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.
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.)
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. . . ."
Rodden said Bright has not regretted his decision to drop Campolo from the youth conference. Now that the panel has pointed to problems in Campolo's theology, Rodden said, "The ball's in his court."
Campolo said he has already written a paper on "second thoughts" about his book. "The panel pointed out that in the book I did not make it sufficiently clear that when we strive to become more like Christ, and become the completely human beings God has called us to be, there is still an infinite difference between ourselves and what Jesus is in that he is part of the godhead," he said.
However, Campolo disagreed with the panel on a second main point.
"Jesus says that as you do it to the least, you're doing it to me," Campolo said. "The minute you accept that, when you look at another human being you see Jesus, it is almost impossible to accept capital punishment, for instance. The same would go for racism; apartheid becomes intolerable. It raises questions about war, killing other beings."
Campolo said this comes through in biblical passages in the Gospel of John (1:9), which mentions "the true light (Jesus) that enlightens every man" and the Gospel of Matthew (25:40) where Jesus says that welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, feeding the poor--"the least of these my brethren"--is an act of charity to him as well.
The panel wrote: "Even if we accept (Campolo's) very unlikely exegesis of 'these my brothers' in Matthew 25:40 as denoting all poor and needy folk as such, Tony's view here goes far beyond it, in terms that no statement in Scripture about salvation will support. . . ."
But Campolo said, "Jesus obviously could not be limiting that to church members or disciples who did not know him as savior until after the Resurrection."
"What is really at stake is a difference of opinion over what people become when they become Christians," Campolo said. "There are those who believe they become spiritually righteous and ready for heaven; and there are those of us who say that to become converted is to become agents through whom God can bring hope to the poor and the oppressed of the world. I want to be committed to the whole gospel, not just the part that gets you into heaven."