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Move by Campus Crusade for Christ Stirred Debate : Baptist Professor Absolved of 'Heresy' by Evangelical Panel

December 14, 1985|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

Last May, a Baptist author-professor from the Philadelphia area came to a hotel near the Ontario International Airport to discuss his "heretical" views, primarily with representatives of Campus Crusade for Christ from its nearby Arrowhead Springs headquarters.

After intensive questioning and discussion, Prof. Anthony Campolo, a provocative speaker popular with young Christian evangelical groups, was asked by Campus Crusade founder-president Bill Bright to withdraw from the program at Youth Congress '85, a gathering set for two months later in Washington.

Jay Kesler, the president of Youth for Christ/USA, co-sponsor with Campus Crusade of the Washington gathering, felt that Campolo successfully defended his positions on May 8, but he decided to accede to Bright's wishes for the sake of harmony, according to published reports. Campolo then withdrew as a speaker.

Debates Develop

Despite efforts to say little about the decision, debates developed in conservative Protestantism between those who perceive theological deficiencies in Campolo's 1983 book, "A Reasonable Faith," and others who believed that the sociologist and social justice advocate was unfairly censured.

"Why do we hallow the mavericks of the past and muzzle those of our own day?" asked the Wittenburg Door, an evangelical magazine published in El Cajon, Calif., which devoted its last issue entirely to the controversy.

The conflict became so divisive that a four-man panel met Oct. 10 in Chicago to examine Campolo's theology and the decision by Bright, one of the most influential leaders in American evangelical circles.

The panel's report, recently released, absolves Campolo of "heresy," while pointing to what it called "points of clear unorthodoxy" on definitions of Jesus' divinity and on whether the New Testament says that Jesus can be seen in every person.

"We decided, in effect, that the accusation going around that Campolo was a dangerous heretic was overstated," said theologian J. I. Packer, who chaired the panel. Interviewed by telephone from Vancouver, B.C., Canada, where he teaches at Regent College, Packer said that Campolo "left himself open to misunderstandings."

Regarding Campolo's elimination from the youth conference, Packer said, "I think we would all say we didn't think the cancellation of the invitation was necessary. On the other hand, we had no doubt that the cancellation was made in good faith."

Bright's differences with Campolo "are strictly theological, not personal," the Campus Crusade president emphasized in a statement. "While we are not well acquainted, my inclination is to feel toward him a sense of warm affection," Bright said.

Bright said the committee sensitively explained "the reasons why numerous evangelicals have been deeply concerned about several theological aspects of the book." (The publisher, Word Books, whose market is primarily evangelical Christians, has sold a total of 27,000 copies in hard cover and in its just-issued paperback, a spokesman said.)

Broader Matters

While the panel report may cool the conflict--"I think we've been able to restore to Tony Campolo his good name," Packer said--there are also lingering, broader matters at stake, according to both Campolo and a Campus Crusade official whose critique of Campolo's book led to Bright's decision.

Campolo, who teaches at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa., claimed that a "religious McCarthyism" is afoot "to purify the evangelical community of any of us who believe that social and economic justice are requisites in the Christian life style."

Referring to Campus Crusade, a worldwide evangelistic organization that has gone well beyond its initial ministry to college students, Campolo said in an interview: "I'm worried when good people who have done wonderful things for the kingdom of God are afraid to stand up and say we made a mistake and set things aright."

Randy Rodden, whose 35-page analysis of "A Reasonable Faith" charged Campolo with heresy, countered that the dispute was "blown out of proportion as some kind of witch hunt, which was not the intent at all. In my paper, I said Tony is advocating some non-evangelical, unorthodox views of historic Christianity."

Rodden is an instructor in the Christian ministry department at Campus Crusade's International School of Theology at Arrowhead Springs. He is also the coordinator of Campus Crusade's youth ministries program. "My interest in this grew out of this job, since 90% of Tony's speaking is before young people." Rodden said in an interview.

"I've tried to inform people who ask me what I think about his book. I want people to be aware of what they are getting," Rodden said. "I used 'heretical' in its historical sense, which means false doctrine."

Rodden said he thought the special panel's statement was nebulous on the question of heresy. The statement said: "Since heresy implies a purpose of making novel notions normative for Christian thought, it seems to us that this verdict is not really appropriate. . . ."

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