Edinburgh and the Ecumenical Movement

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Chapter 3 Edinburgh 1910

Edinburgh and the Ecumenical Movement
The World Missionary Conference that met in Edinburgh, Scotland June 3-23, 1910 was one of those events that so impacted the evangelical/ecumenical world that the mere mention of Edinburgh draws attention back to this momentous event. Immediately following Edinburgh, John R. Mott stated that the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh was “The most significant gathering ever held in the interest of the world’s evangelization.”1
And in 1985 William G. Rusch reminds the church that “This conference summed up and brought into focus much of the nineteenth century’s movement for uniting Christians to give the gospel to the world.”2

Edinburgh 1910: Its background, Inception, and Founders

Kenneth Scott Latourette states that “Edinburgh 1910 was the out growth and climax of earlier gatherings through which protestants had been drawing together in their purpose to give the Gospel to the world.”3 The meetings in London and New York in 1854, as well as the Liverpool 1860 and London 1860 and 1878 were all important events promoting Church unity. The Grindelwald conferences of the 1890s also sought unity. All of these events sought unity to some degree. Yet, even with Edinburgh’s precursor, the Ecumenical Missionary Conference of 1900 held in New York,4 the ecumenical movement needed a catalyst to spread its vision of unity globally.
The vision for a global missions conference was not a new concept. William Carey in 1806 proposed a world level missions conference be held at the Cape of Good Hope in 1810, but it was dismissed as just one of Carey’s “pleasing dreams.”5 The dream did not die but was simply delayed one-hundred years until its time for unveiling had come. The global meeting needed a man like John R. Mott to pioneer the way and spearhead the charge. By 1906 Mott had become extremely influential among global mission leaders. His mission endeavors abroad and his passion for world
evangelization earned him the respect of missionaries and mission leaders alike. Mott announced his intention to “head off” another meeting planned for 1910 and decided to transform it into a radically different meeting. This meeting was to become the Edinburgh 1910 World Missions Conference.6
Mott needed help and the Student Christian Movement (S.C.M.) was ready for the assignment and was instrumental in laying the foundation for the Edinburgh conference. The relationships developed within the S.C.M. structure provided an impetus for change. The modern ecumenical movement was in its infancy and ready for launching at Edinburgh. Ruth Rouse points out just how strategic Edinburgh really was as it became, “the focusing point of the ideas and inspiration which made the new ecumenical movement possible was the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference 1910. It was the watershed between two eras of Church history.”7
John R. Mott, a Methodist layman, and Joseph H. Oldham, both of whom had come out of the Student Christian Movement (also known as the Student Volunteer Movement) were instrumental in the planning for Edinburgh 1910. During the Edinburgh conference a continuation committee was formed which was instrumental in the growth of ecumenism that stemmed from the conference. William G. Rusch believed that “The formation of this committee developed a precedent for the organization later of the ecumenical movement.”8
It was the men like Mott, Oldham, Robert Wilder, W. A. Visser, Wilber Patton, Stafan Zankov, and others all members of the S.C.M. who were responsible for the rapid spread of ecumenism during the early 1900s. Ruth Rouse states that “The pioneering role of the S.C.M. in the ecumenical movement can clearly be discerned if the career of John R. Mott is studied.”9 Mott’s life work seems to have been inspired from the moment he joined the S.C.M. at the Mount Hermon Student Conference in 1886 where his passion for missions was fueled. His work from that time until 1910 made him the obvious choice to be the chairman of the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh.10
Mott’s desire for an interdenominational Christian organization stemmed from his involvement with the S.C.M. His desire was that Christians would unite for missions rather than choose a nondenominational structure. Mott’s ecumenical vision and passion not only landed him the chairmanship of Edinburgh 1910 but also the chairmanship of the International Missionary Council in 1921 which later led to conferences in Jerusalem and Tambaram.

Evaluation of the Ecumenism of Edinburgh 1910 and how it Resulted in

Theological Convergence

As stated earlier in this chapter, many evangelicals look back on Edinburgh with great favor. However, over the years there has been a growing concern among some evangelical scholars that perhaps Edinburgh may have produced some negative results. While on the one hand Edinburgh has been praised for its ability to produce unity within evangelical Christianity, it also has its skeptics as to the cost of such a unity. What really happened at Edinburgh? Was the unity that proceeded from Edinburgh beneficial or detrimental to evangelicalism? Were there theological compromises at the foundations of this event? Has there been a theological convergence11 as a result of Edinburgh and its quest for unity?
Due to the limited focus and space of this work, only one of the eight commissions at Edinburgh will be examined. Commission Four studied “The Missionary Message in Relation to the Non-Christian Religions.” The eighteen person committee was led by Reverend Professor David Cairns of Aberdeen and Reverend Doctor Robert Speer. The committee prepared their 280-page report from the written submissions of 125 field missionaries. The report dealt with Animistic Religions, Chinese Religions, Japanese Religions, Hinduism, Islam, and Baha’i.

Concerns over a Possible Theological Convergence

Since the Edinburgh conveners had adopted the policy that no resolution would be allowed that involved doctrine or church policy, the leadership of Commission Four found themselves with a theological challenge. Atthur P. Johnson asserts that “The conference was thereby limited in its doctrinal position and pronouncements to the breadth of the theologies represented by the various delegates.”12 With the challenge before this committee it should be no surprise that concerns would be raised, but what would cause those concerns? Professor Cairns himself had concerns as he reflected on the theological challenge that this large theologically diverse group would present. He asked serious questions before the conference convened. Perhaps the question that has raised so much concern for evangelicals was Cairn’s question, Do we not need the broadening and deepening of all our conceptions of the Living God, the deepening and liberating of all our thoughts of what He has done for us in Christ, of what by His Providence and His Spirit He is ready to do for us today?13
Cairns concluded, “For us this can only mean a new discovery of God in Christ.”14 And Robert Speer (committee vice-chairman) while he affirmed that Christians were the bearers of the true faith, concluded that Christians do not have the “whole Christian truth.”15 It was these types of questions and conclusions that concerned evangelicals. If the conveners had permitted theologians to discuss such issues, it might have laid to rest the fears of evangelicals. However, theology was considered divisive and thereby not permissible, thus sparking concerns within the evangelical community.
Arthur P. Johnson believes, “A careful study of the theology of evangelism in the Edinburgh 1910 World Missions Council and in the International Missionary Council reveals a number of areas meriting careful consideration.”16
Mark A. Noll notes, “At Edinburgh voices were heard speculating whether Christianity should be considered the absolutely final revelation from God or merely the best revelation from God.”17 This statement alone demonstrates the convergence of theological thought and further raises concerns for many evangelicals and ecumenicals alike. Noll’s acknowledgement that there were those at Edinburgh who questioned the historical evangelical perspective of God’s revelation is not the only concern surrounding Edinburgh.
Keith Eitel is equally concerned that Edinburgh’s quest for unity may have contributed to theological convergence.18 He states, “There was a palpable desire to see the historic branches of Christianity coalesce around the cause and causes of God’s grand commission to His church, which He had left in the world to complete the task.”19
Eitel’s work demonstrates how some of the postmodern evangelicals of the twenty-first century have strayed from the biblical text in regards to the contextualizing of the Gospel. He believes that this departure has turned many evangelicals into “evangelical agnostics.”20 Eitel attributes this agnosticism to the fact that Edinburgh opened the door for evangelicals to come into union with ecumenicals without having well “defined doctrinal moorings.” He asserts,
2010 will be a monumental year in that it marks a century of Missiological practice that has evolved since the Edinburgh conference, where theological convictions were sacrificed on the modernistic altar of cooperative unity.21
Eitel’s concern is echoed by David Hesselgrave in his paper “The Edinburgh Error.”
Hesselgrave writes, No other missionary gathering impacted the twentieth century missions as did the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910. No single error was as significant as the Edinburgh error.22
The “error” to which Hesselgrave is referring is the decision of the Edinburgh conveners to not allow theology into the conference discussions. Hesselgrave scolds Mott and those who made that decision. He believes that those planning the event were wrong to avoid theological discussions. In fact, he states “They should have insisted on including doctrinal discussion both when planning and when guiding conference proceedings.”23

Evidence of Theological Convergence

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In order to determine if there was theological convergence that proceeded from Edinburgh, it is necessary to examine evangelical theology from several perspectives. Due to the limited focus of this work it will briefly examine four basic areas; Christology, Ecclesiology, authority of Scripture, and Christian faith. Evangelicals hold to their theology as the lifeblood of their existence, yet many ecumenicals seek to broaden theological distinctives. Did Edinburgh minimize the theology of the evangelical?
Marcellus J. Kik affirms, “Theology has been termed the great divider. Ecumenists evidence chariness of theology since it has separated great bodies of people into different denominations.”24 Ecumenicals have accused denominations as being divisive to unity due to their theological exclusiveness. Yet they fail to acknowledge that denominations like Baptists, Episcopals, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians have united large numbers of people around their theological distinctiveness.25


Most evangelicals prior to Edinburgh 1910 believed that the message of Jesus Christ and its exclusive claims was the only means by which mankind could find peace with God. They viewed non-Christian religions as inventions from hell or specimens of error. Non-Christian religions were not examined for evidence of truth claims, but were discounted and often ridiculed by Christians. However, that changed at Edinburgh.
The report on the “missionary message in relation to the non-Christian religions” determined that after a more through examination of Scripture, non-Christian religions had truth claims and these truths could be beneficial to the Christian church. After the committee’s report missionaries went back to their fields of service with the understanding that non-Christian religions were religions “with broken lights of a hidden sun.”26 It was further stated that this being true, “Christianity, the religion of the Light of the World, can ignore no lights however ‘broken’ — it must take them all into account, absorb them all into its central glow.”27
One aspect of the missionary message that flowed from Edinburgh 1910 was that by going into all the world Christ’s Church may recover all the light that is in Christ and become, like her Head, as it is His will she should become. Such was the working principle which guided the spiritual enterprise and quest now set forth in the pages of the Report of this Commission.28
The shift in viewing non-Christian religions as inventions from hell or specimens of error to accepting them as carriers of light and truth provides evidence of theological convergence. Evangelicals prior to Edinburgh had long held that the true light came from the Word of God and that it was sufficient for mankind. Searching for and adding truths from other religions into the corpus of Christian teachings is evidence of convergence and deepens the basic concerns of evangelicals.
Evangelicals want to know, “What think ye of Christ?” Kik affirms, “The greatest misgiving of the evangelical concerns the conception of Christ. To what Christ will ecumenicity cleave? »29 Evangelicals prior to Edinburgh held to a biblical Christ, but feared that ecumenism might sway some to a non-biblical Christ. J. Marcullus Kik believed that close unity with ecumenicals might produce a Christology in which Christ would be stripped of all supernatural ability or even a view of Christ similar to Bultmann and Tillich (who were still children in 1910) where Christ was a human who became divine. Certainly adding light from non-Christian religions was a step in the direction of a non-biblical Christology.


Evangelicals have a long history of being exclusivists when it comes to ecclesiology. To them church doctrines and denominational confessions are important. Edinburgh opened the door of ecumenical inclusiveness. While there are concerns over minor doctrines the major concern focuses on the evangelical’s exclusive understanding of the nature of salvation. Kik understands this and asks, “How can the church tolerate differences of belief concerning that which the New Testament has declared vital for salvation?”30
Historically, evangelicals held to the view that salvation referred to mankind’s eternal destiny and that his destiny was a literal hell. One important necessary factor in changing humanity’s destiny was the concept of the blood of Christ. These same evangelicals have preached that salvation was provided through the vicarious substitutionary atonement of Christ. Edinburgh opened the door for those who abhor such teaching and preaching which would ultimately affect the preaching of the evangelicals in the pursuit of unity.
The concept of what actually constitutes the Church was at stake. Evangelicals have maintained that the Church is composed of those who were the “called out” believers in Christ and that these believers lived out their lives through faith in their decision to follow the teachings of a biblical Christ. Some ecumenicals regard the Church as an visible society such as the Roman Catholic Church or as a external organization. The fear has been that this type of a view of the nature of the Church would lead to an earthly figurehead such as the Pope who speaks for all Christianity. Evangelicals fear that “The reigning Christ, head over all things to the church, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel of power seem relatively unimportant to the master architects and builders of the monolithic church.”31
By inviting such a diverse group of delegates Edinburgh opened the door for various views of the Church that challenged the evangelicals long held understanding. The years following Edinburgh produced a number of evangelical streams some of which no longer hold to the traditional view of the Church. Therefore, Edinburgh did contribute to theological convergence in the area of ecclesiology.

Authority of Scripture

The authority of Scripture was challenged long before Edinburgh. However, prior to the 1910 World Missionary Conference evangelicals prided themselves in the fact that they tightly held to and unashamedly affirmed the authority of the Scriptures. Evangelicals believed, “Without being questioned, the authority of the Old Testament of the Jewish church passed over, in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, into the Christian church.”32 Evangelicals are quick to say that the authority of God’s Word surpasses all other authority. They believe that the Christian Scriptures have no equals when it comes to authority concerning the Christian faith.
When the conveners of Edinburgh chose to ignore theology for the sake of unity they permitted delegates with differing authority structures to influence the evangelical world. For some, the authority of experience equals the same level of authority as Scripture, and others affirm the position of agnosticism. One of the primary questions from such proponents is, “Can one shrug off the religious experience of the evangelical?”33 The superficial answer is “no.” Although religious experience cannot be dismissed, according to evangelicals it should be measured by the Scriptures. Evangelicals protest the elevating of experience to that of Scripture since it is their firm conviction that all experience be subject to God’s Word for authentication, value, and truth. When religious experience is elevated to the position of religious authority the ultimate judge of religious truth is not God but humanity.
Since theology was considered to be divisive and not to be permitted at Edinburgh, it was a safe haven for the convergence of competing ideas as to proper authority for faith and practice. Arthur P. Johnson speaks out concerning the attitude toward the authority of Scripture at Edinburgh. He makes it clear that even though the World Mission Conference was “An epoch-making conference…. Its
inclusive nature sowed seeds of a progressive theology so evident later on in Life and Work, Faith and Order, and especially in the International Missionary Council.”34
In addition to a convergence of theology of Christology and Ecclesiology there was also a convergence in the very understanding of the authority of Scripture.
Some evangelicals believe that this convergence resulted in the founding of the World Council of Churches and attributed to its inclusive theological basis.35

“Ecumenism and Theological Convergence: A Comparative Analysis of Edinburgh 1910 and the Lausanne Movement”
Chapter 1: Introduction
1.1 Abstract
1.2 Research Methodology
1.3 Thesis
1.4 Definition of Terms
1.5 Acronyms
1.6 Outline
Chapter 2: Evangelicalism and Ecumenism: Early Development
2.1 Define Evangelicalism to establish a baseline to differentiate their theological perspectives and missional practices from those of Ecumenicals
2.2 Define Ecumenism to establish a baseline to differentiate their theological perspectives and missional practices from those of Evangelicals.
2.3 Historical Development of evangelical and ecumenical theological perspectives and missional practices prior to Edinburgh 1910.
Chapter 3: Edinburgh and the Ecumenical Movement
3.1 Edinburgh 1910: Its background, inception, and founders.
3.2 Evaluation of the ecumenism of Edinburgh 1910 and how it resulted in theological convergence.
3.3 Factors that contributed to theological convergence.
Chapter 4:Ecumenism from Edinburgh to Lausanne
4.1 Ecumenism that flowed from Edinburgh 1910 to Lausanne 1974.
4.2 Ecumenism’s relationship to theological convergence from 1910 to 1974.
4.3 Evangelical practices emerged from 1910 to 1974 as a result of ecumenism.
4.4 Convergence: The Evangelical’s Concern
Chapter 5: Lausanne and the Ecumenical Movement
5.1 Lausanne: Its Background, Inception, Purpose, and Focus.
5.2 Lausanne: The World Congresses of 1974, 1989, and 2010.
5.3 Ecumenism and Convergence within the Lausanne Movement 1974 to present.
5.4 Edinburgh’s and Lausanne’s relationship to theological convergence.
Chapter 6: Convergence beyond the Lausanne Movement
6.1 Theological convergence and its impact on the broader evangelical and ecumenical world focusing on the theological assumptions.
6.2 Theological convergence and its impact on the broader evangelical and ecumenical world focusing on missiological methods that emerged from the Lausanne Movement.
6.3 Closing thoughts on theological convergence.

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