Salvation tomorrow

Written by Stephen Neill Reviewed By Robert Covell

Under the somewhat ambiguous title Salvation tomorrow Stephen Neill traces the history of the modern ecumenical movement from its inception at Edinburgh in 1910, analyzes its present internal dissensions, and makes a few modest projections about its future course. Few men are as qualified as he for such a task. Originally a missionary in South India, he has served as an Associate General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, lectured in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nairobi and written many important books on the church’s world-wide mission.

Most of the material in this volume was originally a part of the Chavasse lectures given at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and was subsequently expanded by insights and discussions from world Christian gatherings over the last several years—at Bangkok, Lausanne, and Nairobi.

Describing the period from 1910 to 1970 as a ‘century of achievement’, Neill optimistically surveys the progress the Christian faith has made in each area of the world. Not unmindful of the mistakes of the past, he refers to the churches of the western world today as ‘penitent churches’, deeply regretting and seeking to overcome their materialism, paternalism, disunity, insensitivity to needs of others, and lack of prophetic spirit.

Following this historical introduction, Neill discusses four critical issues: dialogue, moratorium, revolution, and theological education. His basic conclusion (p. 125) is that ‘at certain points the ecumenical movement seems to have become imprisoned in a past which is no longer with us, and has to some extent abandoned its prophetic role in intense concentration on contemporary problems’.

The author views dialogue as one method for understanding non-Christian faiths. It is not the only method; it is not necessarily appropriate for every Christian or every missionary. Although courtesy, humility, and patience must characterize dialogue, the ultimate goal of this approach is ‘decision’. Thus, while willing to recognize some level of truth in all world religions, Neill firmly believes that all such truth can only find its ultimate meaning in the ‘supreme manifestation of the truth’ in Jesus Christ (p. 43). This conclusion does not excuse the missionary from seeking to understand other religions ‘from within’ (p. 137), but never in such a way as to compromise the ‘immense originality of Jesus Christ’ (p. 148).

The author concedes that many pragmatic reasons can legitimately lead to a call for moratorium on the sending out of western missionaries. These, however, must not blind us to key theological issues—the world-directed orientation of the church, the essential task of evangelization, and the nature of the Christian mission to cross barriers of non-belief to reach those ‘who have never heard of the Name’—which demand the continuation of missions. Neill emphasizes repeatedly that although our mission must be directed toward the whole man, we cannot identify service to broad human needs with biblical evangelism.

Neill recognizes the tragic fact that ‘many third-world churches have had their origins in pietistic missions, which have maintained the ideal of separation from the world rather than involvement in it’ (p. 77). The attempt today by various ‘theologies of revolution’ to correct this imbalance by substituting ‘humanization and conscientization’ as well as violence for evangelism is, however, in his view, an inadequate solution. Injustice, oppression and every form of evil must be resisted by Christians everywhere, but always with a ‘quiet resolute, persistent, and courteous’ attitude (p. 99). Nor should Christians succumb to Marxist utopian dreams in the fashion of many Latin American theologians (Bonino, etc.) who, unlike their European colleagues, have not had enough existential exposure to the realities of Russian Communism to recognize its dangers.

If the evangelistic opportunities of the present are to be seized, something more is needed than the traditional seminary—a ‘dangerous place’ (p. 104)! Alternative routes would include ‘in-service training’ (his term for theological education by extension) for ordination, educational upgrading of lay catechists, and more concern for training the ‘sheep’.

As he points toward the future, Neill first debunks the ‘professional pessimist’ who falsely claims that the percentage of Christians in the world is decreasing. In his call for a new emphasis upon evangelization, he stresses the need for a renewed commitment to (1) consultation with third-world churches, (2) the whole man in all of his needs, (3) ethnological and cultural studies, and (4) a new self-evaluation that would authenticate world evangelism by dealing more realistically with the western world’s problems of materialism, injustice, and lack of brotherhood.

This is a realistic, hopeful book that may help, like Christian mission by John Stott, to bridge current polarities and tensions between conciliar ecumenists and conservative evangelicals in the accomplishing of God’s mission for tomorrow.

Robert Covell

Robert Covell served as a missionary in East Africa for twenty years. He is currently Professor of Missions at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, Denver, Colorado, USA.