When the theme for the eighth ecumenical World Mission Conference—“Salvation Today”—was announced shortly after the Uppsala Assembly in 1968, many evangelicals rejoiced. With growing concern they had observed the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) losing sight of Christ’s Great Commission, of the eternal redemption of the unsaved “two billion” who by their sin, superstition, and ignorance are separated from God, the fountain of life. The announced theme seemed to offer the opportunity for clearly reaffirming the biblical foundation, content, and aim of Christian missions. Of course, it would not be an easy task, in view of the strong ideological cross-currents in official ecumenical quarters. But still the opportunity was too great to ignore.
Soon study groups were established, consultations were held, and theologians got down to serious work. Nobody has seen yet a complete catalogue of the documents produced in this process and subsequently submitted to Dr. Thomas Wieser, the full-time study secretary for coordinating these efforts. Their number must be great, for the conference had to be postponed several times, from the dates originally scheduled in 1969/70 to 1972/73. Although communication among the different groups was deplorably lacking, there is evidence that despite vast contrasts in the theological quality of this material, some excellent papers were produced. I am thinking particularly of the document of the Norwegian study group, which was based on a masterly survey by the Oslo New Testament scholar Edvin Larsson.
The pity was that these exegetical fruits were not made available to the Bangkok delegates in time, nor was there any synopsis of agreements and disagreements that could have stimulated further research. Some very good Bible studies that were distributed among the delegates came too late to be useful for the conference deliberations. In our chartered flight from Geneva to Bangkok, I saw the more conscientious participants making a last-minute effort to go through these yellow papers they had received just before departure. The spokesman of the twelve-man Roman Catholic delegation, Father Hamer from Rome, publicly regretted that better use had not been made of this valuable theological study material.
It would be wrong to assume that the failure in the theological preparation for Bangkok was due simply to organizational shortcomings. The six exegetical studies, for example, had already been delivered at a biblical consultation in Bossey in March, 1972. But this event passed virtually unnoticed. The only fruit of this consultation made available to the constituency—and that not until September—was a little brochure, “Biblical Perspectives on Salvation.” It was used a bit in the Bible-study groups in Bangkok but found to be hopelessly inadequate, at least by the group in which I participated, which was under the chairmanship of Greek Orthodox bishop Anastasios Yanoulatos.
The real reason for the breakdown of the exegetical preparation for Bangkok was twofold. First, it once more revealed the depth of the hermeneutical crisis in the WCC. There is no common conviction that the Bible is the authoritative and reliable basis for Christian faith and ministry. Scripture is seen by many as a collection of different historical documents, testifying to the experiences of salvation and understandings of the divine will at the time they were written. These witnesses do not necessarily agree among themselves, it is said, and they must be complemented by our own experiences in various areas of the human struggle today.
Second, these present-day experiences and quests now concern the ecumenical mind to so high a degree that even the witness of the Bible (when it is still consulted) is understood within the framework of current political, social, cultural, religious, or psychological problems. To this criticism, made in a study document from the Ecumenical Seminar in Tübingen, Wieser replied in Bangkok:
The insistence on the uniqueness of the story in the Bible in the interest of affirming its authority, however, serves to accentuate the discontinuity between the biblical story and our historical situation today. Does this mean that the authority can only be affirmed when it is one step “removed” from our experience?
The evangelical answer to this question would, of course, be a clear yes. The Bible can exercise its role as the sovereign norm for evaluating our experiences only if these experiences are put to the test rather than becoming part of the norm themselves! Otherwise contemporary man in his experiences and evaluations becomes the judge of the Word of God. Yea, he might even become the judge of God himself, as German “death-of-God theologian” Dorothée Sölle did, writing in one of the preparatory papers: “That God does not weep in the Scriptures speaks badly for him. He would have good reason to do so.” Here, and in several other conference texts, the borderline between theology and blasphemy has definitely been crossed.
Scripture, therefore, was not allowed to play its majestic role in Bangkok. It was complemented, or rather replaced, by a situationist approach, called in the modern ecumenical jargon “contextuality.” The real preparatory document for Bangkok, to which high importance was attributed by the organizers from Secretary General Philip Potter downward, was a collection of documents called “Salvation Today and Contemporary Experience.” It culminated in an episode (taken from the Japanese novel Silence) in which apostasy from the Christian faith was held to be the most relevant form of “salvation today” in the particular situation described. (This was reaffirmed by Indian Jesuit Samuel Rayan in the first issue of the conference newspaper Salvation Today, December 31, 1972.)
There was still another reason given by the Geneva staff as to why the conference deviated from the traditional procedure of working on the basis of theological documents prepared beforehand. This old method, it was said, would yield too much to the Western way of theologizing. Westerners reason on the basis of a scholastic system of dogmatic categories in order to arrive at highly abstract formulas. This was said to be both uncongenial to the minds of Christians in the third world and irrelevant to their problems. Therefore, the staff asserted, it was better to provide the conference with material that would be a more spontaneous expression of the Afro-Asian mind. Personal testimonies, poems, songs, pieces of drama, or liturgies would be more appropriate. Even a dancing group was planned through which some members could “explore the meaning of salvation.”
When the German delegation requested some solid theological documents to use in preparing for the conference, Gerhard Hoffmann, a newly appointed WCC staff member, replied:
The group leaders are not tied to definite texts. They can come with their own preparation, but they must face the insights of others who find other texts or interpretations more important. For the other groups, too, something analogous applies. Preparation is not possible on a mere intellectual level, but rather by being tuned in to the theme. This does not exclude an intellectual German theological discussion, but it reduces the possibility to a “contribution.” As you state, the German delegation is crying for “preparatory material.” The first answer, therefore, would be: Do not close yourselves to an experiment in group dynamics, and still less to the moving of God’s Spirit. Rather prepare yourselves in a different way this time! Is it not “preparation” if somebody somewhere discovers a new song, meditates on it, and takes it along to Bangkok? Of course, he also may bring along biblical texts which have just become important for him.
This reply from Geneva served as an eye-opener to me as to the real character of this conference. Although it was convened under a highly theological heading, serious theology was to be excluded from the very beginning. We rather were invited to expose ourselves to an experiment in group dynamics, which in America is more commonly known as “sensitivity training.” Formerly, at the time of its crude origins in China, it was called “brain-washing.” That this was done in the name of the working of God’s Spirit again bordered on blasphemy.
Furthermore, the fact that it was done under the pretext that this was more congenial to the mind of delegates from the third world was an insult to their churches. Up to now Afro-Asian church leaders have given ample proof that they are quite capable of making their contribution to sound biblical theology. Or is the late ecumenical theologian D. T. Niles already forgotten and disclaimed by the WCC, in which he played such an important part?
In any case, Geneva had decided to stage this experiment in group dynamics, and the organizers were determined to carry it through. They seemed to be convinced that this would be the way to let the conference delegates arrive at the organizers’ predetermined concept of “Salvation Today” without becoming aware that they were being manipulated by the shrewdest of psychological techniques.
The organizers of the Bangkok conference knew that if they allowed an open theological debate to develop, the results could prove highly unsatisfactory. A debacle quite similar to the polarization between ecumenicals and evangelicals at Uppsala in 1968 would have taken place. This would have meant that very few recommendations would have been passed. And these recommendations were the central aim of the whole conference. They had been designed to build up the ecumenical action program in which the WCC “Program Unit on Faith and Witness” has been busily engaged ever since the time of the integration of the International Missionary Council into the WCC in 1961.
Therefore, from the theological point of view, Bangkok was a frustrating experience. On the surface, boredom seemed to be a general condition. The conference program, which was not disclosed before the start of the meeting, provided very few public lectures and still less opportunity to discuss the advertised theme. In fact, only the Geneva establishment itself was heard from the pulpit. M. M. Thomas, chairman of the Central Committee, gave the one really theological address, “The Meaning of Salvation.” His address was followed by two reports, one by Potter as the previous director of CWME, and the other by Wieser on the proceedings of the “Salvation Today” studies.
The first week was composed of Bible studies under the general theme “Exploring the Meaning of Salvation.” The subsequent eight meetings of subsections and sections continued the conference work “with a view to action.” Here lay the real emphasis. Our objections would have been modified if the Bible studies—i.e., the two Bible presentations of Hans-Reudi Weber in the plenary as well as the three discussions in seven smaller Bible-study groups—had really been allowed to lay the theological foundations for an ecumenical action program for mission. But Weber’s Bible presentations took the form of a panel performing a drama that culminated in catechizing the audience. This turned the whole thing into “a nice Sunday-school lesson,” as Bishop Chandu Ray remarked.
Some of the Bible-study groups were bright spots on the program. But when I inquired at the opening of our group meeting whether there was a chance to bring our results to bear on the findings of the whole conference, the answer from WCC representatives was that the groups were not supposed to produce any statements; the Bible studies were arranged mainly for our own spiritual benefit. In the context of the group dynamic experiment, they seemed in fact to serve as preliminary stages in which, with the aid of our ecumenical sensitizers, we were gradually geared into the collective mind of the conference. Two of them did, indeed, produce quite evangelical statements, published on the bulletin board and in the conference paper. But only one of these became part of the final conference report. Here it rather serves as a biblical figleaf to cover the humanist nakedness.
The main task of working out the final recommendations was, at least nominally, assigned to the ten subsections into which the three main sections were divided. But even they were not able to produce theologically responsible statements. This was partly due to the deliberately disconcerted way of discussion, which could not lead to a real consensus. In subsection I-B on “Cultural Identity and Conversion,” for example, even in the sixth meeting the participants were not able to agree whether there was something unique in Christian conversion as over against conversion in Maoism or in other religions. Therefore the chairman had to write the report! This predicament can in part be accounted for by the fact that the themes of the subsections were not introduced by biblically oriented lectures or prepared drafts. Instead, “action reports” were given, to which the participants were to respond by telling their own “experiences.”
The “theology” of Bangkok, therefore, could be called the theology of experience. Even here not all experiences were accepted as equally valuable. When a young evangelical from West Africa movingly related his conversion from Islam to Christ, his story was bypassed without any further comment or evaluation. But much ado was made about the story of a Chinese intellectual whom the cultural revolution assigned to work in a pig stable, and who thereby discovered his need to be “converted” and to accept simple farm workers as his real fellow human beings. The theology, in this case, was that true conversion is not so much a religious experience as an overcoming of social estrangement.
Maoism was presented several times as an acceptable alternative to Christianity. This became evident when on the China evening the stress was not upon how the Gospel could be reintroduced to China but upon what the cultural revolution in China meant to our understanding of Salvation Today. The most drastic expression of the high evaluation of Maoism at the expense of Christianity was found on an anonymous poster that appeared the following morning on one of the bulletin boards. It read: “At China evening did you notice the compulsive neuroses of the West to ‘convert’ China? Salvation=God save China from ‘conversion’!”
This revealed, once again, not only the tremendous abyss between evangelical and ecumenical mission theology, but also the unwillingness of the controlling ecumenical organizers to allow a systematic analysis of this theological conflict and an open encounter. Some of us had foreseen this strategy at the beginning of the conference. Therefore Dr. Arthur Glasser and I seized the opportunity of the only public hearing after the three addresses of the WCC officials. We deplored the fact that the really crucial issue in connection with the conference theme, the ecumenical-conservative controversy on the theology of mission, which had so clearly been pinpointed by the Frankfurt Declaration, had not even been mentioned in the CWME report, “From Mexico City to Bangkok.”
We were both harshly met first by U Kyaw Than, general secretary of the East Asian Conference of Churches, and then by Philip Potter. Both employed rhetoric to reduce the general conflict reflected in the Frankfurt Declaration to an internal quarrel among West German theologians, which they would not allow to embarrass the World Conference or, as U Kyaw Than mocked, to infect Asia by theological tuberculosis.
Jehovah, Thou living Lord of the Covenant, ETERNAL Lord of LIFE in whom a Pilgrim of good will beginning from within doeth authentic Truth, grant me to ascertain ever more clearly thy guidance, as evidenced through the long-range pattern of days gone by. Enable me in thy grace to ABIDE at the very core of my being where my Christian redeemed life springs out of thee, and the secret of my identity remains hidden in thy merciful love. Grant that I may trust in thee alone, and be careful for NOTHING, as no man by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature. O thou Lord of the Hill, vouchsafe that I may thus live in the constant awareness of thy might within me in the setting of the Delectable Country, even as the Hobgoblins, Satyrs, and Dragons of the Pit would frighten me.
God of our Lord JESUS CHRIST, preserve me from a false humility of inferiority feeling before men, and grant that my humility be that of Jesus, the humility of a Son, humility before thee. Almighty God in whom I live, and move, and have my being, may I shun meddling, aggressiveness, and all forms of antagonism, and absorb what happens to me—accepting it as a contribution to the long view I take of my life under thee. Grant that I may deepen rather than fret, in the realization that all the good I may do or say is but thy utterance through my infirmity.
Vouchsafe that I never indulge at the close of action in any vain brooding, whether of self-congratulation or self-despair, but merely forget the things that are behind the moment they have come to pass, LEAVING them with thee to overrule or to bless. And so bear me on as I learn to sing in the darkness of this world the song of thy redeeming love—until on thy kind arms I fall.
In the name of our Lord JESUS CHRIST, Amen.
Having evoked these sentiments, Potter succeeded in capturing enough emotional support from third-world participants to extinguish the threatening fire of a general theological debate in the plenary. My proposal to the conference to call for an international theological consultation between ecumenical and non-conciliar evangelical theologians to resolve the “fundamental crisis in Christian missions” was never entertained. Nor was it taken to the vote, when I made it a formal motion on the last day of the conference.
Does this mean that Bangkok was really an atheological meeting? Several German participants stated that the Afro-Asian delegates, who formed the majority, had finally refused any further intrusion of Western theology into their churches. The call for a moratorium in sending Western missionaries to the third-world churches was interpreted accordingly. “Asia has finally been granted the right to be saved according to its own fashion,” one radio commentator remarked.
African participants in particular repeatedly stated their desire “to find their true identity,” as the new slogan put it. This altogether unbiblical concept seems mainly to imply a reformulation of Christianity within the framework of the cultural and religious heritage of the African past. The Kimbanguist Church, which claims to have received a special revelation and blessing of the Holy Spirit through the prophet Simon Kimbangu (in the minds of his followers he has been almost uplifted to the fellowship within the divine Trinity), was therefore highly acclaimed. It was represented as the outstanding example of an indigenous African church that, without the cooperation of Western missionaries, had expanded rapidly and found its true identity.
I doubt whether Bangkok really has meant the breakthrough of the third-world churches from the former Western dominance towards a theology that is both truly indigenous and authentically Christian. I also doubt that the loudest Afro-Asian speakers at the Bangkok meeting were really representing the faith of the masses of Afro-Asian church members. They have so often enjoyed the privileges of VIPs at ecumenical meetings around the world that I suspect they have lost all vital contact with their fellow Christians at the grass-roots level. The influence of ecumenical sensitivity training with all its humanistic and syncretistic vocabulary has become ever greater. Thus mentally and ideologically they have become even more dependent on the West than they were under the influnce of so-called Western scholastic theology, which in most cases simply was plain biblical theology.
The deliberate appeal of WCC officials to African and Asian sentiments within the context of resurgent traditional religions has ushered in a dialectical process. It might finally aim at the formation of an inter-religious, semi-political world church. Still, all this is no spontaneous movement of the church in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Nor was the concept of “Salvation Today” that finally appeared in the official reports of the three sections—(I) “Culture and Identity,” (II) “Salvation and Social Justice,” and (III) “Churches Renewed in Mission”—the spontaneous theological self-expression of those members appointed by their churches and mission bodies.
To arrive at a proper theological evaluation of the Bangkok Conference it is necessary to distinguish two different overlapping conferences. The first had started long before the opening of the Bangkok meeting. It was the continuous consultation between the Geneva staff members and their card-carrying ecumenical henchmen in other parts of the world. This conference worked out both the theology for “Salvation Today” and the strategy for Bangkok. The second, more representative conference was the one in which the official delegates participated, carefully guided and guarded at every step by highly disciplined ecclesiocrats, who served as chairmen, secretaries, reflectors, consultants, artists, musicians, newspaper editors, or anonymous “sensitizers” in the group meetings. The purpose of this official meeting, I’m afraid, was to produce the predetermined results with the illusion that the participants had worked them out by themselves.
This master plan succeeded in part, but in part it got stuck because of the still intact biblical convictions of a great number of the delegates from many different countries and church traditions. This accounts for the rather streaky appearance of the section reports. These are clearly evangelical affirmations side by side with obtrusive expressions of current ecumenical ideology. Compare, for example, the following definitions of salvation and of mission in Section Report III-B:
Salvation is Jesus Christ’s liberation of individuals from sin and all its consequences. It is also a task which Jesus Christ accomplishes through his church to free the world from all forms of oppression. This can only happen if the church is renewed and grows.
It is our mission
—to call men to God’s Salvation in Jesus Christ,
—to help them to grow in faith and in their knowledge of Christ in whom God reveals and restores to us our true humanity, our identity as men and women created in his image,
—to invite them to let themselves be constantly re-created in this image, in an eschatological community which is committed to man’s struggle for liberation, unity, justice, peace and fullness of life.
One of the worst statements is found in the “Litany” produced by Section I, which contains the following strange combination of modern beatitudes:
You were a poor Mexican baptized by the Holy Spirit and the Blood of the Lamb:
I rejoice with you, my brother.
You were an intellectual Chinese who broke through the barrier between yourself and the dung-smelling peasant:
I rejoice with you, my sister.
You found all the traditional language meaningless and became “an atheist by the grace of God”:
I rejoice with you, my brother.
Out of the depths of your despair and bondage you cried and in your cry was poignant hope:
I rejoice with you, my sister.
You were oppressed and fled to the liberated areas and dedicated your life to revolutionary struggle:
I rejoice with you, my brother.
You were oppressed and put down by male authority and in spite of sneers and snarls persevered in your quest for dignity:
I rejoice with you, my sister.
It would be futile to weigh the pros against the cons and from such analysis proceed to a diagnosis of how far the WCC at its Bangkok meeting strayed from biblical truth and how much hope there may be for further dialogue, cooperation, and clarification between the ecumenical and the evangelical movement. The “Program Unit on Faith and Witness” will not feel bound by any theological affirmations that do not clearly support its present strategy.
It is far more important to notice which emphases were put into the reports and recommendations, either by the continuous influence of ecumenical activists or by their last-minute interferences. These really indicate the line of action that the WCC will follow during the forthcoming period of unchallenged executive power. “Now we are in business,” one Geneva staff-officer remarked when those theologically concerned participants who would not be delegates at the next assembly had left Bangkok. The emphases on “dialogue with men of living faiths,” on “salvation through political confrontation,” and on a “moratorium” for Western missions are the decisive results of Bangkok. Only the third of these is really new. One might term it an effort at the self-liquidation of the Western missionary movement.
As for the theological understanding of the theme “Salvation Today,” the preamble prepared by Jürgen Moltmann for one section report is the most important one. It tries to bridge the gap between the evangelical concept of a predominantly personal and eschatological salvation and the ecumenical concept with its social, this-worldly emphasis by means of a “comprehensive notion of salvation.” But Moltmann was challenged on three main points. First, he failed to acknowledge the basic distinction between the primary restoration of fallen man to the love of God and the social reconciliation that is its consequence. Second, his concept of anticipated eschatology makes man here and now the acting participant in the final salvation of the “groaning creation” (Rom. 8:19) that God has reserved for his own final redemptive act in the return of Jesus Christ. Third, Moltmann’s yielding to the ecumenical idea of “contextuality” dissolves the concept of salvation into a number of widely disparate experiences. There is no clear recognition of the one basic reality of salvation that transcends all its specific expressions and consequences.
Typical of this non-theological dissolution of the biblical message of Christ’s universal salvation for all sinners who believe in him is the following statement:
In this sense it can be said, for example, that salvation is the peace of the people in Viet Nam, independence in Angola, justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and release from the captivity of power in the North-Atlantic Community, or personal conversion in the release of a submerged society into hope, or of new life styles amidst corporate self-interest and lovelessness.
Here, under a seemingly biblical cover, the concept of salvation has been so broadened and deprived of its Christian distinctiveness that any liberating experience can be called “salvation.” Accordingly, any participation in liberating efforts would be called “mission.”
That this would be the Bangkok interpretation of salvation and mission was predictable. The World Council of Churches should not expect, however, that evangelicals all over the world will accept it. We now are challenged to present the biblical alternatives by articulating our faith and by acting accordingly in obedience to Christ’s Great Commission.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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