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WWI missions, theology legacies remembered

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Nov. 11, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

NASHVILLE (BP) — Baptist minister C.C. Davison encountered recently drafted soldier Grover Cleaver Sept. 12, 1918, on the back steps of an Army mess hall. Grover appeared dejected over the telegram announcing his mother’s death. Sitting on the steps, Davison wrote in Arkansas’ Baptist Advance newsjournal, “I marked for him a tract furnished by our Sunday School Board” and “led him to the Savior.” A month later, Cleaver was dead.

“What if there had been no Baptist war worker?” Davison asked.

Decades later, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Wayne Ward found himself discussing theology with famed theologian Karl Barth as the two of them drove Europe’s streets in Barth’s Volkswagen Beetle. Barth’s theological system — often classified as neo-orthodoxy — critiqued theological liberalism in light of WWI but also questioned the full accuracy of Scripture. Spending a summer, a semester or a year with Barth and his neo-orthodox contemporaries in Europe had become a relatively common practice for Southern Baptist seminary professors and students prior to and following World War II.

Both the minister’s evangelistic zeal and the professor’s association with Barth — who published the first edition of “Der Römerbrief,” his watershed commentary on Romans, in 1919 — illustrate the effects of WWI among Southern Baptists. Though the so-called Great War ended with an armistice Nov. 11, 1918, its missions and theological legacies are still felt today.

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‘Such a missionary opportunity’

After the U.S. and its allies secured surrender by Germany, Austria-Hungary and the other Central Powers, the Southern Baptist Convention sought to transfer America’s wartime zeal and resources into an unprecedented world missions effort.

The same day the armistice was signed, Texas’ Baptist Standard newsjournal declared, “No country ever had such a missionary opportunity, world-wide opportunity, as the United States has today. Our country is the acknowledged leader of all the nations. They will look to us for vital, spiritual messages of redemption and we must not fail to keep intact the gospel committed to us, and give that gospel in its purity and simplicity to the hungering nations.”

Weeks later, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention adopted unanimously a statement that “it is a great thing to win the war, but the signing of the armistice is not the capitulation of the devil … Sword thrust and cannon shot may open a great door of opportunity for the gospel but they do not produce spiritual results. What the future of the world shall be depends on the churches of Christ.”

Yet the SBC’s international mission force was relatively small at the time and funds were needed for expansion.

“Our participation in the war brought two realities into focus,” said Lloyd Harsch, professor of church history and Baptist studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “First, the horrors of the war with its loss of life due to battle and even more to disease reminded us of the fragility of life, the immensity of the task and the necessity of acting now.

“Second, it expanded American horizons. Southern Baptists were sending missionaries to fewer than a dozen countries when the war started,” Harsch told Baptist Press in written comments. “Having saved the world for democracy, could we not now push to save the entire world with the Gospel? What better way to celebrate the SBC’s 75th birthday and to launch an ambitious effort to do just that.”

So in 1919 the SBC launched the Seventy-Five Million Campaign, an effort to secure $75 million over five years for Southern Baptist missions and ministries. In the end, the $58.6 million collected fell well short of the $92.6 million pledged. SBC entities were saddled with debt because they had borrowed money based on the pledges, according to “The Baptist Heritage” by historian Leon McBeth.

However, the Seventy-Five Million Campaign also increased gifts to SBC causes threefold compared to the previous five-year period and inspired launch of the Cooperative Program in 1925 — Southern Baptists’ unified method of funding missions and ministries that endures today.

“While the Seventy-five Million Campaign fell short of its lofty goal, its cooperative nature showed Southern Baptists how much more effective we can be when we work together,” Harsch said. “The desire to continue effective, efficient cooperative ministry gave birth to the Cooperative Program.”

‘Get beyond’ the Bible

Yet as missions zeal advanced, another legacy of WWI — neo-orthodoxy — threatened to dilute the Gospel Southern Baptists preached.

Madison Grace, associate professor of Baptist history and theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said neo-orthodoxy was a theological system that critiqued theological liberalism for holding an inappropriately low view of Scripture and an inappropriately optimistic view of human nature. The devastation of the war was a key factor driving the critique of liberal optimism, and neo-orthodox theologians wanted to let Scripture guide their response to the world’s devastation.

Yet neo-orthodoxy “was holding onto” liberalism’s idea that the Bible contained factual errors and had to be read critically by modern audiences, Grace told BP. In addition, neo-orthodoxy was not “as concerned with what the Bible actually said” as with what believers perceived Jesus to say “through the Bible.”

Within the SBC, neo-orthodoxy likely “pulled more conservatives” to the left theologically, Grace said, “than pulling liberals” to the right.

Before his death in 2012, Ward told BP about his encounters with Barth in Europe following World War II, including rides in Barth’s VW Beetle. By that time, European trips to study with Barth and other neo-orthodox theologians like Emil Brunner and Rudolf Bultmann had become relatively common, said Greg Wills, professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

For example, on April 9, 1936, Tennessee’s Baptist and Reflector newsjournal noted that Southern Seminary theology professor Harold Tribble would “spend three months [that] summer in Switzerland studying under Dr. Karl Barth.” Previously, Tribble had studied under Barth at the University of Bonn in Germany.

From 1932-37, North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder quoted Barth favorably or announced publication of his books at least a dozen times, according to a search of the Recorder’s online archives.

In the 1940s, Wills told BP via email, “fundamentalists constantly attacked [Southern Seminary] for neo-orthodoxy.”

While the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message likely was not intended to express neo-orthodox theology, Grace said, “those who were neo-orthodox had a tendency to read the 1963 BF&M in a way that was neo-orthodox,” especially the claims Scripture “is the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man” and that Jesus is “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted” (Article I).

The SBC’s Conservative Resurgence eliminated neo-orthodoxy from seminary faculties, Grace said, but its influence still can be in churches when Bible studies “want to get beyond the text [of Scripture] and find out what Jesus is telling them [through] the text.” That approach is dangerous, he said, because it can ignore the Bible’s intended meaning.

Enduring ‘reminders’

A century following WWI, its ultimate effects on Southern Baptists are yet to be seen. However, Harsch said, the war’s legacy continues to remind believers to preach the undiluted Word of God and channel their cooperative energy for missions.

“Sadly, war did not end in 1918,” Harsch said. “Human atrocities continue to mount. They serve as reminders that a desperate world is lost without the Savior. As we review our family finances and church budgets, let’s remember that we can do more for the Kingdom together, than we can by ourselves.”

CLARIFICATION: Both the 3rd and 4th paragraphs were updated with additional background information.