A survey of the membership of the Evangelical Theological Society discloses that many conservative scholars concentrate their interest upon a few lively concerns, and that wide gaps exist in evangelical research.

From the responses of 112 members CHRISTIANITY TODAY has learned that two out of three evangelical scholars think biblical authority is the main theological theme now under review in conservative circles in America. Of these scholars, more than half trace this development to pressures for doctrinal redefinition resulting from recent theological speculations about the nature of divine revelation.

One in three conservative scholars singles out ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the Church, as the critical area in contemporary theological study. Eschatology (the doctrine of the end-time) and the nature of God were listed as other priority concerns. The respondents put soteriology, the saving work of Christ, in fifth place, and the doctrine of sanctification in sixth place, as theological areas under special theological pressure for critical modification.

The compromise of the authority of the Bible noticeable in many mainstream Protestant denominations is viewed as a lamentable surrender of scriptural perspectives to modern critical speculations. The result of the critical assaults has been to qualify the historic Christian view of the Bible by multiplying doubts over historical and propositional revelation, plenary inspiration, and verbal inerrancy.

The evangelical reply to this critical trend, the survey discloses, is not one of simple and naïve negation. Since the Bible is a mooring that holds Protestant Christianity from drifting aimlessly on a wide sea of subjective speculation, the case for scriptural authority calls for clear exposition. The conservative emphasis on divine revelation and on the deeds of God as the foundation of Christian faith is studied and positive.

Yet the replies confirm the judgment that affirmations of the high view of Scripture in the catalogues of evangelical seminaries, colleges, and Bible institutes do not reflect the extent to which some faculties are struggling with the issue of reaffirmation or redefinition. A plea is widely sounded for interpreting the Bible “in the light of its revelational purpose.” At times this formula is taken simply as a warning against seeking scriptural solutions to questions that the sacred writers never intended to answer (for example, the effect of chemicals on moral decisions). Sometimes its implications are broader, so that the reliability of Scripture is limited to doctrinal and moral elements at the expense of historical and scientific content, the net result of which is a refusal to view the Bible as a document of unbroken divine authority. Even the Evangelical Theological Society membership, predicated on subscription to the Scriptures as the Word of God written, now includes scholars who contend for poetic-mythological elements in Scripture and urge a new view of saga and myth.

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Emphasis on divine confrontation and human encounter tends to weaken some expositions of a completed past revelation, and to give a neo-evangelical and almost neo-orthodox character to subjective-experiential factors at the expense of objective orthodoxy. Doctoral dissertations written by some conservative American scholars under neo-orthodox teachers at Edinburgh, Basel, Princeton, and Drew attest this conformity to present theological pressures. Instead of trying to justify this existential emphasis on the basis of Luther and Calvin, however, these neo-conservatives criticize the early Reformers as well as their more recent exponents, Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield in particular. A noteworthy feature of this neo-conservative negation is that it has not issued in any consistent or stable alternative to the position it criticizes; in this respect it is a theology with a fluid notion of religious authority and is particularly vulnerable to considerable further pressure.

Yet even in these circles there remains the recognition that without the authority of Scripture Protestantism too many soon become merely an echo of a decadent society. All evangelical scholars repudiate the reduction of thus saith the Lord to “it seems to me.” They deplore “demythologizing” as only a modern revival of unbelief of an ancient gnostic type. They abhor radical philosophical postures. They reject the far-out theories that religious concepts are only symbolic and not normative or informative, and that theological language has no fixed or absolute significance. They reject the existential view of revelation as mere subjective act or event. While they seek rapprochement with modern science, they are wholly undisposed to rule out the miraculous, to subordinate divine factors to human, or to locate the center of religious authority in man’s experience and thus to substitute a rationalistic for a revelational understanding of the supernatural.

In evangelical circles the tension over the Bible does not spring from a desire to accommodate Christian realities to a secular world view. In the question of how God acts in nature and history the character and words of God are seen to be at stake. If he does not act in the way the Bible says (or “means”), the result is a different religion from historic Christianity. Many significant expositions of the Protestant position still view Calvin’s Institutes as a major contribution to the doctrine of Scripture as revelation.

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Nonetheless tension arises in evangelical circles through the inordinate pressures of contemporary scientific theory about the antiquity of man. Christian anthropologists are by no means agreed on an interpretation of the data, but those who insist that homo sapiens is hundreds of thousands of years old make little effort to correlate this conclusion with an insistence on objective historical factuality in respect to the fall of the first man, Adam, and its implications for the entire human race. Among many evangelical biblical scholars, moreover, one can discern an assignment of priority to salvation-history over revealed truth. Thus an emphasis on the God who acts and on his concrete historical revelation tends to replace that on the God who speaks and acts; interest in a dynamic deity acting in history comes to supplant interest in verbal inspiration. The Bible may survive as a religious document through which God still speaks uniquely, but it no longer is assigned objective authority in the classical Protestant sense, for the unchanging factual character of revealed truth is in doubt. The most recent effort in this twilight zone, Dewey Beegle’s book on The Inspiration of Scripture, satisfied neither conservative, neo-orthodox, nor liberal critics, since it blended elements from all three positions. Beegle later protested that the publishers (Westminster Press) had deleted important evangelical sections of the volume.

Debate over the Bible seems again to be hardening into a “party struggle” over the nature of revelation and authority. Liberal, neo-orthodox, and conservative scholars now all appeal to a “Word of God,” but they do not mean the same thing. Liberalism balks at objective authority and pole-vaults over the miracles of the Christian religion; neo-orthodoxy hedges over revealed information and plays leap-frog with the miraculous. Neo-orthodoxy discusses revelation in God’s “acts” from the vantage point of psychology of religion alongside an oral tradition and source-theory of Scripture. Every evangelical effort to bridge the gap to non-evangelical scholars ends up with an impossible demand for the surrender of verbal and plenary inspiration and propositional revelation as well.

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Evangelical scholars are fully aware that the doctrine of the Bible controls all other doctrines of the Christian faith. “A correct view of the Bible (its inspiration, nature, and authority),” insists one theologian, “is prior in importance to any other doctrine.” “Dilute or dismiss the authority of the Bible and other doctrinal matters will not long remain in the center of discussion,” comments a New Testament professor, “since no authoritative voice remains to decide what they shall be.” Another scholar comments: “The doctrine of Scripture is fundamental to all others. The source of knowledge governs the results. Even the doctrine of Christ and salvation depends on it.” “Without an authoritative Bible,” remarks another, “even the authority of Jesus Christ is eroded; deep down all the major problems involve the question of biblical authority, for it affects all the realms of doctrine and life, including the life and witness of the Church.” And another spokesman puts it thus: “The formal principle of Protestantism is the objective and sole authority of the Bible. The material principle is salvation by grace alone. Both are undermined by the view of the Bible which is becoming dominant today.”

It is noteworthy that no contemporary Protestant theologian has dealt exhaustively with the subject of biblical authority in the context of the broadest ecumenical dialogue. Evangelical discussion often concentrates on objections to the conservative view, or on rear-guard controversies within the conservative camp, to the neglect of a comprehensive statement of its own position. The evangelical critique is oriented to liberal and neo-orthodox deviations, and it is ill-prepared for dialogue with Roman Catholieism at a time when Rome is assigning new scope to the Bible and restudying its own view of church authority. Meanwhile a growing role for church authority in ecumenical circles, along with an unsure position on the role of the Scripture, leaves the ecumenical dialogue open and vulnerable to both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic counter-claims. Everyman perforce will have some authority—if not the Bible or the Church, then his own reason, tradition, or “experience.” The ecumenical Protestant loss of an authoritative Bible has shaped a vacuum which, for a time, is likely to be filled by ecclesiastical commitments but which ultimately could be filled simply by church decree, whether post-Protestant or Roman Catholic.

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Evangelicals do not dispute the fact that for a time at least Christianity may function with an impaired doctrine of Scripture. But it does so at its own peril and inevitably must then lose much of its essential message. The strength of the evangelical view has been demonstrated in manifold ways in the aftermath of the liberal erosion of Christian authority. Evangelist Billy Graham’s emphasis on what “the Bible says” attests the enduring grip of scriptural revelation on needy human hearts. The Christian colleges graduate a steady stream of ministers and missionaries whose doctrinal stability is evident in a time of theological flux, and send an expanding task force of devout laymen into the metropolitan and rural areas of American life. The Evangelical Theological Society promotes scholarly inquiry premised on the full authority of Scripture and provides association and fellowship for scholars convinced of the inadequacy of non-evangelical views. The superiority of the conservative view has been effectively argued in many volumes. The literature includes such symposiums as Revelation and the Bible (Carl F. H. Henry, ed.), The Infallible Word (N. B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley, eds.), and Inspiration and Interpretation (John F. Walvoord, ed.). Noteworthy volumes are J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God; Bernard Ramm, Special Revelation and the Word of God; Edward J. Young, The Word of Truth; Wick Broomall, Biblical Criticism. Related contributions include G. C. Berkouwer’s The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, Gordon H. Clark’s Karl Barth’s Theological Method and Reason, Religion and Revelation, Paul K. Jewett’s Emil Brunner’s Concept of Revelation, and Cornelius Van Til’s Christianity and Barthianism. The appearance of The Holman Study Bible and The Harper Study Bible attests the continuing interest in Scripture study by readers holding a high view of the Bible.

If the strength of American evangelicalism rests in its high view of Scripture, its weakness lies in a tendency to neglect the frontiers of formative discussion in contemporary theology. Thus evangelicals forfeit the debate at these points to proponents of sub-evangelical points of view, or to those who assert evangelical positions in only a fragmentary way. One can understand why it is necessary to emphasize continually that the best precaution against burning down the house of faith is not to play with incendiary criticism. But when the edifice is already afire, the extinguisher needs to be concentrated immediately and directly on the consuming path of the flames.

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The element missing in much evangelical theological writing is an air of exciting relevance. The problem is not that biblical theology is outdated; it is rather that some of its expositors seem out of touch with the frontiers of doubt in our day. Theology textbooks a half century old sometimes offer more solid content than the more recent tracts-for-the-times, but it is to the credit of some contemporary theologians that they preserve a spirit of theological excitement and fresh relevance. Evangelicals need to overcome any impression that they are merely retooling the past and repeating clichés. If Bible reading has undergone a revolution through the preparation of new translations in the idiom of the decade, the theology classroom in many conservative institutions needs to expound the enduring truths in the setting and language of the times. Unless we speak to our generation in a compelling idiom, meshing the great theological concerns with current modes of thought and critical problems of the day, we shall speak only to ourselves.

Almost every evangelical scholar, moreover, voices some complaint about the present theological situation, but only a minority share in the burdens of conservative scholarship and contribute concretely to an evangelical alternative. There is presently no better framework than the Evangelical Theological Society to enlist conservative resources in a coordinated theological offensive, although the society has not as yet effectively marshalled its forces.

Specific areas of theological concern meanwhile press for evangelical attention. A comprehensive statement of evangelical theology from American sources, comparable to Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics in The Netherlands, remains a necessary project. To serve its purpose, such an effort must give attention to the theological frontiers of special interest to the contemporary religious dialogue. The great issues of authority, revelation, history, the canon, and ecumenism call for sustained study. There must be room also for specialized studies that may not seem particularly relevant to present developments at the frontiers of current religious thought, in view of the fact that theologians converse over mobile fences. But contemporary Christianity is face-to-face with a major transition time in theology, and this affords evangelicals a providential moment for earnest engagement.

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Just now the theological debate has moved closer to central evangelical concerns than it had for several decades. In the current controversy over the connection of revelation and history, and of revelation and truth, American evangelicals have a strategic opportunity to contribute at the moving frontier of contemporary theological dialogue.

Health, Wealth, And Happiness

Recently the Harris Survey polled the American people about “their biggest disappointment in life” and asked, “What one thing, if you had to choose, do you look forward to most in your life?”

The largest proportion of those polled indicated that death in the family and poor health or disability were the biggest disappointments in life. In answer to the second question, the greatest number indicated that their fondest hope was for good health for themselves and their families. The answers generally reflected a preoccupation with mundane and material things.

No one can gainsay that we ought to care about the things of this life. Too long the Communists have proclaimed that the Western world, governed by the Christian ethic, has been unconcerned about man’s material condition and has preached only about “pie in the sky some day by and by.”

But in our normal and rightful interest in health, money, and other matters, we tend to forget spiritual concerns—concerns which do not rule out an interest in material things but which demand that an order of priority be established. We are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and then our other needs will be met (Matt. 6:33). Perhaps, however, the most searching words linking spiritual and physical considerations come from the Apostle John in his letter to Gaius. He says: “I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth” (3 John 2). It may be that the sick and the poor in and out of the churches would find better health and improved material welfare, if they were first to give attention to their souls’ health.

A Code For Cigarette Advertising

A tardy but helpful step toward self-regulation of advertising has been taken by the cigarette industry. A new code, to be administered by Robert B. Meyner, former governor of New Jersey, carries with it disciplinary power to the extent of a §100,000 fine for tobacco companies violating its provisions. The code bans advertising designed to reach persons under twenty-one; curbs radio or television advertising immediately before or after programs for minors; prohibits cigarette advertising in comic books, newspaper comic pages, and school and college publications; forbids distribution of cigarette samples at colleges; prohibits advertising that features athletes or other famous persons who would appeal to youth; and proscribes representation in advertising of persons who seem to be under twenty-five years of age.

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The implication is clear that the industry is at last recognizing the adverse effects of cigarettes. Although the code makes impressive reading, its adoption is but a small step toward solution of a gigantic problem. Realism compels the comment that, aside from the wise provision banning cigarette advertising in publications designed for youth and the distribution of samples on college campuses, the remainder of the code may have comparatively little effect. Those who know youth realize that the chief reason for adolescent smoking is the desire to emulate adult status. Moreover, the practical question arises how persons appearing in advertising can possibly be identified as at least twenty-five years old. So long as cigarette smoking by adults is portrayed as socially acceptable and desirable, youth will continue to seek this kind of adult expression.

More important than this code is the implementation after July 1 of the ruling of the Federal Trade Commission requiring tobacco companies to present in their advertising and labeling the health hazards of smoking. The industry’s response to this ruling will prove whether it is willing to submerge its own advancement in deference to the public welfare. Once again we suggest that the ultimate solution of the tobacco industry’s dilemma is for it to diversify its resources into other fields. Some tobacco companies have already begun to do this; may many more follow their example.

‘Life’ Magazine And The Bible

Thoughtful men cannot leave the Bible alone. Many who reject its claim to truth study it more diligently than those who accept it as God’s truth. This strange fascination with what they do not accept as truth is testimony to the uniqueness of the Bible and to its power to draw men to itself.

Life magazine recently devoted a special double issue to the Bible. Life is not a religious magazine. It is neither ready nor willing to stand before its millions of readers and say, “The Bible says.…” But it does know about reader appeal, and its issue about the Bible gives its readers what they like.

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Life’s treatment of the Bible is in many ways able. The illustrations of great art are superb and much of the attending commentary of scholarly caliber. Yet in some important ways the treatment is disappointing.

To plan this issue Life chose Dorothy Seiberling, its art editor. According to Life’s managing editor, George P. Hunt, Miss Seiberling had but a “layman’s knowledge of the field,” but “Dotty, with characteristic thoroughness, locked herself up with books and Bibles from March until May and produced a complete prospectus for [the issue].…” Yet “in spite of all her study [!],” Miss Seiberling, we are told, received the “help of leading scholars.”

Miss Seiberling wrote the opening essay. In the first paragraph she asserts that the Bible is the most influential book in history and explains why it contains many errors. She then proceeds to show that another of the Bible’s burdens is its “internal contradictions and crudities.” After thus rendering her textual and higher critical comments, she offers her theological judgment that the Bible is a story of how “God seems to develop from one kind of deity to another.” Sometimes Yahweh is a “primitive, desert storm god” and sometimes Elijah’s “still small voice” (which, she suggests, may be the voice of conscience). Isaiah’s assertion that the God of Israel is also the God of the Assyrians is “one of the most dramatic pieces of effrontery in religious history.” And Miss Seiberling, latterly turned theologian, informs her readers that Second Isaiah’s suffering servant was the “discovery” that “Israel’s faithful humility would … atone for the sins of the whole human race,” completely bypassing the classical Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53.

In her commentary on the biblical writings from Creation to Abraham, she asserts that the opening material of Genesis was to the ancients “matters of fact” but to man today is only “matters of faith”; Eve’s response to the serpent contains “the sort of exaggeration any flustered woman might make.” God’s word to Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to all nations because of Abraham’s obedience provokes this comment from Miss Seiberling: “This was the last time Abraham ever heard from God, probably for the plain reason that there was nothing more to say.” She theologizes further to inform her readers that the Fall of Man was also the “Rise of Man,” and that God appears to have reacted to human sin “as much out of anxiety as anger.”

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Surely Life could do better than to assign the task of an overview essay on the nature and significance of the Bible and a commentary on the early part of Genesis to its art editor. The editors can hardly be unaware that Miss Seiberling, a theological layman, could not begin to master centuries of monumental biblical scholarship. Her repeated assertions that “scholars say” and “scholars regard” have a hollow ring, coming as they do from a layman incompetent to judge between scholars of varying positions.

What might have been a deeply significant treatment of the Book of books is, in fact, deeply disappointing. Generally, the articles by prominent theologians never get beyond the position (announced by Miss Seiberling) that the Bible is the story of man’s quest for God. Professor E. A. Speiser, for example, says that if “Genesis is to be believed,” Abraham left the culture of Mesopotamia because he was called of God to go to an unknown land. But Speiser asserts, “We must assume that Abraham found the spiritual conditions … of Mesopotamia wanting … and the great biblical processes he set in motion began as a protest against that failure.” Human discovery, not divine revelation, is the pervading approach. There is a general consensus among Life’s writers that research and recent archaeological discoveries increasingly support the historicity of the Bible records. Yet this leads, not to recognition of God’s self-disclosure in history, but to the progressive human discovery that there must be a God who is Lord of history. As Art Editor Seiberling says, “Generations acting in this faith have enabled the theory that God rules history to pass a pragmatic test.” But in this view, man discovers the God who has not revealed himself.

Universalism And Missions

In a large missionary conclave several years ago some representatives of a leading denomination bewailed the “creeping universalism” in their ranks. They meant by this that many adherents, while not calling themselves universalists, believe that all men will ultimately be saved.

Certain corollaries accompany universalism. They include a denial of the doctrines of eternal punishment and final judgment. More than this, universalism negates the idea that men outside the Christian faith are without hope and perishing. The Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim, the animist and polytheist, all inherit the Kingdom of God, in the universalist view.

Certain churchmen and scholars are now calling for a theology of universalism. Some argue that, since God is “not willing that any should perish,” he must save all men, otherwise he is no longer a sovereign God. They fail to weigh the clear teaching of Scripture and its overwhelming evidence that men who reject Christ are eternally separated from a holy God and that there is a divine judgment “unto death” as well as unto eternal life. Indeed, our Lord himself spoke more about eternal separation or hell than about missions.

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Universalism quenches foreign missionary endeavor. Christians quickly grasp the point that, if all men are finally saved, it makes little difference whether they are reached with the Gospel here or hereafter. Why should Christians dedicate themselves for service overseas? Why should they give of their substance for missions? Why should they pray for the salvation of the lost, if it is already determined that all men must some day be redeemed? And what difference does it really make whether a man gets to heaven sooner or later, so long as he gets there at last? Why condemn the non-Christian religions? Indeed, why disturb people in their beliefs or lack of beliefs, since belief or non-belief, trinitarianism, unitarianism, theism, atheism, agnosticism, or any other “ism,” makes no difference anyway.

The only reply to this kind of reasoning is the “thus saith the Lord” of the Scriptures. The Christian goes to the end of the earth precisely because Christ commanded him to go, and Christ commanded him to go because those who die without Christ and the Gospel are lost.

Universalism likewise breeds a new kind of missionary who needs only to reassure every man everywhere that what he is, what he believes, or how he acts is ultimately immaterial. This missionary will urge men to come now in order to enjoy the felicity of the Kingdom of God sooner. Still, the recalcitrant is going to be saved, despite any failure to embrace Christ in this life. The only experience to which anyone is called is an already accomplished salvation for all men that comes perilously close to determinism, even though the universalist guards against this by thinking that all men will come of their free choice in the end.

Universalism is unbiblical. Being unbiblical, it cuts the nerve of Christian missions; and cutting the nerve of missions, it cuts men off from any hope of the Kingdom of God and exposes them to an eternity of separation from his presence. Universalism is to our day what circumcision and legalism were to the Galatians in Paul’s day. It is another gospel, not the Gospel of the Christ of the Scriptures.

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