Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Edmund Schlink (1903-84)

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Edmund Schlink (1903-84), one of the most significant Christian theologians of the twentieth century. An influential teacher, pastor, and professor, he was also a leading participant in several official ecumenical dialogues for more than forty years. The author of a weighty dogmatics text and a classic work in Lutheran confessional theology, Schlink wrote several other important books and essays, and he delivered a great many sermons and addresses. This second-generation "ecumenical pioneer of the 20th Century" (Gassmann) was the central systematic-historical theologian at Heidelberg University between 1946 and his death in 1984. Schlink's contribution to the development of ecumenical theology in the second half of the twentieth century was considerable.

During the initial years after the Second World War he participated in discussions and debates about how best to reconstitute church government in the German Protestant churches. At Heidelberg he established an ecumenical institute, the first of its kind in Germany. He helped to organize the first working group of Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians in the world. He was a co-founder and co-editor of the important ecumenical journals Ökumenische Rundschau (1952--) and Kerygma und Dogma (1955--). Two years before the inaugural issue of Ökumenische Rundschau, he had assisted Walter Freytag, professor of missiology at Hamburg, in co-founding the German Ecumenical Studies Commission (Deutschen Ökumenischen Studienausschuss or DÖSTA), a further effort at engaging ecumenical issues and problems within the German context.

Not only did Schlink participate in the inaugural assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam (1948), he delivered a key lecture at the third World Conference for Faith and Order in Lund (1952) and one of the two major addresses at the second WCC assembly in Evanston (1954), "Christ--the Hope for the World.”

Schlink in Rome
The high point of his ecumenical work, however, had to have been his service as the official observer from the Protestant Church in Germany to the Second Vatican Council. For two years prior to the start of that historic council, Schlink had been in and out of Rome, assisting the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity as it made plans for inviting official observers to the council, something that had never been done at a previous council. Shortly after one of his meetings with Cardinal Bea in Rome and nearly eight months before the opening session of this historic council, he gave an address at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey in which he stated:

“All these [Christian] traditions are contained in Jesus Christ, both the Christ who has already come and the one who is to come. He came as the friend of sinners and the enemy of Pharisees and those learned in the Scriptures. He will come as the Judge, not only of the world but also of the Church--see for example the message of the Apocalypse--this is common knowledge. The first step towards the unification of the Church will be when we not only know this, but when we are all moved to the depth of our hearts and accept the fact that the Lord of the Church makes us all radicals and doubters. Then we shall no longer pride ourselves on the history of our Church and its decisions, and face divine justice assured of their certainty, but we shall devote ourselves to penitence, which will show us that the life of our Church, its doctrines and its institutions only partially correspond to the fullness of the Kingdom of God in Christ. Let us not seek in our penitence to justify and defend ourselves against other Churches, but let us, together with them, see ourselves and our need for grace, and in view of that need let us seek no longer to point out the defects in other Churches but rather to participate in whatever God has confided to them.”

This is the perspective that Schlink had when he witnessed the opening of the council on October 11, 1962. From that day until the closing of the council on the 8th of December, 1965, he never missed a session. He sat in a tribune reserved especially for the official observers, right under the statue of St. Longinus, nearer to the presiders’ table than even the cardinals—among the best seats in the house.

At the start of the first session he was elected by the official non-Catholic observers to serve as one of the leaders of a small committee, comprised of himself, Bernard Pawley of the Church of England, and Lukas Vischer of the WCC. According to Douglas Horton, who kept a diary during the council, this committee "was to take care of any matters that might come up, such as the appointment of people to reply for the observers at public meetings." As such, it represented the non-Catholic observers to the council's officials, especially to Cardinal Bea and later to Cardinal Willebrands, and to the public media. When Bea hosted a reception for the observers at the start of the first session, Schlink was the one who offered the official response on behalf of all the observers. Bea himself certainly helped to set a positive, welcoming tone when he referred to the observers at their initial reception as “my dear brothers in Christ.” Yet, their presence in the basilica during all of the council’s sessions had its own positive effect as well. At Schlink’s urging, the non-Catholic observers (who initially totaled 46 and then 182 by the end of the fourth session) met regularly as a group. It is not surprising that at the start of the other sessions, he was re-elected to serve on the small leadership committee of observers, which now also included a fourth member, namely, a representative of the Eastern Church.

Schlink became an important conversation partner for the cardinals, bishops, and the Periti (Roman Catholic theological advisors) who attended the council. During its course, he wrote more than 60 reports on the proceedings. While he was generally favorable toward the ressourcement dimension of the council, he was on occasion critical of the council's apparent presumption that the Roman Catholic Church was the only true church of Christ and that non-Roman efforts toward church unity amounted to nothing other than a return to Rome. According to Schlink, such a mistaken view, if maintained, would only serve to re-enact the Counter-Reformation and to alienate further both the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Churches. If the Roman Church could not acknowledge that the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches also belonged to the one church of Christ, there could be little hope for fruitful ecumenical dialogue between Rome and the other churches. For Schlink, the best Catholic theologians of that time stressed that the church is a mystery and that it therefore cannot be defined. Such an insight, he thought, would be a useful starting point for further ecumenical discussion about the nature of the church, but it was not being fully recognized at the council itself. The underlying tendency of the council was to imply that church unity could only occur on the basis of “a return, a surrender, to Rome.” Such a position, according to Schlink, would not be conducive toward moving forward ecumenically. He was grateful for the steps of the council that led to “a new point of view,” one that looked with “surprising fairness toward other Christians.” This new perspective “has given a powerful impulse to the ecumenical spirit.”

Schlink saw the council as a whole as having tremendous significance for the further progress of the Ecumenical Movement. His full analysis of the council (“After the Council,” published in Germany in 1966 and later translated into English) was widely read in both Roman Catholic and Protestant circles. In his view an outcome of the council was to make clear the need for a "Copernican Revolution" in the self-understanding of the churches, to see themselves as each revolving around Christ, their center.

Friends and family remember Schlink and his wife Irmgard (1914-2006) as lovers of classical music (she especially of Mozart and he especially of Bach), as talented musicians, as warm and interesting conversationalists, as caring and friendly hosts. He was a creative scholar and critical thinker who sought to serve Christ and the needs of his church in all of its forms and expressions. He modeled the vision of ecumenical unity that he so often articulated in order to assist the strengthening of the bonds of human and ecclesial community.

Over the next several years I will be editing and translating five large volumes of Schlink's writings. These will be published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, which has also published the German Edition of his works (2004-10). My former colleague at Concordia, Portland, Hans Spalteholz, will be assisting with the translation. I am grateful to the Schlink family for entrusting this project to us.

The volumes that will appear in the American Edition are as follows:

(1) Ecumenical and Confessional Writings ["The Coming Christ and Church Traditions"; "After the Council"] -- (These will be updated translations of writings previously translated)

(2) The Ecumenical Dogmatics-- (This has never been translated)

(3) The Doctrine of Baptism-- (an updated translation)

(4) Theology of the Lutheran Confessions (The 4th edition has never been translated)

(5) Selected Essays (all new translations)