Familiar frailties

John Richardson on some urgent lessons from the Evangelical past

Shortly after the end of the First World War there took place in Cambridge a meeting that was to shape global Christianity for the next century. It was also a meeting that has profound lessons for today’s Evangelicals, if only they would learn from their history.

The background to this meeting is itself remarkable. In 1888 an organization called the Student Volunteer Movement was started in the United States under the influence of one Robert P Wilder. By 1892 this had become the Student Volunteer Missionary Union, whose ‘watchword’ was ‘The Evangelization of the World in this Generation’. In 1905 the name was changed again, this time to the more familiar Student Christian Movement. By the end of that decade, SCM had 152,000 members worldwide, dedicated to the task of ‘presenting the Gospel in such a manner to every soul in this world that the responsibility for what is done with it shall no longer rest upon the Christian Church, or on any individual Christian, but shall rest on each man’s head for himself.’1

Tensions

With such a clear commitment to evangelism, one might have imagined that SCM was soundly Evangelical, but even at this stage there were powerful tensions within the movement. The reasons for this may seem remarkable to us today, but theological fashions create their own pressures and in 1895 the question facing the then SVMU was nothing less than the admission of Unitarians into membership. Not surprisingly, this was strongly resisted that year, when a doctrinal basis was adopted which affirmed ‘A belief in Jesus Christ as God the Son’.1 In the nature of these things, however, the question kept returning.

At a meeting in 1898, Tissington Tatlow, by then a major figure in the movement although still in his early twenties, proposed as a compromise that each potential member be presented with a copy of the Constitution and asked whether he could join a Union with such a set of rules and basis. Tatlow pointed out that in this way ‘the student would by joining demonstrate that he did not consider the basis wholly unsatisfactory while, at the same time, he was free to retain his own private interpretation of such a basis.’ Significantly, he commented later that at this meeting ‘there was never … anything to break the unity of the Spirit’ – a unity which he felt to be fundamental.1

Inclusivity

Yet the question of the basis of SCM and the inclusivity of its membership refused to go away. In 1899 it was restated that members ‘by the act of joining, declare their belief in Jesus Christ as personal Saviour and God.’1 But the topic was discussed again at the summer conference in 1900, again in 1901, and yet again in 1902. And it was these constant efforts to broaden the basis of SCM which led to tensions between it and the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, which had been founded in 1878.

As Tatlow described them, the members of CICCU ‘tended to have a traditional Evangelical theology, which they did not examine very closely yet held with great tenacity.’ Yet in case we should think that theological naïvety was all one sided, a memorandum issued by SCM in 1911 emphasized the concept of the ‘little child’ in faith – one who had a relationship with Christ, but no maturity in theology. Thus, although a personal basis for the membership of SCM was still seen as helpful, ‘belief in the Incarnation as a necessary element present explicitly in the consciousness of the regenerate man’ was felt to be asking too much.1 Once again, therefore, a rewording of the basis was suggested, this time to read, ‘I desire in joining this Union to surrender my life to God through Jesus Christ my Lord and Saviour.’ By 1913, however, this had become, ‘I declare my faith in God through Jesus Christ, whom as Saviour and Lord I desire to serve’, on which Tatlow commented approvingly,

[It] does not contain a statement of the Godhead of Jesus as a doctrine … it is not intended to contain it … [but] it does contain that attitude towards Jesus Christ out of which the belief in His Godhead, as a doctrine, springs.2

SCM thus deliberately settled on a minimalist and inclusivist theological strategy. The basis of membership, it was argued, should not be too theological, in case it excluded those who were genuinely converted but had not sufficiently thought out their position to enable them to subscribe to it (people who, as was observed earlier, might be ‘the best people in College’).1 Indeed, constantly refining the doctrinal basis would, it was feared, turn minds away from a personal relation to Christ and hence retard Evangelical and missionary activity. ‘Evangelistic fervour’, it was observed tartly, ‘is not the same as timid orthodoxy.’1

Atonement

These, then, were the influences behind the post-war meeting in Cambridge between leaders of SCM and CICCU. The latter had earlier disaffiliated from the SCM in 1910 (at Tatlow’s own suggestion) over the conservative control of CICCU. The deliberate broadening of SCM had led to there being many members in Cambridge opposed to CICCU policies, but ‘the C.I.C.C.U. was not a democratic society and they could not hope to influence it.’1 This division came as a bitter disappointment to some, including the then-President of CICCU who wrote, ‘I am now branded as a narrow Evangelical and an anti-Student Movement man, whereas I have wasted a whole year fighting for the other side.’1

After the war SCM tried to persuade CICCU to re-affiliate. By this stage, however, the presenting problem was no longer the incarnation but the atonement. 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.

Shift

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

Dilution

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.

Lessons

If that were the conclusion of the matter, it would be a story with a reasonably happy ending. There must be hundreds of thousands of Christians alive today who came to faith via the witness of Christian Unions in various colleges and universities, and the work still goes on. But Evangelicals typically have narrow horizons and short memories. And so today we see them failing to learn from what has gone before and repeating the mistakes of an earlier generation. So what should we learn from the story of student Christianity in the twentieth century that we might apply to Evangelicalism in the twenty-first?

Above all else, we learn that Evangelicalism depends for its health on theological precision. But precision also requires discernment, which Evangelicals have not always possessed. If one is prepared to wear black-and-white robes to take a service, for example, does it really matter if another man wears coloured robes (if that is all that ‘vestments’ appear to be to a congregation)? Certainly it matters nowhere near as much as OICCU opening the door to Unitarianism in 1905 or Evangelicals voting for the remarriage of divorcees in 2003.

Conversely, pleas for theological breadth and inclusivism are always a potential threat to Evangelicalism. This is not to say that Evangelicals must be narrow-minded. It is always worth trying to deepen our understanding, but there are core doctrines which Evangelicals must regard as non-negotiable, principally those connected with the person and work of Christ and with the role of Scripture in revealing God’s truth to us.

Again, Evangelicals need not deny that other views than their own are available, but they must be clear that at a certain point (and sooner rather than later with regard to core doctrines) they cease to be Evangelical views. And it is thus vital to distinguish between listening in order to be better informed and listening in order to negotiate. The former is exemplified by the encounter between CICCU and SCM, and led to separation. The latter is exemplified by SCM constantly revisiting the Unitarian issue and gradually compromising its position.

Evangelicals should also recognize the importance of controlling the leadership of their key bodies and organizations, even if it means sacrificing the sacred cows of ‘democracy’ and ‘fairness’. CICCU held out against SCM because the leadership was elected in the Calvinist, rather than the democratic, sense. Constant vigilance must be the watchword of Evangelicals with regard to any succession, and here old friends must be treated with the same mistrust as strangers.

Evangelicals should also acknowledge that not all evangelistic efforts are helpful. SCM was born out of, and for a long time maintained, an ardent spirit of ‘Evangelical’ evangelism. But at a certain point this evangelism took on a quite different character which would have opposed it to Evangelicalism and every subsequent success for SCM spelt trouble for Evangelicals.

It would be tempting to conclude by saying that in God’s providence all will finally be well and that truth habitually triumphs over falsehood. But that would be to miss the point. History is littered with the wreckage of formerly Evangelical institutions and individuals, whilst Evangelicalism itself is constantly being opened to destructive influences by those within its gates. It is high time that we learned from the past, not only for our sake but for the sake of the gospel, the Church and a lost world.

John Richardson is Senior Assistant Minister to Henham, Elsenham and Ugley

  1.  Tissington Tatlow, The Story of the Student Christian Movement of Great Britain and Ireland (London: SCM Press, 1933)

  2. Ibid, emphasis original

  3.   Ibid, emphasis added

  4. In F D Coggan (Ed), Christ and the Colleges: A History of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions (London: IVF, 1934)

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