other” (127–28). The first type of reception, “documentary reception,” is not an end in itself, but a “significant means to the end of full communion” (129). A positive example of this kind of reception is the Leuenberg Concord. Churches have, however, often had difficulty in receiving ecumenical texts. For example, a number of Lutheran theologians and churches objected to JDDJ and many evangelicals rejected ECT.

Third, Nelson and Raith summarize some criticisms of the ecumenical movement, such as accusations of theological reductionism and the loss of missionary emphasis, and those who see church diversity as a positive and attempts to unify the church as negative. They do not see these criticisms as obstacles, but rather argue that they can aid the ecumenical movement by refining its focus and reminding it of the challenges it needs to face.

The book concludes by saying that ecumenism is not just for specialists, but that each Christian has a role to play. They argue that “part of being an effective ecumenist will be the willingness to undergo within oneself the suffering that stems from ecclesial disunity, identifying in a particular way with the pain caused by the wounding actions of the ecclesial community in which he or she participates” (163).

What sets this book apart is Nelson and Raith’s target audience: evangelical Protestants. Evangelicals often critique the ecumenical movement as an attempt to boil down the Christian faith to a least common denominator or see bodies like the WCC as social justice organizations barely connected to explicit Christian faith. While they acknowledge that some ecumenical statements may give this impression, Nelson and Raith argue that this only tells part of the story. They say, “To put this another way, at the heart of the ecumenical impulse and at the origins of the modern ecumenical movement lies the desire for deeper expressions of Christian faith together, not mere syncretism or artificial unity on surface-level matters” (8). While they see evangelical participation as among the most exciting aspects of recent ecumenical efforts, they say that until evangelicalism “begins to place churchesrather than individual Christians in ecumenical dialogue, and emphasizes both the individual and visible dimensions of unity, it will be difficult for evangelicals to sustain genuine ecumenical dialogue in the future” (93).

Nelson and Raith provide an introduction to ecumenism that is positive though not uncritical, concise yet thorough, scholarly but accessible. While they have a target audience in mind, their work would benefit all Christians concerned with church unity. Ecumenism would serve as a helpful secondary source in an undergraduate or seminary class on the ecumenical movement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaun C. Brown is a doctoral candidate in Theological Studies at Wycliff College, University of Toronto.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

R. David Nelson is acquisitions editor at Baker Academic and Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI.

Charles Raith II is assistant professor of religion and philosophy and director of the paradosis center for theology and scripture at John Brown University, USA. Along with numerous journal articles, he is author of Aquinas and Calvin on Romans: God's Justification and Our Participation (2014) and After Merit: John Calvin's Theology of Works and Reward (2016).




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