The World Council and the Protestant Reformation

Splashed diagonally across the corner of the front cover of the December 8, 1961, issue of Time Magazine directly over the portrait of World Council Architect Visser ’T Hooft, were the words, “The Second Reformation.”

This caption describing the Third Assembly of the World Council at New Delhi, India, came from a statement made there by Dr. Henry Pitney Van Dusen, the president of Union Theological Seminary of New York, who said: “We are seeing right here one of the very early events in the second great Reformation of Christendom.”

It is the purpose of this article to examine this claim of ecumenists that the World Council constitutes a true reformation of the visible church of Jesus Christ.


What a person thinks of the 16th century Protestant Reformation depends on his approach to church history. The viewpoint of the Vatican, for example, or the historical premises of Nikita Khrushchev affect the judgment which Rome and Moscow would make of the religious epoch of which Martin Luther, under God, was the dramatic innovator.

Among Protestants themselves, though, it would be expected that basic agreement could be found on a definition of the Reformation. Alas, such is no longer the case. The ecumenical leaders who are most vocal in the World Council deplore the 16th century Reformation and are engaged in a diligent attempt to heal the “schism” between Rome and the heirs of the ‘Reformation. What has brought about this peculiar reversal of opinion among Protestant churchmen?

Possibly the most powerful cause of the world shift in Protestant opinion today is the prevailing modem view of educated men regarding the universe about us and, within this cosmic scene, the relatively mediocre and transitory revolt against the Church of Rome in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Modern educated men in general accept evolution in the fullest sense, in the cosmos, in our solar system, in planet Earth, in the supposed rise of man from prehuman ancestors, in social development throughout human history. The evolving myth of the scientists and modern thinkers outside the church of Christ has to a great extent come to dominate the liberal views in churches that make up the bulk of the membership of the World Council.

Coupled with this world and life view held by many modern Christians is their acceptance also of the methodology of empiricism: the faith of man in his own rational processes as the sufficient instrument to ascertain truth;* and the popular humanistic dream that, if men will only talk things over long enough, a harmonious and progressive solution of any human problem can and will come. This 20th century religious faith in Man is at the root of the optimistic idealism of ecumenical circles today, expressed by Van Dusen when be spoke of the World Council meeting in New Delhi as “one of the very early events in the second great Reformation of Christendom.”

From such evolutionary and humanistic presuppositions as prevail in the world today, and in the modernist circles of the Protestant movement, the 16th century Reformation may be considered a good and necessary thing for that day. As the religious editor of Time explained it, the decay and corruption in the Medieval Church had gone so far that some change had to come. Into that crisis the reformers threw their “prophetic insight” and then their message struck fire and became a great religious awakening. The naturalistic explanation of the Protestant Reformation as the work of man—of men with special genius in the area of religion—is typical of the whole modern approach to Biblical and church history. Such a view enables men to speak of the World Council as one of the signs of a coming “Second Reformation” in all Christendom.

This means that the old religion which suited our fathers in 16th century Western Europe was good enough in its day, but for our New Day of science, space conquest, and marvelous discoveries in all areas of life, the Christian Church must rise to an equally new and adventuresome unity in order to maintain communications with the Modern Age.

The true Protestant view of the 16th century Reformation is not blind to modern man’s achievements, nor are we ungrateful for the insights of modern empirical science, even in Bible study and theology. What we do demand is that Christians see the Protestant Reformation accurately on theistic, Biblical presuppositions, and not on the naturalistic premises of modem men whose god is no longer the Jehovah God of Revelation, but an unknown and unknowable “first cause” whose ways are pure chance.


The Protestant Reformation, then, is to us the work of God’s sovereign grace in Providence. True, we cannot infallibly interpret either history or Providence in concrete details, and we must ever beware of self-deception in attributing to our nation, our civilization, our denomination, or our circles, some special favor from God in history. (It is said that a New England Puritan preacher once rejoiced in his sermon because a Unitarian chapel had burned down the week before, and was properly humiliated the following week when his own church caught fire and burned to the ground.)

From the Bible we can know, however, that God’s government of history is sovereign, particular, comprehensive, and victorious. We can also know that as God guided the destiny of his Gospel through the Old Testament Israel, so in a similar fashion he today is governing the visible church to bring about his Kingdom in his own way and time. From this divine revelation in the Bible, too, we know that his election is sure, and that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28.

The Reformation was predominantly a return to the Word of God, the Scriptures, and to a sharp, absolute distinction between the Word of God and the traditions and opinions of men and councils. Where did Luther and Calvin and Knox: and the other reformers get their “prophetic insights” by which the desert of formalism in the Medieval Roman Church was transformed to abundant life? From a renewed study of the Holy Scriptures, in a complete submission to the Word of God as against the traditions of men. In that Bible is the heavenly fire by which men are able to call the church awake and to begin a new work of Christian growth in the wicked world.

The Protestant Reformation, therefore, was not a mere stage in the upward march of mankind through various primitive stages of “insight” or “opinion,” but a genuine coming down of God’s Spirit into history and into the church of Jesus Christ, bringing revival and reform. The Spirit of God speaking through the Scriptures with new power explains the Protestant Reformation.


The spirit of the Reformation was, “Buy the truth, and sell it not.” Separation was never desired nor sought by the first reformers, such as Martin Luther, but the persecuting hardness of heart on the part of Rome drove men into a choice between God’s Word and Rome’s abominable errors. Thus the Protestant Reformation was obliged to seek a unity found in confessional agreement on the basis of the Bible alone. How imperfectly the churches were able to go forward by this high rule into visible oneness is sadly manifest in Protestant denominational history, but the sneers of Rome must never blind us to the glorious correctness of the Protestant principle of the sale authority of the Scriptures. Our failure to go on to God’s better unity according to God’s ordained method of church unity in no way proves his method wrong. There is no other method. Any alternative attempt to reach external unity apart from the Scriptures as the sole authority for faith, for worship, and church polity will only lead the church into compromise with pagan elements which constantly threaten the church in the present evil world.

The World Council sets up this statement of faith,

“The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus as Savior according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Time Magazine reported a curious incident at New Delhi. Visser ‘T Hooft, it seems, was under criticism from the Russian Orthodox delegates because the older World Council statement of faith did not mention the Trinity. According to Time, Visser ‘T Hooft instantly picked up a hotel breakfast menu from the table and scribbled out the statement of faith quoted above. Time actually quotes him as remembering, “I took the breakfast menu and wrote out a new formula.” This is a mistake. At least a year before the 1961 meeting the above statement, word for word, was prepared by a World Council study group meeting in England or Scotland.

In Visser ‘T Hooft’s claim to have written extempore, on a hotel menu card, the confession of faith for the whole World Council fellowship, which includes now “over 300,000,000 Christians in 197 member churches in 90 countries and territories,” we see one of the most real perils of this ecumenical movement.

What is the World Council of Churches? Visser ‘T Hooft was quoted by a reporter who interviewed him in Japan in 1959 as follows: “The ecumenical movement is designed to consolidate Protestant churches irrespective of their denominations. There is a growing overture for this movement from the Catholics. The Catholic Church is now planning a study on its break with Protestantism in the 16th century in an effort to improve relations with non-Catholics and eventually unify all Christians in the Church of Rome.”

The final statement of this report was so astonishing that I thought Visser ‘T Hooft must surely have been misquoted. My letter to the press taking issue with his quoted remarks was not answered. He did not correct himself, so the quotation must stand.

The World Council leaders are ever calling on us to fulfill our Lord’s great prayer, “That they all may be one: as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” John 17:21.

In the context of that wonderful prayer, however, Jesus makes a sharp distinction between his church and the world. The church is in the world, but not of it. The world hates the church. They are not of the world, even as Jesus was not of the world. “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth…” John 17:15–17, etc.

The Protestant Reformation was a sincere and amazingly successful attempt by Spirit-filled Christians to separate the church of Christ from this present evil world. It was not wholly successful. The Reformation was not perfect, but, to the extend that the Word of God did take the supreme place in the church’s life and witness, the Church did separate from this present evil world and draw near to Christ the Head.

The World Council, despite all its proud and holier-than-thou talk against the so-called “scandal of disunity,” is a WORLD council. It is drawing closer and closer to this present evil world. It is not effectively sanctified by the Word of God.

The unity found in the World Council is a unity which will not accept the Protestant authority of the Scripture as final. It is rather a deliberate attempt to find unity in accord with the status quo in the apostate and deeply compromised churches of the 20th century. Thus the World Council offers not a true reformation of Christendom but a tragic conformity to the spirit of our time. It cannot lead to true Christian unity. It will only lead into dreadful loss of evangelical freedom. Through it the gangrene of modern skepticism will eat deeper into the vitals of the church of our day if its error is closely combined with the faith of loyal members of the Body of Christ who enter this unholy union. The Reformed Christian today needs to reject the World Council of Churches and to revive the great Biblical challenge of the 16th century.

*More simply, the empiricist holds that truth can be found only through observation by the senses.

1. English Mainichi, Osaka, Japan.