Pannenberg Jousts with the World Council of Churches

by Richard John Neuhaus

Mr. Neuhaus is a pastor, writer and lecturer who lives in New York City.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 17, 1982, p.174.  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.


The idea of Christian unity is too radical for some people. We are tempted to give up on it, not because it has been tried and found to be wanting but because we have found it to be difficult.


This fall Wolfhart Pannenberg came to the U S to address a conference of Nobel laureates at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. His subject, as one might expect, was theology and the philosophy of science, and he argued that the biblical concept of the Holy spirit may provide the missing link, so to speak, in the controversy over whether mind or language has precedence in the creation of human thought. Such seemingly esoteric questions are connected in Pannenberg’s thought with the World Council of Churches.

If Christian truth claims are to be readmitted to public discourse, it is necessary to overcome the artificial dichotomies between sacred and secular, between faith and reason. This is not only an intellectual task; the actual life of the churches must be changed dramatically so that Christianity is perceived as a unifying promise, rather than a divisive force, in the shaping of world history. Thus Pannenberg’s ecumenical concern is an essential component of his theological vision. He takes very seriously his work as the West German member of the Standing Commission on Faith and Order in the World Council of Churches.

During a visit with me in New York, he mentioned several times that the American member churches have a special responsibility for the future of the World Council. In order to share his concerns beyond the confines of my living room, we decided to bring a tape recorder into the conversation.

The year 1982, Pannenberg believes, could be a crucial one for the WCC, and especially the Commission on Faith and Order. “In preparing for the Vancouver Assembly in 1983, the council has said it wants to consult much more intensively with the member churches. I can only hope that this will really happen. There may then be a chance to correct certain developments that have very deeply changed the WCC in recent years. The structure of the WCC could be brought back into line with its constitution and founding vision.”

He suggested that the structure and constitution of the WCC are no longer in agreement. “The constitution of the WCC, also after some changes received since Nairobi in 1975, gives first priority among the functions of WCC to the reunification of the churches in one eucharistic community, and the basis of that community is our one faith. That, of course, is the central task of Faith and Order, as distinct from other activities of the WCC.” But surely, I protested, the WCC is not simply to be a floating theological forum. “That’s true,” said Pannenberg, “the WCC has a number of other legitimate and urgent functions. For instance, there is inter-church aid, essentially aid to churches that are financially weak, and there is the concern for Christian missions that was incorporated since New Delhi, 1961. The question is one of priority.”

Pannenberg recalled that the three roots of the WCC are Faith and Order, Life and Work, and the International Missionary Council. “I know that some argue that that history was constitutionally changed after Nairobi, but that is not true. Without mentioning Faith and Order explicitly, the new text clearly gives priority to what in fact is the work of Faith and Order: namely, working for unity in doctrine and overcoming the barriers between the churches that stand in the way of eucharistic community.”

According to Pannenberg, the skewing of WCC directions is not only a matter of emphasis but also of structure. “After New Delhi it was recognized that the responsibilities of the WCC had been broadened. In 1968, at Uppsala -- in a time of great social, political and theological confusion -- a commission was authorized to work on a reform of WCC structures. The outcome was a very big shift. The three historic roots of WCC were lumped together under ‘Faith and Witness,’ one of three program units of the WCC. The other two units are ‘Education and Renewal’ and ‘Justice and Service.’ The last one includes the newly founded Commission on the Churches’ Participation in Development (CCPD), which has raised so many theological and other problems. But the point is that Faith and Order, which historically was the premier enterprise of the council, ended up as a subunit of a unit. And even that unit is no longer the most important in terms of WCC energies and resources.”

But isn’t Pannenberg’s complaint somewhat self-serving, since he is a member of the slighted Faith and Order? Pannenberg denied the suggestion. “What is at stake here is the much bigger question of what the World Council is for. Member churches may not have been aware of the enormity of the changes being made or how they would affect the purpose of the council. The WCC could end up going in directions quite different from, even contrary to, the reasons why people supported it in the first place. That is no doubt one of the reasons why we see a growing disillusionment with the WCC. Something major has happened when the budget of CCPD, a subunit within one unit, is three times larger than the combined budgets for the three historic functions that are now subsumed in the first unit. It’s not simply a matter of money. Budgets reflect the shifting priorities of an institution.”

I suggested that budgets could be misleading. After all, activities that have lower priority may nonetheless cost more money. Economic development, for instance, costs more than holding theological conferences. Pannenberg readily agreed: “How resources are allocated is important, but what that allocation means is more important. Justice and Service, including CCPD, is not just fulfilling expensive functions; it increasingly is setting the programmatic and even the theological directions of WCC. It is pushing an alternative to the historic work of Faith and Order. This is seen most clearly in Faith and Order’s emphasis on reconciling the churches and the alternative talk about ‘a partisan church of the poor’ which would divide Christians in a new way along social and political lines.”

Pannenberg is much taken with the ecumenical theme “The Unity of the Church -- The Unity of Humankind.” He believes, however, that in the past ten or 15 years that slogan has almost been reversed. He explained: “In the WCC, as well as in Vatican Council II, the ecumenical emphasis was that the church, as a sacramental reality, symbolizes the future unity of a new humankind in the Kingdom of God. This, of course, is also a very important theme in my own work. But now that theme is turned around. It is said that the unity of humankind is to be envisioned in secular, largely economic and political terms, quite apart from the symbolism of the church. Some even go further and say that the unity of the church must be defined in terms of agreement in the struggle to achieve this unity of humankind. The implications of this reversal are vast, and I do not think that we have given careful thought to it.”

I pointed out that some people welcome this change because it provides a rationale for the churches’ engagement in struggles for liberation and justice. “Yes,” Pannenberg said, “I am keenly aware that within the WCC there are sharp differences of opinion. Of course some people favor this reversal, or it would not have happened. But the fact remains that it is in conflict with the constituting purpose of the WCC.” Then why not change the constitution to bring it into line with the new realities? “That sounds logical, but if that happened, then the concern for Christian unity -- in terms of overcoming the inherited separations in doctrine and in sacramental life -- would be lost officially. That would mean the distinctively Christian view of unity would be lost, or at least it would be removed outside the focus of the WCC. That would be a great tragedy. Although in structure and practice the reversal has largely already happened, it has not yet been formalized. There is still time for serious reconsideration in the churches on whether this is the way we want to go.”

Pannenberg believes that the American and German churches have a special obligation and opportunity to bring about such a reconsideration. “If you asked me what is the most important thing that can happen between now and Vancouver, my answer would be that the member churches have to realize that the future of the WCC, and to a large extent of the ecumenical movement, is at stake. It would be desirable if at Vancouver we did what happened at Uppsala: authorize a commission to reexamine the structural and programmatic changes of the past decade.”

We discussed whether Pannenberg’s argument plays into the hands of those who say that current discontent with the WCC results from North Atlantic unwillingness to recognize that the council now includes many more players, especially from the Third World. The WCC is no longer, as it was 30 years ago, a North Atlantic preserve. Faith and Order has to face up to the fact that there are other ways of doing theology -- ways quite different from our essentially European habits.

Pannenberg responded vigorously: “First, Faith and Order tries very hard to include the widest possible range of theological reflection today. Everybody knows that some of the most vital Christian forces in today’s world are in Africa and Asia. Their theological work is making a difference and will make a bigger difference. Nobody who is theologically seri~ ous can resist it. The problem is with the definition of Christian theology itself. Christian theology has a specific history. Theological reflection must make its contribution within the context of that history.”

As a German, Pannenberg is keenly aware of those who tried to rewrite Christian history in order to exclude its Jewish origins, as some would now rewrite that history in order to erase the influences of Western imperialism. He cites John Mbiti as an African theologian who is adamant in insisting that Third World theologians have a challenge and contribution to make within the universal theological enterprise. “It is supreme condescension,” says Pannenberg, “to say that the Third World is a ‘special case’; that whatever its theologians do must be given the status of ‘theology’ because they aren’t able or willing to be full participants in Christian theology. If the WCC operates on that basis, then it will become the enemy both of theology and of the theological potential of churches in the poor countries.”

Pannenberg acknowledges another objection to his argument. It is no secret that the Orthodox have been particularly unhappy about the downgrading of Faith and Order. Is he basically pushing the Orthodox line within the WCC? “No,” he replied. “It is true that the Orthodox have rendered a service by alerting us to some of the crucial decisions facing the WCC. But Lutherans and Anglicans have also urged that the questions of faith and sacramental unity be kept central. We Lutherans have to resist the arrogant idea that it’s only we and a few others who really care about doctrine and sacraments. As they are alerted to what is at stake for the WCC, I am hopeful that all the member churches will demonstrate a deep concern for the theological redirection of the ecumenical movement. I don’t know that that will happen, of course, but I think there is reason for hope.”

Why does Pannenberg care so much about the WCC at a time when many others have consigned it -- along with world federalism and other nice ideas -- to the dustbin of history? “I am persuaded,” he replied, “that the WCC is very, very important. Ecumenism cannot succeed without a multilateral base such as the WCC provides. I know that in recent years the great progress and excitement have been in bilateral dialogues, but unless there is an institution that represents a more general movement toward Christian unity, bilateral agreements could actually result in greater disunity. If, for example, the Lutherans and Roman Catholics succeed in ‘healing the breach of the 16th century’ and just do it between themselves, where does that leave the other churches? The WCC, if it does what its constitution says it should do, is crucial to maintaining a sense of what members’ actions mean for all Christians -- and the instruments for acting upon the conclusions. If it now formalizes some of its present directions -- if it formally changes its constituting vision -- then another institution will have to take its place.”

After all is said and done, isn’t Pannenberg urging a return to the past? Isn’t he a conservative arguing that the WCC should turn its back upon new directions only recently launched? “No, never, he protested, “that would be a complete misinterpretation. The constituting vision of the WCC is the truly progressive and radical vision. ‘The Unity of the Church -- the Unity of Humankind’ is what I believe in most earnestly. The question is how this opening toward the universal future of the human race is to be pursued. I believe it should not be pursued by surrendering what is distinctive in the Christian heritage to the service of secular purposes. Can anyone say that we have achieved the constitutional goal of the WCC and now it is time to go on to other things? That would be absurd. If we have any understanding of history, we know that Christian unity is the work of many, many decades.”

Then he said with a smile both hopeful and weary, “I will tell you what I think. I think the idea of Christian unity is too radical for some people. We are tempted to give up on it, not because it has been tried and found to be wanting but because we have found it to be difficult. I think G. K. Chesterton said something like that about Christianity itself. Well, it is difficult; it is very difficult. People who have lost faith in ecumenism for various reasons find it more satisfying just to engage in social and political change and call that ecumenism. But I don’t think it has been decided yet that the WCC has given up on Christian unity, and so I don’t give up on the WCC.”

The afternoon sun having long since given up on us, I had turned on a light or two. It was time for refreshments. But first, evening prayer. “For the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the church of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.” “Lord, have mercy.”