It was the last press conference at the big Evanston meeting, and the six newly elected presidents were being interrogated. Naturally, the interest was keen, and some of the newsmen were eager to know what these new leaders felt was the future of the World Council of Churches. One question in particular interested some of us. It was directed to Dr. John Baillie, professor of divinity in Edinburgh University. And, interestingly, it came from the secular press. The reporter, however, revealed an awareness of theological trends that was commendable. He said, "During this World Council we have heard little, if any, liberal theology being expressed, and many of us are wondering if the Christian church is moving away from what has been called the modernist view. I would like to ask Dr. Baillie if he believes that Christian theology is becoming more Christ-centered and conservative."
Dr. Baillie's reply was very revealing and points up some vital issues. Answering with out any hesitation, he said: "A strong and rather arrogant liberalism arose in Ger many about a century ago and continued until recent years. Heidelberg became the center of this new theology, which at the time was hailed as a deliverance from medieval thinking. As a young student in Britain I was made very much aware of those theological trends, and when later I went to Germany for extended study I was definitely exposed to it.
"Later that theology penetrated England and flooded our seminaries there. In fact, we had a saying when I was young that 'bad German philosophers when they die go to Oxford.' Returning to Britain, I discovered that the same liberal theology was exercising quite an influence. Then I came over here to America and taught in this country for a number of years. It was interesting to see how that same theology penetrated the seminaries of this land. And then, rather whimsically, we used to say that 'while bad German philosophers went to Oxford for their first reincarnation, they came to the U.S.A. for their second reincarnation!'
"This movement of theological trends has been an interesting study. And while the movement has been slow, yet it has nevertheless been moving. Beginning in central Europe, it came over to Britain and from Britain over here to the States. Now we are witnessing another movement just as real. It too had its beginning where the liberal theology began. This more recent movement, which some people speak of, perhaps wrongly, as 'Barthian,' arose in central Europe; it has crossed the Channel into England, where its effects are being definitely felt; and if history teaches us anything it will not be long before it will be in the ascendancy in this land.
"You have asked me a very definite question, and I must try to give a clear-cut answer. But I think I should stress this, that Christ-centered thinking is not conservative. On the contrary, we must become Christ-centered in our theology in order to understand how to give the Christian mes sage to the world. Only as the living Christ is upheld before the world as its only Saviour are we truly preaching the gospel."
As Dr. Baillie resumed his seat in the press conference, we all sensed that for those few minutes we were in the hands of a master. His clear-cut analysis of theological trends and their application to our own day needed no further explanation, at least to some of us. But for a moment I wondered just how much his statement might have meant to some of the representatives of the secular press.
Leading or Consolidating
Listening to those leaders of Christian movements expressing themselves to one another freely, and at times forthrightly, we became aware of the real problems ahead of the World Council of Churches in trying to bring about a complete unity of theological thought. And while that is the ideal they have set, yet at that same press conference another question was asked: "Is the World Council leading Christian opinion, or is it consolidating Christian opinion?"
Again the answer was interesting. As Dr. Baillie said: "It is not the purpose of the World Council to lead Christian opinion, perhaps not even to consolidate Christian opinion. It is a movement that is being led by Christian opinion, and certainly not trying to direct Christian opinion. We are concerned with one thing, and that is how to get the Christian message to the masses of our world, and how to penetrate those great areas where Christianity is unknown. One of the basic concepts of the Christian message is that it must be shared. And again I emphasize that only as we make Christ central in our theology do we have a real Christian message to give to the world. The hope of the world is Christ. Our salvation is not bound up with a movement or an organization, but with Him. And we are eager to find the way of bringing Him to those areas in the world where as yet He is hot named."
Adding to that thought, Bishop Sherrill, an Episcopalian, said: "While forty years ago a movement began in this country endeavoring to form a World Council of Religions, that certainly is not the objective of the World Council of Churches. Christianity is something different from religion in general. And in order to bring the message of Christ to the world, it must stand out in relief from religions in general. The great thing about this council is not the documents that have emerged as the result of these intensive days of study and we have plenty of those but rather the fact that more than 160 Christian communions are able to go back to their homes testifying of the same faith."
It was a privilege to meet with these six newly elected presidents and to ask them questions. Some were eager to know whether these leaders could predict the subjects that might be discussed in the Third Assembly, scheduled to be held six years from now. One of the speakers suggested that Christian stewardship might well be come an important field for study. The Christian church can prosper only when every member accepts his share of the responsibility. That is something the churches could discuss with profit. How ever, it was also implied that if a main theme was chosen for study by the whole assembly it would not be one that permitted such widely differing theological interpretation.
Of course, if Dr. Baillie's prediction concerning theological trends comes true, it may well be that the theology of this country will be far less liberal than it is today, and much closer to the eschatological concepts of most of the European theologians. All of which emphasizes the importance of our ministers' not only being aware of our unique opportunities, but also being intelligent concerning the situation and thus able to seize the opportunity of proclaiming the truth with new power and conviction. Truly, the greatest days of the Advent Movement are just ahead of us that is, if we can discern the signs of the times.
In the days of our Lord's ministry religious leaders, steeped in theology, were complacent and seemed utterly oblivious to the greatest issues of their day. No wonder the Saviour wept as, coming in sight of Jerusalem, He realized that the hour had passed. "If thou hadst known, even ... in this thy day," was the agonizing cry that burst from His lips. Much of their theology was sound, but they were asleep and did not discern the signs of the times. In these days when great religious trends are sweeping the Christian world, is it possible for us who are leaders of the remnant church to be unaware of them and thus unprepared for the hour to which we have come? "Who is blind, but my servant?" asks the Lord.
Not one of us would knowingly fail the Lord in an hour like this. But, like Israel of old, we too can be so concerned about our routine program that we miss the opportunity of the ages. Outstanding leaders of many Christian communions are aware that a new pattern of Christian thought is emerging. Many of them are in the World Council of Churches. They are there, not because they are wicked or in tolerant of other denominations, but be cause they are looking for light.
The apostles in their day found many leaders among the different Jewish sects, as well as others in the pagan world, who were looking for the way of life. Sensing that, they seized the opportunity and moved into the greatest spiritual advance of history. What they did nineteen centuries ago we must do today. For that we need a new Pentecost. And the results of the latter rain will be even more abundant than those of the former rain. Today religion in general and Christianity in particular is being sought and appreciated. Never did religion as such have a higher priority. May God help us to discern the meaning of this, and as the New Year begins, let us as ministers and Christian workers enter into a new consecration to Christ, who alone is the hope of the world, and dedicate ourselves to our all-consuming task of giving the full gospel of Christ to a lost and needy world.