By Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca
In 2022, the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) is to gather in Karlsruhe, Germany, around the theme “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” Together with the climate emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic is a strong and brutal reminder that human beings belong to creation and have been given the mandate to care for it. The pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities and exposing still further existing structural injustice. Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemics of ignorance, white supremacy, and hate are deadly, as is the pandemic of injustice. Racism and the politics of fear and hate are dividing and killing people. Other global trends that the assembly needs to address have also been recognized. These include the weakening of democracy through authoritarian politics of fear and hate; the ambiguous consequences of the digital revolution; the increasing militarization of conflict and warfare that is making millions of people refugees and increasing the danger that nuclear or biological and chemical weapons are used; and the growing recognition that we are living in a multireligious world in which Christians engage in dialogue and cooperate more and more with people of other faiths.
The assembly needs to address this situation and speak to the world in clear and direct ways that all may understand. It cannot gloss over the deep, multifaceted civilizational crisis that faces the world. However, the assembly has the chance to explore how Christ’s love opens a horizon of hope beyond the wall. Reconciliation and unity are God’s final purpose for humankind and creation, and it is indeed God’s purpose to move the whole world and the entire cosmos to reconciliation and unity.
The theme of the WCC’s assembly in Karlsruhe is inspired by Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, where the apostle speaks of the love of Christ “that urges us on” (2 Cor. 5:14) and suggests that through Christ, God has given us the ministry of reconciliation that we might be ambassadors of Christ’s love (2 Cor. 5:18-20). Against the background of the contemporary challenges facing the world and the Churches, some have welcomed the theme as a timely reminder of the core of our Christian faith and of the mission of the fellowship of churches that belong to the WCC.
For Paul, however, speaking of Christ is neither “Christomonistic” nor exclusive, but rather cosmic and universal. When Paul speaks about the love of Christ, he speaks about the love of God manifested in Christ, through incarnation. In Christ, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). Out of love for humanity and the whole of creation, through kenosis he became human. He assumed all suffering and weaknesses of human nature and of the whole of creation, becoming one of us and identifying with us in order to heal and restore and reconcile humanity and creation with God (Phil. 2). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes of God’s plan “for the fullness of time, to gather up [ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι] all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). In Christ, God intended to bring about reconciliation and unity in the realm of the whole of creation: “He himself is before all things, and in [Christ] all things hold together… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:17-20). According to these texts, the purpose of God is reconciliation and unity – not only of one people or of a Christian group, but of the cosmos.
St Irenaeus is known as the theologian of the late 2nd century who shaped and articulated the redemptive recapitulation in Christ, based on the biblical texts above. This theology has marked Christian thinking in both the East and the West for almost a millennium. Apart from St Irenaeus, the theology of recapitulation is also found in the writings of other early Church Fathers such as Hippolytus, Methodius, Athanasius, Hilary, Ambrose, and Augustine. In the era of post-patristic thought until today, the East remained faithfully attached to this theology and further articulated it in its liturgical expressions and spirituality. In the West, with a few exceptions, starting with the era of scholastic theology, the emphasis shifted from the redemptive recapitulation of the work of Christ to his person, and the Christocentric emphasis became predominant. The same has been the case with Reformed theology.
A second issue is that there is still misunderstanding about the content and the object of the “love of Christ” about which the theme speaks. Speaking of the love of Christ also means “our” love for Christ and our working in and with Christ, through the Holy Spirit, manifesting our “compassion,” taking on and identifying ourselves with the suffering of the world. In this way, the assembly is expected to deal with the ways Christians today respond concretely to the many challenges of our times through a “transforming discipleship.” As an “eschatological community,” experiencing the values of the Kingdom to come as a foretaste, the Church is expected to be a vector of unity and reconciliation for humanity and creation, thus remaining obedient to the goal that God’s love has in its manifestation in Christ (healing, unity, reconciliation). To have the expected impact and to be credible to the world, Christians must continue their search for deeper unity and reconciliation among themselves and continue their pilgrimage of justice and peace, strengthening their fellowship and also cooperating with all people of good will for the healing of creation.
The relationship between God’s love, mercy or grace, and justice is not a new theme in theology and its relationship with philosophy. In the literature and art of the Middle Ages, the tension between God’s love and justice is quite apparent. It was the great longing for a loving and merciful God who accepts and justifies the sinner that drove Luther to take the steps that brought about the beginning of the Reformation. The problem of justification is a central and recurring theme in Luther’s writings. For centuries, the problem of justification has remained a focal point of division in the Western tradition of the Church. It was not until 1999, after a painstaking and thorough study, that the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation reached consensus and healed the wounds of the past by signing a joint document on justification.
The Orthodox Church did not experience the Reformation and therefore was not directly confronted with the delicate problem of the relationship between God as love/mercy and God as justice. But it must be said that it is thanks to its spirituality, and not to the dogmatic theology of its textbooks, that the Orthodox Church avoided this dilemma.
The logic and discourse of the Greek philosophers greatly shaped the structure and perspective of scholastic theology in the Middle Ages, which influenced and shaped the Orthodox discourse in the Orthodox theology of the textbooks. Thus, the Orthodox Church had difficulty calling God “love.” This axiom remained, rather, a statement without logic and content. From the point of view of ancient philosophers, the apophatic God of Orthodox spirituality was conceived and presented in the textbooks of dogmatic theology rather than according to the criteria of experienced koinonia with God in prayer. God was the “existence par excellence” (self-existent), and God’s existence was not conditioned by anything. Consequently, God was impassive. God could not suffer. Any attempt to give God a merciful face of suffering was even considered heresy, such as the heresies of patripassianism (the idea that it is the Father who is suffering in Jesus), or theopaschitism (the idea that God can suffer). In such a context, it was normal that the emphasis was on God’s justice rather than on God’s mercy for God’s creatures. Within the framework created by these philosophical concepts, it was difficult theologically to speak of love and mercy.
Theologically, it has to be underlined that the justice of God – who is also just by nature – arises from God’s self, that is, from God’s love. God thus manifests justice through love, compassion, and mercy. In Christianity, the character of God who is loving, compassionate, and merciful is manifested in its fullness in the event of the Incarnation. Out of love for creation, God takes on creation through the flesh. God becomes a human being and takes on all the weaknesses and wounds of humanity and fallen creation, except sin, in order to heal, reconcile, and restore them.
But the theological articulation of this statement has not always been easy. Kenosis, that is to say the character of a compassionate and merciful God who out of love took on himself “humiliation” to the point of death to save his people, has found its deep meaning in spirituality, but has had difficulty being accepted when one has tried to affirm it through and within the ancient philosophical parameters.
Orthodox spirituality as lived out has never had a problem with speaking of a kenotic, humble, compassionate, merciful God who participates in the sufferings that arise from human weaknesses and takes them upon himself to heal them. Consequently, the spiritual person who strives to be a theophore, “a bearer of God,” acts just like the master they have within them by grace. Closer to our time, St Silouan the Athonite and his disciple Father Sophrony adopted the same language: God’s love is for all creation; it is present even in hell because God’s presence is everywhere. God is the same, absolute love, even in hell. The “punishment” and sufferings that people endure in hell are sufferings caused by the presence of love and the impossibility of sharing in it. Justice is done through love, and evil is “rewarded” by the presence of good. Rather than the metaphysical theology of dogmatic textbooks, it is the spiritual perspective of a compassionate and merciful God and a God who applies his justice through love that has shaped the spirituality of the Orthodox people, their literature, and their way of life.
Some of the reactions to the theme of the Karlsruhe assembly have shown that talking about compassion, mercy, and love has become problematic today. The powerful and those who are successful and wealthy are well regarded in this world. Competition is on the rise. The weak, the sick, and those who have not achieved what they set out to do are thrown on the trash heap of history. Only if we take this context into account can we understand why in our time there is more depression and suicide among younger people than among older people, as was the case a few years ago. We need to find a new discourse to be understood and heard by the people of today: not a God who is judge and gendarme, distant and apathetic, who controls in order to punish with the punishments of hell, keeps people away from the Church, and ensures that the message of the Gospel of joy is no longer heard and accepted.
On the other hand, one must not go to the other extreme. Love does not avoid or eliminate justice but embraces it. Compassion is not a simple and cheap sentimentalism that erases the application of justice. Compassion means suffering together and with the sufferer; it is a cry for justice and against injustice. St John the Baptist and the prophets show us what prophetic mercy is. Mercy is not a contemptuous pity, but a love that takes on the condition of the other, that identifies with the other person. It is the effort to put oneself in the other’s place out of love, to stay with the other, not to judge the other lightly, but to accompany and advise her or him in their need, without showing any sign of superiority or dominance. It is this love that changes and transforms and, in the end, creates justice. Justice is not the elimination of evil, but the transformation of evil into good through good.
With the choice of the assembly theme, the exchange of such theological reflections and conversations about them need to inform the preparations for the WCC’s 11th Assembly. The message of the assembly must address the signs of the times and transform their intrinsic logic. Daring to speak of Christ’s love in the present context, and thus of the love of the triune God, of God’s mercy and God’s justice, the assembly will find its purpose and goal.
 A fuller version of this article was published in The Ecumenical Review 73:3 (2021), p. 351-363 and in Una Sancta 76:1 (2021), p. 7–18.
 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by The Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Church,” 31 October 1999, https://www.lutheranworld.org/content/resource-joint-declaration-doctrine-justification- 20th-anniversary-edition.
 Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “We Must Pray for All: The Salvation of the World According to St Silouan,” Sobornost 19:1 (1997), p. 51–55.