EDITORIAL — The Taproot of Digression (III)

By Cecil Willis

In this series of articles, I have been showing that the denial that the New Testament constitutes a divine blueprint is the basic error of digressives, of every stripe and hue. Thus far, I have discussed the position of those in the liberal Disciples of Christ denomination. In the last article I dealt with those who might, by some, be considered out on the extreme liberal fringe of the Churches of Christ. In this article I want to show how many in what has come to be called “mainstream” Churches of Christ also accept the liberal thesis, to varying degrees.

MISSION Magazine

The most liberal voice within the “mainstream” Church of Christ is that of Mission Magazine. Mission is staffed, to a large degree, with faculty people from Abilene Christian College and George Pepperdine College, in California. Blatant modernism is taught in Mission, as I purpose to show in some articles soon to follow. Those who do not do much reading from the liberal side of the brotherhood would think that Mission magazine and its staff and board are being misrepresented by some of the things I am about to say about them. Hence, I feel the necessity to document rather extensively the charges I am about to make against them.

Of course, like every other liberal, the writers in Mission deny they are liberal. Hasnt the wolf always worn sheepos clothing? Even Satan and his ministers disguise themselves (2 Cor. 11: 13-15). Mission has committed itself to the traditional digressive principle, namely that the New Testament was never intended by God to be a binding pattern for all time to come.

Mission is staffed by intellectual sophisticates, by the intellectual elite, by those whom Leroy Garrett calls the “Young Princes,” though some of their staff are not so very young any more. They always disguise their message in the dense language of modern theological scholarship. The article which I have chosen to refer to in this series is entitled “Some Thoughts on Theology and Mission.” It is written by Victor L. Hunter who is a graduate student at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Hunter also preaches for the Queens Church of Christ. Mission editor, Roy Bowen Ward, in his column in the March, 1972 issue of Mission, commends Hunters article as an excellent discussion of “the exegetical-contextual-theological method.” You see what I meant by my reference to the dense terminology of contemporary denominationalism. Ward says that Hunter is not advocating anything new. Ward states, “In a very real sense the method Hunter urges is nothing other than the method actually employed by most spokesmen in the Restoration tradition — except that some (many?) were not aware of what they were doing.”

Now if Editor Ward is talking about those of the liberal Disciples of Christ wing of the Restoration Movement, then we could agree that Hunter is not advocating or concluding anything new. He advocates nothing that was not advocated by the liberals a century ago, or that was not defended in A. T. Degroots book, The Grounds of Divisions Among the Disciples of Christ. Hunter simply maintains that we ought to recognize that the contemporary church is in the Twentieth Century, and therefore that we should quit trying to make it like the First Century church. His position is simply “No Pattern-ism” dressed up in the cumbersome language of modern denominational “scholarship.”

No Pattern-ism

What does our brother advocate? Briefly stated, here it is: “The problem with a restoration theology is that it rests on the premise that the mission of the church is to set up a true church in which all the details of church fife are exactly like they were in a first century world. It functions on the assumption that there is a blueprint or pattern in the New Testament that the church is to reduplicate in each succeeding generation” (Mission, March, 1972, p. 6). Admittedly, this is nothing new. We have been hearing it from the Christian Church for more than a century now, and have been fed it by the basket full from Ketcherside and his cohorts for nearly a score of years. The only thing new about it is its open advocacy among so-called “mainstream” Churches of Christ.

Listen to Hunter as he further explicates his digressive premise: “But theology is also time bound if it is concerned only with the past. It is bound to the past whenever one thinks of Christianity simply as reading ancient texts and then putting the puzzle together properly in order to transport it, ready made, into the twentieth century. This is playing first century bible land and leads to biblical fundamentalism. It assumes that the world view, needs and questions of the first century are the same as they are today. It is based on the premise that one can escape from the twentieth century by harking back to some golden age of the past … If it is concerned only with the biblical story and tradition, it is bound to the past and cannot speak with any relevance to the questions of today” (Mission, March, 1972, pp. 3, 4).

Occasionally when we speak of liberalism among us, some of our brethren raise their hands in holy horror, wondering who could he so ignorant as to think there really is any “classical liberalism” among Churches of Christ. Frankly, I get a little weary from reading from the pens of modernists who think they are the only ones who know what real modernism is.

If you want a good illustration of the presence of actual modernism (even the “classical” kind) among Churches of Christ, just read again the two quotes from the March, 1972 issue of Mission. Friend, thats real modernism. Of course, as I have tried to point out several times in this series of articles, the modernist or liberal always denies that he is a modernist or a liberal.

Our brother in Mission used nearly the identical words of the liberal A. T. Degroot. Degroot said, “the non-conservative Disciples have come to view as illusory the idea that a Golden Age of perfect men and institutions existed in the past. They distrust lets-go-back defeatism.” Brother Hunter says that we must be freed from the past. He says that Biblical fundamentalism “is based on the premise that one can escape from the twentieth century by harking back to some golden age of the past.” Brother Hunter says that following the New Testament precisely as though it is a divine pattern “leads to biblical fundamentalism.”

It has been my understanding that nearly all brethren would have considered themselves Biblical fundamentalists, but Brother Hunter writes as though “biblical fundamentalism” is something to be avoided at all costs. If Brother Hunter is not a “biblical fundamentalist,” would he admit to being a Biblical liberal? As I said before, sometime, somewhere, I hope to meet a liberal who will admit to being one.

In the same March, 1972 issue of Mission, another liberal brother challenged the pattern concept of the New Testament. On page 22 and 23, Robert L. Duncan said: “Perhaps the most prolific cause of division among us has been the fallacious assumption that the New Testament provides a detailed pattern for the church … I am not suggesting an anarchical approach to Christianity which disregards the authority of Scripture. What I am arguing is that the New Testament cannot legitimately be used as a book of specific rules covering, every aspect of the work, worship, and government of the church.”

Mission magazine, with its coterie of Abilene Christian College and George Pepperdine College professors, is the vanguard of liberalism among Churches of Christ today. This liberalism is not even of the mitigated variety, as is that about which I will he writing in next weeks article. It is pure stuff! It is the 11 classical liberalism” that Brother Roy Bowen Ward seems to think we are talking about when we say that B. C. Goodpasture is a liberal, or that Guy N. Woods is a liberal. Woods and Goodpasture are not liberals to the same degree that the liberals of Mission are digressive. But Woods, Goodpasture and the others like them among those who are institutional liberals accept, at least partially, the basic tenet of liberalism. Classical liberalism denies the New Testament was ever intended to constitute a binding pattern. The institutional liberals just deny that the pattern in some particulars has to be followed. But we will pursue this point further in an article to appear next week.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 33, pp. 3-5
June 22, 1972