Significant ministerial realignments during the past five years are pointing to our present religious situation as a time of transition, the directions and outcome of which are still uncertain. But the index to these realignments is not exclusively theological. It includes attitudes toward evangelism and ecumenism as well. In view of doctrinal conflicts, confusing currents of thought and activity, and a wide range of conformity, the permanence of some of these attitudes is unassured.

The original theological divide separated two distinct groups over the issue of biblical theology. On the modernist side, it was the rejection of any absolute theology that opened the door to creedal tolerance and theological relativism. On the evangelical side, it was the exaltation of the principle of scriptural revelation that issued in firm defense of a revealed theology.

The lines of separation dimmed, however, because of several factors. Some modernists clung to fragments of New Testament teaching (especially fragments of Jesus’ teaching) with absolute devotion. And some injudicious popularizers of fundamentalism, though comprising a minority, encouraged certain extreme views, e.g., inspiration of Scripture misconstrued as dictation, crass literalism, and emphasis on Christ’s deity neglectful of his humanity, which brought conservative positions into measurable disrepute. Nonetheless, the historic dividing line between evangelical and modernist approaches remained quite unobscured, until neo-supernaturalism arose to assail the classic liberal view and to profess a return to the theology of the Reformers. This neo-supernaturalism, or dialectical theology, has proved itself to be a midway haven for mobile modernists and discontented evangelicals. It has offered a convenient stand for Christ’s deity and mediation without necessary commitment to his virgin birth, propitiatory death, bodily resurrection, bodily return, or the plenitude of his divinity. It has afforded also an appeal to Scripture as a unique witness to divine revelation without asserting its inerrancy and objective authority. And it has introduced the Bible as normative, without affirming that special revelation takes the form of concepts and words.

Since the infection of religious thought by this medial theology, ambiguity and confusion has resulted from the indiscriminatory practice of divesting the vocabulary of theology of its sacred biblical and historical meanings, and imparting a modern glow to such concepts as original sin, the fall, atonement, second coming, revelation and inspiration. Spokesmen today do not even hesitate to misappropriate the labels of “evangelical,” “conservative,” and “fundamentalist.” The historic divide, which had once been fixed, is now threatened by fluid doctrinal definitions.

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If theological maneuverings have operated both to confuse and explain the clerical alignments of our day, there is the added irony that prevalent attitudes toward evangelism no longer serve as a touchstone for theological fidelity. The professing Church can no longer be divided into two camps: modernism, assigning priority to the social gospel at the expense of personal evangelism, and fundamentalism, casting its weight behind efforts of personal and mass evangelism. For the gigantic evangelistic impact spearheaded by Billy Graham has broken this division down, and has engendered new reactions.

Forces theologically to the left of the evangelical movement have splintered on the question of supporting mass evangelism. Modernists still committed to the old social gospel may now be in the minority, but some of their representatives continue to be indifferent to the Christian priority of evangelism. Others of their number, however, have been impressed with the pragmatic success of Graham’s crusades, and are ready to co-operate in the hope that evangelistic pressure can be combined with current rather than biblical theology. The Christian Century, for instance, supports evangelism, conjoined with critical views of the Bible, and hostile to biblical doctrines which Billy Graham supports in conformity with New Testament revelation. Graham’s spectacular evangelistic efforts have by and large served to shape new alignments in regular denominations throughout contemporary Protestantism. And these rearrangements are becoming increasingly significant (as doctrinal constraints) as more and more of the clergy sense the inevitable dependency of biblical evangelism upon biblical theology.

But the evangelical movement itself has not escaped the tensions of the current evangelistic surge. And here the question does not concern doctrinal fundamentals, for they are not the real issues of dispute. Despite a popular preference for the term “evangelical” to “fundamentalist” because of discredit which factionists and faddists have brought upon the latter (already 15 years ago the National Association of Evangelicals discriminated between the two terms), evangelicals do not hesitate to emphasize the fundamentals. And despite differences over the range of inter-church co-operation, both the American Council of Christian Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals cast their weight—in principle at least—behind mass evangelism. But while ACCC leaders were projecting mass crusades against liberalism in the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches, individual NAE leaders were throwing their emphasis toward a more cooperative evangelistic effort. Before Graham’s evangelistic ministry had gained national prominence, however, NAE in 1943 officially turned aside proposals for coast-to-coast organizational sponsorship, and confined its policy to the encouragement of local evangelism. Significant blocs of NAE influence still continued to urge widespread missions, prodded somewhat by the fortunate presence of Billy Graham in the ranks. But this emphasis also faced NAE with its first significant loss. The Christian Reformed Church withdrew from membership, insisting that evangelistic effort belongs to the local church.

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Graham’s early evangelistic successes were achieved under evangelical community sponsorship, from Los Angeles to Boston, and also London. But the invitation from the Church of Scotland for the Glasgow campaign presented him with the problem of whether he should preach the Gospel from a free pulpit in a land where evangelical Christianity had virtually disappeared. (Because the fortunes of theology in the Church of Scotland still lie between modernism and neo-supernaturalism, it has not yet made peace with the doctrinal issues inherent in the Graham crusade.)

After Scotland, Graham was convinced that the Holy Spirit operates where and how he will, although never independently of scriptural proclamation. Whatever organizational alignment problems may arise for contemporary evangelical movements, Graham has considered himself an ambassador of evangelism rather than of ecumenism, and is confident that a theologically mixed sponsorship cannot frustrate the faithful preaching of the Gospel to lost sinners. Graham has sought the widest possible hearing for the Gospel, and is deferring to the broadest sponsorship that will yield him a free pulpit. Up through the present time, evangelical churches have been full of “already saved” sinners (for whom the relevance of evangelism was limited to the efficiency of their outreach to the unchurched), and much of the preaching therein had been largely bypassed by unregenerate intellectuals. Liberal churches, bent upon meliorating society by ethical means, have ignored the principle of personal regeneration among their memberships. Moreover, the Graham crusade has found that in many of the larger cities, evangelical forces comprise such a minority, numerically and financially, that they could not be counted upon for effective sponsorship of herculean community efforts. And top evangelical leaders, though supporting Graham’s ministry locally, were stalemated on the question of official organizational sponsorship at the national level.

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This, then, is a picture of the condition which existed when the Graham crusades came gradually to colossal proportions within the orbit of cooperative ministerial sponsorship. In the course of such effort, the New York campaign attested a widening interest in the mutual cause of biblical evangelism and biblical theology within the metropolitan area. And while some modernist spokesmen came to repudiate the Garden campaign, others whose interests had been sub-evangelical began to reflect to their congregations more and more of what Graham was preaching in the Garden.

If the forces to the left of Graham divided on the issue of evangelism, so did the forces on the right. Criticism of Graham proceeded from some of the most vocal fundamentalist evangelists of our generation, and from leaders of extreme separatist movements. Their contention was that Christian believers must not only reject modernistic and neo-supernaturalistic theology as unbiblical, but must regard the regular denominations as apostate and refuse to traffic with their programs. As a consequence of this bias, Billy Graham’s evangelistic thrust was subjected to the bitter criticism of being a compromise with modernism.

It is one of the ironies of our decade, and perhaps a straw in the wind, that while the “evangelism” forces on Graham’s left are now shaping a vigorous counterthrust under the aegis of The Christian Century, Graham’s critics on the right are engaging in criticism and contention.

One may be tempted to say that the currents of Christian encounter are also sharpening ecumenical concerns in various directions. Yet here again the picture is complex as one observes the noticeable changes that have taken place in the National Council of Churches, the NAE, and the ACCC.

To speak first of the NCC, there can be no doubt that some in its leadership today have moved far beyond the classic liberalism that informed the movement a generation ago. It would be wrong to say that an evangelical spirit now dominates its spirit and outlook, for its theology is still inclusive, though in growing conformity with varying shades of neo-orthodoxy. But because of its growing deference to evangelism, its more cordial attitude (in official personal relations) to unaffiliated evangelical leaders, and its multiplication of invitations to consultants and observers of important gatherings, the NCC has attracted participation which less alert competitive movements have been unable to achieve. Furthermore, the subtleties of contemporary theology are such that churchmen, unskilled in doctrinal studies, easily exaggerate the return to orthodoxy.

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Alongside all of these facts are some evidences that delegates of undoubted evangelical persuasion are becoming more vocal in certain phases of the world-church effort. These in turn have encouraged leaders from unaffiliated denominations to spur an evangelical impact upon the NCC. “Not separation but penetration” is the theme being emphasized in Christian Reformed, Missouri Lutheran and even some Southern Baptist circles. Yet at the same time, denominations already within the ecumenical orbit are reflecting increasing discontent as merger negotiations continue. Aside from the Southern Presbyterian repudiation of merger with the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., the United Presbyterian dissent has registered a strong minority of 42% of presbyterial votes. And a significant bloc of Congregational churches (both conservative and liberal) have dissociated themselves from merger with the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Meanwhile the NCC continues to provide the major ecumenical framework for American churches with an affiliated membership of 39,000,000 Protestants. Tension, of course, revolves around the question whether the NCC leaders’ positions and pronouncements faithfully reflect the convictions of that constituency, still admitted to be predominantly conservative both in theological and social matters.

Currents of change are also obvious within the NAE. While shaped 15 years ago over against the predominantly liberal theology of the Federal Council of Churches, the NAE movement’s main orientation through the years has been that of positive formulation of evangelical positions and services. While its actual membership (through agencies for education, missions, Sunday School, radio, chaplaincy, etc.) numbers approximately 2,000,000, it functions for a constituency exceeding 10,000,000, and in some respects serves unaffiliated groups like the Missouri Lutherans and Southern Baptists. A long-range view of the NAE, however, will indicate that some of its earliest influential leaders are no longer in the movement’s inner councils. The reasons for this are multiple. Across 15 years, death and retirement have displaced some of its founders. But a number have tended to participate in its activities only when invited to address the yearly conventions, and others have ceased to attend altogether. In a measure, this situation reflects the pressures of constituencies, and in a measure also it mirrors some moderation of convictions. But most significant, perhaps, does it reveal a besetting problem of individualistic church effort, namely, the tendency to give one’s self zealously to the larger effort only when personal sacrifice is not exacted, and personal prestige is maintained.

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This has meant to the movement a loss of some of the dynamic leadership which, in the past, has assisted the fixing of compass-bearings for growth and development. Men of the past saw that the genius of the NAE (in contrast with the ACCC) was the penetration of evangelical emphasis in regular churches and denominations. This goal has, of course, become increasingly difficult to achieve from the outside because of denominational mergers augmenting the ecumenical spirit. And because NAE leadership in the last number of years has reflected little greatness at charting creative evangelical positions in the midst of theological turmoil, some observers have sensed an uncertain future in any NAE emphasis on penetration. If successful, they believe, the further usefulness of NAE will evaporate; if unsuccessful, the movement may ultimately become separatist like ACCC.

Alongside this failure at penetration must be ranged certain areas of neglect within the NAE program. Despite its worthy achievement of positive evangelical goals, and its establishment upon a creedal basis, the movement has not provided any great incentive to theological or doctrinal study within its ranks. This is due in part to its delicate balancing of Calvinistic and Arminian interests which preserves peace by a moratorium on doctrinal discussion. It is due also to the fact that, in contrast with the NCC, the NAE (and the ACCC) has not succeeded in enlisting the energetic participation of its own theologians and schoolmen. This is largely because many evangelical schools have been forced, because of divided trustee boards and supporting constituencies, into non-committal positions in relation to the NAE and ACCC. The Evangelical Theological Society, for instance, whose performance has been spotty, has operated outside of NAE and ACCC, though with their favor.

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Alongside the neglect of theological study, the NAE, while making encouraging attempts at social action, has spearheaded no over-all program of comprehensive study in evangelical strategy, nor has it wrestled with the doctrine of the Church beyond the problems of separation and apostasy. In considerable measure, the reason for this neglect has been financial, for the movement has received responsive enthusiasm in every way but monetary. Between 1946 and 1948, NAE’s indebtedness reached a critical point, and that ended NAE’s rapid expansion and to this day represses its enlargement plans.

Meanwhile, the ACCC has not escaped its share of woes. Leaders of that group had argued at one time that anyone unidentified with their organization, or who was not a prospect for affiliation, was in effect apostate and a threat to the faith. Carl McIntire, founder and leader of the ACCC, identified the movement with vitriolic denunciations of inclusivist movements and churchmen, but at the same time neglected to foster the positive tasks of evangelical thought and life. The Christian Beacon was not simply an ACCC house organ; it became a religious smear sheet in the worst traditions of yellow journalism. The thunderous criticisms of leaders who took exception to some of McIntire’s positions and those of his cohorts soon bred internal difficulties. The result has been a cleavage within the ACCC. While McIntire remains acknowledged leader of the movement, its ranks are thinning to the extent that his leadership counts less and less. Alongside the Beacon, McIntire now publishes a semiprivate paper, The Free Press, in which private letters are printed, often without permission, in an effort of self-vindication and vilification. Bible Presbyterians, once affiliated with ACCC, have repudiated his leadership and are exploring the possibilities of Reformed creedal fellowship with Orthodox Presbyterian, Reformed Presbyterian and Christian Reformed leaders.

In all these matters, one fact is clear: this may be a generation unparalleled for its emphasis on Christian unity, but it nonetheless abounds in deep-seated tensions. Those tensions extend throughout the whole gamut of contemporary Christian thought and action. It involves theological upheavals, evangelistic dynamisms, and ecumenical tensions.

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Perhaps we have a warning signal here that the popular solutions to our Christian problems today are overarched by inadequate assumptions. When men of like theological conviction, of like evangelistic zeal, and of like concern for a regenerate Church, are divided into camps that bypass and even spurn each other, the time has come for serious reconsideration. The one great watershed of evangelical thought is the Holy Bible. In this age when churchmen of virtually all theological persuasions are declaring the recovery of Bible theology to be one of the exciting developments of our era, ministers and laymen of evangelical heritage are neglecting the earnest pursuit of biblical study both at great peril to themselves and to the enterprises which they represent. If there is any one feature that bestows greatness upon evangelical Christianity, it is a vigorous identification with Christ and the Scriptures. An evangelical movement or profession divorced from such an identification is hollow. The time has come for all who cherish the evangelical heritage, regardless of artificial lines that divide them, to show themselves champions of the Lord and the Book. For it is in the recovery of the great realities and verities of biblical revelation that the church in our century will find its true unity, learn its true nature, and accomplish its true mission. Unfortunately, too many evangelicals have spent their energies debating the relative merit of respective versions of the Bible, while neglecting positive refutation of views and biases that warp and nullify the evangelical content of any and all versions.

Some will retort that such an appeal downrates doctrine, softening its margins to mediating positions in which higher and lower stratifications blend, or that it pragmatically accommodates evangelism to the interrelated confusions of contemporary interchurch efforts. But that is not the intention, nor need it be the result.

There have been numerous signs of constructive and courageous evangelical gains, however, during the past decade of American religious life—in evangelism, in religious journalism, in magazines and books, in evangelical scholarship, in academic texts, in seminary instruction, and in denominational influence. An interdenominational, international evangelical leadership and scholarship are taking shape. Not for 50 years has evangelical Christianity been faced with such possibilities and opportunities. Whereas a generation ago it was forced to the defensive by self-confident modernist churchmen, we find the distinctive liberal beliefs now standing on the defensive. Secular publishing houses are soliciting worthy evangelical manuscripts today; denominational leaders are being encouraged to give full scope to evangelism; college and university campuses are opening to evangelical witness (more in the realm of private religion, admittedly, than in the sphere of classroom conviction). And in all of this, it would be tragic if the secondary lines that divide us should obscure the spiritual and theological loyalties that make them one in Christ, or if evangelical leaders default in the fullest and finest exhibition of Christian evangelism in a darkening century.

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The most hopeful sign on the theological horizon is the renewal of interest in a theology of the Word of God. If ministers professing such devotion could meet together across America, apart from reference to respective ecumenical orbits, and engage in serious study of the witness of Scripture to the Word of God—the Word incarnate and the Word written—they would not only find themselves fulfilling a divinely enjoined responsibility (cf. John 5:39), but could recapture afresh the note of authority that has evaporated from much of contemporary Protestantism. A tragic side of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy was the resultant breakdown of reciprocal communication; here, at least, lies the most fruitful avenue to mutual conversation about realities that matter most.

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