Change Of Format, No Change Of Heart

For fifty years The Christian Century has been the respected voice of liberal Protestant conviction. We extend anniversary congratulations, aware of this magazine’s long history and editorial keenness.

As contemporary theology has deepened its biblical roots and evangelistic passion, the Century’s influence has waned. While the magazine’s format has changed from time to time, its content has remained much the same: spirited assault on what the Bible says and stubborn confidence instead in what the Century says. Modifications of the magazine’s point of view across the decades have eliminated neither its original disparagement of mass evangelism (as corruptive of the churches), nor its despite for the authority of Scripture (as detrimental to Christian thought and life), nor its professed devotion to inclusive ecumenism as ideally expressive of Christian unity.

On the magazine’s 50th anniversary, Charles Clayton Morrison, its founder and until 1947 its distinguished editor, has contributed a reaffirmation of the Century’s theological and evangelistic vagabondage. Dr. Morrison devotes almost half his space in mourning over the pragmatic empirical philosophy that long passed in liberal circles for gilt-edged Christianity. He recalls (to his credit) how at long last he repudiated Professor Henry Nelson Wieman’s naturalism (which to Dr. Morrison and other liberals had once seemed “almost evangelical”!) when that philosophy’s banishment of the transcendent personality of God could not be disavowed. Nobody need question Dr. Morrison’s proper acknowledgment that “a false conception of experience … lured … Protestant thinking and our general culture … into a blind alley” [he might have noted that evangelical Protestant respect for the scriptural revelation meanwhile preserved its devotion to Jesus Christ the Way] nor his frank admission of “the moral effects of this false empiricism upon our culture.” Indeed, he voices pointed exhortation that “in the next fifty years theology must make certain that it does not again allow any school of philosophy to undercut the grounds of faith.”

Most Christians will detect, however, the absence in the Century’s position of a sense of shame over Liberalism’s substitution of philosophy for revealed theology. No plea will be found for the great priorities of miraculous revelation, no conspicuous call to a theology of the Word incarnate and written. While in passing he invites “serious attention” to both philosophical and theological reflection, Dr. Morrison especially summons theologians to arm themselves “not with the arguments of theology but with the weapons of philosophy itself.” Thereby he implies more than that Christianity inherits the necessary task of philosophical theology (as indeed it does). The Christian faith apparently is to gain its intellectual content not from divine revelation but from human speculation. Dr. Morrison exults in the fact that modern theology—once enslaved to “scientific method” arbitrarily so-called—has now rediscovered philosophy, but he nowhere bemoans the fact that twentieth-century theology-humanistic, idealistic, or neo-orthodox—continues to repudiate revealed doctrines and precepts.

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Alongside his disappointing theological analysis, Dr. Morrison ventures a distressing diagnosis of evangelism. He rightly considers the successful impact of evangelical mass evangelism as a turning-point in the history of the modern church. But he laments this to be a tragic ecclesiastical development. “The whole body of New York Protestantism delivered its faith into the hands of the fundamentalist cult,” he complains; the Protestant churches are “now challenged to decide whether they will continue to entrust the proclamation of the Christian gospel to a fundamentalist evangelism.” It is passing strange that a half-century survey of Christian conviction, professing to be a positive exposition from the liberal Protestant standpoint, should be occupied in the main with its own contribution to contemporary evangelical initiative, namely, the negative criticism of fundamentalism. [Dr. Morrison urges that “Protestantism should take its evangelism out of the hands of fundamentalism and project an evangelism that truly represents the Christian faith,” but he nowhere troubles to note the failure of the parallel effort at mass evangelism already ventured on inclusive lines.]

What specific objections are voiced over “fundamentalist evangelism”? We are told that it does not preach “the whole gospel”; that it is “distorted, shallow, inflated and unbiblical”; that it is “divisive”; that it “discredits Christianity in the eyes of discerning men and women”; that it breeds an individualistic, non-ecclesiastical conception of salvation.

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We shall not argue that fundamentalist evangelism reflects a simon-pure New Testament evangelism. The pattern of biblical evangelism remains the criterion to which every contemporary evangelistic thrust is answerable. But Dr. Morrison’s curious complaint that fundamentalist evangelism is “unbiblical” cannot be taken at face value, since his article elsewhere disparages the appeal to what the Bible literally says. A sincere respect for the scriptural norm will indeed recognize that contemporary evangelism reveals a measure of the spirit of our age as well as the spirit of apostolic concern. The atmosphere of modern meetings is often charged with sensual elements—to which the press and the spectators contribute as much as the evangelist. The Graham campaigns, happily, have lifted evangelistic music to a high level. But public entertainers, politicians, ecclesiastical dignitaries—introduced assuredly for their faith in Christ—thrill the gatherings with a fleshly “personality,” curiosity not easily associated with apostolic times. Modern evangelism sets out in fidelity to the biblical revelation, but often proves to be doctrinally thin. Even the wonders of our Lord’s person and mission are sketchily given, and precision is lacking in delineating the ground and nature of man’s condemnation and salvation. Sinners are not adequately exposed to the relevance of the Incarnation, Atonement and heavenly priesthood. Even repentance—emphasized much more than the God-man—gets a one-sided orientation to the threat of calamity posed by our wicked social order rather than to the tragic loss of man’s glorious destiny in this life and the next through his spiritual revolt. Thus evangelistic preaching reflects the hurried temper of the day in doctrinal matters.

Especially in preaching the whole Gospel to the whole man the evangelistic thrust of our age, like that of every age, requires biblical scrutiny. Christianity is more than a religion of personal piety; it implicates all of life and culture. The Gospel addresses man as an intellectual as well as emotional and volitional being, and it calls for spiritual dedication in social no less than in private life. Dr. Morrison rightly wants Christian evangelism “content to preach nothing less than the whole gospel” and, we are confident, Dr. Graham would be the first to concur. But what is this “whole gospel” of which Dr. Morrison speaks? His pointed objection to special focus “on sin, repentance and the forgiveness of God”; his intemperate charge that contemporary “evangelicals” have “raped” the “noblest word [i.e., ‘evangel’] in the vocabulary of Christian evangelism”; his fervent appeal that ecumenical Protestantism “must not allow the world to believe that fundamentalism represents its conception of Christianity”—each and all require a biblical test to check the Century’s conception of “the whole gospel.” Swiftly evident is the fact that such adjectives as “truncated … distorted … shallow … unbiblical” are apt descriptions of any “gospel” that forfeits the centrality of man’s supernatural redemption through the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Examination of preaching in apostolic times reveals this “good news” of proffered personal redemption to be the central thrust of the early Christian message. To prattle about acceptance of Christ as Saviour and Lord and yet to evade this “good news” is to emasculate the Gospel and to falsify the evangelistic task. The Protestant liberalism that rejected both this Gospel and its evangelism showed greater logic than the frenzied modern desire to recapture evangelism devoid of a valid evangel.

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The issue is pin-pointed by Dr. Morrison’s assertion that the Church is “the carrier, the mediator, of God’s unfailing forgiveness and love to all who in faith penitently share in its fellowship,” and that “Christianity is primarily a corporate religion.” He contends that “there is no support in New Testament Christianity” for an “individualistic … conception of salvation. Christianity is not primarily an individualistic experience.…”

Assuredly the New Testament depicts the risen Christ as head of the body of regenerate believers; biblical Christianity is sadly perverted if Christian experience is depicted as a mystical relation to God to be pursued in subjective isolation from the fellowship of other persons. We do not know any evangelist in Christian history who has taken this tack. The fact that the Holy Spirit, at the moment of the sinner’s regeneration, incorporates believers into the living Church of which the risen Christ is head—so that their new relation to the Head simultaneously brings believers into new relation also to fellow members of this body of faith—is a standing emphasis in evangelical evangelism. So also is the plea that believers identify themselves promptly with a local visible congregation. There is no disposition, moreover, to deny that the Christian Church is bearer of the biblical revelation and the carrier of forgiveness (even if its nature and ground require greater biblical precision and fidelity than in contemporary liberal expositions).

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What is in dispute, however, is the automatic identification of this Church as a spiritual organism with “organized Protestantism” (or with what is now often called “the organized body of Christ”) and the further notion of the primacy of the corporate above the personal in Christianity. That believers are subordinate members of a body which Christ heads is beyond doubt; but that the body is somehow exalted over its members, rather than constituted by its members, is open to serious debate. The Apostle Paul gloried in the Gospel in intensely personal terms: “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me …” (Gal. 2:20). Evangelical Christianity always has insisted that God acts immediately upon the human soul, that God saves (not men or institutions acting in his name). The Holy Spirit indeed uses means of grace (especially the Scriptures) as instrumentalities, but he nonetheless operates directly upon the souls of men. The Gospel is nothing if it is not good news to the individual.

His sharp words about the Protestant ministers of New York betray Dr. Morrison’s exaltation of contemporary ecumenism above biblical evangelism. “Many ministers and churches” are asserted to have cooperated in the Graham crusade “under stress of a threat that their noncooperation will create an unseemly and costly division in the ecumenical fellowship.” Doubtless this factor explains participation by some metropolitan ministers, but CHRISTIANITY TODAY doubts that the great majority of the New York clergy acted mainly from that motive. It is our judgment, rather, that a new sense of evangelistic urgency stirred many ministers and churches to cooperate. The real issue at stake in evaluating the situation in New York is sadly missed by the Century. Dr. Morrison climaxes his appraisal with the revealing comment that “we may be sure … that the fundamentalist groups and churches … did not intend to participate in the church federation after the revival.” The more significant question is whether the federation will preserve its dedication to evangelism as the Church’s primary task now that the Garden crusade has ended. (The Protestant Council’s department of evangelism was unstaffed before the Graham crusade because of disinterest in evangelism. Since the Crusade, its concern for evangelism has been marked by a greatly enlarged budget and the addition of new personnel to implement an evangelistic thrust which believers will follow with keen interest.) Dr. Morrison quite glibly repeats the cliche that “Fundamentalism is by its nature a divisive influence.…” Is not the Gospel likewise? And, for that matter, the liberal rejection of biblical Christianity, too?

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It was Mr. Chesterton who told of the Frenchman who hated the Eiffel Tower

And later discovered that the best way to get rid of it was to live in it.

Similarly with God.

One of the best places to get away from God is in a Church

Or, better still, a Cathedral.

There is the solemnity for instance, the smell of sanctity,

The tall white candles;

The Gregorian chant or Palestrina,

The ethereal light slanting across John the Baptist in the west window,

The beatific face of the Saviour Himself in Rembrandt red in the east

(Given in memory of the late Bishop William Smitherton, 1914–1925).

The organ bringing Johann Sebastian Bach to earth again,

The gray haired cleric sombrely telling of David’s sin

So safely stored in time;

The modulated, carefully covered cough

The luxurious scent of imported perfume,

The fluted pillars, suitably chipped here and there, imparting age,

The bronze, the brass, the milk white stone;

The two war memorials and Mrs. Vinson’s plaque,

The carved eagle with silver feet and wings atop the scripture,

The cherubic choir singing from Bishop Thomas Ken,

Two with freckled noses and four with crew cropped hair

But all in perfect tune and timing;

The smell of old wood and incense

Now and then a whiff of Eucharistic wine;

The Dowager in the next pew

With sparkling Cartier diamond snugly encased on the fat fourth finger.

And now the hymn, “Lead, Kindly, Light.”

Yes, one can be very comfortable in a Cathedral

You may even feel quite pious—for the time being that is.

You see, everything is so clean, so cautious, so very safe and solid too,

Carrying with it the correct tinge of “God’s in His heaven, all’s right …”

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It is, if you like, so remote and removed from confusion,

The world’s din and the anxious throb of man’s heart;

Nobody looks to be in trouble

And no stain of sin about whatever that may be

It is precise, punctilious, proper and everything seems so prosperous

(And the President made a 78 to-day at Augusta, Georgia.)

Nothing raucous here, nothing rash and most certainly nothing radical

(The stock market took a rise to-day, and steel and chemicals did very well.)

And what a nice crease you have in your trousers,

Anything baggy except under the eyes would be quite out of place here, however.

And here’s the Dean at the door,

A jolly chap, but not too jolly mind you;

His handshake has that measured squeeze (those diamonds pressed can hurt,)

Savoir faire he has; quite even teeth for over 45, don’t you think?

But anxious now for his pipe and tea and marmalade.

Yes, it’s nice to go to Church. There you can nod to God.


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