Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Atonement: Been there, done that, wrecked the organization

When you fail to learn from it, history certainly repeats itself, and anyone who has read the history of evangelical movements will have a definite feeling of deja vu with regard to present disputes about atonement.

Back at the beginning of the last century, there were two Christian movements, one global, the other more-or-less confined to one English university town, but both set on evangelising the world. However, the larger of the two, known as the Student Christian Movement, felt that theological breadth as well as evangelical vigour was important. Understandings of the cross, or even of the godhead, might be allowed some flexibility, so long as everyone was committed to “The Evangelization of the World in this Generation”.

The other group, the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, believed that certain things were non-negotiable, in particular, the evangelical understanding of the cross. But then they were only a small group in a small town, and appeared to be out of step with the world-wide alternative. The SCM therefore constantly attempted to bring them on board.

Shortly after the First World War, a meeting took place between representatives from both sides. Predictably, the narrowly-focused Cambridge students refused to compromise, and the two groups went their separate ways.

What happened next is, literally, history:
Norman Grubb, barely 24 at the time, has left us a first-hand account of the crucial encounter which occurred in 1919:

The meeting took place in the S.C.M. Secretary’s room in Trinity, the C.I.C.C.U’s representatives being the President, D.T. Dick and myself. After an hour’s conversation which got us nowhere, one direct and vital question was put: ‘Does the S.C.M. consider the atoning blood of Jesus Christ as the central point of their message?’ And the answer given was, ‘No, not as central, although it is given a place in our teaching.’ That answer settled the matter, for we explained to them at once that the atoning blood was so much the heart of our message that we could never join with a movement which gave it any lesser place.4

From that point on, the two movements diverged – at first organizationally, but increasingly theologically as well. Soon after, the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union re-emerged, having joined with SCM some years earlier when it had, astonishingly, first advanced the proposal to include Unitarians. Within a few years there was a national, and then an international, Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Christian Unions.


At first the differences between the two organizations seemed minimal. In 1919 SCM could still state that its aims included: ‘to set forth Jesus Christ as the supreme revelation of God and of the true nature of man.’ It also challenged students ‘to recognize the urgent need of the whole world for Christ, without limit of race or nation, and to respond by dedicating their lives to His service as He may guide them.’1

Yet a significant theological shift had taken place. For SCM, the person and work of Christ had now both become exemplary, as one of their own pamphlets explained at the time:

[Jesus] has shown us what human nature can attain to when it is true to what God meant it to be.

And as to the cross:

[I]t is only as we see on Calvary the price of suffering paid day by day by God Himself for all human sin, that we can enter into the experience of true penitence and forgiveness which sets us free to embark upon a wholly new way of life, not in our own strength, but His. This is the meaning of the Atonement. 3

Perhaps not surprisingly, Tatlow records that at the Cambridge mission in 1920:

Taking the Kingdom of God as their starting-point, it was natural that the missioners should lay stress rather upon social duty and corporate righteousness than upon personal conversion and individual salvation. The personal side was never absent; but it was never made the ground of their appeal.1


By 1926 Tatlow admits that serious Bible study had declined in favour of discussion groups, and in 1929 the Aims underwent a more drastic restatement. Jesus Christ was no longer affirmed as ‘personal Saviour and God’, as in 1899. Rather, ‘God is made known to us in Jesus Christ, in whom we see the true expression of His being and the true nature of man.’ Instead of his atoning blood having a place (albeit not central) in the teaching, we read only that ‘Through His life and triumphant death, and through the living energy of the Spirit, we share in the redeeming love which overcomes evil, and find forgiveness, freedom and eternal life.’ In place of evangelism confronting everyone with the need for a personal decision, we read that ‘Faced with the need and perplexity of the world, we desire to give ourselves to Christ and to follow Him wherever He may call us.’1

The victory for breadth and inclusivity was complete, and yet SCM was beginning its inexorable decline, whereas IVF would go from strength to strength, becoming today’s Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship at home and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students abroad.

The whole article from which this is taken can be read online here. Today, as is well-known, the Student Christian Movement has all but ceased to function as an evangelising organization amongst students, whereas the descendants of IVF, the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, continue to have a vigorous ministry. The lessons are these: first, disputes over the nature of the atonement are not a matter of theological 'nit-picking'. Rather, they go to the heart of the gospel. Secondly, it is perfectly possible for an organization with all the right credentials, including a commitment to evangelism, to drift into complete liberalism in a few generations when the right focus on the atonement is lost.

1 comment:

  1. Incident also quoted in David Gibson's paper on Assumed Evangelicalism which I find a helpful balanced input into the whole "meltdown" debate.