“Communicate” is a word of ancient and honorable usage in the English language. To most people it means the conveyance of thoughts or opinions by means of writing or speech. The phrase “Communicating the Gospel” has also enjoyed long and popular acceptance. To most Christians it means “to transmit the message of Good News with power.” But Christians have never thought of “communicate” as a special word, glowing with existential significance—a technical term frought with a peculiar theological meaning. Never, that is, until very recently.
Only a short time ago, “communicate” was just one word among many. But, almost overnight, it has become the word in evangelism and in Christian education. Everyone—minister, educator, and theologian—seems now agreed that the Church’s mission is to “communicate the Faith.” My own denomination (Presbyterian, U.S.) is currently preoccupied with two important investigations: one, the evangelistic task of the Church, looking towards our centennial in 1961; the other, the educational task of the Church looking towards a “reconstruction of the philosophy of Christian education.” Most literature appearing on these subjects (from which the quotations in the article are taken) has been devoted to defining the task of “communication.” That the task is one of “communication” has been universally taken for granted.
A Shift Of Theology
What’s wrong with that? Well, it depends on what is being taken for granted. If “communicate” is being used in a new sense, perhaps it should be carefully examined. And, in fact, “communicate” is being used in a new sense. A new theology, designed to supplant the old in palatable form, is offered to the Church. Throughout the Church, perennial proponents of change have enthusiastically adopted “communicate” as the key word in evangelism and education because it seems to offer, at last, the possibility of successfully mingling the new with the old. A study of “communication” in the modern manner will disclose rationalism or revelation, whichever you prefer, to the satisfaction of the proponents of either, depending on the interpretation placed upon what is being said. My desire, therefore, is to show that “communicating the Faith” may not mean “communicating the Gospel” at all.
To begin with, the context in which “communicate” most frequently and insistently appears today really requires no interpretation that means the “transference of thoughts or ideas.” You do not read of “communicating the Truth,” or of “communicating the Gospel.” You read, instead, of “communicating power,” or of “communicating Christian attitudes,” or of “communicating man’s true integrity,” as well as the general phrase, “communicating the Faith.” Only in the most incidental way does such “communication” include speaking or writing. Words may be involved, but they are not indispensable. In “communication,” for instance, one may effectively impart an attitude by the exercise of that attitude, without speaking at all.
To illustrate the “communication” of attitudes without words as basic to the “communication of the Faith,” (“nonverbal communication”) one author recently cited an illustration from the life of the composer Beethoven. Seeking to console his friend, Madame Ertmann, on the death of a child, the composer sat down at the piano in her presence and played music for an hour. Through the music she was “told all that she needed to know” for consolation. Such a service, the author went on to say, is rendered by the devoted minister whose life speaks more to the point of the Gospel than all of his sermons.
The mission of the Church, according to this author, is the “communication” of its vital life force in a manner illustrated by the story. By this he meant that the Church must “pass on” to the world that primary attitude which is Christianity’s identifying attribute: love. The transference of this divine attribute to men is made the basic task of evangelism and the emergence of love in the hearts of men becomes the Christian experience of conversion.
Now the greater part of the “communication” of love, in the new definition is frankly “nonverbal.” You and I learn the meaning of love—another Christian educator explains—not so much from our mother’s words of tender endearment as from her loving acts of tender care. The Christian faith is “learned” the same way. We who have experienced the love of God “communicate” the same by loving: in acts of grace and compassion that reach and melt unloving hearts. Our attitudes, he said, are the “very life force” of the redemptive community which “communicates man’s true integrity” through concern for those outside.
In short, “communication” is first of all demonstration. We “communicate” by actively expressing the thing to be “communicated,” in this case, love. But one wonders whether any attitude, by itself, can mediate the saving power of God. In other words, one wonders if the Samaritan could have brought salvation to the man who fell among the thieves by his works of kindness. Love needs to be identified and authenticated. If I am deep in grief and a Christian comes and puts his arms lovingly about me; and he is followed by a Buddhist monk in his saffron robes who also puts his arms lovingly about me: what “love” is “communicated?” Perhaps the saffron robes will intrigue me the more and I will judge his love to be superior! Or—and this is often the point of the new theology—it matters not whether the comforter be a Buddhist or a Christian: where love appears, it is of God.
But the Bible gives priority (if we may be allowed to speak foolishly for purposes of clarification) to the Truth over Love. The truth of God is not attained by expressing love, however genuine: rather the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the truth of the Gospel. We do not first love God that we may come to know him; we rather learn of God that we may come to love him. We do not disciple the nations by “communicating” integrity: we rather preach the truth in love, which truth the Holy Spirit uses as his means of grace to bring redemption.
“Communication,” then, in the modern manner is not only the demonstration of the thing “communicated;” it is also an identification, both of the messenger with his message and of the messenger with the intended receiver of the message. One cannot “communicate” anything in which he is not personally involved.
It may be well to pause here and say that the principle of “identification,” as it refers to one’s personal involvement in his mission, has received particular attention in connection with recent studies of the Church’s world-wide missionary obligation. For a number of years, most denominational missions boards have been studying ways and means of better relating their missionaries to the peoples among whom they work. Out of the debate has come an obsession for “identification” in all evangelistic and educational endeavor. Like every obsession, this one contains a strong element of validity. But like every radical application of theology, this one goes far beyond the truth. There is a frankly existential ingredient in the theology of “communication.” It is of two kinds:
First, the messenger must “identify” himself with his message. “To communicate the truth,” another recent author quotes the Danish existentialist, Kierkegaard, “one must be the Truth.” The widening radiance of the Incarnation, he said, depends upon our being an extension of the Incarnation. Only as we are Christ to others will we be able to “communicate” Christ to them. The Church is a “redemptive community in which we, ourselves, are its very life force.”
Now we acknowledge that one who would lead another to Christ cannot lead him any farther than he himself has been. But this recent identification of the messenger with his message is something else again. It is at best a mild sort of blasphemy; at worst it is pantheism. One is never himself the Truth. Even Paul considered himself the “chief of sinners” to the end of his life. This view seems even to deny the separate personality of the Holy Spirit. “Spirit” becomes simply a characteristic of man’s nature, namely his true “integrity.” In the new theology, the Christian “spirit” is not the Holy Spirit who, “without mingling and being lost in my being has become one spirit with me; who, though remaining God high above all, has become everything in all things for me.” The modern religionist is thinking of the Christian’s possession as an “attitude,” such as cheerfulness, which is “catching” but which is not going to be caught unless the “messenger” is first himself cheerful. This is the “identification” that is sought.
Secondly, the messenger must “identify” himself with the people to whom he seeks to “communicate” his message. This, you will readily see, is what the discussions in missions policy have been about. The evangelist or the educator must “sit where the people sit.” As one writer put it, “The ‘going’ to those who are separated from the Good News is not simply a geographical movement from one place to another; the ‘go’ in the evangelistic mission is finally a spiritual movement more than a spatial one.” It is an entering into the thoughts and experiences of those to whom we go that we may “see things from their point of view in order to earn the right to be heard.”
You can readily see how a good idea can be taken too far. The author goes on to elaborate: “The word of the Good News becomes more than a statement of speech; (in our identification with the people), it becomes a deed, an event wherein is demonstrated the love which is the mark of the Church.” (There is that attitude again!) Another author leaves no doubt: “True communication is not like shouting at the top of one’s voice in the hope of compelling your hearers to believe. For this is merely an art of manipulation and cannot lead to an inward personal decision. Nor can the communicator hope to convince men by standing on some lofty pedestal or high pulpit even if he is fervently saying: ‘Thus saith the Lord!’ ”
Thus is the “foolishness of preaching” summarily dismissed.
The point I wish to emphasize is that the new theology does not see the Word of God as the primary means of grace and the preaching of the Word as the way the Holy Spirit convicts men of sin unto salvation. There is really no supernatural reference in this theology at all. If any kind of a doctrine of the means of grace remains, it is one which circumscribes love as the heart of Christian “power.” As already mentioned, it is a matter of “attitude.” And one certainly cannot preach an “attitude:” one must demonstrate it. If you want people to be cheerful, you don’t stand on a pulpit and proclaim cheerfulness. You mingle among the people, on their level, demonstrating your own cheerfulness, so that they may “catch” it.
The Neglected Means Of Grace
This is a new theology. It is not new in history, for in many ways it reflects nineteenth century Rationalism. It is the same old substitution of attitudes and techniques for content—the substitution of human influence for divine power, of behavior patterns for regeneration, of reason for revelation, of works for grace, and of man for God—with which the Church has had to contend for the last couple of centuries. In effect, it substitutes a refined modern psychology for supernatural Reality.
But this time the ideas are framed in a pattern which effectively hurdles one major stumbling block in the path of the older liberalism: namely, that of sin. The idea of “communication” allows man to be helpless in his condition. What man needs cannot be “learned” or “developed” in the old liberal sense, for the new theology recognizes man as a sinner. Instead, what man needs must be “caught.” (You will recognize this as a very credible compromise with the biblical doctrine of conversion). Man’s nature must be changed. (He isn’t cheerful, he must become cheerful). We, who have found newness of life, must “communicate” our integrity in the manner described above.
What about a message? Does the “communication of the Faith” include no message? Indeed it does. But the message is not primary. Having loved someone into a changed attitude and identified ourselves with him, we then “proclaim what God has done.” Now this “proclamation” may be almost anything, depending upon the point of view of the “communicator.”
It may indeed be the true, power-filled Gospel of salvation, if the “communicator” is a preacher of that kind of Gospel (who has not yet apprehended the intricate, subtle pitfalls inherent in a theory of evangelism which follows the above sequence of priorities).
On the other hand, if the “communicator” is an informed advocate of the new theology, he means something else again by “proclaiming what God has done.” Insofar as the message is a “gospel,” it is the good news to the world that it (the whole world) and all mankind stand in a new relation to God on account of Christ. This now is a “saved” world, a “redeemed” world, in which too many people still languish in a state of spiritual misery because they don’t know it.
The element missing here is the very heart of salvation, the doctrine of regeneration. The true Gospel proclaims that men are lost without Christ, and that to be found they must be made over. This, the essentially rationalistic philosophy of “communication” denies.
The new theology offers a splendid program for winning friends and influencing people on the human level according to good psychological principles. To win a friend you must be a friend. To dispel enmity, you must show an understanding spirit and listen with sincere interest. To influence people, you must become one with them.
But all of this is preliminary to the work of evangelism. After you have won a friend and gained a sympathetic hearing, then you begin the work of evangelizing. And to win a lost sinner to Christ you must go beyond the “communicating” described above. You use your own personal testimony and the Word of God as the Sword of the Spirit to convict of sin, to lead to repentance and to that acceptance of Jesus Christ as Saviour which regenerates the sinner. Music may charm for the moment but only the Word of God is quick and powerful and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit.
We must “communicate the Gospel” indeed. But Christianity is not “caught,” like a case of measles, by simple exposure. Christianity is caught when the Holy Spirit enters the heart convicted of sin by the preaching of the Word. Preaching is essential to the evangelistic and the educational process, from whatever place of authority (pulpit or teacher’s desk) with a ringing “thus saith the Lord!” In particular, the educational task of the Church is to create something within people by teaching something to people:
This is the Word of God. The preaching or teaching process is the divinely appointed means of Grace unto salvation for everyone that believes.
G. Aiken Taylor is Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Alexandria, Louisiana. A Calvin scholar, he holds the Ph.D. from Duke University and is author of A Sober Faith and St. Luke’s Life of Jesus, and many magazine articles.
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