Some cities that would otherwise have remained unknown are universally remembered as a result of important events that occurred there. And some individuals or groups have sought to immortalize their cause by identifying it with some already famous city. An example of the first would be Nicea, and of the latter, perhaps the Club of Rome. Within the past twenty months, two cities in the eastern United States have lent their names to theological conferences whose fame (or notoriety) may be with us for some time.

During January 24–26, 1975, eighteen thinkers with theological concerns met at Hartford, Connecticut, and drafted a surprising document known as “An Appeal for Theological Affirmation,” or more simply “The Hartford Appeal.” Surprising, I say, particularly in format, which is essentially a modern Syllabus of Errors that raises the charge of heresy (one might have thought this word was dead!) against the liberal theological establishment. Such a document could not fail to call forth efforts at reply. One came earlier this year from a panel of twenty-one members of the Boston Industrial Mission Task Force, who acted in consultation with some two hundred church leaders.

Both gatherings were widely interdenominational and thoroughly ecumenical. The Hartford consultation was spearheaded by Peter L. Berger, an eminent sociologist at Rutgers University, and Richard John Neuhaus, a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor in Brooklyn. The Boston Affirmations issued also from a diverse interdisciplinary and interfaith group. Its authors had the advantage of having a statement to which to react, plus a year’s time in which to think about it. The caliber of participants on both sides guaranteed that the documents would be carefully structured.

The Hartford Appeal reminds one in its format of a scholastic document: affirmative propositions are negated, being declared “pervasive, false and debilitating” in their theological effect. It is no small thing to denote a group of theses long held dear by liberal and ecumenical churchmen as “superficially attractive” but profoundly misleading for today’s theological scene.

The Appeal decries the views that Jesus cannot be said to be more than contemporary models of humanity suggest, and that the emphasis upon God’s transcendence is at best a hindrance to, and at worst incompatible with, Christian concern. This strikes at the root of the group of secular theologies that emerged during the period of the Theology-of-the-Month Club.

Equally devastating to conventional secular theologies is the condemnation of Theme 5. This proposition, declared to be “false and debilitating,” reads as follows: “All religions are equally valid; the choice among them is not a matter of conviction about truth, but only of personal preference or life-style.” The reply is that such a position not only “obscures the meaning of Christian faith, but also fails to respect the integrity of other faiths.” The Hartford Eighteen believe that “truth matters; therefore differences among religions are deeply significant.”

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The opposition to Theme 10 strikes a very telling blow at the currently chic liberation theology. Against the view that “the world must set the agenda for the Church,” the Appeal declares that while the mission of the Church may at times coincide with programs within the political spectrum, “the norms for the Church’s activity derive from its own perception of God’s will for the world.”

It was this opposition to Theme 10 that drew the loudest protest from the Boston Affirmers. It does, of course, strike at the heart of current forms of secular theology, and particularly at liberation theology. It would, if taken seriously, cut the ground from beneath the popularizers of “religion” who identify the Christian task as that of endorsing most of the left-of-center movements of our time.

The Boston Affirmations, while not formally labeled as a reply to the Hartford Appeal, clearly reflect painful responses to the Hartford challenge. Although the Boston authors professed to act upon their own initiative, their pronouncement shows by its format that it is scarcely an “independent affirmation,” as Harvey Cox described it to the media in his statement of December 22, 1975.

In reality, the Boston authors undertook a task that placed them at a distinct disadvantage, in that while Hartford does not pretend to outline the Christian faith in a substantive way, the Boston Affirmations deal with what their authors feel to be a kind of ecumenical creed. Among the themes are some that appear in every classical formulation, such as Creation, Fall, Covenant, and Prophecy.

Conspicuously lacking, however, are such themes as Revelation and Authority, Atonement, Resurrection, Life Beyond Death, and Final Judgment, to name a few. Jesus Christ is mentioned once, almost incidentally; the best the Affirmations seem able to put in his place is a vague reference to “suffering love.”

At one point, however, the Boston Affirmations are not vague. Under the rubric of “Present Witness” the statement identifies with full confidence the points at which “the transforming reality of God’s reign is found today.” The work of the Church in fulfilling the Great Commission is, it seems, not worthy of mention, since nothing is said concerning discipling the nations.

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While no one who takes the Christian message seriously will deny that God is at work in his world, many are far less certain that they can read off the fulfillment of God’s purposes with such accuracy as the Boston Affirmations seem to suggest. It is not that the secular forms of the Church’s concerns mentioned by the Affirmers are in themselves wrong concerns. What may be questioned is whether the Affirmers’ division of the world into “good guys and bad guys” is not too simplistic. Some of the Hartford Eighteen have felt that the Boston Affirmations tend to lock their adherents into leftist views and leftist social and economic programs.

How shall evangelicals evaluate this tale of two cities? First and foremost, it needs to be recognized that neither statement comes to grips with such basic matters as Revelation, Authority, Christology, and Eternal Life. The Hartford Appeal does designate as wrongheaded the secular theologians’ view that hope for life beyond death is irrelevant to the Christian assertion. Hartford can thus be credited with a valuable plus for theology.

While neither the Hartford nor the Boston pronouncement is theologically adequate, yet the Hartford Eighteen are to be applauded for doing well the task that they undertook, namely, to challenge the current forms of secular theology. It can scarcely be said that the writers of the Boston Affirmations did equally well in fulfilling their chosen task.


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