by Peter Beyerhaus
When the theme for the eighth ecumenical World Mission Conference “Salvation Today” was announced shortly after the Uppsala Assembly in 1968, many evangelical minds all over the world rejoiced.
When the theme for the eighth ecumenical World Mission Conference "Salvation Today" was announced shortly after the Uppsala Assembly in 1968, many evangelical minds all over the world rejoiced. With growing concern and anxiety they had watched how the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) rapidly seemed to have lost sight of the preeminent goal of Christ’s great commission, the eternal redemption of the unsaved "two billion" who by their sin, superstition and ignorance are separated from God, the fountain of life. Here the occasion for a clear reaffirmation of the biblical foundation, content and aim of Christian mission in view of the tremendous challenge of this crucial stage of world history seemed to be within the near range. Evangelicals knew, of course, that in view of the strong ideological cross-currents in the official ecumenical quarters theirs would not be an easy task. But still the issue at stake was too decisive not to give it a fair shake.
Thus very soon study groups were established, consultations were held and individual theologians got down to serious work. Nobody has seen yet a complete catalog of the documents which have been produced in this process and subsequently submitted to Dr. Thomas Wieser, the full-time study secretary for coordinating these efforts. Their number mint, however, be considerable. This became evident also by the fact that the conference had to be postponed several times from the dates originally scheduled in 1969-70 to 1972-73. Although communication between the different groups was lacking deplorably, there is sufficient proof that despite vast contrasts in the theological quality of this material, some quite excellent papers have been produced. I am thinking particularly of the document of the Norwegian study group which was based on a masterly survey by the Oslo New Testament scholar, Prof. Dr. Edvin Larsson. The pity was, however, that these exegetical fruits were not made available to the public in time, nor was there any synopsis of agreements and disagreements which could have stimulated further research. Some very good bible studies were distributed among the Bangkok delegates shortly before their departure; but they came too late in order really to be brought to bear on the deliberations of the conference. I actually observed in our chartered flight from Geneva to Bangkok, how the more conscientious participants made a last minute effort to go through these yellow papers which they had received just before their departure. The spokesman of the twelve-man Roman Catholic delegation, Fr. Hamer from Rome, in his fraternal farewell address to the conference on January 8, 1973, publicly deplored that better use had not been made of this most valuable theological study material.
It would, however, be wrong to assume that this failure in the theological preparation for Bangkok was due simply to organizational shortcomings. The six exegetical studies on the yellow paper, for example, had already been delivered at a biblical consultation in Bossey, March, 1972. But this event passed virtually unnoticed. The only fruit of this meeting which, as late as September, 1972, was made available to the constituency was a little brochure, "Biblical Perspectives on Salvation." This was originally designed as a more popular study guide to be used in congregations of the member churches. It was partly used in the Bible study groups in Bangkok, but found to be hopelessly inadequate, at least by the group in which I participated under the chairmanship of Greek Orthodox Bishop Anastasios Yanoulatos.
The real reason for the breakdown of the exegetical preparation for Bangkok was two-fold. First, it once more revealed the depth of the hermeneutical crisis in the WCC. There is no common conviction that the Bible is the authoritative and reliable basis for Christian faith and ministry. Scripture is seen by many as a collection of different historical documents, testifying to the experiences of salvation and understandings of the divine will at the time they were written. But these witnesses, it is felt, do not necessarily agree among themselves, and they must be complemented by our own experiences in the different contexts of the human struggle today.
The second reason is that these present day experiences and quests now concern the ecumenical mind to such a high degree that they have become the starting point for seeking our solutions. Thus even the witness of the Bible (when it is consulted) is understood within the framework of current political, social, cultural, religious or psychological problems.
To this criticism, which was expressed in a study document from the Ecumenical Seminar in Tubingen, Dr. Wieser, in his "Report on the Study," replied in Bangkok: "The insistence on the uniqueness of the story in the Bible in the interest of affirming its authority, however, serves to accentuate the discontinuity between the biblical story and our historical situation today. Does this mean that the authority can only be affirmed, when it is one step `removed’ from our experience?" The evangelical answer to this question would, of course, be a clear "yes". The Bible can only exercise its role as the sovereign norm to evaluate our experiences if these experiences themselves are put to the test rather than becoming part of the norm themselves! Otherwise, contemporary man in his experiences and evaluations becomes the judge of the Word of God. Yea, he might even become the judge of God himself, as German "death-of-God-theologian" Dorothee Solle, wrote in one of the preparatory papers: "That God does not weep in the Scriptures is bad enough for Him. He would have good reason to do so." Here, as we also find in several other texts prior to and during Bangkok, the borderline between theology and blasphemy has definitely been crossed.
Scripture, therefore, was not allowed to play its majestic role in Bangkok. It was complemented, or rather substituted, by a situationalist approach, called in the modern ecumenical jargon "contextuality." The real preparatory document for Bangkok, to which high importance was attributed by the organizers, from Secretary General Philip Potter downwards, was a collection of documents called "Salvation Today and Contemporary Experience." It culminated in an episode (taken from the Japanese novel Silence), where in a given situation apostasy from the Christian confession was held to be the most relevant form of "Salvation Today." (This was reaffirmed by Indian Jesuit Samual Rayan in the first issue of the conference newspaper Salvation Today, December 31, 1972).
There was still another reason given by the Geneva staff as to why the conference would deviate from the traditional procedure of working on the basis of theological documents prepared beforehand. This old method, it was said, would yield too much to the Western way of theologizing. Westerners reasoned on the basis of a scholastic system of dogmatic categories in order to arrive at highly abstract formulas. This would be both uncongenial to the minds of Christians in the Third World and also irrelevant to their problems. Therefore, it would be better to feed the conference material which would be a more spontaneous expression of the Afro-Asian mind. Personal testimonies, poems, songs, pieces of drama or liturgies would be more appropriate. Even a dancing group was planned through which some members could "explore the meaning of salvation." Urged by the German delegation to produce some solid theological documents for their personal preparation for the conference, Dr. Gerhard Hoffmann, a newly appointed WCC staff member, replied: "The group leaders are got tied to definite texts. They can come with their own preparation but they must face the insights of others who find other texts or interpretations more important. For the other groups, too, something analogous applies. Preparation is not possible on a mere intellectual level, but rather by being tuned in to the theme. This does not exclude an intellectual German theological discussion, but it reduces the possibility to a `contribution.’ As you state, the German delegation is crying for `preparatory material.’ The first answer, therefore, would be: do not block yourselves against an experiment in group dynamics, and still less against the moving of God’s Spirit, which is at least possible. Rather prepare yourselves in a different way this time! Is it not `preparation,’ if somebody somewhere discovers a new song, contemplates on it and takes it along to Bangkok? Of course he also may bring along biblical texts, which have just become important for him."
This reply from Geneva served as an eye-opener to me as to the real character of this conference. Although, it was convened under a highly theological heading, serious theology was to be excluded from this conference from the very beginning. We rather were invited to expose ourselves to an experiment in group dynamics, which in America is more commonly known by the term "sensitivity training." Formerly, at the time of its crude origins in China, it was called "brain washing." That this was done in the name of the working of God’s Spirit again bordered on blasphemy. Furthermore, the fact that it was done under the pretext that this was more congenial to the mind of the delegates from the Third World was rather axe insult to their churches. Up to now Afro-Asian church leaders have given ample proof that they are quite capable of making their contribution to sound biblical theology. Or are ecumenical theologians like the late D. T. Niles already forgotten and disclaimed by the WCC in which they played such an important part?
In any case, Geneva had decided to stage this experiment in group dynamics, and the organizers were determined to carry it through. They seemed to be convinced that this would be the way to let the conference delegates arrive at their predetermined concept of "Salvation Today" without becoming aware that they were being manipulated by the shrewdest of psychological techniques.
The organizers of the Bangkok conference knew that if they would allow an open theological debate to develop, the results could prove highly unsatisfactory. Most likely a debacle quite similar to the polarization between ecumenicals and evangelicals at Uppsala, 1968, would have taken place. This would have meant that very few of these recommendations would have been passed. These recommendations were the central aim of the whole conference. They had been designed to build up the ecumenical action program in which the WCC "Program Unit on Faith and Witness" has been busily engaged ever since the time of the integration of the International Missionary Council into the WCC in 1961.
Therefore, from the theological point of view, Bangkok was a frustrating experience. After the first week of the conference, a leading American evangelical remarked to his friend, "This is the most boring meeting I have ever attended!" From the surface this seemed to be a general impression. The conference program, which was not disclosed before the beginning of the meeting, provided very few public lectures and still less opportunity to discuss the advertised theme. In fact, only the Geneva establishment itself was to be heard from the pulpit: Mr. M. M. Thomas, Chairman of the Central Committee, gave the one really theological address on "The Meaning of Salvation." He was followed by two reports, one by Dr. Potter as the previous director of CWME, and the other by Dr. Wiener on the proceedings of the "Salvation Today" studies.
The first week was composed of Bible studies under the general theme, "Exploring the Meaning of Salvation." The subsequent eight meetings of sub-sections and sections continued the conference work "with a view to action." Here lay the real emphasis of the schedule. Our objections would have been modified, if the Bible studies, i. e. the two Bible presentations of Hans-Roudi Weber in the plenary, as well as the three discussions in seven smaller Bible study groups had really been allowed to lay the theological foundations for the forthcoming ecumenical action program for mission. But Weber’s Bible presentations were held as a panel performing a drama which culminated in catechizing the audience. This turned the whole thing into "a nice Sunday School lesson," as Bishop Chandu Ray remarked.
Some of the Bible study groups were perhaps the most pleasing part of the whole program. But when I inquired at the opening of our particular group meeting whether there was a chance to bring our results to bear on the findings of the whole conference, we were told again by those WCC representatives who were officially assigned to each group, that the groups were not supposed to produce any statements. The Bible studies were arranged mainly for our own spiritual benefit. In the context of the group dynamic experiment they seemed in fact to serve as preliminary stages in which, by the aid of our ecumenical sensitizers, we were gradually geared into the collective mind of the conference. Two of them did, indeed, produce quite evangelical statements, published on the bulletin board and in the conference paper. But only one became part of the final report of the assembly. Here it rather served as a biblical fig leaf to cover the humanist nakedness.
The main task for the working out of the final recommendations was, at least, nominally, assigned to the ten sub-sections, into which the three main sections were divided. But even they were not able to produce theologically-responsible statements. This was partly due to the deliberately disconcerted way of discussion, which could not lead to a real consensus of the group. In sub-section I-B on "Cultural Identity and Conversion," for example, even in the sixth meeting the participants were not able to agree whether there was something unique in Christian conversion as over against conversion in Maoism or in other religions. The report, therefore, had to be written by the chairman himself! This dilemma could be accounted for by the fact that the themes of the sub-sections were not introduced by biblically-oriented lectures or prepared drafts. Instead, "action reports" were given, to which the participants should respond by telling their own "experiences."
The "theology" of Bangkok, therefore, could be called the theology of experience. But even here not every experience was accepted as equally valuable. When a young evangelical from West Africa movingly related his conversion from Islam to Christ, this story was bypassed without any further comment or evaluation. Much, instead, was made of the story of a Chinese intellectual who in the cultural revolution was assigned to work in a pig stable, and thereby discovered his need to be "converted" to accept simple farm workers as his real fellow human beings. The theology, in this case, was that true conversion is not so much a religious experience as an overcoming of social estrangement.
By the way, Maoism was presented several times as a really acceptable alternative to Christianity. This became evident when on the China evening the stress was not laid upon the question as to how the gospel could be re-introduced to China, but on the contrary what the cultural revolution in China meant to our understanding of "Salvation Today."
This revealed, once again, not only the tremendous abyss between evangelical and ecumenical mission theology, but also the unwillingness of the controlling ecumenical organizers to allow a systematic analysis of this theological conflict and an open encounter. Some of us had foreseen this strategy at the beginning of the conference. Therefore, Dr. Arthur Glasser and myself seized the opportunity of the only public hearing after the three addresses of the WCC officials. We deplored that the one really crucial issue in connection with the conference theme, the ecumenical-conservative controversy on the theology of mission, which so clearly had been pinpointed by the Frankfurt Declaration, had not even been mentioned in the director’s report, "From Mexico 1963 to Bangkok 1973". We were both harshly met first by U Kyaw Than, the General Secretary of the East Asian Conference of Churches, and then by Philip Potter himself. Both employed their rhetoric to reduce the general conflict reflected in the Frankfurt Declaration to an internal quarrel among West German theologians. It should, therefore, not be allowed to embarrass the World Conference or, as U Kyaw Than mocked, to infect Asia by "theological tuberculosis." Having played on these racial sentiments, Potter succeeded in capturing sufficient emotional support from Third World participants to extinguish the threatening fire of a general theological debate in the plenary session. My proposal to the conference to call for an international theological consultation between ecumenical and non-conciliar evangelical theologians in order to resolve the "fundamental crisis in Christian missions" was never replied to. Nor was it taken to the vote, when I made it a formal motion on the last day of the conference.
Does this mean that Bangkok was really an atheological meeting? Several German participants stated that in Bangkok the Afro-Asian delegates, who formed the majority, had finally refused any further intrusion of Western theology into their churches. The call for a moratorium in sending Western missionaries to the Third World churches was interpreted accordingly. "Asia has finally been granted the right to be saved according to its own fashion," one radio commentator remarked. Especially African participants repeatedly stated their desire "to find their true identity" as the new slogan put it. This rather unbiblical concept seems mainly to imply a reformulation of Christianity within the framework of the cultural and religious heritage of the African past. The Kimbanguist Church, which claims to have received a special revelation and blessing of the Holy Spirit through the prophet Simon Kimbangu (In the minds of his followers he has been almost uplifted to the fellowship of the divine Trinity), was therefore highly acclaimed. It was represented as the outstanding example of such a genuine indigenous African church, which, without the cooperation of Western missionaries, had expanded rapidly and found its true identity.
I doubt, however, whether Bangkok really has meant the breakthrough of the Third World churches out of the former Western dominance towards a theology which is both truly indigenous and authentically Christian. I also doubt that the loudest Afro-Asian speakers at the Bangkok meeting were really representing the faith of the masses of Afro-Asian church members. They have so often enjoyed the privileges of VIP’s at ecumenical meetings around the world that they have lost the vital contact with their fellow Christians at the grass root level of the congregations. The influence of ecumenical sensitivity training with all its humanistic and syncretistic vocabulary has become tighter and tighter within their minds. Thus mentally and ideologically they have become even more dependent on the West than they were under the influence of so-called Western scholastic theology, which in most cases simply was plain biblical theology.
The deliberate appeal of the WCC officials to the African and Asian sentiments within the context of resurgent traditional religion in their post-Christian transformation has, of course, ushered in a dynamic give-and-take-movement. It might, finally, aim at the formation of an inter-religious, semi-political world church. Still all this is no spontaneous movement of the church in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The concept of "Salvation Today" which finally appeared in the official reports of the three sections, "Culture and Identity," "Salvation and Social Justice," and "Churches Renewed in Mission," was not the spontaneous, theological self-expression of those members appointed by their churches and mission bodies.
To arrive at a proper theological evaluation of the Bangkok conference it would be necessary to discern between two different conferences, which partly overlapped in Bangkok. The first and decisive conference had started long before the opening of the Bangkok meeting. It was the continuous consultation of the Geneva staff members and their accredited ecumenical fellow-workers in other parts of the world. This conference elaborated both the theology for "Salvation Today" and the strategy for Bangkok. The second, more representative, conference was the one in which the official delegates found themselves, carefully guided and guarded at every step by highly disciplined people who served as chairmen, secretaries, reflectors, consultants, artists, musicians, newspaper editors or rather anonymous sensitizers in the group meetings. The purpose of this official meeting, I’m afraid, was to arrive as nearly as possible at the predetermined results without giving the impression that they had worked then out by themselves. This master plan partly succeeded, but partly got stuck due to the still intact biblical convictions of a great number of the delegates from many different countries and ecclesiastical traditions. This accounts for the rather uneven appearance of the section reports. There are clearly evangelical affirmations side by side with obtrusive expressions of current ecumenical ideology. Compare, for example, the following definitions of salvation and of mission in Section Report III-B:
Salvation is Jesus Christ’s liberation of individuals from sin and all its consequences. It is also a task which Jesus Christ accomplishes through his church to free the world from all forms of oppression. This can only happen if the church is renewed and grows. It is our mission
– to call men to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ,
– to help them to grow in faith and in their knowledge of Christ in whom God reveals and restores to us our true humanity, our identity as men and women created in his image,
– to invite them to let themselves be constantly re-created in this image, in an eschatological community which is committed to man’s struggle for liberation, unity, justice, peace, and the fulness of life.
One of the worst statements in the section reports is found in "Litany" produced by Section I. It contains the following strange combination of modern beatitudes:
You were a poor Mexican baptized by the Holy Spirit and the Blood of the Lamb: I rejoice with you my brother.
You were an intellectual Chinese who broke through the barriers between yourself and the dung-smelling peasant: I rejoice with you, my sister.
You found all the traditional language meaningless and became an atheist by the grace of God: I rejoice with you, my brother.
Out of the depths of your despair and bondage you cried and in your cry was poignant hope: I rejoice with you, my sister.
You were oppressed and fled to the liberated areas and dedicated your life to revolutionary struggle: I rejoice with you, my brother.
You were oppressed and put down by male authority and in spite of sneers and snarls persevered in your quest for dignity: I rejoice with you, my sister.
It would be completely futile to weigh the pros against the cons and from such analysis proceed to a diagnosis of how near the WCC at its Bangkok meeting has come to the biblical truth and how much hope there might be for further dialogue, cooperation and clarification between the ecumenical and the evangelical movement. The "Program Unit on Faith and Witness" will by no means feel bound by any theological affirmations which do not clearly support its present strategy. It is far more important to notice which emphases have been put into the reports and recommendations either by continuous influence or last minute interferences by ecumenical activists. These really indicate the line of action which the WCC will follow during the forthcoming period of unchallenged executive power. "Now we are in business," one Geneva staff officer remarked, when those theologizing conference attendants had left Bangkok, who were not to be delegates to the succeeding assembly. The emphases on "Dialogue with Men of Living Faiths," on "Salvation Through Political Confrontation" and the "Moratorium" for Western missions are the decisive results of Bangkok, among which only the third is really new. One might term it an effort at the self-liquidation of the western missionary movement.
One last observation must be related. Before going to the conference we were informed that in contrast to the previous world mission conferences, Bangkok would not again produce theological statements which might be very orthodox in theology but which would not lead to action. Nevertheless, the section reports do contain theological statements in the form of preambles. These preambles were not the result of the discussions held in the sections. Before the conference itself was opened, accredited theologians had been asked to be responsible for their writing. In Section I they were Dr. Carl F. Hallengreutz of Sweden and Anglican Archbishop G. Appleton, of Jerusalem. In Section II the assignment fell on Professor Jurgen Moltmann from Tubingen. Only Section III was unable to produce a theological preamble. Since Dr. Nacpil from Manila was unable to attend the conference the statement of Rev. Koyama of Japan, whom the section chairman appointed in his place, failed to be accepted by the section. Therefore it was added as an appendix to the section report side by side with a theological statement which I had delivered in a panel discussion together with statements by Koyama and John Gatu from Nairobi. This sudden decision of Section III was one of the few really spontaneous events of the Bangkok conference.
As for the theological understanding of the theme, "Salvation Today," the preamble prepared by Moltmann is the most important one. It tries to bridge the gap between the evangelical concept of a predominantly personal and eschatological salvation and the ecumenical concept with its social, this-worldly emphasis by means of a "comprehensive notion of salvation." But Moltmann was challenged on three main points. First, he failed to acknowledge the basic distinction between the primary restoration of fallen man to the love of God with social reconciliation as its consequence. Second, his concept of anticipated eschatology makes man here and now the acting participant of that final salvation of the "groaning creation" (Rom. 8:19) whack God has reserved for his own final redemptive act in the return of Jesus Christ. Third, Moltmann’s yielding to the ecumenical idea of "contextuality" dissolves the concept of salvation into a number of widely disparate experiences. There is no clear recognition of the one basic reality of salvation which transcends all its specific expressions and consequences. Typical of this non-theological dissolution of the biblical message of Christ’s universal salvation for all sinners who believe in him is the following statement: "In this sense it can be said, for example, that salvation is the peace of the people in Vietnam, independence in Angola, justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and release from the captivity of power in the North Atlantic Community, (N.B. What would it mean in communist countries?) or personal conversion in the release of a submerged society into hope, or of new life styles amidst corporate self-interest and lovelessness. "
Here under a seemingly biblical coverage, the concept of salvation has been so broadened and deprived of its Christian distinctiveness, that any liberating experience at all can be called "salvation." Accordingly, any participation in liberating efforts would be called "mission."
That this would be the Bangkok interpretation of salvation and mission was to be expected. The World Council of Churches should, however, not expect that evangelicals all over the world will accept it. We now are challenged to present the biblical alternatives by articulating our faith and by acting accordingly in obedience to Christ’s Great Commission.
Copyright © 1973 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.