Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
October 26, 1967
NUMBER 25, PAGE 12b-13a

Does The Gospel Need Urban Renewal

Kent Ellis

One of the most wonderful characteristics of the gospel, and a basic evidence of its origin, is its ability to awaken the spiritual desires and to fill the spiritual needs of men in every age and locality. It is a system that is as universal as mankind and as enduring as time itself. When our Lord commanded the gospel to be preached to "every creature" in "all nations" until the "end of the world," he declared its applicability to all men, everywhere, for all time. This message needed neither modernizing nor localizing.

The "new breed" of theologians in the church who are connected with the journal, Mission, which began publication in July at Abilene, Texas, are particularly vocal in their insistence that we make the gospel "relevant" to "modern man" in his "modern situation." They stoutly maintain that they believe the gospel is relevant, only that our presentation of it sometimes is not. For one, I refuse to accept their claim that they believe the gospel to be relevant, when their actions belie their assertions. These men do not believe the gospel as it is to be relevant to man as he is.

In proof of this charge I submit as evidence a series of statements in the first (July) issue of that paper. Roy Bowen Ward, of the Department of Religion, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and one of the Trustees and Editors of Mission, penned an article entitled "Communicating the Message." The contention of the article is that after the Scriptures have been translated from the original languages, their message must again be "translated" by the church in presenting it to men. The alleged error which the men of Mission seek to correct is exemplified in the following: "But preachers (and the church in general) are sometimes deaf and blind to the real situations of men in the world. The illustrations and summaries may be behind-the-time or otherwise culturally removed from the audience. Many a farm-bred preacher has preached a rural gospel to an urban audience which knows (and cares) nothing of sowing and harvesting" (p. 13).

Obviously, the author means that to speak of "sowing and harvesting" to an urban audience is to be "deaf and blind to the real situations of men," to "be behind-the-time" and "culturally removed from the audience," and to preach what people "know (and care)" nothing about. If this is not to preach what is irrelevant, to do so would be impossible.

But is preaching which concerns "sowing and harvesting" only a "rural gospel," or is it indeed the gospel? If such references are not apropos in an urban society, then the parable of the sower is no longer appropriate. The same is true of numerous other passages. Such is only the beginning of making an urban gospel out of the "rural gospel." We would be forced to delete all mention of barn, chaff, field, first-fruit, grain, graft, reap, yoke, vine, branch, husbandman, sheep, shepherd, flock, fold, etc. Things "behind-the-time or otherwise culturally removed from the audience" could include angel, anoint, birthright, bondservant, gentile, hades, miracle, parable, passover, Sabbath, synagogue, etc. I will leave the reader to his concordance and imagination to decide what such a program of secularizing, localizing, and modernizing would do to the "words of eternal life" uttered by Him who spake as "never man spake." Where does this temporal and cultural "translation" end? I dare say that neither Roy Ward nor any of his readers has seen many crosses or crucifixions lately. What should be done with this, which is also "behind-the-time" and "culturally removed?" Urbanizing and up-dating the message in this way leaves one with something other than the "faith once for all delivered."

There are undoubtedly words and ideas in the word of God which must be explained when presented to some people. But to explain what it says is one thing, and to excise what it says is another. What the gospel says is applicable and effective. Roy Ward's thinking on this is evidently influenced by the theologian, Paul Tillich, whom he quotes. "Tillich asks the crucial question, 'Can the Christian message be adapted to the modern mind without losing its essential and unique character?"' (p. 13) The answer to the question depends on how we define "adapt." God has already adapted the gospel to the modern mind in that it is suitable to and fit for it. Therefore man does not need to adapt it in the sense of changing it or remodeling it. In this latter sense, it cannot be adapted by man without losing its "essential and unique character." Man's task is not to "translate" or "adapt" the gospel, but to proclaim it.

There is only one reason to try to bring a thing up-to-date, and that is because you believe it is out-of-date. The only reason a person would seek to "adapt" the message is because he believes it is not already adapted. The only reason a man would want to "translate" the gospel to make it relevant, is because he believes it is irrelevant. What is needed is more confidence in God's wisdom and less in man's and a realization that the latter cannot improve on the former. Men need to hear the gospel, not our adaptations of it.

Before I allowed current theology to influence me to speak of sowing and harvesting in the manner of our quotation from Mission, I would ponder well the fact that these are words of Christ, who also said: "For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in his own glory, and the glory of the Father, and of the holy angels" (Luke 9:26). To which the apostle adds: "If any man teacheth a different doctrine, and consenteth not to soundwords, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; he is puffed up, knowing nothing..." (I Timothy 6:3, 4a).

-417 E. Groesbeck, Lufkin, Texas