The Ecumenical Age: Problems and Promise -- By: Carl F. H. Henry

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 123:491 (Jul 1966)
Article: The Ecumenical Age: Problems and Promise
Author: Carl F. H. Henry

The Ecumenical Age:
Problems and Promise

Carl F. H. Henry

[Editor’s Note: This second article by Dr. Henry represents one of the lectures in the W. H. Griffith Thomas series given in November, 1965, on the general theme of “Christian Thrust at the Modern Frontiers.” These addresses with other unpublished essays appeared in a book earlier this year under the title The God Who Shows Himself, by Word Books, Waco, Texas. Dr. Henry says the title of this new production is a reversal of the modernist-dialectical-existential emphasis on the hidden God.]

Many church historians regard the ecumenical movement as the most significant development in twentieth century Christendom. It may in fact prove to be so. Yet our topic refers to ecumenical promise in the singular while it speaks of ecumenical problems in the plural—a distinction that unquestionably reflects the present ecclesiastical milieu.

Let us consider first, however, not ecumenical promise or problems, but the premise proposed by many churchmen that the ecumenical age has now already dawned. To catalog the time-process into definitive ages is no academic novelty. In geology, for example, we speak of the age of fishes, the age of reptiles, and so on; in archaeology, story advances from the stone age into the bronze age, the iron age, and then beyond. We use the same device, of course, to indicate more limited periods, as when we speak of “the age of reason” or “the age of Louis XIV” or of “the spirit of this age.” I take it then that those who now refer to the ecumenical age designate not merely a temporary manifestation, something here today and gone tomorrow as it were. They mean rather a decisive period in human history, an era in which Christendom itself attains full maturity, a time span in which, so to speak, the church itself comes of age. If that were not the

case, there would be little point in inviting seminarians to think about the ecumenical age.

It was W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, an architect of the World Council of Churches, and until recently its general secretary, who perhaps first fashioned the phrase, our “semi-ecumenical age.” He had in view of course the noteworthy reversal within twentieth-century Christendom of a thousand-year process of internal division. Whereas the Eastern Orthodox Church broke from the Western Latin Church in the ninth century, the World Council of Churches now embraces Eastern Orthodoxy and large sectors of Western Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation signaled Protestant separation from the Church of Rome, Protestant-Orthodox ecumenism now includes Roman Catholicism in its intentions. With the coming of the 1960’s some ecclesiastical le...

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