For a long time warnings have been sounded that the National Council of Christian Churches (successor to the Federal Council) would in time arrogate to itself the position and task of a super-church. Usually such charges were dismissed by the champions of that organization as totally unfounded. Now the aims of its leadership, however, are becoming more apparent and public.
At a recent meeting of churches held at Buck Hills Falls, Pa., Dr. Truman B. Douglas, author of the San Francisco NCCC Assembly message, outlined the three major goals which he feels the Council should undertake. These are (1) the development of a journal which would speak responsibly for the ecumenical church, (2) an effective scheme for organizing congregations on an ecumenical basis and (3) more effective use of radio and television on behalf of the ecumenical movement. He berated some denominations for using broadcasting time and films “not to communicate the Christian gospel but to peddle denominational wares.” To this he added, “The National Council of Churches ought to be encouraged to take a much firmer stand than it does against the misuses of time for denominational propaganda.”
That the Council through some of its representatives has encouraged radio and TV stations to cut out independent religions broadcasting in favor of “authorized” broadcasting sponsored by the NCC commission is a known fact. The Southern Presbyterian Journal, commenting on the above, added that a proposal to invest the NCC with the right and power to ordain ministers was withdrawn from the San Francisco meeting for purely strategic purposes. The time, so the leadership felt, wasn’t quite ripe for this yet.
From all this it ought to be clear to everyone in which direction the Council is moving. Plainly it is the outspoken foe of all denominational distinctiveness. It will exert every possible influence to become the spokesman for all Protestants in the United States. Nor does it seem to bother these gentlemen, who prate long and loudly about our freedoms, that many of their efforts involve a curtailment of our freedoms. Liberalism seems to be tolerant of anyone and anything except historic Protestantism as embodied in the official creeds of the churches. No wonder some of us shake our heads, when occasionally voices are raised urging a more active and positive alignment on our part with this movement. Such suggestions sound strangely like asking us to sell out our Reformed heritage for a mess of ecumenical pottage.
THE NEW ENGLISH BIBLE…
Recent years have witnessed a veritable Hood of new Bible translations, almost too many for even the scholars to analyze and assess competently.
One of the most recent, producing a great deal of comment especially in England and Canada, is the New English Bible. An interesting article on this production appeared recently in the Financial Post of Toronto, a rather unexpected place to find such comments. Written by J. B. McGeachy, it compares the new translation with the King James and the Revised Standard Version of 1952 as to literary quality. “RSV, intended only as a revision, stays close to the KJ text Even so, it has been publicly burned, denounced by the fundamentalists (including Premier Manning of Alberta) and even ascribed by them to a Communist plot. Axed from left as well as right, RSV was assailed by literary critics for spoiling the KJ version’s lovely rhythms and epigrammatic quality. How NEB will fare in fundamentalist hands I cannot guess; but lovers of the KJ Bible as a masterpiece of writing are going to be upset, perhaps appalled…It is as if St. Paul’s Cathedral had been replaced by a 20th century office building, shoebox design.”
McGeachy admits that many passages have been clarified by tile new translation but adds, “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of changes in NEB which sacrifice tradition for no apparent reason at all, or which rub out salty, living, memorable and poetic language (comprehensible with a little thought) in favor of utterly undistinguished, cliche-ridden prose. Luke the beloved physician disappears; in his place we have only Luke the doctor. False prophets no longer come in sheep’s clothing but ‘dressed up as sheep.’ A thorn in the flesh…sinks to ‘a sharp pain in my body.’ What a fearful descent from vivid concreteness to abstract banality! Instead of seeing through a glass darkly, we see ‘puzzling reflections in a mirror.’ The den of thieves is a robbers’ cave. Birds’ nests are roosts. Jonah’s whale is a sea monster. The children of light are ‘the other-worldly’.”
As a literary critic McGeachy concludes, “I can believe, as I run fissured by clergymen, that children will find NEB easier to rend than KJ; but I doubt if this is all to the good. To find the meaning of any great work of art, like the Bible, should and always does take mental effort; and the effort is beneficial.”
Comments from quite another perspective, rooting in n totally different appraisal of the Bible as God’s infallible Word, are made by Dr. Wm. C. Robinson in the Southern Presbyterian Journal. The professor agrees that “as a presentation of Greek in current English this translation will prove invaluable for the preacher and interesting for the popular study of the Word.” He thereupon lists several phrases which are now made clear. Yet he is convinced that the translators “permit the line between translation and commentary to become very thin.” Even more serious is his criticism that “the great theological words of the Christian faith drop out.” Redeem is rendered “liberate, set free or buy free.” For mystery we read “hidden purpose.” Instead of impute the colorless word “count” is used. There is no wrath; only “retribution.” Nor do we read about propitiation. This has become either “expiation” or “remedy.” Robinson is convinced that “the NEB depersonalizes the living God” and “follows the low Christology of the RSV.”
Many folk are quick to use and praise the new translations without realizing that basic theological issues arc at stake. Possibly they will be warned by the conclusions of the esteemed professor, “Our conclusion? The greatest value that we see in these new translations of the Bible is the re-inforcement they give to the testimony of our Church that the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New in Greek are the ultimate sources of appeal and as such should become the tools of our ministry. Preach the Word, God’s Word. Use every translation to help you attain thereunto…but rest in no rendering until you have checked it with the original.” It is interesting to note that this accords completely with the rules laid down by the late Dr. S. Volbeda of Calvin Seminary throughout his years of teaching seminarians how to approach the glorious work of preparing sermons for the people of God.
IS THE CHURCH MISSION?…
The National Council of Christian Churches needs a rallying point for its growing organization. This seems to have been provided by the assembly’s Division of Foreign Missions, which employed as theme for its 1959 report that the church is mission. This is fast becoming the slogan of the entire organization. Innocent as the wording seems at first reading and attractive in view of the vast world areas still unevangelized, we are cautioned to think through its implications.
Christianity Today has some very pointed things to say in this connection about the new doctrinal approach which the NCC is foisting upon the supporting churches in its publications. “Certain ecumenicists are convinced that the rescue of the ecumenical movement from preoccupation with structural and organizational concerns depends upon shifting emphasis from doctrine or order to unity in mission. Not truth, not structure, but saving deed or act (“the Church is mission”) is thought to hold promise of unity in depth. In the apostolic age, however, the Christian community was taught to glory, simultaneously in one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and not simply in her world mission…The new emphasis on mission, therefore, is a corollary of ecumenical stress on Church unity. Its controlling assumption, regrettably, seems to be that the modern ecumenical movement supplies the framework within which Christian activity becomes proper and legitimate…The cliche The Church is mission (itself objectionable, since mission is the task rather than the essence of the Church) unfortunately may serve so to revise the Gospel that no longer does it center in the offer of supernatural regeneration to lost sinners, but accommodates a reliance (as especially in the National Council) on socia-political pronouncements and legislative programs as primary means of social change.”
The virus of liberalism dies hard within the body of Christ’s church. Even two world wars, economic recessions, and a complete change in the political and social structure of the nations of the world have not basically changed the approach of the liberals. Their heads may be bloody, but they remain unbowed. Few seem to ask the question: What message is brought by the church which is mission? When some do ask, the reply is an old liberal emphasis on man’s freedoms and abilities now dressed up in the terms of existential theology or philosophy. The new approach in theology and preaching may speak much more about God, grace and judgment than did the older liberalism. But by its refusal to submit to the Word which lives and abides forever, it leaves man still pretty much in the center and in control.
BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN…
For more than a decade the churches of the West have been frustrated in seeking contact with Christian brethren in satellite countries. News from those lands is usually censored. Churchmen allowed to visit us for a few weeks are suspected of parroting the government line. Books and magazines from there seem to present a picture of the church kowtowing to those in power.
This view is challenged in a recent article by Dietrich Ritschl which appeared in the Christian Century (March 29, 1961). He is the grandson of the influential theologian of the last century, Albrecht Ritschl, and has been a Frequent summer visitor and lecturer in Soviet dominated lands. He is convinced that the churches in the West have failed to understand both the position and the approach of the churches in the East.
In the lands of eastern Europe Ritschl finds a “radical turning point” in theology. This and not a passive acquiescence in present political conditions has influenced Christianity there. No longer is the emphasis on “communicating” the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in preaching to those outside but rather on the church’s “diakonia” or ministry of loving service in a specific situation and at a specific time in world history. Among the influential leaders there is Albert Bereczky, Reformed bishop in Hungary. Much stress is laid on the church’s failure in the past to minister in love to the whole nation. Everywhere, so the claim is made, the church had become comfortably middle-class, using all the privileges and freedoms granted for centuries to entrench itself in economic and social security. Thus it was unable to meet God’s demands to serve men of all conditions and kinds. As a result, these gifts were removed, forcing the church to rethink the question of her calling in a radically altered society.
The voices from the East insist that the church everywhere confess her failings of the past. She must realize that those whom she so long has ignored and despised, the proletariat, are in control. This requires her to take a new approach. “In spite of the fact that there is no salvation except in Jesus Christ and no hope save in him, the church, in the view of the Eastern churchmen, cannot now say so to the world, not only because she would not be heard but because she can no longer say so in an authentic way. The exousia—the authority—no longer lies in statements. It is somewhere else.”
We prick up our ears and wonder where it then lies. To this the leaders behind the iron curtain have an answer. Although preaching and teaching (within certain limits!) takes place and may be appreciated, “the church must travel the more difficult way.” This is the way of “solidarity with the whole people,” including “solidarity with the governments of their nations…based on an understanding of judgment. It enables and permits Christians to try to do their best to build a new society. Needless to say, in doing so they cannot become communists.” In this way c0operation with the godless state becomes a duty, since this new regime is a judgment upon the sins of the church in the past. Yet it allows believers to enjoy Christian freedom “to take the world and all men seriously, and not to be afraid of the world.”
Here there is much that asks us to pause and ponder.
Few of us would care to dispute the guilt of the churches under the old regime. Much less would we quarrel with the call to Christian service. The church has a responsibility to the whole nation. But do the Eastern churchmen take seriously that God is also sitting in judgment on their present program and deeds? Can we interpret the present conditions purely in terms of the sins ·of the church? The influence of the existential philosophers and theologians is plainly evident in tills new position. Not the word as concretely set forth in the Scriptures but the present deed becomes the testimony of the church’s life to the world. Now we begin to understand why Barth, who was so adamant1y opposed to the Nazi regime during the thirties, sounded an altogether different note when the Hungarian brethren asked him concerning their duty in a Communist controlled country. Without the Bible as normative for Christian faith and action in every age, it becomes easy to explain and justify almost any kind of attitude and activity.
To be sure, we dare not sit in lofty judgment on the churches which live on the other side of the iron curtain. Their experiences should rather serve notice on our churches, that we live in a world of rapid and radical change. Too often have we failed to translate the Christian faith into a life of dedication to God and self-denial. Must our mink stoles, ranch houses mortgaged to the hilt and Bermuda vacations be taken away by God, before we begin to grasp the import of our Lord’s radical demands: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever would save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it”?
With all its superficialities and shams, middle-class respectability looks like a comfortable way of life. Yet for true believers it cannot be reconciled with gospel demands. It produces not only stomach ulcers in an effort to keep ahead of the bill collectors but also heartaches in the realization that God sits in judgment on us. He strips it bare of its pretensions by the preaching of his Word. He uncovers our preoccupation with self and our callous unconcern with the plight of millions now perishing in physical and spiritual miseries.
We disagree radically with the Eastern churchmen. They seem to suppose that the cross of Christ has little relevance to a godless world. Precisely here it does have relevance, for it has always been a stumblingblock to Jews and foolishness to Greeks but God’s power unto salvation for all who believe. For the preaching of the cross, when sincerely believed, compels us to crucify our selfish strivings for creaturely comforts. Without such daily cross-bearing our professed faith in Christ’s cross becomes a pretty hollow thing.