A challenge to disciples of modernity to indicate their own criterion of the success or truth of their theories

Of the ancient Athenians it was said that they spent their time in telling or hearing about new things. They “had an obsession for any novelty,” as Phillips puts it, “and would spend their whole time talking about or listening to anything new” (Acts 17:21). In the words of the New English Bible, “the Athenians in general and the foreigners there had no time for anything but talking or hearing about the latest novelty.”

The Apostle Paul dramatically captured this interest by proclaiming “Jesus and the resurrection.” He countered the Athenians’ ignorance of the Living God by unveiling the risen Redeemer who will judge the whole world. By proclaiming the one true God, he served notice of brief survival on their tenuous confidence in the unknown god, the new-fangled speculative divinities, and the popular idols.

Today a cadre of churchmen and seminarians are infected by this pagan passion for novelty. The new theology, the new morality, the new evangelism, new forms and structures—these are becoming bywords in ecumenical circles, while the historic Gospel is demeaned, revised, or largely ignored. The idolatrous fashions of the ancient Athenians stirred Paul to indignation, but these modern Athenians see signs of ecumenical openmindedness in the promotion of the newest fads while the faith given once-for-all is sidetracked or submerged. While Paul’s key word was “repentance,” theirs is “relevance.” They seem blithely unaware that a religion specially styled to the man of the 1960s is likely to be old hat in the 70s. Even bishops espousing a theology as up-to-date as the frug are likely to find it as dated as the square dance before very long.

Bishop Pike’s newest theology is borrowed from the late Paul Tillich, mediated by Bishop John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God—to the new “God,” of course), and tolerated by many ecumenists, particularly those who think American Protestantism’s greatest boon would be denominational restructuring according to the Blake-Pike vision rather than ideological purification.

In announcing this merger plan, Dr. Blake assumed special divine sanction: “Led, I pray, by the Holy Spirit, I propose.…”

But if Dr. Pike’s revised doctrine is right, the divine source of such inspiration remains in doubt—since God is assertedly no longer a person. Harvard Divinity School aimed to revitalize American Protestantism at grass roots, but the theological monstrosity fabricated by Paul Tillich has now overpowered the most outspoken bishop in America. If he accepts Tillich’s dogma, Dr. Pike denies the existence of God as a separate entity distinguishable from the world, and opposes the historic Christian view of a personal Creator. This new theology of God-is-not-quite-dead-yet (but well on the way) atrophies the personal supernatural Creator into “the ground of all being.”

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Some will argue that the Blake-Pike plan should be judged not on the basis of the stupidity of theological concessions but on its own merits. Others will point out that, weighed on its own merits, it has already been overhauled by the Consultation on Church Union. Not only biblical theology, however, but much more is offensive to the new look in ecclesiastical merger. Bishop Reuben H. Mueller, the present National Council of Churches president, stresses that he is theologically conservative, and many ecumenical spokesmen rightly insist that the ecumenical constituency should not be caricatured as a group comprised solely by those who reject historic Christian doctrines. While nobody has estimated the number of those in the NCC whose views are theologically conservative, they are doubtless a very sizable group. If they are a majority, as some observers believe, they are not only woefully under-represented but often ignored in the ecumenical power structures. And if they are a minority, they supply a striking contrast to other minorities with which ecumenical leaders urge “identification” and whose cause they champion as a matter of justice.

The intolerant modernists see deeper than the tolerant traditionalists in their show of prejudice, for they are projecting religious theories incompatible with the historic Christian faith. When President Mueller stresses, as he does, that the membership of the NCC represents “a wide theological spectrum,” he is engaging in understatement. But when he emphasizes that an important responsibility in administration is “to hold these wide viewpoints in proper tension so that we can behave ourselves like Christians in all attitudes and circumstances,” he mirrors the basic flaws of ecumenical conglomeration—its lack of any sense of indignation in the presence of unbelief and its idolatry of merger.

If the old theology is an evident embarrassment to modern Athenians, so too is the old evangelism (which presupposes the biblical evangel). Colin Williams, an associate secretary of the NCC Division of Christian Life and Mission, told more than 100 American Baptist Convention ministers that evangelist Billy Graham represents “a danger to the Kingdom of God” and “misleads people”; Graham, he said, “misunderstands the Gospel.” A Methodist sympathetic to the Blake-Pike proposal, Williams not only deplored traditional evangelism but also rebuked Baptists for their reluctance to unite with “one large church body with a limited form of episcopacy” that would confer more power on church leaders than does congregational independence.

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If the restructured Protestantism anticipated by Bishop Pike would publicly glory in the repudiation of basic Christian doctrine, Dr. Williams envisions a new Protestantism that would repudiate evangelism in the tradition of Wesley and Moody and Graham.

The “new gospel” proclaimed by many vocal church spokesmen today switches from personal salvation to social structures. Despite the fact that the old-style social gospel is intellectually indefensible (Barth’s theological tomes and the perverse course of world history have exposed its shallow utopianism), this secular concoction continues to live under the new mask of “the ministry of reconciliation.” Through a subtle shift, reconciliation is detached from its historic stress on the relation of persons to God. Instead, emphasis now falls on reconciliation of groups, community structures, social configurations. This social view produces a downgrading of personal evangelism, evangelistic preaching and meetings, and foreign missions. “Mission” replaces missions, and the “new and broader” understanding seeks to transform, if not ultimately to displace, evangelism in the traditional Christian sense.

If the new social gospel aims to replace evangelism, the “new morality” proposes to revise the evangelical understanding of the life of purity. By removing all objective restraints, and by detaching spiritual experience from supernatural theology, the new theories propose to invigorate the moral life by the enthronement of unstructured agape (eros?). These modern impuritans tell us it might even be possible to love God and neighbor while violating the commandments of God. For the first time we have churchmen who champion the possibility of enlightened theft or deceit or fornication.

Proponents of a new theology, or a new morality, or a new mission may become so addicted to novelty that they cease to be authentic representatives of the Christian faith. Though such spokesmen be ecumenical leaders, prominent ministers, or even bishops, they are not on that account representative Christians. Not a single denomination has historically embraced the theological novelties of Bishop Pike in a creedal affirmation. He is not a representative voice, however much he would like to restructure contemporary Protestantism to his preferences. Nor are other far-out churchmen. But the indifference and tolerance of those who have a voice and influence for the truth but fail to exercise it encourages these new churchmen in their efforts to impose alien ideas and ideals upon the churches. The church history of twentieth-century Protestantism may in fact be tellingly written not only from the standpoint of the vocal minority but also from that of a silent majority, who “stood by consenting” to the dilution of evangelical faith.

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The modern apostles of novelty are preoccupied with asking questions; some of them remind us that one day we shall all stand before him who knew how to ask questions. But they forget that he has given answers also—definitive answers. And we ask these disciples of modernity to answer one short question. (Even a bishop is supposed not only to raise questions but to supply some answers.)

We do not ask what scriptural authority the revisionists offer, for they are obviously no longer concerned about biblical credibility. Here is what we ask—of Bishop Pike, Bishop Robinson, Professor Altizer, and all others who conform their views to a secular, empirical age: What criterion will you give us to test the truth and success of your theories?

Surely not special divine revelation? Surely not another “word of God”? Surely not the common consensus of humanity? Surely not unanimity of support by intellectuals? Surely not …?

Or the number of evangelistic converts? Since the faddists rule out interest in a religion of “the remnant,” they apparently want a “popular” theology. If Christianity is not to lose out “to all but a tiny religious remnant,” writes Bishop Robinson, there must be a “radical recasting” of “the most fundamental categories of our theology—of God, of the supernatural, and of religion itself” (Honest to God, p. 7).

In speaking for “those who feel compelled above all to be honest wherever it may lead them” (ibid., p. 9), Bishop Robinson attaches the quality of honesty to those who reject the biblical view of God and implicitly detaches it from “those whose basic recipe is the mixture as before.” Those of us who are honestly reluctant to switch theological loyalties ask for an honest answer: What criterion do the faddists offer by which men in our time can judge the success and truth of their views?

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