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«Die Welt war meine Gemeinde»- Willem A. Visser ’t Hooft

A Theologian for Europe between Ecumenism and Federalism


Filippo Maria Giordano and Stefano Dell'Acqua

Willem A. Visser ’t Hooft (1900–1985), Dutch pastor and theologian, was one of the most significant personalities in the Protestant Ecumenical movement. Deeply influenced by Karl Barth, and filled with a strong Ecumenical spirit, he was closely involved in the founding of the World Council of Churches, of which he was elected General Secretary. During the Second World War, many Protestants became convinced of the need for an international political system which, beside uniting the nations and peoples of Europe, would guarantee them fundamental freedoms and mutual respect for their historical, cultural and confessional traditions.
The directors of the WWC were strongly committed to federalism, partly because of the political traditions of the states from which their member churches originated (Switzerland; Great Britain and its Commonwealth; the United States), and partly because of their conviction that a simple confederation of states, based on the model of the League of Nations, would be completely incapable of containing national ambitions. In spring 1944, Visser ’t Hooft welcomed into his Geneva home the representatives of the European Resistance, who, under the leadership of Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, signed the International Federalist Declaration of the Resistance Movements. These historic transnational encounters, aimed not only at coordinating military action or seeking diplomatic contacts but at exploring ways to «build» peace and re-establish the future of the Continent on new foundations, marked a profound break with the past.
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Ecumenism and Federalism: a Historical Convergence



A great Alsatian scholar and prominent interpreter of the Bible, Oscar Cullmann, wrote that “the objective of every form of ecumenism is unity, more or less,” but he also warned that confusing unity with uniformity meant “simplifying the fundamental need of ecumenism.” He claimed that “the Una Sancta is not uniformitas sancta. To avoid this confusion – Cullmann explained – it should be clarified that unity is unity in diversity. In turn, diversity can then be simplified in terms of inconsistent plurality, which leads to dispersion, to separation. In that case, diversity must be specified as diversity in unity.” The two terms: unity and diversity, the Lutheran theologian concluded, “must be taken very seriously. […] The objective to which I aspire, which should not be provisional but permanent, is a unity in which each Church retains its own precious and inalienable features as well as its own structure. In the absence of a better term, I called it a ‘federation’.”1 Cullman’s proposed federation of the various Christian denominations in the hope that Christians would restore unity in the Spirit and life of the Church, ideally goes hand in hand with the old Kantian project of a federation of free states2, aimed at achieving the political unity of the peoples of Europe, without diminishing their historical, cultural and religious differences. This means a federation with the aim of promoting that “perpetual peace” which is able to work towards the prosperity and happiness of...

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