The Historical Setting of the Ecumenical Movement -- By: Rudolf A. Renfer

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 110:437 (Jan 1953)
Article: The Historical Setting of the Ecumenical Movement
Author: Rudolf A. Renfer

The Historical Setting of the Ecumenical Movement

Rudolf A. Renfer

Perhaps the most significant characteristic of church history of the first half of the twentieth century is the development of the Ecumenical Movement. In many quarters the movement is considered the most significant fact in church history since the Reformation. However, it would appear that the significance of the Ecumenical Movement lies not only in the activities of its component associated and related ecclesiastical bodies, but in its direct relationship to the very course of church history as set by the Reformers themselves.

Briefly, the term “Ecumenical Movement” in its broader sense is used to refer to the activities of several religious and ecclesiastical bodies of a national and international character which seek to bring about on a world-wide scale an expression of Christianity. This has resulted in an organizational structure, which attempts to demonstrate the organic or spiritual unity of the world Christian community. Narrowing it down through the national and denominational levels to the congregations and communities, the term applies to the implementation and employment of suggestions and pronouncements of the “higher” national or world-wide bodies. Further, church cooperation and union on a local or national scale have all been described as expressions of Ecumenicity. The term has become increasingly current in the last quarter-century. The formation of the World Council of Churches, officially done at the initial meeting in Amsterdam in 1948, witnessed the climax of years of ecumenical activity.

In anticipation of the formation of this world-wide body,

a Lutheran church historian and delegate remarked that he viewed Amsterdam as “the Reformation in reverse.” Coming from a Lutheran, this remark would appear to be one of the most significant expressions in current ecumenical literature. For the Reformation witnessed the beginning of the trend toward the break-up of the one western-world church. This trend moved along in ever increasing crescendo to produce the innumerable sects and denominations of the present day. Assuming that the Ecumenical Movement may be viewed in a real sense as “the Reformation in reverse,” we are faced with the problem as to whether certain institutional activities may be contemporaneously viewed as revolutionary. To conceive of the Reformation as in reverse is to conceive of the Ecumenical Movement as an institutional revolution. It is the reversal of a four hundred year long process.

In the past keen minds have correctly felt the pulse of their day. The great Renaissance humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, vividly interpreted his day when,...

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