by James A. Scherer
The Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) of the World Council of Churches (WCC) has chosen “Salvation Today” as the umbrella topic for its next assembly to be held in Bangkok late in 1972.
The Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) of the World Council of Churches (WCC) has chosen "Salvation Today" as the umbrella topic for its next assembly to be held in Bangkok late in 1972. The intention is to gather up under this heading many of the current theological and program concerns of the Division of World Mission and Evangelism. The assembly’s planners are convinced that "Salvation Today" urgently requires discussion because the CWME’s own mandate directs it 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." The WCC, moreover, is a fellowship of churches committed to the confession of Jesus Christ as "God and Savior."
Under the "Salvation Today" rubric the coming assembly will deal with a broad spectrum of implications which salvation holds for men in the modern world. Consideration will be given to the ongoing dialogue with men of living faiths. Concern will be expressed for the social relevance of the gospel in a period of rapid social change, and the familiar themes of "humanization" and "liberation" will doubtless reappear. The impact of the continuing study on healing and salvation will be noted. The participation of local church and mission groups around the world has been solicited in connection with the fuller development of the theme, and indications are that much valuable and fruitful planning is being done.
The purpose of these remarks is in no way to disparage hopes for the "Salvation Today" study, but rather to highlight aspects of the inquiry which appear to have been inadequately treated in the preparatory studies issued to date. My starting point is the observation that salvation in the biblical sense is God’s own saving activity in the corporate life of his people, Israel, and through them – uniquely through the work of Jesus Christ – it is directed toward the peoples of mankind. It is God’s own free act, and comes to men as a sign of unmerited grace. It is testified to in faith (faith as the content of God’s mighty acts) and has the effect of awakening faith in its hearers (faith as trust and confidence). Though divine in its origin and source, salvation manifests itself comprehensively as an event with social and political, as well as psychic and personal dimensions. The three points which I consider central for the discussion of the topic "Salvation Today" are: the role of faith; the comprehensive character of evangelism; and the indispensable Christological frame of reference.
I. FAILURE TO DEAL WITH MISSION AS AN ACT OF FAITH
It would appear that the preparatory documents do not clearly articulate the basic problem: that Christian mission is always a witness from faith to faith. The witness to salvation in Jesus Christ is always the glad testimony of those who have seen, heard and believed (John) in the power and reality of God’s coming into the world in Jesus Christ. Their witness is given so that others may know and have "life." This personal element of faith has always been the motive and springboard for missionary activity, from Paul through Xavier to Zinzendorf and the modern missionary movement.
In contrast, the preparatory documents seem to imply that the problem with the term salvation today lies mainly in its obsoleteness, ambiguity and remoteness from modern man. It is proposed to overcome these weaknesses by means of theological clarification, redefinition and the search for contemporary and existential illustrations of salvation. Men’s aspirations for freedom and dignity, and the current discussion regarding the validity of transcendent language about God will be taken into account. It is suggested that Black Power, African and Latin American liberation movements might be taken as possible models in interpreting the current quest for salvation. There can be no doubt that contemporary freedom movements raise in a very fresh and urgent way the need for theological interpretation and relevance.
The problem is that contemporary movements add little or nothing to the once-for-all given basis and foundation of the Christian mission in God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ. The motive and power for mission are not found in the questions and cries of the world – though from such questions and cries we can get valuable guidance for the direction and carrying out of our mission. Response to human need forms the environment of mission and may serve as its occasion or catalyst, but it is never in itself the motive. Nor can a sensitive and well articulated theological statement serve as a primary motive for missionary action, though theology has an important clarifying function. Indeed, a good deal of past missionary work has been done on the basis of a poor or inadequate theology, but the fact is that it was done. Theological reflection is a by-product and valuable adjunct of the obedience of faith; it is not a cause or a substitute.
It is part of the fundamental responsibility of the assembly to issue anew the call for apostolic obedience. The assembly must not be content with theological reflection and clarification of salvation, or with a compilation of modern parables of secular salvation which speak to modern man. The Commission’s task, now as always, is to "further the proclamation . . . of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the end that all men may believe in him anal be saved.
2. TENDENCY TO FRAGMENT THE COMPREHENSIVE CHARACTER OF EVANGELISM
The preliminary documents seem to imply that the complementarity of witness and service, of proclamation and presence, formerly upheld in ecumenical statements on evangelism is now very likely a thing of the past. The thrust of salvation in the modern world must be conveyed by action, service and involvement, leaving decreasing scope for overt witness to the gospel. This would be, among other things, a serious departure from the Lord’s own approach: he came proclaiming the good news and announcing that the Kingdom had drawn near in himself – while healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the hungry, and commanding his followers to clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, etc. The comprehensive character of evangelism is grounded in Jesus’ own example.
The history of the missionary movement from ancient to modern times tells us of a balanced and comprehensive effort to bring about "total welfare" for mankind – through healing, agriculture, literacy, education, the arts, community development and other means. This was true of both the medieval monastery and the nineteenth century missionary compound, and it remains true of much missionary work today. The WCC studies on evangelism of the 1950’s confirmed this historical practice and at the same time presented a valid biblical insight when they described the three-fold nature of evangelism holistically as consisting of kerygma, diakonia, and koinonia (proclamation, service and fellowship). Evangelism meant the presence of these three elements not in isolation but in mutual support and complementarity as mutual witnesses to God’s shalom.
To abandon the complementary and comprehensive character of evangelism for whatever reason is to encourage polarization and to rend asunder integral elements that ought not to be separated. The church in its world missionary outreach should follow historically tested guidelines and not cater to each new critical voice or passing subjective mood. The close integration of proclamation, service and community formation offers the best hope and guidance for mission today. Historical amnesia forgetfulness of the lessons and rich apostolic heritage of the past – can lead the Christian mission down the road of self-negation and ultimate dissolution. The assembly should resist every tendency to dissociate salvation as proclamation and witness from salvation as service and involvement at points of human need.
3. DANGER OF THE LOSS OF THE TRANSCENDENT AND UNIVERSAL DIMENSIONS
The final point is suggested by the uninhibited witness to the name and power of Jesus Christ given by Peter and John before the Jewish temple authorities upon the occasion of the healing of the cripple. "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). The apostles have an unswerving obligation to testify to the name and power of Jesus Christ before the entire religious establishment of the day: "we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard" (4:20). The salvation of the cripple demanded that the author and source be made known. The deeper purpose of the apostles in this encounter was to challenge the heads of the temple and of the Sanhedrin, exalted custodians of the promises made to the forefathers, with the reality of the crucified and risen Lord. Jesus alone was the answer to their divinely given hopes and expectations, and the key to the ambiguities and obscurities of Jewish history. Since the coming of Christ salvation is found in him alone. Therefore the witness to his name and power could not be stilled.
Jesus judged his own people most harshly because they were heirs of the promises of the covenant. They would be cast into outer darkness for stubborn unbelief and indifference to the call of God, while Gentiles from East, West, North and South would sit at the messianic banquet table in the house of God. Jesus himself blessed with his shalom a Roman centurion, a Canaanite woman, and numbers of Samaritans.
The purpose of this illustration is not to launch into an anti-Semitic diatribe but rather to underscore the Lord’s own emphasis: that whoever acknowledges him before men, he will also acknowledge before the Father in heaven; but whoever denies him before men, he will also deny before his Father (Matt. 10:32-33). With the full manifestation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, it is no longer possible to revert to the time of uncertainty and silence about him, as though his Lordship had not been made known in the cross and the resurrection. For those who know Jesus Christ there is salvation in "no other name"; his followers are enlisted in the task of making that name known to those who do not know him. The Christian mission can include no less than the full Christological witness to salvation and grace in Jesus Christ. The suppression of this witness is unthinkable, for the name and the power are inseparable.
The parallel which I wish to draw between the Jewish case in Acts 4 and the situation of the Christian mission today is the following. Jewish messianism, deprived of fulfilment by its refusal to acknowledge and confess Jesus Christ as Lord, became barren, sterile and distorted. It lacked the fresh release of apostolic vigor and of charismatic gifts which characterized the new race of Christians. This messianism without Christ produced two kinds of tendencies:
(1) Zionism, a movement which exhausted itself in political action to restore a Jewish homeland, losing the universal dimension of God’s salvation along with much of the dimension of the transcendent, while focussing on a particular and limited geographical concern;
(2) Marxism, a prophetic offshoot of Judaism which collapsed eschatology into history and sought the fulfilment of the Kingdom within history. It gave a necessary corrective to Christian quietism and offered a valuable stimulus to Christian social action, but it ended by sacrificing the transcendent dimension of salvation in its widest sense (human fellowship with God and the attainment of the fullness of the humanity of Christ, both now and hereafter) for a purely finite and immediate fulfilment which negated much potential for human development (e.g. adoption, "sonship," humanization in the complete and ultimate sense of Jesus Christ). Such developments as these out of Jewish messianism contain important lessons for the Christian mission.
As we look at the various options being spelled out for a reinterpretation of "Salvation Today" it seems to me that the Christian mission is in danger of recapitulating the errors of Zionism and Marxism. (1) Local liberation movements appear to go the way of Zionism. They emphasize the particular and the horizontal at the expense of the universal and the transcendent. While seeking a valid intermediate goal they turn the means (liberation) into an end (self-assertion) and exhaust themselves in constructing a false kind of particularism. They usually fail to liberate man for the realization of his ultimate and transcendent possibilities. (2) Movements for humanization seem to go the way of Marxism: they sacrifice transcendent human values (the new man in Christ) for immediate economic and political ones. Seeking freedom from a state of human powerlessness, they exhaust themselves in the development of man as a unit of production and consumption, sacrificing the transcendent dimension which includes part of the "truly human." In both cases there is the tendency for the immediate and the particular to become the ultimate; the eschatological promise of universal fellowship with God within the Kingdom is frustrated and negated.
Salvation in Jesus Christ includes both the particular and the universal dimensions of fulfilment, both the mite and transcendent aspects of human development. Only in the totality of the grace, wisdom and truth given in Jesus Christ can we find wholeness and salvation today. The Christian mission to the world will also become barren and sterile if it negates or minimizes its Christological substance. Salvation, properly understood, includes both liberation and humanization; but it includes more. Only as men are brought into dialogue with the living Christ and under the influence of his gracious healing and enlightening presence will liberation and humanization follow. We must heed the warning issued by the apostles to the religious establishment of their day not to sacrifice or suppress the very treasure of our faith, and the very heart and center of our assurance: Christ for us (as Lord and Savior), Christ in us (as the Holy Spirit, and equipment for discipleship), and Christ for the world (as mission and apostolate). For if we do not confront men with the whole Christ, the manifest Christ, we too are judged for falsifying or suppressing the testimony to the gospel.
In the interests of true humanization and liberation, and to keep the Christian mission from becoming spiritually abortive or barren, it will be the responsibility of the next assembly to see that the Christological center and substance of the gospel is faithfully maintained.
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