Under the title "Ecumenical Amnesia," this Bulletin published in its January 1994 issue a review by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin of my book Ecumenism in Transition (Geneva, 1991). I am grateful to the editor, Dr. Gerald Anderson, for having invited me to contribute a response to this review for the subsequent issue. Since I wrote my book in order to generate discussion about the present condition of the ecumenical movement, this is a very welcome opportunity to engage in critical dialogue.
My gratitude is further directed to Lesslie Newbigin, whom I deeply respect as a trusted guide on the ecumenical way. Of the various critical reviews of my book, his is by far the fairest and most noble one, and he enters into the heart of the argument. Indeed, it is this kind of mutual challenging and mutual correction rooted in a common commitment that we need in the ecumenical movement; it is a central expression of what this movement is all about.
In saying this, I am gladly affirming one of the main concerns of Lesslie Newbigin. He may have read my book as advocating "the relativism of postmodern culture" and as suggesting an easy form of ecumenical coexistence that "evades the pain of mutual criticism and mutual correction." I do not recognize my intentions in this interpretation and would affirm as strongly as he does that "the WCC must see itself as the meeting place for all who make a Christological and Trinitarian affirmation along the lines of the WCC Basis. However sharp the disagreements are, the WCC cannot accept a less demanding role."
I also acknowledge gratefully that Lesslie Newbigin confirms at least the first part of my thesis by admitting that the concept of "Christo-centric universalism" is indeed a true description of the dominant model in the formative days of the WCC." He further repeats his earlier, conviction that a "full Trinitarian theology" is needed - at least for an adequate missiology. I shall come back to this point at the end of my response. Finally, I am in agreement with him - and have said so in my book - that the Trinitarian perspective cannot be placed as an "alternative" over against the Christological confession but must be understood as its proper biblical frame of interpretation.
However, we seem to disagree about what it means to take the Trinitarian faith seriously and specifically to appreciate the constitutive role of the Holy Spirit in understanding the Christ event. Newbigin does not really respond to this challenge, which is central to my argument, and in fact he can state his basic Christological and ecclesiological affirmations almost without any reference to the pneumatological dimension.
I think it would not be unfair to say that Newbigin wants to maintain "Christo-centric universalism" as the valid model for understanding the ecumenical movement and would therefore reject my analysis of an emerging "paradigm shift." His entire critical reflection is based on the conviction of the nonnegotiable truth of the earlier paradigm, and he would consider any departure from it dangerous for the ecumenical movement.
I have no difficulty accepting his review as a very sincere effort to defend the continuing validity of the basic elements of the old paradigm - in particular its understanding of unity, its Christology with a strong emphasis on the atonement, its ecclesiology, and its missionary orientation. This is an expression of the theology and piety of the tradition of evangelical Protestantism out of which I come myself. …