No Communion Without Compassion: Visser ’ t Hooft , An Interview

by Geiko Muller-Farenholtz

Dr. Müller-Fahrenholz, a Lutheran pastor, is director of the Evangelische Akademie Nordebien in Bad Segeberg, Germany.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 15, 1984, p. 166. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Churches that are not ready — despite far-reaching theological agreement — to put their individual traditions and idiosyncrasies in the background forego the right to proclaim to the nations an international order of law and peace.

Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft’? Never heard of him!” We Can picture members of younger Christian generations thus responding to the too brief interview which follows. Sad to say. Christian heroes -- and Visser ‘t Hooft is an authentic one -- do not stay long in the public eye. We have a way of taking for granted the revolutions which remake our world. This Dutch theologian and Christian statesperson did as much as anyone on the yon side of Pope John XXIII to form the modern ecumenical reality. It is time to hear of him.

“W. A. Visser ’t Hooft: is he still around?” That could be the response of a middle-generation heir of ecumenical pioneering who considers the 1948 founding of the World Council of Churches to be almost ancient, but still recallable, history. While the Lowland theologian had been seeking ecumenical highways for decades before 1948. this first WCC general secretary and still most memorable leader -- a kind of Dag Hammarskjöld of spiritual internationalism -- did more than anyone else to give shape and tone to the organization. Yes, he is still around; we are about to learn of the three’ books that he has written since turning 80.

“Visser ’ t Hooft? I could sure tell you stories about him!” That might be the reaction of doughtier seniors who have walked ecumenical warpaths with him -- or have found their own paths blocked by this firm, courageous, sometimes plotting leader. (Plotting, I said, and meant it in generally good ways; plodding? Never.) Some younger-generation ecumenists who around 1964 came up with a critical book on the WCC called United at Mid-Career felt his wrath. Opponents of his ways in the WCC Central Committee could meet his scorn, or simply wonder what happened to them as he maneuvered parliamentarily or behind the scenes to thwart their schemes. There is, one must know, some politicking in even the most creative bodies, especially in the most creative bodies. And creative is what the WCC was in Visser ’t Hooft’s prime.

Even his opponents will unite with the host of this theologian’s friends in enjoying a short visit with him, through the good offices of our interviewer. Visser ’t Hooft shuffling, coughing, talking about a last book, retiring from retirement? Such things seem to be unthinkable, but here they are. Yet they are only reminders of finitude, parts of outer-shell existence, while the intrinsic value of the valuable lives on.

The World Council of Churches, like the United Nations, has changed immeasurably from the Euro-American-centered agency it started out as. From the beginning Visser ’t Hooft and the other pioneers took pains to see that “the younger churches” had voice and space and power. None of them could have foreseen the changes that the power of the Third World churches has brought. Many of these cannot have been congenial to a theologian in a mainline Continental Reformed tradition. Yet the fact that in the WCC as in few places, Christians -- or anyone -- can come together across boundaries of East and West, North and South, are signs of his vision.

The world of indexers has never been happy with this man. Does one locate him under, V. ’t or H? The enemies of Christian unity have been even less happy. The rest of us, who do not have to fret about indexing and who relish the ecumenical achievement that has come so far thanks in part to him, have reason to be happy with Visser ’t Hooft and the Christ he has tirelessly served. We shall read his books and wish him well.

Martin E. Marty.


The little street in the Geneva suburb of Chene-Bougeries is deserted in the afternoon heat, The white one-story house stands as if enchanted in a garden beginning to run wild. I walk over fallen cherries that no one has gathered.

From his veranda-like study he can see the front door. As I ring he waves me in. He is alone. During our conversation two women come into the house, seem to attend to something in the kitchen, and leave again.

“How are you, Dr. Visser ’t Hooft?” I ask. His emaciated hands speak for themselves. “Not good any more,” he says. “My lungs are giving up. I have difficulty in breathing. But,” and there it is already, the well-known ironical grin, “my head is still in good working order, thank God. Since I became 80, I have written three books. The last is lying on the table. It is about the teaching authority of the church. It will be my last book,” he adds without self-pity. Before me in his old leather armchair, surrounded by piles of books, papers and a radio, sits a man aware of his own finiteness.

I turn over pages of the loose-leaf manuscript. The amount of work that W. A. Visser ’t Hooft has achieved astonishes me. Two years ago the book The Fatherhood of God in an Age of Emancipation (Westminster, 1983); one year ago the forthcoming Inception and Formation of the World Council of Churches; and now this manuscript about the problem of teaching authority in the church.

“Yes,’’ he reflects, his words interrupted by short, convulsive coughs, “who really decides on what authoritative teaching is and how we are to draw closer ecumenically? Whose job is it? What use are the many jointly hammered-out declarations between the churches if no one is authorized to ensure that they play a role in the teaching and life of these churches?” Once again Visser ’t Hooft takes on unsolved problems and pushes the discussion further.

I tell him that I have come across one of his speeches from 1966 in which he particularly emphasized that ecumenism is a matter of attitude, of our way of thinking. Has he a different point of view today?

“I still maintain my standpoint,” he says, “but things have changed somewhat. There are positive and negative developments. Many more people, more churches, especially in the Third World, are interested in ecumenism today. And in many denominations the commitment to the ecumenical movement has become stronger. But at the same time the meaning of ‘ecumenical’ has undergone a certain watering-down. When people from one congregation drink a cup of tea with people from another, they call it an ecumenical event, The truth that ecumenical conviction has to do with a manifestation, an articulation of the essential unity of the Christian church, is unfortunately far too little anchored in our consciousness.”

Again and again he suppresses the burdensome cough. Passionate indignation rings in his rough voice: “They talk as if ecumenism were an open question. One is for it, another against. But it is a fundamental thing, grounded in the Gospels. For example, Paul simply cannot understand that people say ‘I belong to Apollos’ or ‘I belong to Paul.’ That we don’t make clear enough to the world that we all belong to Christ is a problem that can only be solved by real ecumenical conviction.” Then he adds a self-critical afterthought: “In each generation we must proclaim this in new ways, and probably in this generation we have not proclaimed it enough.’’

Indeed this seems to be a fundamental issue. Devotion to the unity of the people of God is not to be taken for granted; it is not passed on automatically from one generation to another. This passion must be discovered and recognized anew in each generation. But that goes not only for devotion to the ecumenical message, but also for the results and the agreements achieved. The experience and insight gathered in different fields of work can also not be taken for granted, but must be spelled out again, tested again, internalized again. Visser ’t Hooft is certainly right here: we have probably paid too little attention to this point.

“You once wrote a book titled The Pressure of Our common Calling (Doubleday, 1959). Now you suggest that this attitude of being under Jesus’ command is not as alive today as it was then, isn’t that it? You knew the pioneers of the ecumenical movement. Were they not strongly convinced that their mission stood under God’s command?”

‘‘Very strongly convinced! Therefore they were able to overcome great difficulties. Because they knew that they were strengthened by the Holy Spirit, they were able to create the ecumenical movement. The movement today must also live from this power. We need only look around us to see that denominational, theological and national differences separate us very readily. They are driving us apart again today. Only an ecumenical movement recognizing the pressure of its calling can achieve something in this world.”

Here again one can recognize the internal compass in Visser ’t Hooft’s lifelong work: the indefatigable conviction that he is doing God’s work when he helps the churches to find a way out of their divisions to a living and creative unity. Is it this steady listening and seeking that keeps this man so lively and persuasive?

I state that the great personalities of the ecumenical movement’s foundation time had benefited from the then prevailing wave of internationalism. Perhaps the ‘‘international” and the “ecumenical’’ had often been conceived together? Today, when the trend even in the churches is toward the regional, parochial and local, will ecumenism not suffer?

But Visser ’t Hooft will have little of this. I should not forget that ecumenism has prevailed in times when internationalism has broken down, during the Nazi period -- above all during World War II. After all, it was not only Germany that was nationalistic. “Really, it’s like this,” he continues, “where Christians suffer, ecumenism grows stronger.’

I object: “But today we have very many Christians who are suffering, and yet we have this weakening of the ecumenical calling.”

He replies: “But don’t we find this weakening among people who are not suffering, who simply have things too good, and who cannot think and feel themselves into the experience of suffering Christians?”

He knows exactly what the reality is, and he is polite enough to leave to me the conclusion regarding our Western situation. The lamentations over the dying-down of the ecumenical movement have no substance as long as we do not realize, that ecumenism has to do with our relationship to the suffering of Christians in different parts of the world. There is no communion without compassion. “Our relation to suffering Christians has to do not only with protesting or setting in motion actions for human rights, good and necessary though these are. It involves living and praying with these people -- a standing together with them under the cross.”


Living with, praying with, suffering with -- this with is at the heart of ecumenism. It certainly was so for Archbishop Nathan Söderblom of Sweden. I turn the conversation to him because it is known that Visser ’t Hooft is particularly indebted to him. Söderblom interpreted the ecumenical movement as a peace movement and did much to ensure that after World War I a strong (today mostly forgotten) disarmament movement existed, task Visser ’t Hooft if he must not often think of the old peace movement when he sees what is going on today.

“I remember particularly the time of the great disarmament conference of 1932,” he answers. “As correspondent for The Christian Century, I regularly wrote articles about the development of the conference. It was highly interesting to see how active not only the students but also women’s groups were then in working for disarmament. But the conference came a few years too late. The Far East and Germany had already begun to travel in the opposite direction. If it had been held five years earlier, the disarmament conference might really have altered something of the structure of international relations. But in 1932 it was no longer possible. It is a tragic story. We put on all the pressure possible, but it did not help.” Did he see parallels in the disarmament negotiations held in Geneva in recent years?

“No” he says. “The French adage ‘l’histoire se repète’ is not true. Events never happen again in the same way. The governments of the Great Powers then calmly calculated war. All of them quite happily reckoned with war asa possibility of international politics. Today no great power thinks of war in that way. Nuclear weapons have made the situation infinitely more dangerous. One almost concludes that it is just this danger that will prevent anyone from being so inhumane as to use these weapons.

“Can we rely on that?” The question remains open. Visser ‘t Hooft turns the conversation back to the time before 1932: “In those days we believed that the League of Nations was the answer, that through the League it would be possible to create an international system of law, so that war would simply not be necessary any more. Unfortunately not enough of this is said in the present day’s peace movement. People exclaim ‘No weapons, no weapons, no weapons!,’ but they say very little about how we will solve our problems without them. We must work on a system of international law either through the United Nations or through another, improved structure. I believe that the churches should concern themselves a great deal more with this question than they actually do.”

What should they do then, I want to know. Surely without the United Nations there cannot be any international peace regulation? Everyone would agree that the present structure of the United Nations is very unsatisfactory and must be improved in many respects; Visser ’t Hooft affirms this. The difficulty is one which he has experienced again and again in his long life: “We do not get any further with the question of the limits of national sovereignty. Everyone starts shouting whenever there is any suggestion for limiting it. Christians must make clear that national sovereignty is really an idol, a self-made god. Why does it have such an absolute value? Nations should have only a relative value; they must surely not be so idolized that this idolatry rouses them against each other.”

These strong words tempt me to respond: “As soon as someone expects the churches to give up a part of their sovereignty Visser ’t Hooft exclaims: “As if I were not particularly aware of that! I experienced that every day as general secretary of the World Council of Churches!”

The old trouble: Churches that are not ready -- despite far-reaching theological agreement -- to put their individual traditions and idiosyncrasies in the background forego the right to proclaim to the nations an international order of law and peace. That is plainly a classical example of how closely the witness of the churches is bound up with their unity. That explains the doggedness with which Visser ’t Hooft recalls the churches to their ecumenical mission.

We speak of the Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Vancouver last summer. ‘I am now like other people who look at Vancouver from a certain distance. I am no longer familiar with the finer points. It is the first Assembly without me,’’ he says.

The doctors long ago forbade him to travel. His body cannot take such stress anymore. He who once looked on the world as his parish is now tied to Geneva and to his own house. The daily work is in the hands of others. He remains the watchful guardian of unity for Christ’s sake. There he is in his quiet home, indispensable and tenacious, the steady conscience of the churches -- the unflinching witness of the great vision that must not be betrayed.