Theological News Jul 2008 Vol 37 No 3




WEA Theological Commission Strengthens Links with Latin America

With an extensive tour of Latin America by its Executive Director, Dr David Parker, visiting seminaries and universities, meeting with theologians and theological groups, the WEA TC has taken a significant step in strengthening its connections with this region. Following the appointment four years ago of a Brazilian member, Dr Claus Schwambach, the TC has been actively working to extend its relations with evangelical theologians in the area. Its annual meeting and consultation will be held there in 2009. The TC is also working towards the appointment of a Spanish-speaking theologian to its core membership to represent the fast growing and virile Christian community in the region.

Dr Parker's tour, which took place in April 2008, covered 35,000km in five Latin American countries. During this time, he presented the work of the TC and discussed key issues in the church and theology with theologians and church leaders. He said, "I am very pleased to report that I received a warm welcome everywhere I went, and encountered a great deal of interest in our work - especially our intention to hold our annual meeting and a consultation somewhere in the region next year."

His visit included Brasil (where he travelled with Dr Schwambach to Sao Paolo, Curitiba, Atibaia, and Sao Bento do Sul), Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lima, Peru; and Guatemala City. He concluded his tour by spending time in Pasadena, Los Angeles en route back to Australia. In each centre he spoke to a range of groups and individuals about the current work and future plans of the TC, and held discussions with seminary leaders, theologians and students on key issues facing the churches. He said, "The discussions were intense and informative, giving us an exceptionally good idea of the vast range of interests and concerns on the hearts and minds of pastors and theologians. This will give us good material to work on as we decide on the details of our visit and consultation."

There was good contact with former TC members including Dr Rene Padilla (Argentina), Rev Pedro Arana (Peru), David Suazo and Dr Emilio Nunez (Guatemala). Representatives of other groups such as Overseas Council, World Vision, and IFES were also included. Of particular importance were members and officers of the Latin American Theological Fellowship (FTL) including President, Ruth Padilla de Borst, and General Secretary, Omar Cortes; AETAL (the evangelical accrediting body linked with the WEA through ICETE), through Dr Paul Sywulka, Executive Secretary, and Vera Brock, Board Secretary. Other important links were with the local accrediting agencies in Brasil (ASTE) and the southern cone of the continent (ASIT). Dr Norberto Saracco, Lausanne International Deputy Director for Latin America, provided invaluable assistance for the Argentinian part of the tour, as did SETECA, the leading theological seminary in Guatemala and the Dr Josue Fonseca of the Baptist Seminary in Santiago, Chile.

In Peru, Dr Parker brought a greeting from the TC to a regional conference of the Micah Network consisting of about 150 people from 19 countries, discussing "Integral Mission - achievements, setbacks and challenges."

Over coming weeks the TC will develop a plan for its 2009 annual meeting and consultation, with details to be announced later in the year. The meeting will include the TC's planning and strategy discussion along with new appointments and further development of its activities. The consultation will address important theological and practical issues facing the church in Latin America with the exact format yet to be determined. Expressions of interest and ideas were sought throughout Dr Parker's trip for this event and are further invited from readers.

TC Chairman's visit to Belarus highlights critical need for mutual understanding and religious freedom

A report by Dr Rolf Hille, Chair, WEA Theological Commission (adapted)

Twenty-five years ago when the Theological Commission (TC) of the WEA first established ecumenical contacts, the relationship of Evangelical churches and the Roman Catholic Church was the focus. However, for some time now, the TC has also intended to establish a dialogue with the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe. Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the former Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, new possibilities of diverse encounters for dialogue have arisen. TC member, Rev. Per Pedersen of the Danish Lutheran Church who teaches at the Armenian Orthodox seminary in Armenia, now has regular meetings with the Armenian Patriarch. But there have also arisen conflicts between Protestant churches and missionary societies in the predominantly Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe which has made the need for better understanding acute.

As Principal of the Albrecht-Bengel Haus seminary in Tuebingen, Germany and as chairman of the TC, I had the unique opportunity of taking a study trip to Belarus with a group of 15 students from May 10-17, 2008. On the first day of our journey, I had the chance to meet and to get to know the Belarussian Orthodox Patriarch Filaret, who was responsible for officially inviting our group. Our students had pleasure of giving a musical concert including some German classical choral pieces at the Minsk Philharmonic concert hall on the occasion of an official celebration of the Belarussian Orthodox Church. On the following Sunday, we not only visited an Orthodox service, but also the services of the Lutheran Church in Minsk.

Thereafter, our program included paying a series of visits to the Theological Institute and the Academy of Spirituality. There, I was able to give a lecture to candidates for the Orthodox priesthood on the Essentials of Protestant (Reformation) Christianity and on questions of ecumenical relations.

With respect to the relationship to Orthodox churches, I would suggest that a number of fundamental theological insights are of vital importance. Since the schism of the Greek-speaking Eastern Church and the Latin-speaking Western Church of the Roman Empire in the year 1054, both churches have become quite estranged from one another and developed apart from one another in relative isolation. But in some respects, the Orthodox churches stand in the middle between Catholicism and Protestantism. For example, while the Orthodox churches developed independently, there was parallel development in Europe and later in all other continents of both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches. However the critical intellectual struggle which enveloped the western churches did not take place in the Orthodox churches because they were not seriously affected by the European Enlightenment.

This is evident in dealing with the questions of basic doctrine: the Roman Catholic Church recognizes Scripture, the authority of bishops together with the Pope and tradition, but Protestants strictly espouse the principle of the Scripture alone as the basis of all theological questions of doctrine, faith, and life. However the Orthodox churches recognise as binding revelation of truth the doctrinal decisions of all seven ecumenical councils of the early (Patristic) Church up to the year 787, but none after that.

Orthodox churches have been involved in the World Council of Churches (WCC), the, together with a large number of Protestant churches. But it is interesting to note that at the WCC General assemblies in the past years, frequent conversations have taken place between concerned Evangelicals and Orthodox bishops voicing their concerns about developments within liberal Protestantism. In the 20th century, some degree of reconciliation occurred between Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople, at least regarding the lifting of the mutual official condemnations that took place with the schism of 1054.

Protestants, particularly Evangelical Christians, feel a marked distance to the Orthodox with respect to their intense veneration of saints and of Mary. Many Evangelicals are quite skeptical about the spirituality of the Orthodox and see in it an external, ritualized Christianity. But the survival of the Orthodox church and the faith of its people during the long period of persecution endured by them during the 20th century indicates that this opinion must be re-examined. It is amazing how many people returned to the churches after this persecution. Their faith was kept alive and the Gospel was propagated in services and in families, particularly by grandparents.

However, the most critical question is the matter of religious liberty. The views of Protestant Christians who have begun to work in Orthodox areas since the Fall of the Wall in 1989 are absolutely in opposition to the self-understanding of the official Orthodox churches. Protestants are labeled cults, without any consideration of that fact that they are from larger Protestant denominations, such as the Baptists.

So ecumenical dialogues led by the WEA TC must, in my opinion, keep these three aspects in mind: the theological discussion about the early Christian points of common reference, the question of the controversies regarding doctrine and practice, and finally, the question of how to create better mutual understanding so that Protestant churches can live and work in freedom as respected Christian congregations.