The following report about a significant theological conference is based largely on a comprehensive news story written by Elliott Wright of Religious News Service.

On the last weekend in January, eighteen prominent Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox figures met at Hartford Seminary Foundation in Connecticut and hammered out a 1,000-word milestone “Appeal for Theological Affirmation.” The appeal, containing some strong back-to-basics overtones, amounts to a slap in the face at some of what has been going on lately in the name of theology. In effect, it says there is a limit to liberal theology, and this is it.

The audiences to which it is addressed include college professors of religion, church policy-makers, editors, and others who “market the metaphors,” according to Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus of Brooklyn. Neuhaus and Peter Berger, the noted sociologist of religion (A Noise of Solemn Assemblies), were the catalysts behind the Hartford meeting.

The ecumenical statement identifies and rejects thirteen “superficially attractive” themes that are “false and debilitating” and pervade modern Christianity, endangering the witness and mission of the Church. At the same time, it affirms the resurrection of Christ, the seriousness of sin, the transcendence of God over all of life, and his centrality in salvation. In an interview, however, a participant acknowledged to CHRISTIANITY TODAY that interpretations of such doctrinal affirmations might vary from “very literalistic” to very liberal among the group.

The document is all the more remarkable in light of the diverse backgrounds of the sixteen men and two women who not only framed it but signed it. In addition to Neuhaus and Berger, the group was composed of:

Christian Reformed minister Lewis Smedes of Fuller Seminary; philosophy professor Richard Mouw of Calvin College (Christian Reformed);

Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles and Carl Peter, both of Catholic University of America; Presbyterian William Sloane Coffin, Jr., chaplain of Yale University; Alexander Schememann of St. Vadimir’s Orthodox Seminary; Neal Fisher of the United Methodist global-ministries board; Elizabeth A. Bettenhausen of the Lutheran Church in America’s Department for Church and Society; Lutheran Church in America theologian George Forell of the University of Iowa; Notre Dame philosopher Ralph Mclnerny; Hartford Seminary president James N. Gettemy, a United Church of Christ clergyman; Illeana Marculescu, an Orthodox member who teaches philosophy at Union Seminary; Catholic George H. Tavard, who teaches at the Methodist Theological School (Delaware, Ohio); Catholic Gerald Sloyan of Temple University; Robert Wilken, a Lutheran who teaches at Notre Dame; and Yale theologian George Lindbeck.

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The panelists worked on assigned themes in subgroups of six persons before approving the final text in plenary sessions.

The paper’s first and pivotal section rejects the idea that “modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life.” Christian theology, said the group, must not become captive to the “prevailing thought structures” of any historical period.

Under various themes, the statement denies that Christianity is a “religion of pure subjectivity” or that it can give itself over to “scientific rationality.” It refutes claims that “religious language refers to human experience and nothing else, [with] God being humanity’s noblest creation” or that “Jesus can only be understood in terms of contemporary models of humanity.” Also repudiated is the assumption that religion is only a set of symbols or human projections. “What is here at stake is nothing less than the reality of God,” the paper declares. “We did not invest God; God invested us.”

The captivity of the image of Jesus to “cultural and counter-cultural notions of human excellence” is also denounced. “Jesus, together with the Scriptures and the whole of the Christian tradition, cannot be arbitrarily interpreted without reference to the history of which they are part,” the document says. Discussion in the sub-group section indicated the protest was against those who turn Jesus into a Che Guevara figure or those who limit Jesus to culturally defined images of the past.

Several themes deal critically with the human-potential movement, “liberation” ideologies, and humanist presuppositions. Dr. Bettenhausen agreed that the paper is an attack on “creeping or crawling humanism in the church.”

The group denied that “to realize one’s potential and to be true to oneself is the whole meaning of salvation.” Affirming that “salvation cannot be found apart from God,” the document goes on to repudiate the assertion that “since what is human is good, evil can adequately be understood as failure to realize human potential.” This theme “invites false understanding of the ambivalence of human existence and underestimates the pervasiveness of sin,” asserts the document. “Paradoxically, by minimizing the enormity of evil, it undermines serious and sustained attacks on particular social or individual evils.”

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Rejected is the notion that “the sole purpose of worship is to promote individual self-realization and human community.” Worship, it says, is “a response to the reality of God” arising out of the “need to know, love, and adore God.”

Also rejected is the belief that “an emphasis on God’s transcendence is at least a hindrance to, and perhaps incompatible with, Christian social concern and action.” This supposition, says the paper, “leads some to denigrate God’s transcendence. Others, holding to a false transcendence, withdraw into religious privatism or individualism” and neglect “personal and communal responsibilities.” Because of God’s reign over all of life, Christians “must participate fully in the struggle against oppressive and dehumanizing structures and their manifestations in racism, war, and economic exploitation,” the statement reasons. “But the norms for the Church’s activity derive from its own perception of God’s will for the world.”

The paper rejects the proposal that the world sets the “agenda” for the Church, and it challenges the belief that “the struggle for a better humanity will bring about the Kingdom of God,” a kingdom that “surpasses any conceivable utopia.”

To say that hope beyond death is irrelevant or at best marginal to the Christian understanding of human fulfillment “is the final capitulation to modern thought.” If death is the last word, then Christianity “has nothing to say to the final questions of life,” insist the signers. “We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead …”

Forell described the Hartford event as a “second level of ecumenism,” going beyond church-sponsored dialogues and formal ecumenical organizations. He said he could recall no previous occurrence in American history when such a group cooperated in drafting what the signers hope will offer a major corrective to the drift of theology. Dulles said the statement indicates a “developing ecumenical theology, which has its own problems, and that is something relatively new.”

Deploring what Berger described as “a consumer mentality that assumes all faiths are equal,” the appeal says “truth matters; therefore differences among religions are deeply significant” and are not simply matters of personal preference.

The affirmation was mailed to twelve other theological luminaries (all identified with the liberal camp) who contributed input prior to the meeting. They were invited to add their names as signers. Among them: Walter Burg-hardt of Catholic University, editor of a Catholic theological journal and member of the Vatican’s theology commission; Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago divinity school; Old Testament scholar John MacKenzie, a Catholic; and Cyril Richardson, academic dean at Union Seminary.

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One of the conference’s light moments came during a discussion of the theme “the world must set the agenda for the Church.” Yale’s Coffin remarked, “I’ve used that text myself.” Quipped Temple’s Sloyan: “Go and sin no more.”


Furniture-store owner Iain MacKenzie, an elder of the 4,000-constituent Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, has been summoned to appear before the May synod meeting at Inverness. The charge brought against him by a fellow elder: profaning the Sabbath. The evidence is not in dispute—the defendant addressed an evangelical youth gathering at which musical instruments were played during worship (FPCS members sing only Psalms, unaccompanied).

Probably the staunchest Calvinistic church in the world, with strong outposts in the Highlands and islands, the FPCS has previously criticized the Queen for visiting the Pope, the Church of Scotland for advocacy of “the Lord’s half-day,” the Common Market as a Vatican plot, and a dairy company as “deliverers of Sabbath milk.” A gospel hymn solo sung by a disabled veteran in a Church of Scotland service in one village provoked an F. P. comment: “They’re turning their evening service into a concert.”


Silent Prayer

For years the Washington, D. C., City Council meetings have opened with prayer, but internal squabbling over the practice has led to a compromise: a moment of silence instead. Meanwhile, reelected mayor Walter Washington launched his new term with an inaugural prayer breakfast attended by 400. Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman urged officials not to make any decisions without consulting ethical counsel, the Scriptures, and religious leaders.

Zaire: End Of An Era

Zaire’s ruling political party, under the chairmanship of President Mobutu Sese Seko, has banned religious instruction in the nation’s school system and disbanded the education offices operated by the Catholics, Protestants, and Kimbanguists.

Since religious courses were compulsory in the official curriculum, the decision virtually affects every primary and secondary school in Zaire. The ban hurts most the Catholic-and Protestant-directed institutions, which still account for over 90 per cent of the nation’s educational system. Current figures are not available, but the total Protestant school population five years ago was already well over half a million.

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The ruling wipes out the Catholic, Protestant, and Kimbanguist theological faculties that were part of the state-run National University of Zaire. The schools will cease to exist when the current academic year ends in June, bringing to an end an era of parochial education dating back to the late 1800s. In pre-independence days the Belgian colonial regime paid millions of dollars in school subsidies to the missions, mostly Catholic, and let them run the educational system. Nationalizing these schools was a top-priority goal of the Zairian government. That goal now seems to have been attained.

Banning religion from the schools is only the latest step of the government’s determined policy of eliminating any rival for the hearts and minds of Zaire’s 23 million citizens. Religion has already been eliminated from radio and television, all religious publications suspended, all church youth groups outlawed, all Christian (non-African) names declared illegal. Even Christmas has not escaped: the date is now June 24. Sunday is rumored as the next target for a change in status.

The hours previously given to religious instruction in the official curriculum will now be reserved for “civic education and political studies,” i.e., indoctrination in Mobutuism, the new national way of life. To make sure the children get the message of Mobutuism straight, those who teach the courses must attend special classes.

Some of the instructors will have passed through the party-financed Makanda Kabobi Institute near Kinshasa. The institute was set up specifically to help key people in every sector of national life appreciate the full meaning of Mobutuism as the revolutionary lifestyle of Zaire. Attendance is compulsory for all who receive an invitation.

Some observers are wondering if the Mobutu regime is not out to replace the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the schools and elsewhere with a gospel of its own. Newspapers in Kinshasa, the capital, have already published Protestant hymns in which the name of Jesus Christ has been replaced by the name of Mobutu Sese Seko.


Creating An Atmosphere

Eight church leaders were among those bitterly disappointed when the outlawed Irish Republican Army ended its twenty-five-day ceasefire last month. They are the seven clergymen and one layman who set up the meeting with the Provisional IRA that brought an eleven-day Christmas truce and a fourteen-day extension.

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One of the churchmen, General Secretary Ralph Baxter of the Irish Council of Churches, in an interview during a Canadian visit last month described the contact with the IRA as “melodramatic” and a “James Bond type of operation.” He declined to disclose how the meeting was arranged. “The result was more important than the method,” he stated.

The group of eight was composed of two leaders from the Irish Council of Churches (representing eight Protestant denominations from all Ireland, north and south), one from the Church of Ireland (Episcopal), one Presbyterian, two Methodists, and two from the British Council of Churches. Roman Catholics were not invited because the mission was to put forward the Protestant view. The eight leaders expected only representatives of the political wing of the IRA to attend the secret meeting, but they found the top four members of the military council there as well.

“We put to them our feelings as Christians about the present campaign of violence,” said Baxter, pastor of an interdenominational church before he took the council job three years ago. “We pointed out how it was dividing the country, even to the risk of danger of civil war. We pleaded with the IRA to bring violence to an end, to carry out their policy by political and peaceful means rather than force of arms.”

During the eleven-day ceasefire that resulted, the church group conveyed a message to the British government containing the IRA’s terms for a permanent ceasefire. The fourteen-day extension was to allow the government time to respond.

“We felt that the longer we were without violence the more possible it was that the ceasefire might become permanent,” Baxter pointed out. “Of course, the cessation of violence is not peace, but it does create an atmosphere in which to build peace.”

He paid tribute to the leaders of the four major churches—the Roman Catholic cardinal, the Church of Ireland archbishop, the Methodist president, and the Presbyterian moderator—who launched a campaign for peace prior to Christmas. United church services were held in support of the peace campaign.

Why did the ceasefire end at midnight on January 16? Baxter thinks that the government is unwilling to make any concessions to the IRA until a permanent ceasefire is guaranteed because it wants to avoid the position of being coerced by the threat of violence.


Detective Story

British detective Grant Smith was sentenced to a three-year prison term after confessing to Scotland Yard he had planted drugs and other evidence on four men in 1969 in an effort to brighten his promotion chances. All four had been convicted. As a result of Smith’s confession they recently were given pardons to clear their names.

Smith turned himself in shortly after becoming an elder of an evangelical congregation. “I want to be totally committed to Christ,” he told authorities. “I feel I cannot do that until I have come to terms with my fellow men.”


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