Will Protestant leaders in America learn a long overdue lesson from the present theological tumult on the Continent? Will ecumenical synthesizers awake to the meaning of the latest breakdown of European theological perspectives, the third such collapse in the twentieth century? Or will ecclesiastical activism, with its costly forfeiture of intellectual discipline, continue to discourage an independent probing of biblical realities? Will the American religious professionals continue their conformity to the theological fashions set by Continental theorists? Must American divinity students in university-related seminaries and ecumenical centers remain content with dogmatic edifices prefabricated in Europe and simply veneered to denominational preferences by the Methodist introduction of a temperance drydock or the Baptist addition of a pool? Must American theologians under the guise of modernity avidly welcome and perpetuate European religious styles long after the European originals have become outworn and discarded? Has not the time come when the religious professionals might find a summer at home with their Bibles more profitable than a few months abroad with the theorists?

In 1957 CHRISTIANITY TODAY sponsored a theological survey to ascertain the doctrinal convictions of Protestant clergymen in the United States. Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey, conducted a scientific sampling of ministers in all mainline denominations, in the independent fundamentalist churches, and in the so-called third force, excluding only pastors of “store-front” churches.

The survey threw light on the theological situation in America in a remarkable way. It supplied irrefutable evidence that the majority of the Protestant clergy in the United States steadfastly resist the theological dilution of historic Christian convictions that occurs most frequently at the seminary level, and that a wide gap separates the theology of most Protestant ministers from the theological outlook held and promoted by many ecumenical leaders.

To suggest the full significance of the CHRISTIANITY TODAY survey, some reference must be made to the contemporary theological situation in Europe. Continental religious observers had conceded by 1925, over a generation ago, that “modernism is dead,” because the theology of exaggerated divine immanence had been effectively routed by the dialectical-existential theology of radical divine transcendence. From 1925 to 1948 the neo-orthodoxy of Barth and Brunner dominated the European scene with special emphasis on divine wrath and supernatural revelation, and on man’s sinfulness and need of miraculous redemption. But by 1950, almost a decade before CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s American survey, this neo-orthodox thrust was already losing power in Europe. Bultmann and the “demythologizers” arose to refashion dialectical theology; reviving the old liberalism alongside the philosophical notion of existenz, existentialism gained ascendancy in many influential theological centers. The miraculous was again dismissed as myth, and the case for Christianity was predicated on the subjectivity of God.

Article continues below

But what was the situation in America during the same period? Christianity Today’s 1957 survey, based on a scientific sampling, disclosed several significant and surprising facts about the American theological scene:

1. Of the Protestant clergy, 12 per cent designated themselves as theologically “neo-orthodox,” 14 per cent as theologically “liberal.” Hence one in four American Protestant clergymen cherished theological positions that were already discredited and disowned in Europe. (The survey clearly equated liberalism with classic rationalistic modernism and identified neo-orthodoxy with the theology of Barth and Brunner.) Having bypassed conservative theology and presumably championing the cause of modernity, non-evangelical scholars and ministers were in fact propagating theological structures that had already been abandoned abroad. At that time the influence of Bultmann, although rising toward its peak in Europe, was virtually non-existent in American ministerial circles.

2. Some 74 per cent of the Protestant ministers in the United States designated their theology as conservative or fundamentalist. Yet most seminary faculties in the mainstream denominations, denominational leaders in many of the regular churches, and participants in ecumenical dialogue conveyed the impression that evangelical theology was an abandoned option treasured only by a diminishing remnant of uninformed Christians. Liberal—neo-orthodox minorities, depicting themselves as the vanguard of tomorrow, not only penalized evangelical majorities loyal to the historic confessional standards but used ecclesiastical power techniques to drive them underground. Yet almost three out of four ministers rejected the liberal and the neo-orthodox options. A former religion editor of Time magazine remarked in 1961 that CHRISTIANITY TODAY had convinced him that conservative theology is not “simply the parochial viewpoint of Southern Baptists and Missouri Lutherans,” and that an international, interdenominational scholarship exists supportive of the evangelical viewpoint.

Article continues below

A number of other conclusions could be drawn on the edge of the 1957 survey. Neo-orthodoxy had gained strength mainly through defections from modernist ranks. There were, indeed, some acquisitions from the fundamentalist side, such as T. F. Torrance of Edinburgh, who swung to Barth, and Dale Moody of Louisville, who swung to Brunner. But these were few when compared with the visible host of deserters moving from humanism and modernism to neo-orthodoxy and not simply to more “realistic” liberalism. (Reinhold Niebuhr’s bandwagon seemed to be adding enthusiastic excursionists at almost every liberal waystation.) Yet conservative scholars like E. J. Carnell, P. K. Jewett, Bernard Ramm, S. J. Mikolaski, and others, who exposed themselves to the most persuasive liberal and neo-orthodox scholars, saw no good reason to abandon their evangelical heritage. In Great Britain, scholars like R. V. G. Tasker attested a movement from liberal to conservative positions, while on the Continent churchmen like Pierre Corthiel of Paris gave evidence of a movement from neo-orthodox to evangelical ground.

Although from Edwin Lewis to William Hordern its spokesmen trumpeted neo-orthodoxy as America’s faith of the future, the movement failed to gather into its fold fully half of the clergy that were non-evangelical. Dialectical theology devalued reason and history, and this as much as its revival of miraculous supernaturalism dimmed the interest of American liberals. With the passing of the years, CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s survey gained greater significance for its disclosure that, even at the high tide of American enthusiasm for the Barth-Brunner theology, liberal clergy (14 per cent) still outnumbered neo-orthodox clergy (12 per cent). In the United States liberal Protestants considered neo-orthodoxy not so much a theological alternative as a challenge to self-correction. The ranks of the “chastened” liberals multiplied as historical events forced a revision of the prevailing optimistic views of man. But these liberal “realists” nonetheless refused to move to neo-orthodox perspectives. Their leaders included Reinhold Niebuhr, Robert C. Calhoun, Paul Tillich, H. Richard Niebuhr, Walter Marshall Horton, John C. Bennett, H. Shelton Smith, and L. Harold DeWolf. Among the barriers to their acceptance of neo-orthodoxy were Barth’s miraculous supernaturalism (the Virgin Birth), his insistence on the absolute uniqueness and singularity of divine revelation, and his consequent rejection of philosophical apologetics. Brunner with his emphasis on general revelation gained a wider hearing. In contrast to Scotland, where dialectical theology and then existentialism found the door quite open, the reaction to Continental dogmatics was substantially the same in England as in America.

Article continues below

The regrouping liberal forces in America have remained almost fatally divided. While there is now more talk of neo-liberalism than of neo-orthodoxy, the lines of distinction are found in the rejection of objectionable positions rather than in the systematic formulation of a consistent and coherent dogmatics. Signs of a merger of Tillich’s thought with Bultmann’s are regarded as further evidence of decline in the influence of both viewpoints. On the one hand, neo-liberals are “in search of a system”; on the other hand, their underlying commitment to a methodology of tentativity poses an obstacle to any monogamous marriage. The perpetual liberal revision of theological affirmations has bred disillusionment and disinterest in the realm of doctrine, or simply a pragmatic nonchalance. There seems no bright prospect among liberals of a unifying theological leadership. The two rallying cries of the Protestant liberals are ecumenism (the outward visible unity of Christendom) and American political liberalism (the implementation of socio-economic changes by legislative programs). Many spokesmen simply substitute a lively conscience on the race question for any recognizable theology.

If the American neo-liberals would meditate on the drift of recent European thought, they would realize why Continental scholars, unimpressed by any such narrow theological framework, have already bypassed neoliberal dogmatic positions either on the way up or on the way down. Whoever renounces the reality of an external criterion of theological truth cannot claim to take divine revelation seriously, and whoever locates the essence of revealed religion in subjective awareness must disown the religion of the Bible.

Meanwhile there can be little doubt of a resurgence of evangelical theology. All estimations of this renewal as merely an “undertow,” or a marginal backlash of sorts, fail to do justice to its creative initiative and forward movement. Although its gains are sometimes attributed almost wholly to independent fundamentalist circles outside the ecumenical movement, the facts are otherwise. The systematic elimination of dynamic conservative theological centers by ecumenically minded denominations and the transformation of these centers into theologically inclusive institutions has doubtless tended to repress evangelical strength among more recent graduates; but it has also failed to produce articulate disciples for an alternative point of view. Assuredly, there appears no great hope for a spectacular shift to the right in the seminaries of world ecumenical renown. Yet the evangelical resurgence is no secondary current to be contrasted with the mainstream itself. There are many articulate evangelical spokesmen in mainstream Christianity. In a number of old-line denominations most of the clergy are still theologically evangelical, even though they are not proportionately represented in denominational or ecumenical leadership.

Article continues below

In England this evangelical renewal is evident not only from the enlarging interest in the Puritan writings but also from the noteworthy increase of meritorious conservative literature by contemporary writers. In America also evangelical writers have steadily expanded their theological contribution. The Evangelical Book Club now has 20,000 members; some solid conservative works have gone into 40,000 or more ministerial and lay homes; and the number of competent young evangelical scholars sharing the task of creative literary effort is growing. No definitive work in systematic theology has recently appeared either in Britain or in the United States comparable to G. C. Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics in The Netherlands. Yet the two-volume A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion by J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. (Zondervan, 1963), is the most recent in a succession of evangelical efforts in America that recognize that any theology worthy of biblical Christianity must do full justice to scriptural claims. CHRISTIANITY TODAY, moreover, has served as a fulcrum of contemporary evangelical conviction and as a rallying point for the conservative cause. The evangelical resurgence, therefore, is by no means confined to Billy Graham’s phenomenal inroads at the evangelistic frontier; it also affects contemporary religious thought.

Some Protestant circles today are increasingly troubled over the virtual loss in ecumenical circles of any sense of the unique importance of the canon of scriptural writings. In contrast to the non-evangelical indifference to the Bible as the only authoritative norm of faith and practice, evangelicals champion the authority and plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. They are keenly aware that Christian theology requires a doctrine of the Word of God that is lost to liberal theology, and a better doctrine of the Word of God than Barth and Brunner offer. Conservative theology has faced tensions of its own about the doctrine of Scripture, and not all the questions and doubts are resolved. Among conservatives the main point of contention is the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture, a question that has recently vexed a number of institutions. Some evangelical scholars have long debated whether affirmation of the Bible as “the only infallible rule of faith and practice” embraces historical and scientific facets also, or whether scriptural reliability in the latter area is inconsequential. In Britain, theistic evolution and immanental theology influenced the evangelical mainstream late in the nineteenth century, and stalwarts like James Orr yielded ground in the area of full biblical authority. In America, the Princeton scholars Hodge and Warfield stressed that a theory of Christian knowledge built on such compromise could not stand. Warfield’s work on The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible is still relevant reading; the chapter on “The Real Problem of Inspiration” has never been effectively answered.

Article continues below

CHRISTIANITY TODAY’S 1957 survey indicated that of the evangelical 74 per cent of American ministerial ranks, 35 per cent preferred to be designated as fundamentalist and 39 per cent as conservative. The survey distinguished these two groups on the question of biblical inerrancy. Fundamentalists subscribe to inerrancy, but conservatives have some reservations about it. One interesting development on the American scene was the founding in 1950 of the Evangelical Theological Society, which is composed of scholars who profess adherence to an inerrant Scripture. There are now some 400 members. Although the society has sponsored publication of a number of worthy projects, the membership’s literary productivity is hardly proportionate to its numerical strength. But the society does provide a cohesive theological stimulus lacking among other evangelical scholars who have reservations about the high view of the Bible.

One reason for the stratification of American theology is the lack of communication between divergent schools of thought. Ecumenical and denominational dialogue has tended to crowd out evangelical participation. In some denominations evangelical and non-evangelical theologians seem to converse only at annual inter-seminary banquets. Most evangelical scholars are now concentrated in independent or interdenominational institutions, since the ecumenical emphasis tends to generate theologically inclusive faculties in denominational life. For two generations non-evangelical theologians in America have dismissed their evangelical counterparts as nothing but dogmatic purveyors of a dispensable tradition while they themselves have dispensed alternatives imported from Europe. These alternatives, however, often had already been abandoned abroad while their American sponsors were busy extolling their enduring merit. The American seminary scene would benefit from creative dialogue predicated on a realistic assessment of the lamentable dearth of enduring theology. It is high time theologians who profess to be on special terms with Deity begin conversations across theological lines.

Article continues below
Peace Corps In West Cameroon

CHRISTIANITY TODAY has long criticized the Peace Corps for staffing sectarian-sponsored enterprises with volunteers whose salaries are paid out of public funds. In our view this policy, which continues in foreign lands, is not wholly legitimated because such personnel are excluded from administrative positions and prohibited from teaching religion. We frankly confess a post-medieval conviction that both government and religion are best served when the distance between sectarian agencies and the public till is not shortened.

An editorial in which this magazine criticized U. S. Peace Corps commitments in West Cameroon (Aug. 28, 1964, issue) has drawn fire from almost everyone involved—Peace Corps administrators, Roman Catholics, and Cameroon Baptist Mission. After rechecking the facts, we ourselves join this august company in much of their complaint. In face-to-face conversation with an erstwhile reliable and informed source whose anonymity we shall preserve, we received as authentic what proves to have been mainly a biased report. That report has been disputed by both Roman Catholics and Cameroon Baptists and does regrettable injustice to the Peace Corps, not to mention CHRISTIANITY TODAY. We extend a frank apology to these agencies and hope that the following presentation gives our readers an accurate account of this special situation.

West Cameroon has a unique educational system. All but two of its twenty-three secondary schools are mission-directed and operated by Baptist, Catholic, and Basel (Presbyterian-Swiss) missionaries. In cooperation with the mission agencies the Cameroon government department of education has requested Peace Corps volunteers to strengthen and expand these schools.

Article continues below

In West Cameroon twenty-eight Peace Corps volunteers are currently assigned to Protestant schools and twenty-eight to Catholic schools. The fact that Cameroon Baptist Mission as well as Roman Catholic agencies welcomes this arrangement does not, in our opinion, sanctify it. We continue to think the precedent a poor one. We do not think that the Peace Corps is obliged to fulfill every request from foreign governments, even if cooperating mission agencies should approve. Since U. S. policy at home precludes the use of public funds to pay teachers in sectarian institutions, we contend that this policy should not be compromised abroad.

To speak only of the Baptists, who have for generations carried on a commendable ministry of evangelism, education, and healing in West Cameroon, today 16 of 60 missionaries are receiving government grant-in-aid under the educational arrangement worked out between the missionary agencies and the West Cameroon government. The Rev. George W. Lang, acting field secretary of Cameroon Baptist Mission, comments: “Without the help received from the Cameroon government, we as Baptists would not be able to carry out our present educational program. For this reason, we have been most grateful for the government’s help. We have accepted this as our policy for helping the youth of the Cameroon.”

These considerations aside, CHRISTIANITY TODAY nonetheless erred in several matters, and we are glad to publish the following correction of our report.

1. We were informed that in the fall of 1964 Roman Catholics in West Cameroon were opening six new secondary schools completely staffed by Peace Corps personnel. The Peace Corps states that only one such additional school has been opened, with but one Peace Corps worker on its staff. Sargent Shriver, director of the Peace Corps, reiterates that Peace Corps policy does not permit volunteers to serve as principals or headmasters, and that any report of service in administrative posts is ill-founded. The Peace Corps in fact denied the request of a Basel mission school that a volunteer be permitted to serve as principal.

2. We were informed that the North American Baptist Conference had projected a Christian service effort similar to the Peace Corps and that three workers would go to the field in 1964 under God’s Volunteers for the Cameroons. The denomination’s general secretary, the Rev. Richard Schilke, declares: “My office has released no such news concerning volunteers going to Cameroon this year. As a matter of fact, there will be none going out in 1964.” With respect to the grant-in-aid missionaries, moreover, Mr. Schilke contends on the one hand that some are active only because the Cameroon government requests their services, on the other that discontinuance of such aid would not necessarily require their return for lack of support.

Article continues below

3. We were informed that Peace Corps pressures are exerted upon mission schools to accept personnel they do not want. Mr. Shriver notes that Peace Corps volunteers are formally requested by the West Cameroon government, after consultation with mission school educators. The difficulty here seems to arise when an assigned volunteer finds the standards of an institution incompatible, and the institution is unsure whether its desired removal of such a worker would mean that it would be assigned a suitable replacement or that it would simply lose a worker altogether. In the latter event, institutional protest would mean underparticipation in the Peace Corps program.

The Peace Corps’s associate director, Charles C. Woodard, Jr., states categorically that “the Peace Corps has no interest, desire, or intention of helping to promote the religious activities or fortunes of any particular church or creed anywhere in the world. Although … we may occasionally find ourselves working in connection with an institution or organization that has a religious affiliation, such as a mission school, this is invariably because in the specific situation this is the best, if not the only, way to carry out our primary function—helping the people in that community to improve their own lives.” We think this fine statement can best be implemented by the fullest sensitivity to separation of sectarian enterprises from public funds. Peace Corps volunteers are making a worthy contribution in many lands. Little can be gained and much lost by meshing their energies to debatable church-state programs.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.