by Jack F. Shepherd
The purpose of this article about the recent “Salvation Today” conference is to attempt to react to it in the perspective of its own particular history. The brochure describing the conference program, and at least three other things written in anticipation of Bangkok, have sought to establish a continuity and development from Edinburgh, 1910 to Bangkok, 1972-73.
The purpose of this article about the recent "Salvation Today" conference is to attempt to react to it in the perspective of its own particular history. The brochure describing the conference program, and at least three other things written in anticipation of Bangkok, have sought to establish a continuity and development from Edinburgh, 1910 to Bangkok, 1972-73.
This same approach of pleading a case on the basis of a claim to historical succession is a familiar one to those of us who have read from the literature of the ecumenical movement. For example, the preparatory booklet for New Delhi advocated the integration of the International Missionary Council into the World Council of Churches in much the same way. The fine series of Bible studies on Witness, Service and Unity were supplemented with the defining of New Delhi developments as fulfillment of a half-century of the ecumenical process. (The chart from the booklet is a useful one and is included here.)
The inaugural Assembly of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism occurred in conjunction with the Third Assembly of WCC in New Delhi in 1961. Constitutional provision for merger was made at the Ghana Assembly of the International Missionary Council, which was held in Accra, Ghana, December 28, 1957 – January 8, 1958. The CWME with its own division staff within the WCC became "in all respects" the successor of the IMC. However, a committee report from New Delhi makes clear that a broadening of the scope of the Commission’s Mandate for Mission was envisioned. "Our temptation will be to think of the Division simply as the continuation of the interests of the International Missionary Council with emphasis on Asia, Africa and South America. We must resist this temptation. This is the Division of World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches. We are concerned not with three continents but with six" (The New Delhi Report, 1961, Constitution of the C E, p. 250).
A full meeting of the CWME was convened two years after the New Delhi Assembly in Mexico City in 1963. "Witness to Six Continents" was a key theme and was the title of the official report of the conference. As will be noted, the big question on the Bangkok agenda was formulated at Mexico City: "What is the form and content of the salvation which Christ offers men in the secular world?" (Occasional Bulletin, Volume XXII, No. 13, 1971).
My purpose is to dissent from a commendatory and optimistic interpretation of this history, but before I make critical charges of discontinuity and deviation, let me acknowledge my inclination to agree with the wording of the stated Aim of the CWME and the doctrinal Basis of the WCC. The editor of the International Review of Missions raised the Bangkok question in announcing the prospective conference (Volume LXII, No. 228, October ’68):
When the International Missionary Council was integrated into the World Council of Churches at New Delhi, 1961, as the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, it acquired an explicit Aim: `To further the proclamation to the whole world of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the end that all men may believe in Him and be saved.’ At the same time the World Council revised its Basis to make more explicit the dynamic nature of the ecumenical movement: `The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour 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.’ The operative words here are Savior and saved. What do they mean? They and their cognates do not occur very frequently in the New Testament, but they are often used to define the purpose of Christ’s mission to the pagan world.
Most evangelicals would agree on the definition of those "operative words" and the stated aim and basis for that matter. Moreover, we recognize that many in ecumenical circles are committed to the same essential evangelical faith as we are. However, the apprehension and even antagonism of many of us toward ecumenical trends may prove to be justified when the outcome of Bangkok becomes apparent. This paper is being written prior to the conference. Perhaps its critical and apprehensive outlook will have been wrong. Let us hope so.
I do not agree with the interpretation that heralds Bangkok as a fulfillment of a missionary purpose derived from Edinburgh and its antecedents. On the contrary, I wonder if Bangkok is not, in fact, committing itself primarily to a sort of social and development program. However, if such an enterprise, however laudatory, becomes a substitute for the "salvation" that has been consistently defined in clear biblical terms from Edinburgh on, then the CWME and the WCC may be proclaiming "another gospel" than those to whose history they claim to be heirs.
It is illustrative to suggest that "the uncertainty about salvation" theme is the logical result of two prior threats to the call for "the evangelization of the world in this generation" which was right at the heart of the concerns of Edinburgh from whence the movement for ecumenical organization has been derived (cf. The Evangelization of the World in this Generation: The Resurgence of a Missionary Idea Among the Conservative Evangelicals, Denton Lotz, Hamburg Dissertation, 1970). y reading of this history is in three stages which may climax in Bangkok in an abandonment, not a realization, of what began at Edinburgh. I want to offer brief explanation of what I see as three unfortunate phases of compromising ecumenical developments:
1. First, there was the unfortunate distraction from world missions to church unification.
2. Then there was the subordinating assimilation of mission into ecclesiastical bureaucracy.
3. Inevitably, we seem to have come to a complete confusion of the church’s unique saving mission with any helpful service given to a needy world.
I. Two Movements Arising Out of Edinburgh
Any diagram of ecumenical development such as the one alluded to above will draw at least two lines out from Edinburgh. The one most familiar to conservative evangelicals sets out as the first major event the founding of the International Missionary Council in 1921. Then, the five IMC conferences are spaced along the line: Jerusalem ’28, Madras ’38, Whitby ’47, Willingen ’52 and Ghana ’58.
It is very important to note that parallel to the line of movement for world mission is the line that leads to Amsterdam ’48 and the formation of the World Council of Churches.
Now it must be acknowledged that there were those who served on both sides of the dichotomous situation discerning the necessity of simultaneous development of church and mission. If non-conciliar missions people had done their homework on the history of these two parallel movements, we would be better able to handle the church-mission tensions we are now finding so urgent.
Having admitted that there were elements of sound logic and biblical fidelity in the correlation of these two streams from Edinburgh, I want to claim that the movement toward organizational church union became a distraction and deviation from the central purpose of Edinburgh. It resulted not only in the alienation of conservative evangelicals (cf. Lotz, 1970), but it also, in my judgment, blurred the great IMC vision of mission.
One aspect of the diminution of the biblical understanding of mission is evident in the bifurcation of the church unification line into another two lines – Faith and Order and Life and Work. Compromise was incipient in this combination as evidenced in such expressions as "doctrine divides, service unites". How much did Stockholm ’25 (Life and Work) and Lausanne ’27 (Faith and Order) affect Jerusalem ’28? The same pattern was present in the relation of Oxford ’37 and Edinburgh ’37 to Madras ’38. Then, Whitby, trying to regroup for "partnership in obedience" in mission, was surely overshadowed by the unveiling of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam in ’48. As could be expected, there was the convergence of the two divergent lines from Edinburgh in New Dehli ’61 in the integration of IMC and WCC.
II. Mission Identity Lost in the Structure?
The conservative evangelical perspective on the history of the ecumenical movement highlights a second danger and defect. In spite of the high ideals and beautiful theological formulations that people like Bishop Newbigin have brought to the support of the integration of "mission and church," hopes have not been fulfilled nor real progress made toward genuine "renewal in mission."
The moving introductory statement of the Report of the Third Assembly Committee on the CWME is quoted here. In reading it one must ask, "Have the past ten years given evidence that the great promise of it has been realized?" I fear not. It seems on the contrary that there has even been a tragic lack of faithfulness to it.
The integration of the International Missionary Council and the World Council of Churches brings into being a new instrument of common consultation and action to serve the Churches in their missionary task under the new conditions of the second half of the twentieth ccntury. In it we see the good hand of God leading us into the next phase of the Church’s mission. It is at the same time a fitting symbol of the fact that missionary responsibility cannot be separated from any other aspect of the Church’s life and teaching. The Christian mission is one throughout the world, for there is but one Gospel of salvation for all men, one Saviour and Lord, who is the light of the world . . .
As we face the new situation, we are at the same time heirs of the spiritual riches of the missionary movement of past centuries. The very existence of a World Council of Churches is a sign of God’s blessing upon that movement . . . Integration must mean that the World Council of Churches takes the missionary task into the very heart of its life, and also that the missionary agencies of the churches place their work in an ecumenical perspective and accept whatever new insights God may give through new relationships.
The missionary task is not finished. It is rather entering upon a new and more challenging phase. All our concerns with one another must not cause us to forget the fact that two-thirds of the human race are without the knowledge of Christ as the light of the world. We owe them that knowledge. We have no better claim to Christ than they have. Nothing else that we can offer them is a discharge of that debt.
The calling of God to his Church today is for a new offering of life. For some, especially among the youth of the churches, it is a call for life-long missionary service abroad. For all of every age, and out of every nation, it is a call to total and unconditional commitment to the mission of God . . . (The New Dehli Report, p. 249).
The real issue is, What was "that mission" to which New Delhi called for commitment? It would not be fair or accurate to say that the idea of mission became ambiguous or that mission lost its identity just because it was assimilated organizationally into the WCC structure. However, the results of this particular institutional integration of church and mission are such as to give comfort to those of us who keep calling for a separateness of church and mission. I will not attempt to argue the case for structures here. I do, however, want to make one more comment on the situation that prevailed when it could be said "the church is mission" or mission is "everything the church does outside its four walls." This kind of immobilizing imprecision elicited the classic, but prophetic, lament, "If everything is mission, pretty soon nothing is mission."
I want to note the erosion of the idea of the church’s unique, saving mission in two stages between New Dehli and Bangkok. Then, in conclusion, I want to try to point out that having perilously generalized the missionary function, the more recent developments have introduced serious uncertainty about the very message of Jesus Christ as Savior.
No thoughtful person should quarrel with the emphasis at Mexico City on "Mission in Six Continents". However, the meaning of mission was beclouded in the C E debate that Thomas Wieser reports on:
The discussion raised a theological issue which remained unresolved. Debate returned again and again to the relationship between God’s action in and through the church and everything God is doing in the world apparently independently of the Christian community. Can a distinction be drawn between God’s providential action and God’s redeeming action? If the restoration and reconciliation of human life is being achieved by the action of God through secular human agencies, what is the place and significance of faith? If the church is to be wholly involved in the world and its history, what is the true nature of its separateness? We were able to state the thesis and antithesis in this debate, but we could not see our way through to the truth which we feel lies beyond this dialectic (Occasional Bulletin, Volume XXII, No. 13, 1971).
How can the missionary obligation and function of the church be kept clear at all, if the distinction between the church and the world is fuzzed out? If the church is, as was affirmed at Willingen, God’s "instrument for mission," is its service to the world not primarily redemptive?
The Mexico City uncertainties came through loud and strong at Uppsala, with such supporting documents as Planning for Mission and The Church for Others. This story, including some of its sad notes, has been told in other places. It is sufficient here to observe that Section 11 of the Fourth Assembly Report seems to say that mission is a myth, rather than to provide, as it professes to do, "a mandate for mission." John Coventry Smith was surely right when he said in his appeal for acceptance of the final draft of "Renewal in Mission", "There is at this time no common understanding of the nature and limitations of the Christian mission or of the method of its implementation" (The Uppsala Report, 1968, p. 38).
III. Ambiguity About The Salvation Proclamation
Verkuyl and Wieser both note that the selection of the Bangkok theme grew out of the Mexico City debate. What seems to me an unfaithful step was taken in proposing that a better definition of "the form and content of the salvation which Christ offers men" than the Bible provides might be discovered. As Wieser said, "In trying to answer this question, we must not only clarify the biblical and theological meaning of the salvation in Christ, but we need to pay closer attention to the great diversity of contemporary experience and to the many ways in which the need and the search, but sometimes also the promise of salvation, is being expressed in the midst of that diversity."
The material gathered together in an attempt to understand the contemporary experience of salvation is fascinating and useful. The unfortunate thing is that it appears that some of these claims and notions are regarded as having the same validity and authority as biblical truth about salvation. If we are reluctant about the combination of Scripture and tradition as sources of authority, we should be even more wary of Scripture and contemporary experience as authoritative. We must not give up on "salvation talk" that is based on the Bible, even if it does seem to "remain meaningless for many people" (Occasional Bulletin, op. cit.).
The clouds of ambiguity remained after Uppsala. Visser ‘t Hooft spoke a wistful word about the mandate of the ecumenical movement as he had heard it enunciated by Bishop Soderblom in Uppsala Cathedral in 1925. It involved, he said, "one task with two aspects: to manifest the oneness of the people of God and to enable it to witness with a common voice to the full gospel of salvation with its definite implications for the world (Report, p. 3140. Uppsala did not seem to hear.
These two points from Soderblom remind one in a striking way of the climatic passage in Visser ‘t Hooft’s little book, No Other Name, (SCM, London, 1963). It is appropriate to this discussion to note that the title is taken from Acts 4:12, that crucial salvation text. It is also to be noted that he speaks here of the "New Humanity" theme, five years before Uppsala featured it.
If Bangkok participants are really loyal to their own history, they might well test their profession and experience of "salvation" by the great word of their own doughty, ecumenical statesman, Visser ‘t Hooft. In coming to his statement of the church’s one task in two aspects, he affirms his faith in "Christian universalism." He surely explains what "Salvation Today" is in the series of passages from which the following selections have been made:
Let us try to describe the nature of that specific universalism which is rooted in the Gospel.
It has its source and foundation in one person: Jesus Christ . . . In every part of the blew Testament, in every stage of the early tradition, we find that the coming of Jesus Christ has completely transformed the human situation. Man’s eternal destiny depends on his decision concerning the relationship to this one Jesus of Nazareth. It is because of him that the whole outlook for the future has changed. It is through him that a totally new community is formed . . .
Ire has come at a particular moment of history. He enters into the life of humanity . . .
Since Christ died for all, all have died (II Corinthians 5:15). That is to say: the old humanity is passe, antiquated. The time of the new creation, the new humanity, has come. The meaning of the age in which we live now is that the work of reconciliation which was begun in Christ must still be completed. There are those who have understood what God has done and who accept gratefully the gift of reconciliation. There are those who do not accept and those who have not yet heard the good news. So the word `all’ is now used in two different connotations. Paul says: `The same Lord is Lord of all’, that is to say of the whole of humanity, but he continues: `and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him’ (Romans 10:12), that is to say on those who fulfill the one condition of responding to the good news. As men take their decision for or against him a distinction arises between those who realize the crucial significance of God’s deed in Christ and those who do not…
This means that the universal Church has as such a double function. First of all it must in its own life manifest the universality which characterizes the new reconciled humanity . . .
The second function of the universal Chruch is to be the messenger of God’s universal offer of reconciliation. The `all’, who are one in Christ, exist for the sake of the `all’ for whom Christ died, but who do not know or acknowledge him. The appeal which God makes to humanity is made through ambassadors, through `us’ (II Corinthians 5:20) . . . The divine act on which reconciliation depends has happened once for all and is unrepeatable, but the ministry of reconciliation is to go on till the end of time. The Church is the missionary Church because it is the instrument of God’s world-embracing plan of salvation (pp. 100-102).
That luminous statement of universal salvation in Christ seems to me to echo affirmations that have been maintained throughout the history of the ecumenical movement. To be sure, such a view has been questioned and denied, but it seems to me never to have been quite so threatened with betrayal as in the house of Edinburgh’s professed friends at Bangkok. I sincerely hope that what I write turns out to be wrong.
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