What is the most vital issue facing contemporary Christianity?
Twenty-five leading scholars responded to this query posed byCHRISTIANITY TODAY.
Some noted scholars, among them ProfessorREINHOLD NIEBUHRof Union Theological Seminary, New York, and ProfessorPAUL TILLICHof Harvard Divinity School, confessed their inability to narrow the issues to a single primary concern.
“I don’t know how to choose one vital issue among the many issues that face the Christian Church,” said Niebuhr.
Tillich said: “I feel it is impossible to reduce to one most vital issue the problems facing contemporary Christianity.”
Karl Barth, professor, University of Basel: “How do you explain the fact that the large Christian bodies cannot pronounce a definite yes or no on the matter of atom warfare? What significance has this fact: (a) in regard to the Church’s own message; (b) in regard to the world around her (the Church)?”
G. C. BERKOUWER, professor, Free University of Amsterdam, Netherlands: “I see the ‘most vital issue’ herein: That amid all kinds of evidences of secularization and antagonism toward the Christian faith, we nevertheless discover once again in the Church a new sense of the importance of the Gospel and a realization that God’s Word is manifesting itself with power and is calling for renewed attention (2 Timothy 2:9, ‘the word of God is not bound’). That gives us courage for the future, when men through the overpowering influence of the Gospel meet each other in new perspective, full of comfort and mission in this disturbed world. In one word—new attention to the Bible.”
ANDREW W. BLACKWOOD, professor emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary: “How to put God in the forefront of Christianity today, and then keep him foremost. Call the current tendency secularism, externalism, humanism, or what not; really it is pride and selfishness. In hymns and prayers, sermons and religious books, we exalt ‘Man’—ourselves—rather than the Triune God. We need a new Christ-centered Reformation.”
F. F. BRUCE, professor, Manchester University: “Most vital is the urgent necessity for all who profess and call themselves Christians, in West and East alike, to be real Christians, wholeheartedly committed to the cause of Christ in the world and ready to embrace the conditions which he laid down for those who wished to be his disciples.”
EMILE CAILLIET, professor, Princeton Theological Seminary: “The most vital issue is that we have lost a sense of cosmic purpose secured over the ages, thanks mostly to the Gospel. We are accordingly overwhelmed by a mood of futility to the point of reverting to the very forms of doom which characterized the pagan past.”
EDWARD JOHN CARNELL, professor, Fuller Theological Seminary: “The most vital issue is the communion of the saints. Jesus prayed that his disciples would be so knit by cords of love, that when the world saw the Church it would see the very unity of God. Dissension is an offense against Christ and the Gospel.”
GORDON H. CLARK, professor, Butler University: “The source and cause of all other issues facing contemporary Christianity is the neglect and repudiation of the Scriptures. If there is no intelligible, written revelation, then all opinions are superstitions. On the other hand, if God has given us information and commands, we should accept and obey without addition or subtraction.”
FRANK E. GAEBELEIN, headmaster, The Stony Brook School: “The most vital need is for a deeper and fuller realization of the unchanging relevance of Jesus Christ, who is ‘the same yesterday, and today, and forever.’ No scientific advance or political upheaval can alter the fact that God’s sovereign will is being done in Christ. Throughout the world today many have lost their sense of purpose. Only a Christianity rooted and grounded in the eternal adequacy of the living Christ is sufficient to bring men to a recovery of purpose.”
JOHN H. GERSTNER, professor, Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary: “The most vital question facing Christianity is Christianity—that is, the definition of Christianity. There is so great difference in this area that it is inconceivable that all who use the name are speaking about the same thing. Wisdom is (eternal) bliss; ’tis (eternal) folly to be ignorant.”
CARL F. H. HENRY, Editor, CHRISTIANITY TODAY: “Rightly to evaluate the modern man’s rebellion against God (without underestimating communism and yet without ignoring the secularism of the West), and to challenge this revolt both authentically and courageously where God has spoken, and with his weapons, rather than by human schemes and skills—that is the really Big Task.”
W. BOYD HUNT, professor, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: “The tragic proportion of inactive church members, the maladjustment of the races in Christian societies, and communism’s seeming superiority to Christianity in devotion to some virtues, show that ultimately the most vital issue facing contemporary Christianity is whether or not it can recognize its idolatrous worship of man-made orthodoxies and ideals and submit afresh to the revolutionizing lordship of Jesus Christ.”
W. HARRY JELLEMA, professor, Calvin College: “Not any one of the various issues as such is nearly so vital as the subtle, pervasive, self-righteous secularism, which patterns the modern mind—the mind with which we (also we Christians) frame the issues and our solutions, the mind with which we would think and secularize even our Christianity.”
HAROLD B. KUHN, professor, Asbury Theological Seminary: “A world divided and deeply confused challenges contemporary Christianity to meet a two-fold issue: she must keep her inner witness clear; and—refusing to speak in areas in which she lacks competence—she must raise her voice concerning external issues in such a manner as to keep abiding moral principles in the sharp foreground.”
LEON MORRIS, vice principal of Ridley College: “The Church’s vital problem is that of communication. The Gospel is not seriously weighed: it is simply ignored by active opponents, by the indifferent, and by nominal adherents alike. The Church’s problem is how to stab men awake to their plight as sinners and to their need of the Saviour.”
J. THEODORE MUELLER, professor, Concordia Seminary: “To me the most vital issue faces us in the words: ‘O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord’ (Jer. 22:29). At the bottom of Judah’s spiritual, social and political troubles lay the people’s contempt for the divine Word. Similarly the troubles of our own time stem in the main from neglect of the divine Word in the home, the state, and the Church. Unless the divine message of sin and grace, repentance and faith will be heard we shall escape God’s just punishment no less than Judah escaped it. The path that leads to the world’s welfare is the path that leads to God in Christ Jesus. The Church today dare not become like that of Laodicea.”
BERNARD RAMM, professor, California Baptist Theological Seminary: “The most important issue facing Christendom is the strength of those forces which divide evangelical Christians, and the weakness of those forces which make for real evangelical union. Doctrinaire positions and ‘party line’ theology must undergo serious criticism from the light of Scripture and with the Holy Spirit’s help.
W. STANFORD REID, professor, McGill University: “The most vital issue facing Christianity? I think that it is the necessity of being relevant to the world of the mid-twentieth century. There is a great danger that our Christianity may be expressed in the language and thought forms of the nineteenth or even an earlier century. But a greater danger still is that we do not relate it to the contemporary problems of both the individual and society as a whole. If we do not speak with relevance, we speak in a vacuum.”
WILLIAM C. ROBINSON, professor, Columbia Theological Seminary: “The most vital need facing contemporary Christianity is the proclamation of God in his objective reality. This will issue in the recognition of God as the Creator with all authority in heaven and on earth. It will mean the acceptance of the Ten Words as his commandments which are objectively over man and may not be twisted to fit our subjective fancies. It will bring a new sense of sin and guilt and create a hunger for righteousness which only the Gospel can fill. It will focus our trust not on our response, decision or psychological faith, but on what God has graciously done for us in Christ, that is, in his death for our sins and in his resurrection for our justification.”
HERMAN SASSE, professor, United Evangelical Lutheran Church seminary (Australia): “The most disturbing issue is the general decline of religion in modern mankind. Political doctrines and emotions have become the substitute for religion, and religions the tool of politics. As this applies also to Christianity as a religion, our main concern must be to preserve that which does not belong to the sphere of human religion and by which the Church of Christ lives: the objective Word of God and the sacraments instituted by Christ.
JAMES S. STEWART, professor, University of Edinburgh: “The most vital issue facing contemporary Christianity is evangelism. And that in two dimensions. (1) Within the Church. Men and women have to be helped to believe their own faith and to realize their riches in Christ. (2) Outside the Church. Here evangelism means a fellowship of reconciled and forgiven sinners feeling a personal responsibility and concern to make real by word and deed to all men the reconciliation and forgiveness of God.”
MERRILL C. TENNEY, dean, Graduate School, Wheaton College: “Is Christianity a supernatural revelation abroad or merely a popular feeling? Is it a transforming experience, or is it only a subject of theological debate? We need a fresh manifestation of the Holy Spirit to renew the true unity, logic, and dynamic of Christian faith.”
CORNELIUS VAN TIL, professor, Westminster Theological Seminary; “The most vital issue facing contemporary Christianity is that of a critique of historical reason. The most pressing question is as to whether and where objectivity may be found in history. The Church must preach Christ and the resurrection. Can it do so unless Christ speaks to us directly in Scripture?”
GUSTAVE WEIGEL, Jesuit theologian and author, Woodstock College: “The pressing task of contemporary Christianity is to communicate the authentically genuine message of Christ and the Church in forms proper to the cultures of our era. The substance of the message is fixed but the modes of expressing it must be those spontaneous to the minds and hearts of our place and day. Older modalities encased in polemics deriving from dead cultural situations must be buried with the situations which caused them.”
Acknowledgements: The pictures of Professors Barth, Niebuhr, Stewart, and Tillich are Religious News Service Photos.
Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi, newly-appointed Vatican “Apostolic Delegate” to the United States, paid a “courtesy call” on President Eisenhower at the White House last month. Presidential assistant Rocco Siciliano accompanied Archbishop Vagnozzi to the 25-minute conference in Eisenhower’s office.
People: Words And Events
Deaths: The Rev. Arnold H. Grumm, 65, honorary vice president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, in St. Louis … Dr. T. W. Hazlewood, minister of St. Paul’s-Avenue Road United Church in Toronto and News Correspondent for CHRISTIANITY TODAY … Dr. Charles G. Shatzer, 81, dean emeritus of Wittenberg University and former executive secretary of the Lutheran Laymen Movement, in Springfield, Ohio … D. Leigh Colvin, 79, noted prohibition leader … Dr. Charles Fama, physician who for more than 30 years was a lay preacher at the Church of the Gospel, a mission to Italian Roman Catholics associated with the Bedford Park Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York.
Elections: As general secretary of the Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A., the Rev. John Coventry Smith … as president of the Seventh-day Baptist General Conference, the Rev. Victor Skaggs.
Appointments: As dean of the school of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. J. Hardee Kennedy; as dean of the school of religious education, Dr. John M. Price, Jr.; as dean of the school of sacred music, Dr. W. Plunkett Martin; as professor of church history, Dr. William A. Mueller … as president of Bethany Bible College, the Rev. C. C. Burnett … as guest professor of religion at Bethany College, Dr. Donald McGavran … as national chaplain and chairman of religious activities of the U. S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, Cloyd R. Croft, Jr.… as pastor of the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston, the Rev. Carl J. Giers … as editor-in-chief of Forth Magazine, official monthly of American Episcopalianism, Henry L. McCorkle … as national executive director of Episcopal women’s work, Miss Frances M. Young … as superintendent of Christian Herald’s Bowery Mission and Young Men’s Home, Raymond J. Allen … as president of the newly-formed National Student Christian Federation, Allan Burry.
It was the first meeting between the President and Vagnozzi, whose predecessor was elevated to the College of Cardinals earlier this year.
Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos says that “officially” the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul “knows nothing” about reported plans for discussions in Italy next year between Roman Catholic and Orthodox representatives.
In a statement released through the World Council of Churches office in Geneva, the archbishop said the Orthodox will “never participate in any conversation with the Roman Catholic church which does not have as its eventual aim the inclusion of Protestants.”
The Orthodox prelate, recently elected a WCC president, was commenting on a report broadcast by Vatican Radio last month which said that 10 Roman Catholic representatives and an equal number from Orthodox churches would convene in Venice for “theological discussions of interest to both churches.”
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