Party Words and Party Line
You Can Say That Again
It was E. Stanley Jones who said some years ago, “Christianity is a very wordy religion.” This could well be a very telling criticism. I don’t know exactly what can be done about the problem, though, since Christianity does depend on words for the proclamation that is at the very center of its task.
More serious than the number of words we have to use, however, is the way we use them. One of the debates now surrounding the new Presbyterian confession concerns the question whether the old words of the old confession are still useful in this day and age. On the other hand, there is voiced the criticism that even in the new confession all is not too clear. So there may be some old words that need to have their content refurbished and some new ones that don’t carry the message. This wordy religion of ours can play all kinds of tricks on us before we get complete understanding.
A few days ago I sat in a committee meeting in which most of the members were quite anxious, as some committee members are these days, to use nothing but the latest words. The only trouble is that the latest words are beginning to take on a patina all their own.
I took the trouble to copy down sixty-two terms in one committee meeting. I won’t afflict you with all of them, but I am sure you will delight in the new-old familiarity of a representative few. Enjoy with me our committee meeting: articulated, hopefully, readiness, target group, orientation (in all its variants), dimension, contextual, viable, dialogue, power structure, position papers, meaningfulness, spelled out, rubric, area, shared, ground rules, challenge, shared perceptions, frame of reference, drag out on the table—and so on far into the night.
It seemed to me that my new role is to inform you so that I may elicit responses in terms of precluding the option. And now I think it is about time to finalize this amorphous reference.
The Party Line
To insist, as you do (“Millennium Tomorrow,” Editorials, Feb. 4 issue), that churchmen, to be true to their calling or responsibilities, must do nothing more than espouse the official line is exactly the kind of thinking that permitted a Hitler to rise to power.…
Gustavus Adolphus College
St. Peter, Minn.
• Espousing “the official line” (as found in some recent ecclesiastical pronouncements) is precisely what we have encouraged churchmen to avoid in the Viet Nam question, lest they encourage Communist aggression.—ED.
As You Like It
May I say how deeply I appreciate Christianity Today. It has given me a wider horizon of evangelical thought from men of God whose zeal in defending the faith is most heartening.
R. T. GRAY
East Finchley Baptist Church
The editorial on evangelism (Jan. 21 issue) is one of the best articles on our responsibility in today’s world that I have ever read.
JOHN EDMUND HAGGAI
Key to Life Broadcast
Of Books And Choices
The inclusion of J. Jeremias’s The Central Message of the New Testament among “Choice Evangelical Books of 1965” (Feb. 4 issue) is unfortunate because it is misleading to evangelicals and misrepresents Professor Jeremias’s own position.
Beside the fact that the attitude reflected throughout this volume toward the origin, character, and authority of the New Testament text is unacceptable to many evangelicals, divergences of an even more fundamental character are present. For instance, the argument that Jesus viewed his death as having sacrificial character is supported in part by the allegation that he was mistaken about the nature of his own burial and the fate of some of his disciples (p. 44). That this notion of a fallible Jesus has undermining and even destructive consequences for evangelical Christology and soteriology hardly needs to be said.
Neither a limited amount of private conversation with Professor Jeremias during my student days in Göttingen nor a careful reading of many of his writings has given me any indication that he is or cares to be considered an “evangelical” in the sense in which that word is employed in American church life.
Evangelicals have made and will continue to make appreciative use of Professor Jeremias’s writings. They are thankful for his careful philological studies and the judicious and sober manner in which he customarily deals with the text. But they truly profit from his work only when they keep in mind that his position—including his opposition to Bultmann—is something other than evangelical.
RICHARD B. GAFFIN, JR.
Instructor in New Testament
Westminster Theological Seminary
Your Book Review section for January 21 contained an excellent report of Professor John Macmurray’s Search for Reality in Religion, together with most appreciative references to the religious experience of its author.…
Calvary United Presbyterian
Pompano Beach, Fla.
Against Book-Club Banning
Re your advertisement for the Conservative Book Club (Jan. 7 issue) and the unjust criticisms leveled against it by some of your readers (Feb. 4 issue) …: The Book Club has offered books from such reputable publishers as Random House, Macmillan, Van Nostrand, McGraw-Hill, Harper and Row, and Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Its current selections are Marguerite Higgins’s Our Vietnam Nightmare and Oleg Penkovskiy’s The Penkovskiy Papers (a current best seller nationwide).
As a Christian and a conservative, I feel that it is no disgrace to belong to the club.…
WILLIAM L. BROWN
Even if there were something undesirable about the Conservative Book Club, their advertisement proved only that they and CHRISTIANITY TODAY are in agreement regarding advertising, not necessarily politics.
The … club is not “a front for the John Birch Society” as claimed. Being a JBS member, I think I’d know if it were.…
WILLIAM A. REDMOND
East Taunton, Mass.
I was very disturbed when I saw two letters from readers objecting to the full-page advertisement.… Personally I felt that you acted rightly in accepting this advertisement.…
Let me add that I am well pleased with CHRISTIANITY TODAY. I admire your sane and scholarly outlook, combined with your faithfulness to the Word of God, and find your magazine both helpful and inspiring.
WALTER C. JOHNSON
Editorials and articles in CHRISTIANITY TODAY frequently address themselves to the alternatives of individual conversion and the changing of social structures as appropriate ways by which the Church is called upon to function in her task of serving Christ in the world—always to the detriment of the latter. Is it not possible to raise the question seriously as to whether or not these are really alternatives? May it not be that, if we are to be his instruments in the development of a world in which freedom and justice, peace and brotherhood, are to be genuinely characteristic of human relationships, we stand in need both of persons who are individually committed to Jesus Christ, acknowledging him as Lord and Saviour, and of laws and social structures which will support rather than frustrate this goal? Why is it necessary to stress either at the expense of the other?
For my part, at any rate, the fact that I am personally involved by vocation in that part of the Church’s mission which does seek to have some impact upon the structures of society certainly does not make it impossible for me to recognize that personal commitment to Christ and the changing of men’s hearts is fundamental. Laws and social structures can and do make a vast difference in how men act toward each other, but they cannot, save obliquely, transform men’s inner motivations and attitudes. They can make a man treat his brother with a greater degree of justice, but they cannot make a man love his brother and respect him. Only an event that transpires deep within his inner being can do that, an event in which the grace of God lays hold upon him and remakes and renews his life. So far as I am concerned, there is no argument about that.
But the trouble is that so much that passes as profound conversion and change of life, so much that goes by the name of “giving one’s life to Christ” or “being born again,” just doesn’t seem to ring true, just doesn’t seem to bring forth the fruit one ought to have the right to expect of it. To be sure, the man who claims to have undergone this experience very likely now attends church more frequently and stands ready to pray and testify in public—which is very good, but scarcely evidence of a life which is now lived not for self but for Christ and others. Or he may give up drinking or smoking or playing golf on Sunday. Or he may begin tithing and bearing witness to his conviction that tithing realty pays. Or he may become a more faithful husband and a more loving father and a more useful neighbor. Even though it may sound as though I am doing so, I am not really meaning to belittle any of this. I am only trying to make it clear that all of this and much more is just a beginning and that much of it is pretty peripheral, at that. “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees”—and of the conventional Christian, too—“you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
A man can do all of these things and still remain in very significant and central ways the same old sinner. The prosperous business man can be “saved” and still keep tight hold on all the prejudices and presuppositions dictated by the supposed self-interest of his particular economic class. The happy suburban dweller can become a Christian as a result of an evangelistic campaign and still put what he conceives to be the maintenance of property values in his neighborhood above the achievement of justice for his Negro brethren who would like to purchase homes there on the same basis as do those whose skin is white. The patriotic American can give his life to Christ and still lack any sensitivity to the feelings and aspirations and deprivations of the vast millions of men and women and boys and girls who live in Asia and Africa. More splendid, well-meaning people than we can possibly count will express their Christian faith and life through deeds of kindliness and service to their fellow men without recognizing that there are vast numbers of other persons whose needs can be met only if the structures of society are so changed that the meeting of these needs comes to be the usual rather than the unusual thing to happen—and without further recognizing that, before kindness can really speak to men’s souls, they have to experience the sort of justice which acknowledges their dignity and worth as persons.
What I am ultimately trying to say is that, if a man’s heart is so changed that he comes to love his neighbor as himself, and if he begins to comprehend the meaning of that love, he will come to see that his neighbor, wherever he may be across the world, can find the sort of life to which justice entitles him only through the changing of social structures. It does little good to find one man a job if the structures of our economic life—even in the midst of abundance—result in a constant figure of unemployment which is in the millions. It does little good to help one Negro family find a home outside the ghetto if the whole structure of our real estate industry and local politics is fashioned in such a way as to close almost every door outside the ghetto to almost every other Negro family. It does little good to do very much for anybody if we are unable to create the structures for the world which will serve to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war. That is to say, even the kindest and worthiest of motives are not enough to make unnecessary the elimination of those structures of society which frustrate the achievement of justice and the substitution for them of structures which will make the achievement of justice more likely.
And there is no evidence that the kindest and worthiest motives are what emerge from what we label the conversion experience. All too frequently it is all too clear that what emerge are the old self-regarding and self-seeking and self-satisfied motives intensified and deepened by now being identified with God’s will and purpose. It isn’t that personal commitment is not desperately needed and at the very heart of the Christian life. It is rather that so much of what passes for it is almost totally superficial, and this remains true, even though there may be a good deal of emotion and feeling accompanying it and even though there may also be some change in the habit patterns characterizing one’s life.
There is no more striking example of what I am talking about than the current civil rights situation. People all over the country had for many decades been “giving their hearts to Christ,” and probably a larger proportion of them had been doing so in the South than anywhere else. But these same white American Christians who allegedly had been well saved were hard at the business of maintaining social institutions all over the country, and especially in the South where their concentration was so marked, which relegated millions of their fellow American Christians whose skins happened to be a bit darker to a sort of second-class citizenship which disgraced this country before the world and which was a denial of all of the human concern that Christ’s coming was all about. These darker-skinned, American Christians were kept out of the white churches and schools and neighborhoods (unless they came in as servants). They were denied the right to vote, the equal protection of the law, the equal opportunity for employment in accordance with their capacities. To be sure, they were often treated kindly as individuals; but it was a patronizing sort of kindness whose every manifestation was based on the presupposition that these were inferior beings and that their altogether wiser white neighbors knew what was really best for them and could be trusted to make their major decisions for them. There is no need to say more of this. The facts are well known and indisputable, and the facts were perpetrated by good Christians who were sure that all that was needed was for men’s hearts to be right—and that, since they had given their hearts to Christ, obviously they were right.
For ninety years following Emancipation, the Negroes, North and South, waited for justice to come to pass through the change of men’s hearts. Men’s hearts allegedly were changed, but it didn’t make any difference to the Negroes. Whites acted toward them just about as they had acted before that change took place. Only when the Supreme Court decision of 1954 opened the door to hope for the Negro and other decisions followed and legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, only then did things begin to change—only when obsolete and unjust social structures were challenged, and men no longer waited for something to happen in men’s hearts to make the difference. Then the civil rights movement, from Montgomery to Selma and beyond, took hold, and the old structures of prejudice and segregation and injustice began to totter. The Negro still has a long way to go, but now he is on his way—not because men’s hearts have changed, but because judicial interpretations and laws and sit-ins and freedom rides and demonstrations have put new hope in the minds and lives of men who previously had borne with injustice hopelessly. And the sad and bitter truth is that the roadblocks have been put in his way, and the law of the land has been frustrated again and again, and justice has continued to be denied, by these same white American Christians who are in church every Sunday and who are supposed to be new men in Christ Jesus.
Now it is a hundred years and more since Emancipation. I, for one, can conceive of no possible justification for expecting the Negro to wait one moment longer for justice to come from the changing of white hearts. That process has had its chance, and it has abysmally failed. Now the only possibility is to fashion and enforce laws which require men to do justly to their Negro brethren however they may feel in their hearts. Perhaps their hearts will eventually change just front force of the habit of acting justly.
Civil rights is but one dramatic illustration of the point I am seeking to make. There could be many more. Nothing I have said negates the importance of valid commitment to Christ and change in the human heart. But it does insist that that commitment and that change must be real, so real that they transform whole constellations of attitudes and make them ready to be just. And it further insists that the doing of justice cannot wait for all men to come to that sort of commitment but rather requires the alteration of social structures here and now.
ROBERT D. BULKLEY
Secretary Board of Christian Education
Office of Church and Society
United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A.
• A reply to Dr. Bulkley’s letter will be found in “A Layman and His Faith” (see page 26).—ED.
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