THE JERUSALEM MEETING AND
THE CHRISTIAN MESSAGE


Oliver Chase Quick

International Review of Missions (IRM) 17, No. 67, (1928), pp.445-54.


Whenever Christians of different denominations meet together, it is easy enough to obtain general agreement upon such affirmations as that Christ Himself is the very centre and heart of the gospel message. And no doubt it would show but an unthankful spirit to minimize the value of such a consensus. Yet there is danger in it - danger lest we should disguise fundamental differences of belief by mere pious phraseology. An agreement to cry 'Lord, Lord,' in enthusiastic chorus will certainly not take us much further towards the kingdom of God than that over-preoccupation with externals which is the commonest source of denominational divisions. Sentimental piety and Pharisaic rigorism are at all times the two opposite, but equally besetting, sins of religious people; and it is sometimes forgotten that our Lord condemned the one hardly less emphatically than the other. The fervid ejaculations, 'Blessed is the womb that bare thee,' 'Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God,' certainly did not meet with an altogether sympathetic response. And the result of the Jerusalem Meeting of the International Missionary Council must in large measure be judged by its success in rising above this level of unanimity. The Council itself believed that the report of its committee on the Christian Message had enabled it to do so. If the belief is justified, this report and its reception by the Council give ground for the deepest thankfulness and hope.

Let us briefly sketch the problem of the Message, as it presented itself to the meeting at Jerusalem.

For years past there has been increasingly apparent a certain cleavage between an older and a newer school of evangelism.. The older school has been inclined to make everything depend upon the uniqueness of the Christian Gospel. It has constantly preached that by Christ's death, and by that alone, is human sin really and fully forgiven; and its call to the non-Christian has been simply that he should pass from death into life, by accepting through faith Christ's atonement, and by renouncing once for all the whole system of religious belief and practice in which he had hitherto vainly striven to make himself right with God.

The newer school, on the other hand, has learned much from the comparative study of religions. It has noted and weighed carefully the different elements of moral and spiritual value which are to be found in non-Christian systems, and it has then sought to represent Christianity as the fulfillment and completion of those same truths which other religions already possess in part.

Thus the principle of the universality of the Gospel is in danger of coming into conflict with the principle of its uniqueness. The newer school of missionary thought stands for universality. But its exponents have often spoken as though Christianity did but take men rather further along the same road which they were already traveling under the guidance of what is best in other religions. To older-fashioned critics this teaching seemed to approach a too facile syncretism, which many speakers at the Jerusalem Meeting regarded as the outstanding peril of missionary work to-day. The older school has stood for the principle of uniqueness. But to the modern student the uniqueness which it has proclaimed often seems to receive insufficient confirmation from a deeper understanding of the true facts.

Moreover, the difference is not theoretical only. For, in commending Christianity as he understands it, the missionary of the newer school cannot insist in the old way that one who desires to bear the name of Christian must break completely and finally with the whole system of religious observance in which he has hitherto lived. Such a missionary may be inclined to summon to his aid the parable of the leaven, and to suggest that Christianity may best spread itself by permeating other systems rather than by demanding the immediate and overt conversion of individuals. After all, he may argue, it is no service to the Gospel to provoke hostility among spiritually-minded men of other religions who might be won as friends by a gentler and more sympathetic method. But what then, the conservative missionary may retort, has become of the note of urgency in our message, which the New Testament so clearly sounds? Are we really appealing to men to save themselves from a crooked generation? If not, are we missionaries at all, in the apostolic sense?

A difficult situation is still further complicated by the natural and legitimate eagerness of oriental Christians that western interpretations of the Gospel shall not be imposed in the eastern world in such a way as to hinder its own distinctive expression of Christianity. Many of the most thoughtful among these Orientals have been inclined on the whole to side with the newer school in evangelism, because it appears to do fuller justice to the eastern ways of thought and life. At the same time the modern habit of comparing somewhat academically the 'values' of Christianity with those of other religions has often stirred in their minds somewhat fundamental doubts. Take Hinduism and Buddhism at their best - and wherein does the transcendent superiority and incomparable uniqueness of Christianity really lie? Too often the 'modernist' Christians of the West seem to have no clear and satisfying answer to this vital question.

From this indication of difficulties it will be seen that in trying to reach an agreed statement concerning the content of the Christian Message the International Missionary Council set itself no light task. Yet at least the committee to which the task was specially entrusted under singularly clear-sighted and sympathetic chairmanship faced its problem squarely, and in the end seemed to the Council to have been prospered beyond expectation in dealing with it. Its report is published among the proceedings of the meeting. At present it may be of interest to examine, somewhat more fully that the report itself was able to do, the lines of thought along which the committee worked in reaching its conclusions. It must of course be understood that what is here offered is an individual interpretation of the committee's work which would not necessarily command the assent of its other members.

From the outset the committee, greatly helped by the preliminary papers which recognized authorities had prepared for the consideration of the Council, endeavored to take the most comprehensive view possible of spiritual conditions in the modern world. The problem before it, as it clearly perceived, was not one merely of reconciling the divergent aspects of truth held by modernists and traditionalists among Christians, nor yet of comparing and contrasting Christianity with other religions which proclaim a way of salvation for all men. The task was rather to relate the old gospel message to the whole need of the world to-day. And attention was at once called to the fact that to-day the most serious rival to Christianity is not any non-Christian religion but rather the secularism which attacks all religions alike.

This secularism is a philosophy of life which derives its interpretation of the universe solely from natural science, and consequently finds no place for any objective authority in spiritual laws and values. In its view, good and evil themselves have no divine sanction or ultimate basis in the order of the universe as a whole, but are merely subjective valuations which the transient and changing desires of the human spirit impose upon a more or less apathetic reality. Everywhere the principle of authority is being undermined by the subtle influence of this subjectivism. The only rule acknowledged is that of a relativity which is itself the negation of rule; and the prevailing sense of unrest and insecurity is shaking the foundations, not of ecclesiastical systems alone, but of every kind of established institution for the control of human activities. This plain fact must naturally tend to mitigate the mutual antagonism of religions which, after all, are concerned to defend a considerable amount of common ground.

It may therefore not unreasonably be argued that the time has now come when Christian missionaries can afford to leave the destructive criticism of other religions, if not to secularism itself, yet to the steadily advancing forces of scientific and secular education. The missionary's task is rather, so far as possible, to make common cause with all who are still concerned to maintain a spiritual interpretation of the universe. The more especially Christian interpretation will prove its truth by showing itself alone able to withstand the shock of the secularist attack.

On the other hand, much evidence is available that the more thoughtful among the rising generation the world over are profoundly dissatisfied with secularism, or scientific relativism, as a faith to live by, and are pathetically looking for some more solid material out of which to build an ark for their souls. And some delegates to the meeting, who spoke from varied experience, were positive in their assertion that never in history had there been such widespread and spontaneous admiration for the moral character and life of Jesus. Where Christianity is rejected, it is rejected largely on the ground that as an organized religion it has failed to make its followers live up to the standard of its Founder.

Here then is a strong practical reason for refusing compromise with the relativism which suggests that Christianity presents only one aspect of a many-sided truth, or that our Lord's life is possibly the highest revelation of God hitherto vouchsafed to man but is not legitimately to be spoken of as a final or complete revelation. For this relativism is not only false to the old Gospel; it can only ignore, or even aggravate, the very need for the supply of which the world is already beginning to look again towards Christ. Again, the appearance of humility in thus abating the claims of Christianity is really altogether deceptive. It sounds humble perhaps to approach the Hindu, the Buddhist or the Moslem merely with the suggestion that Christianity may carry somewhat further the pursuit of truth and holiness on which his own religion is already engaged. But in reality, the moment the Christian suggests that he possesses in any way a fuller truth or goodness than the non-Christian, that moment he is asserting his claim to superiority. The Christian's humility can only be truly based on the ground that the Christian Gospel is not his own but God's. In other words, it is precisely in so far as the Christian Gospel is absolute, not relative to the preacher, that the preacher is able to proclaim it without in any way magnifying himself. In St. Paul's language, he has nothing which he did not receive; and therefore he may not glory as though he had not received it.

Looking, therefore, at the situation as a while, the committee saw with increased clearness that progress was possible only through the rejection of the dilemma between separatism on the one hand and syncretism on the other. The uniqueness of the Gospel must not be so interpreted as to make missionary methods unacceptable and unresponsive to the changing conditions and fresh movements in the modern world; nor must its universality be so understood as to make the contribution of Christianity only one indispensable ingredient in some indefinite religion of the future. Indeed, the whole dilemma just indicated, like so many other fallacies in thought about spiritual things, seems to proceed from a latent materialism, which conceives of religions either as mutually exclusive bodies in space, or else as components in some kind of fluid mixture. True, it is both impossible and undesirable to escape material metaphor altogether in the expression of spiritual truth. But the best analogy to the relation of Christianity to other religions is to be found, not in the nature of solids or fluids but rather in the action of light. A strong light shed over any given area shows reflections of itself at every point where the surface is capable of reflecting, while at the same time it enriches its own purity by the variety of tints which it makes visible. In the same way other religions, seen in the light of the Christian Gospel, are revealed for the first time in their best and truest colors,and, by being thus revealed, enhance and enrich the glory of the Gospel itself.

Thus the Christian missionary who finds even in a primitive or possibly corrupt religion points of contact with his own faith is not a relativist or a syncretist, tacking together a muddled theology of patchwork; rather he is a disciple who knows so clearly Him whom he has believed, that he can recognize the tokens of His presence in any Nazareth which so-called orthodoxy has despised. In truth, no Nazareth can anymore remain a Nazareth to one who has once taken for his Master the Nazarene. How much rather then must the Buddhist's sympathy with the pain of the world, the Hindu's sense of the unchanging stability of the eternal, the Moslem's realization of international comradeship, the Confucian's appreciation of social morality, and, last but not least, the sacrifices of scientific workers in the quest of truth and of human welfare, give to the Christian a fresh revelation of the Light that lighteth every man, and of the Work made flesh. Yet who shall say that the historic life of Him whose cross and resurrection, whose humility and triumph, thus illuminate and are illuminated by all the greatest labors, joys and sufferings of the spirit of man, is not a unique and final embodiment of Godhead in the world of space and time?

The committee on the Message, therefore, just because it so earnestly desired to recognize to the full God's truth in other religious and non-religious philosophies, and to avoid identifying Christianity with a western or any other partial and particular expression of it, laid down as the foundation of its report an uncompromising affirmation of the uniqueness of the Christian Gospel. The Christian Gospel is absolute as proceeding from the unique, incomparable act or acts of God in the historic life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. No fair estimate of the uniqueness of Christianity is to be reached simply by comparing the spiritual and moral value of this or that Christian doctrine with those of other religions, when the doctrines under discussion are considered simply as doctrines, that is, as teachings concerning the general relations of God and man. Still less is the religious comparison adequate, if a teaching of Christ is simply set against a teaching of Sakyamuni or Muhammad or Confucius upon the same subject. Christianity rests on the faith, not simply that Jesus Christ taught this or that truth about God's nature and man's duty, but that in and through the historic person Jesus Christ, His words and deeds, His ministry, sufferings and exaltation, God was acting and has acted once for all in order to redeem mankind and to reconcile the world to Himself. This is the fundamental belief of Christianity which the great doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement, and the very form of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, were intended to declare and to safeguard. therefore it is true to say that the Christian Gospel is Jesus Himself, in a sense in which it would not be equally true to say that the gospel of Islam is Muhammad, or the gospel of Buddhism is Sakyamuni. Therefore again the stream of Christianity can only flow onwards with a broader and deeper current by returning constantly to its source; its temple can only thrust its spires nearer heaven by being leveled again and again to its Foundation upon earth. We cannot travel beyond or behind or away from the historic Jesus in any search after truth, or in any recognition of God's free-ranging grace. For Jesus is Himself the Light that lighteth every man, coming into the world. And even if, in order to enquire into facts impartially, we refuse to assume the truth of our faith in Him, it is still His cross which inspires theintellectual self-denial involved in that refusal.

And again, the whole Council realized with great clearness a further consequence of this uniqueness in universality which belongs to Christ. It is a fatal error to consider the church's missionary task too much in terms of space, as though it involves only the asserting of Christ's claim over all peoples or all lands. It involves the asserting of that claim over all life. All authority is committed to Him in heaven and in earth. No aspect or department of human life, political, economic, scientific or aesthetic, any more than the secret thoughts of the individual's heart, can be exempt from, or allowed 'to contract out' of, the Gospel's claim. Once this truth is realized, it becomes merely ludicrous to suggest that Christians of the West can afford to take a tone of didactic superiority towards the younger Churches of the East. They can only try to share their Christian experience with their oriental brethren, as they strive to extend its sway over their own lives and their own western society and institutions. The mission field has no geographical limits and is not to be spatially conceived. For the same reason, Christian missionaries may not anywhere disregard conditions of political and industrial oppression, or of racial antagonism, any more than they may disregard greed and self -conceit in the individual soul. They dare not pass by on the other side, when subject peoples or classes are exploited, any more than when an individual is in distress. To render Christ's authority more effective in any and every sphere is the Christian's mission to the world. Hence the report accepted by the Council upon the Christian Message would have been altogether misleading if it had not been accompanied by others on industrial and racial problems. The modern world has heard enough of its own secularized translation of Corban, which runs, 'These are economic or political questions, and therefore in these matters the Christian must do nothing for his neighbour.' It is perhaps a sign of progress that economics should have supplanted religion in furnishing the accepted excuse for selfishness. But there is still danger lest a too narrow conception of the spirituality of the Gospel should prove a strong ally to bad economic theory.

Theologically speaking, the whole problem about the content of the Message is solved in the affirmation that Jesus is both Lord and Christ. He is Lord, the unique, mysterious incarnation of the Godhead, triumphing over evil once for all in His cross, resurrection and ascension. But He is also Christ, the fulfiller not of Hebrew prophecy alone, but also of every human aspiration after that kingdom of god which is the one true fellowship of men. The Christ is the human Saviour whom men have sought and partially found in the persons of Sakyamuni, Muhammad, Confucius and many another sage and saint, prophet and reformer, who has followed and pointed the way towards the one true God. But the Christ is fully found only on One who is more even than the Christ, because His cross is provedin experience to be the very wisdom and power of God Himself.

Problems of missionary method remain in plenty, both difficult and urgent. We need not only to be girded with truth and to hold firmly the shield of faith, but also to be shod with the readiness of the gospel of peace, if we would display that quickness of movement and sympathetic adaptability to the new situation which is so essential a part of tactics in the Christian warfare. Evidence accumulates that there is much smoking flax in the non-Christian world to-day, which the clumsy foot may all too easily quench. But if we will go forth in the single-hearted desire to share with others what God has given to all men in Christ, we need not fear lest either the uniqueness or the universality of our Gospel be found a delusion. Such at least was the conviction which the Jerusalem meeting of the International Missionary Council desired to record.

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