The Incarnation occurred at that level where the world and humanity in toto stand under the judgment of the Cross

One of the claims of Christianity is its significance for the totality of human life. There is no area of human life that is not under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

But if the claims of Christianity are universal and total, one of its secrets is that its truth is disclosed, not on the celestial ground of Venus or Mars, but on this earth; not in the glories of ancient Greece, but in the lowly place called Palestine. More specifically, the truth of Christianity is revealed in humanity. Although the Man Jesus Christ knew no personal sin, yet he unreservedly identified himself with humanity, not at its best but at its sinful fallen worst. This secret is difficult for the “righteous” to understand, and even the saint must constantly be reminded of it. The truth is that Jesus Christ came to save not the righteous but sinners, not the good people but the bad; he came to save the indecent as well as the decent, the worthless and the rejected of the ghetto and the inner city as well as the respectable of suburbia.

A Pharisee once entertained Jesus at dinner in his home. But when Jesus conversed with a woman of the streets who broke in, the Pharisee concluded that Jesus could not be the prophet sent by God; if he were, reasoned the Pharisee, he would not speak with her. This Pharisee did not understand where the Incarnation took place. His “respectable decency” blinded him to the fact that the Incarnation occurred not on the self-righteous level of the street where he lived but on the lower street where this prostitute lived. This Pharisee, and all those others who objected because Jesus ate with publicans and sinners, mistakenly thought that the Incarnation ratified the higher levels of humanity and scorned the lowest levels of degradation and rejection. The Pharisee, therefore, understood less about Jesus than did the women of the streets.

Even evangelicals today find this difficult to understand, this secret of the Incarnation in all its depths. As the material in this special issue devoted to the Gospel and the inner city shows, even evangelicals learn to their surprise, and only at the cost of some of their notions about Christianity, that the Incarnation can be rightly understood only in relation to the lowest levels of human sin and fallen degraded humanity. It was not on the level where men are popular or even mildly accepted, but on the level where men are rejected, that he who was “rejected of man” was born, lived, and died. It was at the level where men are nobody that the Christ himself was “set at nought.” It was at the point where men no longer believe they are men that the cry arose, “I am a worm and no man.”

Article continues below

The place of the Cross is the place where no one helps and no one cares, where men are despised and in their thirst receive vinegar for water. At the Cross rather than in church, at Buchenwald and Auschwitz rather than in the United Nations with its moral resolutions, in the cold, heartless, broken-down, abandoned inner city rather than in pleasant, average, small town America, the true nature of our fallen humanity is revealed. It is at the Cross, where all things are lost, even life itself, not in Shaker Heights, Chevy Chase, or Beverly Hills, that the Christ is disclosed; and it is from the Cross that the saints have come. Regardless of where they now live, and where they spend the 11 A.M. hour on Sunday, it was here that men met God; it was here that the sinners became saints as they discovered they were loved of God and accepted in Jesus Christ.

Therefore Harlem and Watts, Appalachia, and the slums and poverty pockets of our large cities are no less conducive to the understanding of the Cross than is Pleasant Valley, South Dakota, or Sun Valley, Idaho. It is a profound misunderstanding to imagine that the poor and oppressed must first be socially and economically uplifted before the Cross can become meaningful to them. Indeed, the uplift that comes with social improvement and affluence may obscure the meaning of the Cross from the non-Christian, as it also does in large degree from the saintly, prosperous church member.

The evangelicals consulted by CHRISTIANITY TODAY in the preparation of this issue are unanimous about the absolute necessity of being identified with, and accepted by, the people of the inner city. Not only must such people be loved, but their acceptance of the evangelical must be won. Youth Development Incorporated works with the teen-agers of East Harlem. Its executive director, Jim Vaus, says that in order to gain “a hearing for the Gospel of Jesus Christ” among these young people, one must first “win their friendship and confidence.” This is not done by conjuring up a certain attitude toward the inner city; it can be achieved only, Vaus says, “by being there.” YDI concentrates on training the inner-city teen-ager to witness to Christ and work with fellow teen-agers.

Youth for Christ International is enlarging its work with the big-city teen-ager, especially the Negro. Its president, Sam Wolgemuth, also recognizes the need of identification and acceptance if one is to reach the Negro inner-city dweller with the Gospel. He says we must “demonstrate a total concern for the Negro people, not only to ‘get their souls saved.’ ” “Evangelicals have been so busy defending the deity of Christ,” says Wolgemuth, “that we too often forget the humanness of Christ and his example of involvement in human affairs during his ministry.” And he adds, recognizing the difficulty of identification and acceptance, that “evangelicals are generally economically secure and can’t identify with Negroes who don’t have anything.… No matter what we represent theologically, we [YFCI] represent the white power structure.”

Article continues below

Workers in both these organizations, as well as the three men who write on the inner city in this issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, want above all else to bring the people of the inner city to Jesus Christ and the saving power of his Gospel. Yet YFCI and YDI urge that one must so love these people that one is trusted by them, so be identified with them that they accept their accepter, if one is to gain even a hearing for the Gospel. Such identification with and acceptance by the person (body and soul) whom one would reach with the Gospel points to a context in which the whole question of the priority of man’s spiritual over his physical needs, of the Bread of Heaven over the bread that sustains a life that perishes, is largely theoretical. As one cannot love God without loving his fellow men, so one cannot love the inner-city person and identify with him without being concerned simultaneously with his poverty and his slum-ridden existence and with the eternal needs of his soul. Where aloofness is overcome and the feeling of superiority annihilated, the evangelical meets the inner-city inhabitant person to person; and it is the total person that is loved and ministered to in the name of Christ.

Preaching the Cross—the symbol of poverty, rejection, and loneliness, of human death and separation from God and man, and of human bankruptcy—can be done effectively only when one recognizes, in thought and in life, the place where the Incarnation occurred, the place where the world and humanity in toto stand under the judgment of the Cross. Even evangelicals tend to wander from the Cross, and, as Don De Young poignantly suggests in his essay in this issue, the inner city is a good place to unlearn what one has learned in his wanderings and to gain fresh insight into the meaning of him who also became poor, was rejected of men, and had to accept men in love as they were before he could be loved and accepted by them.

Article continues below

Once the place of the Cross was “outside the walls of the city.” Today the area outside the walls is suburbia. The depressed and abandoned inner city is now the more appropriate place and symbol of the Cross.

Exemptions And Politics

It is not surprising that the Internal Revenue Service is calling upon certain religious periodicals to show cause why their tax-exempt status should not be revoked. For years and in increasing measure, some magazines have used their pages to speak for or against specific legislation or even, as during the last Presidential campaign, a particular candidate. They have thus run the risk of violating the regulations under which religious publications are granted tax exemption.

But such practices are not limited to magazines. Churches in America have always enjoyed tax-exemption, and contributions to them are deductible. However, the social-action divisions of some major denominations are evidently propagandizing and lobbying for specific types of legislation. And some social-action leaders seem to conceive of their respective churches as political pressure groups.

All this gives pause for thought. If the Church exerts political pressure, it compromises the basis for its special tax considerations. Moreover, since laymen support the Church and would suffer most should it lose exemption privileges, this is a time for them to speak their mind.

God Only Half Dead?

Professor Gabriel Vahanian recently addressed a convocation at Indiana State University. Although he was competing with two other student attractions that day, Professor Vahanian drew an audience that filled the large auditorium. Theology, it seems, is very much alive, even if God is dead.

However, one cannot be sure just how dead God is. In his book entitled The Death of God, this professor of religion at Syracuse University contrasts contemporary religiosity with biblical faith. God the transcendent Creator, he emphasizes, is not God the Cosmic Pal, God the ideal man, nor the God glibly mentioned in an empty liturgy used by hypocrites on Sunday. All this constitutes a serious accusation against spiritually dead people; but it hardly qualifies as a brilliant, new theological concept.

In a panel discussion that followed Vahanian’s lecture, disputants pressed him about the metaphysical meaning of his book’s title, and he admitted that it does not mean that God is really dead. “The death of God” is only a useful phrase, he said, by which he means (in part) that today the Church as an organization no longer controls politics as the medieval church did.

Article continues below

A statement in the Westminster Confession (XXXI, 5) expresses the policy of Presbyterian churches: “Synods and councils are to handle nothing but that which is ecclesiastical; and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs.” In view of this, is one to conclude that by the phrase “God is dead” Vahanian means that Presbyterianism should be abolished and the medieval church should take control? At least this would seem to be in keeping with present-day ecumenical ideas.

That some sort of God still survives may be gathered from Vahanian’s inclusion of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the amalgam of ideas he favors. But since he accepts only some, not all, modern ideas, some, not all, of the Judeo-Christian tradition, along with, perhaps, some other unspecified factors, one of the panelists justly asked him what criterion he uses to select some parts and reject others. In reply to this pointed question, Professor Vahanian spoke for at least five minutes, but he produced nothing identifiable as a criterion.

Yet this question demands a clear answer. If a philosopher wishes to combine a variety of ideas—a bit of existentialism, perhaps, with a bit of Christian tradition, but not too much—he should state clearly his basis of selection. This obligation we press on all who preach the death of God.

Are We Really So Mature?

An often recurring refrain in the writings of advocates of the new hermeneutics, religionless Christianity, and other theological novelties is that man has now come of age. Therefore he can no longer accept biblical Christianity with its core of supernaturalist doctrine. Twentieth-century man is too mature, we are told, for these antiquated notions.

This sounds plausible until one begins to ask whether it is true. Maturity is more than familiarity with machines and scientific gadgets. It is easy for twentieth-century man to slip into a kind of technological fallacy in which he confuses the ready use of familiar scientific devices with a real understanding of how and why they work. From television to jet engines, from direct long-distance dialing to computers, we use things whose principles are a mystery to most of us.

It is doubtful whether we have actually grown up as much as we think we have. On the contrary, history may well look back at our times as notable for emotional immaturity. Psychiatrists are doing a booming business, alcoholism afflicts five million drinkers, and drug usage is “in” for many on the most prestigious campuses. A leading mark of maturity is the ability to put aside self-gratification for higher ends; a nation that has had clear warning of the deadly effects of cigarettes shows little maturity in increasing its cigarette consumption to a record level. When teen-agers who should be growing toward maturity are forced into precocity by mass media and commercial interests that exploit them; when fun, luxury, and security are primary motives; when the goal is not, as a slogan of Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign put it, a car in the garage and a chicken in the pot but two cars in the garage and T-bone steaks on the broiler, maturity is hardly on the horizon.

Article continues below

Are we really more mature as persons than the ancient Greeks, the early Christians, or the men of the Renaissance? Is the average American today more mature than the colonists who fought for and forged the liberties we enjoy?

The man who, having drunk the heady wine of an advanced technological civilization, confuses his generally uncomprehending use of a thousand and one devices with genuine adulthood has much growing up yet to do. For when he faces the ultimate issues like bereavement, crippling illness, and his own death, then his inner destitution reveals his need for true maturity.

In a free society even the most radical theologians may promulgate their notions. But let them not do so on the ground that they are speaking to people who are necessarily more mature than those who have gone on before.

Reformed Confession

The shouting and the tumult died and the commissioners departed, leaving behind their approval of the proposed “Confession of 1967” (see News, p. 44). The confession will doubtless now be accepted by the required number of presbyteries and become part of the constitution of the United Presbyterian Church.

On the positive side, the Committee of Fifteen must be applauded for its revision of the new confession. In the original version the Scriptures were described as the “words of men”; in the revision they are also “the unique and authoritative witness” to the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. It is further said in the revision that the Holy Scriptures “are received and obeyed as the Word of God written,” although this is an empirical assertion and not a creedal affirmation. In addition, the Scriptures are confessed to be “not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel.” Compared to the United Church of Christ, whose statement of faith makes no reference to the Bible as the source and authority of the faith, the United Presbyterian Church has a much stronger foundation.

Article continues below

Since the basis of religious authority is ultimately the controlling factor in Christianity, the less satisfactory aspect of the assembly’s action is the dilution of the confessional basis of the church. First, it has set aside the primacy of the Westminster Confession by adopting a “Book of Confessions” that includes eight different statements of faith. This could be confusing. Second, in the formula to which ministers must subscribe at ordination, the previous description of the Scriptures as the “Word of God” [in the new confession, “word” referring to Scripture is not capitalized] “the only infallible rule of faith and practice,” is removed. Instead, they are called “the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ.”

Yet the “Confession of 1967” in its revised form is a much better document than the one originally offered. Its passage was not a victory for either the right or the left; it will not be wholly acceptable to either liberals or conservatives. Perhaps it is a half-way station on the way to merger with a number of other denominations. That the church was able to navigate through turbulent waters is significant. And the assembly’s acceptance of the revisions of the Committee of Fifteen shows at least a qualified respect for the evangelical viewpoint.

The Growth Of A Cause

Evangelical Press Association, which represents ten million readers of evangelical magazines, met recently in the Disneyland Hotel during three days of forgettable weather. Besides bringing the keynote address and sharing in so many conferences that we never made it to Walt Disney’s nearby leisure land, we found it very rewarding to greet so many dedicated fellow editors. Their interest in the proposed Institute of Advanced Christian Studies, moreover, was gratifying. Among those who proffered a dollar for this project (have you given yours?) were editors Sherwood Wirt of Decision, Robert Walker of Christian Life, Wayne Christianson of Moody Monthly, Russell Hitt of Eternity, Jim Reap-some of the Sunday School Times, Louis Benes of the Church Herald, Mel Larson of the Evangelical Beacon, George E. Failing of the Wesleyan Methodist, Ted Miller of the Christian Reader, Dick Hillis of Cable, Jim Adair of Power, Stanley Peters of the United Brethren, and Paul Nyberg of Venture. Earl Kulbeck of the Pentecostal Testimony was the first Canadian to contribute. If readers follow the splendid example of these editors, the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies (see May 13 issue, page 28) can become a reality almost overnight.

Article continues below

The first California clergyman to give his dollar was the Rev. Norman J. Crider, assistant minister of Pasadena Evangelical Covenant Church. And a half dozen laymen and their wives gathered in Orange, California, at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Arvid Carlson of the Evangelical Free Church, added a dozen dollars. Later Paige West, of Campus Crusade in Arrowhead Springs, offered two crisp dollar bills. “I’m getting married in a few weeks,” he explained, “and I want my fiancée to be in on this too!” Mrs. West is probably manipulating the family budget by this time, but we are confident she would have endorsed this dual participation.

The Campus And The Church

It was Sunday morning in the 600 block of Daniel Street. The same old crowd was gathered in the same old place they had gathered Saturday night. Only the beverages had been changed to protect the liquor license.

The third-seeded pinball player (dressed in wheat jeans and contrasting sweatshirt), looked up from his coffee and spoke through a headache. “You’re late. I was worried you’d gone to church!”

With that, several heads swiveled for a moment and snickered briefly.

But the comeback was even better: “I don’t have to. I already know how to vote.”

This got an even bigger laugh from the group gathered for the weekly anti-worship service; perhaps because it had touched upon the reason they were there.

A growing number of theologians delight in saying that God is dead.

Many who have attended church in the last few years have suspected as much. If he were alive, why would his local authorized agents spend as much time as they do on trivial matters?

Instead of theology, the churches have been filled with applied social work; instead of discussions of whether or not the Scriptures are true, only literary criticism; instead of sermons, only Rotary Club speeches on getting out the vote.

It looks from the outside as if someone were trying to avoid the question about God’s reputed demise.

McMullinMcMullin, central figure in a local controversy, was arrested for attempting to distribute and sell fundamentalist religious literature on campus.—Ed. may not speak the language the campus would like to think it is accustomed to hearing, but at least he meets the fundamental religious issue head-on.

Article continues below

How many of the local clergy could say the same after reviewing their last three or four sermons?

What can be heard on Sunday morning is a misguided attempt to be relevant. It is an attempt to reach the student audience by saying something which fits into its frame of reference. Class talk, or Saturday Review discussions of important topics.

The fallacy of this: that sort of thing is readily available in class or in the Saturday Review.

To listen to a typical campus sermon, one might almost think the clergy is attempting to befriend students rather than to convince them of the merits of a religious point of view.

In the process of appealing to the student’s interests, a paradox is created: by being topical, the minister is ignoring the topic which lured the student to church.

Topical sermons fail to challenge the religious doubts which are inevitably stirred by a college education. They concede the game to agnosticism or atheism. But if there are agnostics and atheists in the congregation, it is only because they came to have their doubts challenged; they came to hear the “old-hat” arguments which aren’t supposed to be popular with students anymore.

And on the topics which are discussed, why should the minister command our attention? Many in the audience have had better training to discuss these topics than he.

Why should a lawyer go to church to listen to some Doctor of Divinity display his legal ignorance during a sermon on the Supreme Court’s latest ruling?

Why should a political science student go to hear a superficial discussion of the merits of admitting Red China to the United Nations?

Why should a grad student in philosophy go to hear a popularized treatment of modern existential writers?

And worst of all, why should they attend when there is no question-and-answer period after the speech? Even experts lecturing on campus will at least grant that courtesy.

If the clergy is having its doubts about God’s viability, then it should honestly admit that church is merely a device for keeping people off the streets on Sunday morning.

A trip to church these days is rather like a trip to a Chevrolet agency where you are surprised to hear nothing but discussions of Fords, Plymouths and Hondas.

There must be something to be said for religion other than the superficial social comment advanced on too many Sunday mornings.

Perhaps the clergy has been too busy during the week solving the social problems of the world, or telling the generals what must be done in Viet Nam.

But if church is to be nothing more than a literary society, little wonder Sunday morning is popular for sleep or golf or pinball.—BOB AULER, “Keep to the Right … Is Church Dead?,” in the Daily Illini, student newspaper, University of Illinois.

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.