Imagine the strange sight: a huge and formidable fortress, neo-gothic in style and set in a beautiful park, which was the Jesuit embassy of learning at Louvain, Belgium’s distinguished Catholic university, and is now the property of an evangelical theological seminary! The Belgian Bible Institute, faced with an exceptional growth in number of students, after an odyssey of searching for more room was given the chance to buy these large and lofty premises. The battle of prayer for funds to complete the contract and to re-equip the house is still going on.
In early September this extraordinary place formed the setting for the first European Conference of Evangelical Theologians. Although all other continents have had their associations of evangelical theologians for some time, because of language differences and other reasons such a thing seemed unlikely to come about in Europe.
The conference was another offspring of that quickening event for evangelicalism, the 1974 Lausanne Congress. It was planned for almost two years, under the inspiring leadership of John Stott. Ninety evangelical theologians from seventeen European countries, including a few from some Socialist countries, met for five days under the theme “The Kingdom of God and Modern Man.” Paper writers had been assigned to deal with several aspects of the doctrine of the Kingdom, including the Kingdom and ethics, the Kingdom and the Church, the Kingdom and society, and the Kingdom and the future.
The fascinating and surprising element in the papers read to the conference was not so much the particular treatments of the subjects but the very different conceptions of the Kingdom itself emanating from them. One speaker would understand God’s Kingdom as a matter of the future, while others brought it into the present time. Of the latter, some would take it quasi-psychologically as an interior quality of the Christian believer, almost synonymous with faith, and others as something of definitely external reality. Of the latter group, some would seek that reality in the personal life of sanctification of a follower of Christ, whereas others saw it take place in the social sphere, in the Church, or in society.
To the astonishment of these committed evangelicals, it was at this point that even confessional differences came to the fore, especially between Reformed believers from the Netherlands and Lutherans from Scandinavia, who disagreed about the applicability of Christ’s rule (in the strict sense) to the realm of the state. The overall impression remained, however, that these confessional peculiarities were only secondary and were amiably accepted within an evangelical unanimity rooted in a primary commitment to a biblical approach.
When in a panel discussion during the last evening the conference speakers were asked to summarize their concepts of the Kingdom of God, it became clear that all these concepts, as long as they represented biblical elements, were legitimate facets of one and the same doctrine. Only the extremes of a complete internalization or spiritualization of the Kingdom and a complete externalization and alienation of it—a view that sees the Kingdom realized in the “progress” of some secular culture and society—remained unacceptable.
Surely the Kingdom of God is “within us.” But it becomes visibly real in its fruits. These, however, like all renewing work of Christ and the Spirit, cannot be subjected to human strategy and planning. They are in the hands of God, who brings them into being here and there (see Luke 4:23ff.) as he chooses, in those people who are willing to be his tools. But then these fruits of the Kingdom radiate into their human surroundings, spilling over into the world and preserving it as salt preserves food or in the manner of the ten just men for whose sake a city may be saved.
The overall profit of this very first conference of European evangelical theologians was not limited to the expanding of some theological theme. It also created a wealth of personal relationships and made possible an abundant exchange of information about research projects, literature, and theological education. On top it brought the rare experience of a really proficient theological conference—proficient because it was based on the common acceptance of Holy Scripture as fully sufficient for all matters of faith and living. At this conference one did not—as so often happens in twentieth-century theology—have to spend a great deal of time and energy in proving each new theological step by interpreting it in anthropological terms.
The conference therefore agreed to form a permanent Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians with the first three articles of the Lausanne Covenant as its doctrinal basis. An advisory council and a working group have been instituted to plan its future work, which will take place mainly in regional (language) associations and culminate in another plenary meeting in two years’ time.
It should be clear that these groups will never achieve collectively what conference participants are not prepared to tackle individually in the first place. Hard and solid theological work during the less exciting weeks of the year is what will count toward the production of a much needed comprehensive, evangelical—i.e. biblically committed—theology.
If the fellowship is to be true to its initial theme, “The Kingdom of God and Modern Man,” its future work cannot remain a pastime of the intellectual back-room boys of evangelicalism. The message of God’s Kingdom must go out as a challenge to our generation. It must go out as a challenge to much of today’s theology, which in its content and its form often testifies not to the sovereignty of God but to a fake sovereignty of man, who poses as if he were the one to determine what Christian theology may say or not say. It must also go out as a realistic challenge to the whole of our generation—its way of life, its order of values, its understanding of history, and its hopes and fears regarding the future.
Indeed, a Fellowship of Evangelical Theologians must, as John Stott put it at the press conference, under God look out for nothing less than a new reformation of the Church, and a theological reformation, with a deeper grasp of the revealed truths. This alone could make the Church—now starving in many places for lack of true scriptural nourishment—fit again for its God-given tasks in the world.
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