Two theologians talk with Arie Brouwer, a self-identified evangelical heading America’s largest ecumenical body.

Last month, Arie Brouwer completed his first year as general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC). Brouwer, who identifies himself as an evangelical, is regarded by some as the most conservative general secretary in the ecumenical organization’s history. Some say his appointment reflects a new openness in the NCC to evangelical concerns.

Brouwer was ordained in the Reformed Church in America, a denomination he eventually served as general secretary. He later served as a deputy general secretary for the World Council of Churches (WCC).

During the past 12 months, Brouwer has sought to make prayer, worship, and personal spirituality central concerns in the NCC, starting with the organization’s leadership. However, some elements of his theology, his political stances, and his positions on social issues continue to engender skepticism among many evangelicals. During his first year at the helm of the NCC, he was arrested for demonstrating against U.S. policy in South Africa.

CHRISTIANITY TODAY asked senior editor Kenneth Kantzer and Arthur Johnston, president of Tyndale Theological Seminary in The Netherlands, to interview Brouwer.

Personal Theology

You call yourself an evangelical. What does that mean to you?

It has a classical meaning for me. The evangel—the gospel—is right at the center of what it means to be evangelical. And out of the gospel, the church is born.

What do you mean by “gospel”?

The gospel is the good news of salvation. The gospel writers tell us that Jesus came preaching the good news of the kingdom, which has to do with the renewal of persons and communities, with the renewal of the whole world.

How would you distinguish between “evangelical” and “conservative evangelical”?

Often, the word “conservative” refers to people who think in scholastic Reformed evangelical theological frameworks. If conservative means wanting to preserve the values of human community, love, justice, peace, and truth, then I am a conservative. However, I challenge conservatism that is bound by particular frameworks of theology.

How closely do you associate a high view of Scripture with conservative evangelicalism?

The inerrancy doctrine—which is rather recent in church history—is one of the distinguishing points between conservative evangelicals and evangelicals. I hold a very high view of Scripture. But I use the word “infallible” rather than “inerrant.” I believe Scripture cannot fail in the purpose for which it is given.

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Do you believe Jesus actually said and did everything the Bible records that he said and did?

The Gospels are a faithful record of Jesus’ teaching. Their historical quality is remarkable compared to other literature of the time. What is important to me is not whether they record verbatim what Jesus said. Likewise, it may or may not have been Bethsaida where Jesus performed miracles. The important question is, “Do the Scriptures faithfully represent what Jesus taught?” To that, I give an unqualified yes.

Are the theological interpretations in the Bible, such as those of Paul and John, always true?

Yes. They have to be taken altogether, not only with other New Testament teachings, but with the Hebrew Scriptures as well. Scripture illuminates Scripture, and the Spirit illuminates it all.

That can be taken two ways. One is to say that there may be wrong teaching here and there, but Scripture as a whole is a helpful guide. The other is to regard all Scripture as valid, to assert that the individual parts must not be separated from the whole. Do you subscribe to either of those?

I subscribe to the latter view. If you have to balance error against error, you don’t have a norm.

That makes you a pretty conservative evangelical.

It makes me a classically Reformed evangelical. I am not a conservative evangelical if that means being bound by patterns of theology, particularly the scholastic, Reformed theology that Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield stood for. They lost Calvin’s dynamism of the Spirit’s leading. They locked the Spirit in, and that is a fatal flaw. If you push that too far, all you become is conservative—not conservative evangelical—but just conservative.

Do you consider the Creation account of Adam and other Old Testament accounts to be historically true?

The history of a people begins with Abraham. Before Abraham, one is dealing with stories. But these stories are an infallible rule and guide for faith and life. The story of the tower of Babel, for example, makes a relevant theological point about apartheid. It teaches that we are all a part of one family, that we are not to be fragmented as apartheid doctrine teaches. That’s why the story is important. To debate about whether there really were bricks piled on top of one another obscures the issue.

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Denying a historical Adam seems to detract from the Calvinistic position on the fallen nature of man resulting from original sin.

It is clear we are in a fallen condition. The Creation account is normative for faith and life, but that does not mean it was historical.

The NCC and the WCC have engaged in interfaith and interreligious dialogue. Some have suggested that people can be saved by responding positively to other religions. What do you say about that?

What happens to people of other faiths is not a judgment I make. Of the salvation of infants, John Calvin said, “Where God closes his holy mouth, I will close mine.” Fullness of life is best made known in Jesus Christ. I could take nothing but satisfaction in all the peoples of the world coming to him. But it is also very important for us to respect the faith and religious experience of people in other traditions.

Would you say it is your duty to lead a Muslim to Christ?

Many who make judgments on Muslims have had no firsthand experience with them. Jesus taught us to deal with these things in personal relationships and in community. My first obligation to another person is to acknowledge our mutual humanity. As our relationship develops, I would share what it means to be a Christian, because that’s how my own identity is shaped.

Evangelicalism holds that Jesus—and not Muhammad—is Lord. Do you find that objectionable?

No, my confession is that Jesus is Lord. But the question is, “How do I treat people who do not confess the name of Jesus Christ?” People of other faiths tend not to listen to those who have first made a judgment on them.

Political Views

The kingdom concept is central to your understanding of Scripture. In what way was protesting American policy in El Salvador in 1981 part of the kingdom program?

I prefer to work for reform rather than to protest. That was the first time I had participated in a major demonstration. I led it because I felt the Reagan administration was refusing to hear the witness of the whole religious community related to El Salvador. The administration was perceiving the troubles there as a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. But the true issue was economic justice. When our government joins with those who are oppressing people, it is being unfaithful to our own best traditions.

Some feel the NCC’s desire for justice is selective. It opposes oppressive right-wing groups, but rarely takes a position against left-wing governments.

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Our first responsibility is to try to influence our own government, especially when it is deeply involved in the problem, as in South Africa. When we make public statements against the Soviet Union, those statements are heard in the USSR as if we are mouthing U.S. policies. That doesn’t help anybody. However, through our U.S./USSR church relations program, we have raised the issue of human rights not only with our Christian friends in the Soviet Union, but also with government leaders there.

In my travels in Eastern Europe, I have heard again and again from people in the churches that the most important thing we can do to stop repression is to ease the tensions between the superpowers. We speak out when we need to on violations of religious freedom and human rights, but we do this within the context of our long-term objectives.

Some say these anti-American statements are used in the Third World to promote Soviet ideology.

You have to look long and hard in the Third World to find people attracted to Soviet ideology. Most embrace the American tradition of freedom, liberty, and justice. People in the Third World want the United States to stand again for freedom and justice as it has for much of the last two centuries. I won’t say the NCC has never made mistakes. Sometimes we have permitted ourselves to be cast into a counterculture role. In the popular mind, that is anti-American. But we are not anti-American. We sometimes critique American society because we love our country.

Social Issues

Is it likely that in the near future the NCC will take a stand on abortion?

There are widely different points of view within the council on abortion, and it’s not on our agenda at the present time. It’s a very important question in society. I don’t think we should rush toward a policy statement.

What about the issue of homosexuality?

That issue arose sharply with the membership application of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC) in 1983. Their request has been postponed indefinitely. We are in dialogue with the UFMCC on the issues of Christian unity and ecclesiology, biblical interpretation, and human sexuality. The conversations and studies go on because these are fellow human beings who profess to a homosexual orientation, and I do not find it in the gospel that we should cut ourselves off from them.

What is your agenda with respect to your own evangelical convictions?

I came out of an evangelical home in a conservative midwestern community. Those roots are still solidly there, but I have stretched them a long, long way. My pilgrimage has led me to an emphasis on social witness. Spirituality and solidarity are inseparable. I question a spirituality that doesn’t engage itself in the issues of our time. I question also solidarity that is divorced from spirituality, because it degenerates into activism and burnout.

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The National Council

Conservative evangelicals have not been warmly receptive of the NCC. Why do you think that is the case?

Their noninvolvement is a loss for evangelicals. Members of the NCC come together on a Trinitarian confession of Christ. We believe that in spite of all our differences, our unity in Christ keeps us together. With the conservative evangelical emphasis on the centrality of Christ, they ought to be with us. It is the NCC’s social advocacy positions that has been the sticking point.

Some evangelicals have trouble believing the NCC really is Trinitarian. Member churches may sign the council’s statement, but some espouse views that don’t even remotely resemble biblical teaching. This comes out in the council’s literature—in study papers and speeches. Do you think we’re wrong on this point?

What speeches or study papers would you point to? Those questions would ordinarily be dealt with in the Commission on Faith and Order, which is solidly Trinitarian. In the 1930s, during the days of the Federal Council of Churches, the old liberal tradition was strong. But today it is gone.

Are you saying the NCC’s theological stance has changed in the last 15 or 20 years?

Yes. There is a danger for evangelicalism to deal too much with yesterday’s theological issues, and that is tragic.

We hear a great deal from NCC representatives about faith, but it often doesn’t seem to be faith in Christ. Where does the council stand on justification by faith?

If this question were brought up at an NCC governing board meeting it would be met with astonishment, because this is our faith. We would respond readily with a formulation that would be affirmed by evangelicals.

I hope conservative evangelicals will not look at the NCC and the member churches through the lenses of past problems we’ve had in relationships. The role of churches in witnessing in the renewal of American society is a job bigger than all of us. Hope for the world depends very much on the course of this country. And the course of this country depends very much on the witness of Christians.

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