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Student movements and slippery slopes

A story from the history of student ministry:

After an hour’s talk, I asked Rollo point blank, ‘Does the SCM put the atoning blood of Jesus Christ central?’ He hesitated, and then said, ‘Well, we acknowledge it, but not necessarily central.’ Dan Dick and I then said that this settled the matter for us in the CICCU. We could never join something that did not maintain the atoning blood of Jesus Christ at its centre; and we parted company. Norman Grubb

9781844741557It’s part of the history of CICCU when, in 1918, SCM approached them to discuss reunification. This encounter clarified CICCU’s doctrinal emphasis, and has been seen as a key moment behind the foundation of IFES.

It’s the story with which John Stott begins The Cross of Christ, it’s the story that was referred to a number of times during my undergraduate years in my local IFES group, and it’s the story that was part of galvanising an evangelical identity and ministry pathway for me personally.

It was inspiring. It was also a cautionary tale: ‘And look what happened to SCM! They lost the plot!’

‘Do you put the atoning blood of Jesus Christ central?’ Yes, I said; and now I look back at the nature of my faith then. How much did I care about the many other elements of the gospel story, the incarnation, the healings, the teachings, the resurrection, the ascension? They were important in theory, and I wouldn’t have said they were dispensable. But I probably hadn’t heard so much about them, which meant that I didn’t give them much oxygen myself. As long as I had the cross, I was fine. As long as I had the cross in first place, other things could fade into the background, because they did not need to be foregrounded. I might have not have said as much, but my vocabulary of choice would have told you otherwise.

The centrality of the cross had, consciously or unconsciously, become a reason not to consider other dimensions of faith. Is that the inevitable end of using the CICCU story as a cautionary tale — or even of asking what the ‘centre’ of evangelical faith is?

Well, it’s a bit unfair to claim that, isn’t it? It’s a slippery slope argument.

‘The slippery slope’ is a logical fallacy, and all it takes is one counter-example to overturn the whole thing. Here’s one: John Stott himself resisted evangelical efforts to prioritise and summarise truth. He is known for saying, ‘Who wants an irreducible minimum gospel? I want the full, biblical gospel!’ Even The Cross of Christ goes on to explore a broader ‘centre’ than the CICCU story might suggest.

It’s not fair to say, ‘Focus on the cross and you’ll forget everything else.’ But this cuts both ways: it’s also not fair to say, ‘Take the cross off centre stage and you’re basically liberal!’ When Norman Grubb laid claim to ‘the atoning blood’, it might have been appropriate to the issues of the time, but it doesn’t mean every generation needs to take a stand on the same thing, and it doesn’t mean you’re going wrong if you don’t do the same.

Yet the slippery slope is more than just a convoluted way of saying, I’m right and you’re wrong. It’s a way of establishing our identity: a way of saying, we’ve decided on our direction, and this is how we got here. And the same goes for the idea of a ‘centre’. As Scot McKnight says in this excellent article about the atonement, we need to be honest enough (or postmodern enough) to admit that we search for a ‘centre’ in order to prop up our existing belief and practice. At one level, that’s entirely natural and appropriate, and there’s nothing to fear in being completely frank about that.

We always build our identity through stories, but the challenge is to keep ourselves from wielding our stories against others. As Tamie and I continue our involvement with the student movement, what stories will we tell? What decisions will we refer back to? What will be the defining moments? And, most importantly, how will we define ourselves constructively rather than by tearing down others?

Categories: University ministry Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

22 replies

  1. Good call. For years I’ve been seeing what I call “balanced theology” (our tendency to search for a centre in every debate) become dominant in our minds. I think it stems partly from Hegelian dialecticism, and partly from dimensional models in psychology, psychiatry etc. Perhaps a better metaphor to use would be the music metaphor – that the bible is a song, and the atonement is the crescendo of the chorus. Everything builds up to it and points to it, but without every bit of build up, and without all of the instruments in tune and working together, the chorus would be hollow and lacking context. But who wants a song without a chorus? Or to use another analogy, who wants sex without an orgasm? Yet if it becomes the sole focus, rather than your spouse, there’s issues. Likewise, who wants Christianity without an atonement? Yet if it becomes your sole focus, you might find yourself thinking about the atonement, and shutting your eyes to the fullness of the glorious God responsible.

    1. Cheers Pete. Or is the entire gospel (from incarnation to ascension) the crescendo/chorus? Or, if the Bible is “theodrama”, are we ourselves living in the crescendo/chorus? I’m not sure which way to cut that cake. Anyway. I wonder what you think of of Scot McKnight’s article.

      1. It’s tempting to say that perhaps we’re all just singing different choruses or different harmonies but the song is the same, but that buys into a post-modern, meta-narrative-denying view. I find it interesting in Rev. 14:6 that the “eternal gospel” being sung focuses on judgment and creation. I then wonder, why is judgment such good news that it would be eternally proclaimed? Then my mind goes to Romans 3:25-26, and only the atonement makes sense of why judgment would be such good news; because judgment means justification through Christ’s blood. I think for McKnight to disregard the atonement in that passage is a serious exegetical failure. It feels like he’s hitting the atonement like it’s a golf ball and he’s got a massive slice. But I like the questions he’s asking – they do make me think about whether my own emphasis is a biblical one.

      2. Hi Pete. McKnight is affirming that Rom 3:25-26 is about atonement — but ‘atonement’ is not identical with propitiation/penal substitution. In this case, hilasterion at least includes the idea of expiation/cleansing — which means ‘atonement’ is an appropriate English rendition, but ‘propitiation’ is probably not.

      3. Sorry for my sloppy and confusing response Arthur – I should have said “penal substitution” rather than atonement. From my reading Romans 3:21-26 DOES clearly favour penal substitution (even if hilasterion doesn’t), which is why McKnight lost me a bit. Anyway, when I read Phil. 4:8 I end up with my mind on penal substitution (among other things), so it’s hard for me to keep it out of my mind like a hermeneutic neat-nik. Reading the ESV probably doesn’t help either! :o)

  2. Yeah, but do you hold the atoning blood of Christ central? The more times I reread that anecdote the more I feel sympathy for poor old Rollo. It reminds me of that bizarre interview between Rob Bell and Martin Bashir. The poignant thing is that SCM wanted CICCU to come back to contribute their passion and evangelistic drive to the movement. All they had to do was say ‘shibboleth’.

    Anyway, I think this is a good analysis, thanks for following it up. The quesion of centrality reminds me of the vision of the Great Dance from ‘Perelandra’ by C.S. Lewis. When you look at any part of the pattern, it seems to be indisputably central and the reason for the whole thing.

  3. Thanks Arthur for a stimulating piece, and thanks Andrew for the Perelandra analogy.

    I do however wonder whether you (Arthur) are being just a teeny bit mischievous? … since I don’t think Stott is using the CICCU tale as a slippery slope argument. :-)

    Stott emphasizes (and you note) that the encounter was about a potential post-war re-unification of the (much larger) SCM and the (much smaller) CICCU. The point is not that CICCU were saying that if the SCM denies a central place for the atoning blood of Christ then they are on a slippery slope towards doom … they had already separated (after previously existing prior to and independently of the SCM). Isn’t the point that they wanted to maintain it as central for themselves, and to re-join the SCM would be incompatible with that? That’s not a slippery slope argument, and nor is it a reason to suggest that CICCU didn’t embrace other aspects of the gospel. So I don’t think Stott is being inconsistent with the use of the tale.

    BTW: In the context of early 20th century evangelicalism the centrality of atonement was actually a pretty good shibboleth … since the very fact that groups sidelined it (or denied, or outright re-defined it) often revealed a great deal about “where someone was coming from” theologically (and whether you can work together with them to meet your own aims). And we should remember: the Ephraimites were not killed because of how they pronounced shibboleth, they were killed because they were Ephraimites. The shibboleth just revealed where they were coming from.

  4. Arthur, thanks for the clarification. :-) In what way do you think that the CICCU story was used at EU as a ‘slippery slope’ argument? Or who do you think it ‘weilded against’ at EU? [As a trainee staff worker at EU during your time there I am naturally curious to understand this better.]

    Either way, how do you now wish to understand and communicate the significance of the atonement now? After all, McKnight isn’t against maintaining (and promoting) the centrality of atonement, he just seems concerned with how focusing on ‘Penal Substitution’ (to the exclusion of the other “clubs in the bag”) obscures the richness of “the atonement”; not that emphasizing the atonement (‘the atoning blood of Christ’) itself necessarily leads one to ignore other aspects of the gospel (such as the incarnation). As such I’m not sure I see that McKnight is even necessarily in conflict with Grubb and the CICCU position. What am I missing here? ;-)

    1. Sure thing, Mike. It’s the vibe I remember in my head as a student: SCM wasn’t just different to us, they were an object lesson to show decline, even apostasy. The slippery slope was: lose propitiation-as-centre, and SCM is your inevitable endpoint. The most memorable occasion was MYC 2003, ‘the Cross of Christ’. (I’ve heard it in Aussie student ministry circles at various points since then, too.)

      I’m using McKnight not as a contrast, but to reflect on identity. I’m not warning against defining community from the centre — only against using our centre as ammo against others. I want us to be honest about *how* we go about defining ourselves, and to relax: we can have our centre, but there’s no need to be all sectarian about it!

      1. Thanks again Arthur. The only thing is that in McKnight’s article … doesn’t he (repeatedly) use his own centre [and his own story of moving away from his inherited “neo-puritan” centre] as “ammo” against those he regards as “neo-puritans”?

        But then, isn’t that just an inherent risk with using stories (both negative and positive) to build identity? Even telling the story of your experience with EU (ES) inevitably makes them your “slippery-slope Foil”; an object lesson in what you think we shouldn’t do.

        Perhaps the danger with using groups (and people) as negative examples within *any* stories that we tell is that our audience is naturally led to associate those groups/people as the “baddies” of the story; and as such to regard them *wholly* negatively … even if we the story tellers actually regard them *almost wholly* positively.

        A case in point would be how someone who stumbles across this post might be led to view ES: You yourself may regard them in a generally positive sense (and I believe you do), but without access to the “Arthur@ES back story”, ES is just viewed as the rather ironic (& rather flat) negative character in the story of how “we must be more generous to others in building our own identity”.

        In using stories to build identity maybe we just need to be more mindful of how characters function; and thus how “readers respond”. I think it’s important that we do use negative stories! But when we do maybe we should also be careful to ‘fill-out’ our ‘negative characters’ a bit more for the sake of our readers, … and for the sake of generosity.

        Lastly – but still on topic – I think that we need to be especially mindful of what our readers will (or at least might) take away whenever we address debates related to the atonement. Having a nuanced debate about the relative emphases of the different biblical metaphors for the atonement can be good and productive; but what do casual readers “take-away” if the only characters in our stories are negative characters who are specifically negative *because* they sought to emphasize the centrality of the atonement?

        Let’s not just be generous to the characters in our stories, let’s also be *generously pastoral* towards our audience; lest (one way or another) they hear us saying that the atonement is simply a flat, secondary or negative character in the great ‘theodrama’.

  5. Mike, I don’t think we can get away without negativity in stories, because any ‘story’ is based on conflict and usually has an antagonist that causes the protagonist to take action. Rather than being more ‘positive’ in how we narrate our stories we probably need to become better readers of stories who understand how they work. The fact that EU is an antagonist in Arthur’s story doesn’t imply that there is no value in what they do or that this defines them completely. And a story about how people have over-emphasised one understanding of the atonement will make them the antagonist in a quest to understand the gospel more fully. That is just the nature of how stories work. The only other option is not to tell stories at all, but then how do we explain why things matter to us?

    1. Thanks Andrew, but that’s not the only other option, is it? … which is kinda my point. :)

      I get how stories/charachters work … and I think that this both highlights the problem and points toward a way to use negative stories in a way that they dont just become “ammo”. I didn’t say we should “be more positive” … just that we should be *more careful* in how we tell them: in fact I said I think we *should* tell negative stories.

      Arthur’s question is about how we can use stories well, such that they are not sectarian. I think McKnight’s article is as sectarian as any. And sure, while Arthur’s use of EU as his antagonist does not necessarily imply that there is no value to what EU does, it does not imply that there IS any value either: thus the reader’s impression of EU left open to an entirely negative reading. As such, all I am saying is that if we want to both use negative stories (which I think we must) and ensure we’re not using it as ammo (AND that nobody is left to assume that we are using it as such) then all we have to do is to fill-out our antagonists a bit more so as to direct our readers in how *we do think* they should understand them. That’s all.

      The same thing applies to stories about the atonement. If you only portray those who seek to affirm the centrality of atonement as the antagonists in your own story, without specifically positively affirming the atonement yourself, then the reader of your “quest to understand the gospel better” is left open to think that you yourself don’t think the atonement is central. Sure, it doesn’t in any way confirm that you do think that it’s *not important* … but the fact remains that you have only associated it with your negative character. So I just think we can be (and must be) more pastorally generous with how we tell our stories. We can’t realistically expect that our readers should be better at understanding how stories work; but then we don’t have to be trapped by antagonist/protagonist stereotypes either. Thoughts? :)

      1. Hey Mike. My short answer: the original post is an in-house discussion between friends, and this blog, like a great deal of online experience, is actually pretty local (or glocal?).

        But the only ‘EU character’ here is me. I write as a card-carrying EU grad in the IFES family, speaking to my own people.

        And that’s reflective of Tamie’s and my writing more generally. We’re often driven by self-criticism, and it’s SELF-criticism: we only come at this (God help us) from a place of solidarity, of ‘us’ not ‘them’. We hope this tone is reasonably apparent to our regular readers. That’s the context if we appear to be overly critical, or conciliatory, or conflicted!

  6. Arthur – While you are the only specific character mentioned (and your are clearly also being self-critical) doesn’t your statement that “it’s the story that was referred to a number of times during my undergraduate years in my local IFES group” mean that EU is also a character? :-)

    From the original post it also seems clear that you think it was “EU” who used the story as a sectarian “slippery slope argument” … and presumably it was (at least in part) at EU where you “probably hadn’t heard so much about” other “the other elements of the gospel story” … so doesn’t this in turn mean that EU is the antagonist in your tale of what not to do?

    Now, we both heard the tale used this way at EU, and there is no doubt it was used in what could be described as a fairly ‘sectarian’ way. In fact I think you are quite right to use that as a negative example. But I’m just trying to suggest a (fairly simple) way forward in using negative stories/characters to form identity.

    As such I think a problem with your “in house discussion between friends” response is that … this is a blog … and you are promote it via twitter … & facebook. :-) In fact, the range of people who comment on your blog indicates a wider readership than just “between friends”: and I am sure you analyze the relevant data. But more importantly, there are people reading your blog who respect your opinion … and who are struggling to accept that atonement is actually important.

    I thought I was just suggesting a fairly simple strategy for how we can use stories to form identity which will ensure that our stories are not (even inadvertently) used as ammo … and will ensure that they are communicated in such a way as to be pastorally sensitive/generous to all of (y)our readership.

    I actually think that every generation does need to take a stand on the atonement … and does need to keep the cross on centre stage.

    1. Hi Mike

      I figured the atonement was a tangent to the original post, but I guess we’ve already crossed that bridge! :)

      I reckon there’s a rather important difference between positively affirming the atonement, and saying the atonement is everything.

      One thing I’m cutting against is the idea that atonement is all about propitiation.

      Something that looms large for me is church history. In Rhys Bezzant’s early church introduction, I remember being struck by the fact that soteriology wasn’t the big deal for many of our forebears (Nicea, etc.), certainly not in the way it has been for Protestants. Soteriology might be the thing that makes us Protestant, but that doesn’t automatically and inevitably make soteriology The Big Issue for every generation.

      I think the gospel has to do with the person of Jesus. I think atonement is a vital part of the gospel story, but I wouldn’t say it is central — unless we’re talking about a centre that also includes incarnation, ascension, and so on. Even if we could say that the cross is the narrative climax of the four Gospels, I think that’s different to saying it’s the centre of faith or theology. But this just raises the whole discussion of what ‘gospel’ is.

  7. “I actually think that every generation does need to take a stand on the atonement … and does need to keep the cross on centre stage.”


      1. Not knowing specifically what you are referring to by ‘take a stand’ and ‘centre stage’ I couldn’t say. But my ‘why?’ was asking why you think that.

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