Chapter 5: The Nineteenth-Century Background
In part I we have considered a variety of theological positions that allow autonomy to man’s rational activity and that develop the statement of the content of faith in relation to the independent results of that activity. In each case we have seen that the philosophy employed profoundly affected the content as well as the form of the affirmation of faith. Furthermore, the implication of the whole program is that Christian faith depends for its intelligibility and acceptance upon the prior acceptance of a particular philosophy. In our day, when no one philosophy has general acceptance among philosophers, and when all ontology and metaphysics are widely suspect, the precariousness of this procedure is apparent.
The employment of natural theology or a philosophical prolegomenon to theology is a common characteristic of much Roman Catholic theology and of liberal Protestant thought of the English-speaking world. It is criticized from a variety of points of view, which may be grouped under the headings of Augustinianism, existentialism, and theological positivism. Of these points of view, the first, although often viewed favorably, has little articulation today except to the degree that it appears in conjunction with one of the other two. We will consider it briefly in the concluding chapter. Existentialism, to which we will give extended consideration in Part III, is widely influential but has an ambiguous relation to natural theology. The most unequivocal rejection of the use of philosophy by theology is in theological positivism, the subject matter of this part.
The term "theological positivism" is used here to refer to a movement whose chief contemporary representatives may also be classified as Neo-Reformation theologians. The movement reaffirms the hostility of the Reformers to the Scholastic confidence in philosophical reason, and it employs this hostility more systematically as a methodological principle than was possible or necessary for the Reformers themselves. It is, therefore, both a recovery of Reformation thought and a response to the particular theological-methodological situation into which Christian thought has come as a result of modern relativism and the accompanying skepticism with respect to the capacity of reason to attain ultimate truth.
The origins of positivistic theology may be traced back to the New Testament itself. Although it may be doubted that the New Testament writers made any systematic attempt to avoid dependence on philosophy, none of them felt any need to justify their affirmations by appeal to philosophy or to express their faith systematically in categories provided by philosophy. In so far as there were presuppositions for their affirmations not given in the Christian revelation itself, they were thought of as given in earlier revelation or in common sense.
The issue of theological method arose only with the need to present the message to the cultured Greek world and to defend it against criticisms. This need had already driven Judaism to make extensive use of philosophy in its self-understanding, and to a considerable degree the Christian synthesis with classical philosophy followed lines already laid down by such Jews as Philo. (This is a major thesis of Wolfson. See The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, pp. v-viii and passim.) Protests were heard against the accommodations involved even in the earliest period, hut on the whole the program of synthesizing the Greek and the Biblical won out in the development of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Middle Ages, with the progressive accessibility of the major works of Aristotle, this synthesis comprised a systematic union of Aristotle’s philosophy and Biblical revelation that continues to the present to dominate most Roman Catholic thinking.
The Reformation protest against what it regarded as the corruption of the pure faith in the empirical church of its day took many forms. Central was its attack upon a form of piety that too easily sought to obtain status before God by good works. This was vehemently rejected in the name of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. But this doctrine was understood to have much wider significance. Not only the purchase of indulgences but also the whole ecclesiastical system was repudiated in so far as it was based upon a claim to some kind of control over the movement of God’s grace.
For our present purposes, however, the issue of central concern was one that appeared to be decisive for the Reformation only with the passage of time. Luther’s attack upon indulgences was based upon an appeal to the Bible against the current practices of the church. The church opposed Luther on the grounds that the church as such, and not the individual Christian, is the authoritative interpreter of the Bible. (Rupert E. Davies, The Problem of Authority in the Continental Reformers: A Study of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, p. 22.) If this view is accepted, then the individual Christian can appeal to no other authority against the authorized teaching and practice of the church. Since the church had developed its doctrinal justification for its practices through the Scholastic theology of the immediately preceding centuries, Luther’s appeal to the Bible was necessarily a rejection of the prior authority of human reason as philosophically employed by the Scholastics. (Ibid., p.18. Cf also Pelikan’s point that Luther’s attack on Aquinas followed primarily from Thomas’ theological doctrines. From Luther to Kierkegaard: A Study in the History of Theology, p.4.)
There was another, more direct basis for Luther’s hostility to the natural theology of the Scholastics. The popular piety of Luther’s day was typified by the Brethren of the Common Life, who taught a simple, direct obedience to Christ as he appeared in Scripture, and who set aside the elaborate intellectual and institutional machinery of the church as entirely secondary to intense personal faith. This spirit deeply appealed to Luther. He was influenced also by the mystical piety of the German Theology, which he highly praised despite its divergence from his later theological position. (Etienne Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, pp. 91-94.)Throughout his life he preferred the simplicity of personal faith to the intellectual subtleties of philosophical theology.
Furthermore, Luther lived in a day when humanism was very much in the air. Although in many respects Luther lacked all sympathy for this movement, he nevertheless shared directly or indirectly in its concern to recover a direct confrontation with classical sources. (Pelikan, op. cit., p.9.) This meant a rejection of the approach to those sources through the eyes of the Middle Ages. Such a direct recovery of the Scriptures opened Luther’s eyes to the gulf between primitive Christianity and the practices of his own day. The humanistic assumption of the superiority of the classical source in comparison with later interpretation and elaboration caused him to accept with little question the normativeness of the plain teaching of Scripture. Like the humanists, Luther had little sensitivity to the problem of inevitable distortion in all interpretation, his own included.
Finally, Luther’s own theological training was under the influence of the school in which the tensions between reason and revelation were most fully recognized. (Ibid., pp. 5-6.)The Occamists could not agree with Thomas that the fruits of reason could lead to the very threshold of Christian revelation, because they understood reason much more nominalistically than did Thomas. They stressed the supremacy of the will both in God and in man and thus depreciated the capacity of reason to grasp the ultimate nature of things.
All these influences combined to cause Luther to regard the Scriptures and the theological pretensions of philosophy as incompatible opposites. He assumed without question, in harmony with the universal belief of his day, that the Scriptures are the Word of God. Since he contrasted Scripture with philosophy, as well as with the whole tradition of the church as it had developed by means of philosophy, both tradition and philosophy could be understood only as the words of man. (Davies, op. cit., p. 18.) Hence, the humanist’s preference for the classical expression as over against the later distortions became for Luther the radical preference for God’s truth against human distortions.
The systematic implication of this view of the relation of the Bible to philosophy is clear. Responsible theology is not essentially different from Biblical exegesis. It can have no second norm beside the revealed Word of God. Since that revelation is self-authenticating and self-interpreting, it needs no second norm.
Luther’s own work was complicated, however, by his remarkable sensitivity to the historical character of revelation and to the humanness and variety of the Scriptural witness. The Word of God is not simply identical with writings bound between the covers of the Bible; (Ibid., p. 31. Note, however, the criticism of Davies in Johnson, Authority in Protestant Theology, pp. 36-39. Johnson shows that Luther does not exclude James or other writings in the Bible from being "Word of God.") it is rather the command of God and the gracious gift of salvation through faith which come to us through the Bible and are authoritatively witnessed to in the Bible. (Pelikan, op. cit., pp. 17-18. Johnson shows that the law is just as much Word of God as is Gospel, op. cit., p. 36.) There is no attempt on Luther’s part to achieve a perfect agreement of everything that is said in the Bible after the manner of some later harmonizers. On the contrary, he finds in Christ the center in terms of which the Biblical writings in their real variety are to be understood and judged.
The antithesis of Scripture as the Word of God and philosophy as the words of man led also to strong antipathy to philosophical doctrines of God. Luther rejected these doctrines on two counts. First, since God has revealed himself to us, any effort on our part to come to him in some other way expresses an absurd and stubborn pride. We need no knowledge of God that God has not himself granted us in Jesus Christ. The philosophical effort to discover God is both unnecessary and sinful. (Davies, op.cit., pp. 18-19.)
Second, the ideas that are attained by philosophical speculation are nothing but products of the human mind. They do not and cannot have reference to the living God. Hence, any reverence directed to God as philosophically understood is idolatrous.
Luther’s rejection of philosophy as a channel for gaining knowledge of God continued throughout his life, but his attitude toward the Bible altered somewhat. In the face of what he perceived as dangerous misinterpretations of Scripture in the religious excitement generated by the Reformation, Luther was forced to recognize the need for authoritative interpretations. These were formulated as occasion arose in confessional statements, and when necessary, secular authority was required to suppress false teaching. The appeal to the Bible against both Roman Catholics and Spiritualists tended to weaken the differentiation of the words of the Bible and the Word of God. Finally, even while Luther was still alive, the need for subtle distinctions in protecting the Lutheran view from misinterpretation led to the renewed use of Aristotelian philosophy. (See the discussion in Chapter 1.) Protestant orthodoxy came to differ from Roman Catholic Scholasticism chiefly in its rigid Biblicism and in its defense of specific confessional statements.
The two major works that gave systematic expression to the Scriptural positivism of the early Reformation were the 1521 edition of the Loci Communes of Melanchthon (An English translation is found in The Loci of Philip Melanchthon, pp. 63-267.) and the Institutes of Calvin. In his early work under the influence of Luther, Melanchthon listed such major topics as free will, sin, law, and grace, and defended the Reformation position in terms of the teachings of the Bible on each subject. Thereby he achieved a systematic presentation of the Christian faith with a minimum of human interpretation. Successive editions of the Loci Communes reflect an increasing use of interpretation and even of philosophical tools. (Pelikan, op.cit., p. 33.)
Calvin’s Institutes go beyond Melanchthon’s early work in imposing an order upon the material but continue to reflect the Reformation principle of appealing only to Scripture. Calvin retains the distinction between the words of Scripture and the Word of God, but for him this does not imply the freedom to criticize or reject parts of the Scripture. (Davies, op.cit., pp.109-114.) It means, rather, that the words become the Word of God only as the Holy Spirit makes them such for us individually. Hence, there is less explicit use of a norm within the Scripture and a greater concern to organize systematically the whole corpus of Biblical teaching. The rejection, as idolatrous, of human efforts to know God outside of Scripture continues, although man’s failure to recognize God in nature is at the same time understood as culpable. (I have tried to express the subtle but important difference between Calvinism and Lutheranism in Varieties of Protestantism, Ch. II.)
Much of Calvinism, like Lutheranism, became scholastic both in its proliferation of subtle distinctions and in its use of Aristotelian philosophy as an aid for this purpose. In both alike, protests arose in the name of individual piety against the intellectualization of the faith. However, the orthodox synthesis of reason and faith remained dominant until shaken from without by radical attacks upon the kind of reason with which faith had made its alliance.
The role of Hume in systematically undermining the rational arguments in favor of Christian doctrines was noted in Chapter 1. The relevance here is that by shattering the complacent acceptance of rational support, Hume reopened for theologians the possibility that faith must work out its form and content in independence of all speculative reason. The history of nineteenth-century German theology is largely the story of this attempt.
However, the nineteenth-century efforts differed profoundly from those of the Reformation, especially in their treatment of the doctrine of God. Luther and Calvin unhesitatingly affirmed the initiative and activity of God in terms differing little from those of the Biblical writers. Their rejection of the role of philosophy with respect to the doctrine of God was based on their full security in the evident reality of God. They did not need philosophic support.
In the nineteenth century, by contrast, the existence of God was problematical, and theologians hesitated to affirm God’s ontological reality as such on the basis of revelation. This seemed to be making on the grounds of faith an affirmation that belonged properly to the sphere of philosophy. Once theology trespassed upon the territory of philosophy, it seemed that theology must stake its case upon the philosophic acceptability of its assertions. But this would leave theology endlessly dependent upon a discipline that was increasingly unsympathetic.
The effort of the nineteenth century was to distinguish the spheres of philosophy and theology in such a way that the former could not cast doubt upon the affirmations of the latter. At the same time the idea of a supernatural revelation that guaranteed the truth of statements about man or God was abandoned. This left little choice but to conceive theology in confessional terms as an account of the faith of the church. That the church existed as a community of believers was an empirical fact that no philosopher could deny. Hence, an account of the faith of the church was an unexceptionable field of investigation.
The question at issue, however, is the status of the result of such an investigation. If faith is simply a description of the opinions held by a certain group of people, it seems to provide only sociological and psychological information. If, on the other hand, it affirms the content of the group’s beliefs as true, faith would seem to require some other justification than the mere fact of belief.
This problem can be solved in so far as what is described is not the objective content of what is believed but the experiential faith of the believer. If a man has actually experienced redemption, then the account of his experience has normative as well as descriptive interest. However, his experience as such could not be warrant for accepting his interpretation of the experience as a work of God.
For this reason, theology in the nineteenth century tended to become anthropocentric. In Christian experience it had a datum that could not be denied by philosophy. This experience appeared in the eyes of Christians as supremely precious. Hence, its description and affirmation could be a means of showing the unique power and value of Christian faith. Men could be attracted to the faith by its own inherent efficacy without being first forced to accept speculative opinions in the sphere of metaphysics. Natural theology is replaced by a positive account of faith itself.
Twentieth-century theological positivism developed as both a continuation of and a reaction against this kind of nineteenth-century theology. It continued its rejection of natural theology, but it radically opposed the tendency to anthropocentric thinking. Since this nonphilosophical German theology provides the immediate background for Brunner and Barth, a brief exposition of the theological methods of the two most famous exponents is in order. These are Schleiermacher and Ritschl.
Schleiermacher divides the totality of human life or consciousness into three great areas. These are the area of knowing, the area of doing, and the area of feeling. The first two constitute the active side of life, whereas feeling is the passive side. The former are ways of securing mastery over the world, whereas feeling is the purely receptive and therefore self-surrendering side of life. Feeling is the sheer immediacy of conscious existence conceived as prior to all inference and action, and as distinguished from all representation. It is not simply an accompaniment of other elements in consciousness, for at times it dominates the whole of experience. (Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, iii. 2, 3.)
One of the fundamental theses of Schleiermacher is that religion, or piety, belongs to the area of feeling and participates in the freedom and priority that this area enjoys in its relation to knowing and doing. (Ibid., iii. 4.) Piety is related to this area of feeling as a part to the whole. To differentiate it from other feelings, Schleiermacher adopts the criterion of absolute dependence. In most of man’s feeling there is some element of dependence, at least in so far as he is modified by what is given in his consciousness, but for the most part man experiences his relations as those of mutual dependence. No matter how trivial his influence upon the other object may be, as in his relations with the stars, the fact of such an influence sharply distinguishes the feelings associated with his relations with human society and nature from the feelings of piety. It is only in so far as man feels related to that which he can in no way affect, and which is at the same time the very source of his existence, that his feelings are pious. (Ibid., iv.) In this feeling man may identify himself with the whole of finite existence, and thus he may realize the dependence of this whole upon the infinite. (Ibid., xxxvi.)
This feeling of absolute dependence in itself is undifferentiated, that is, it is the same in all men and at all times. It is never altogether absent from consciousness, but the vividness of its presence differs greatly, and the extent to which it is present is the degree of piety of a particular person or experience. On the other hand, piety never comprises the whole of the self-consciousness, for it is always accompanied by other feelings. The universal coexistence with the feeling of absolute dependence of these other feelings, derived from the relationship with nature and society, affords the basis for the differentiation of religious feelings, both within individuals and between persons and religions. (Ibid., v.)
Placing religion in the area of feeling does not mean that it is irrelevant to doing and knowing. Piety can be expressed in either, but it remains essentially feeling throughout. (Ibid., iii.5.) It is expressed in relation to doing as religious ethics and in relation to knowing as doctrine or dogmatics. Of these expressions, the expression of piety in knowing is more relevant to the present concern.
Doctrines are accounts of religious affections set forth in speech. They include every proposition that can enter into preaching, and they can be classified as poetic, rhetorical, and descriptively didactic. (Ibid., xv.)Dogmatic propositions fall within the third type and are those in which the highest degree of definiteness is sought. (Ibid., xvi.) These propositions are formulated both in the service of the church and in the interests of science. (Ibid., xvii.) The purposes that lead to their formulation lead also to their collation in dogmatic systems. (Ibid., xviii.) Dogmatics, therefore, is the most fully systematic statement of the beliefs of any religious community. (Ibid., xix.)
It is clear, therefore, that systematic theology, or dogmatics, is positivistic in the sense that it directly presents the faith of the religious community. It does not include a prior appeal to the evidence of universal reason as is the case where natural theology is employed. However, it is also clear that there are, or should be, as many systematic theologies as there are religious communities. Since their beliefs vary and even conflict with one another, the systematic statement of these beliefs would seem to lack any reasonable claim to truth. That is, theology has the criterion of precision and coherence with respect to what a given community in fact believes, (Ibid., xxviii.) but it provides no basis for reconciling or judging among conflicting beliefs in terms of the reality of that toward which the beliefs are directed. In other words, theology becomes that branch of sociology which deals with the religious beliefs of the communities studied and abandons all normative claims.
Schleiermacher, however, did not intend to reduce theology to this radically relativistic function. He sought to avoid this result in two ways. First, he understood the theologian to be one who shared the beliefs of his community. Hence, his objective description of the beliefs of his community is in intention a statement of the truth. He may clarify and even correct beliefs by referring them more carefully to the actual movement of religious feelings to which they give expression, but as he shares in those religious feelings he can acknowledge no further norm.
At the same time Schleiermacher recognized that the fact of relativity of experience and accompanying beliefs posed a problem that could not be ignored. Unless one sees the relation of the religious experience of his own community to that of others in a way that somehow vindicates one’s own, his commitment to the beliefs of his community must be weakened. Schleiermacher dealt with this problem in his "Introduction" partly explicitly and partly implicitly by displaying Christianity as the highest religion.
Schleiermacher argues that the movement from animism and polytheism to monotheism is unequivocally a movement from lower to higher. (Ibid., vii, viii,)Hence, Christianity as a monotheism stands as the highest level of religion. However, along with Christianity at this level he recognizes also the Jewish and Mohammedan religions. Even here, he claims that both Judaism and Islam have lingering affinities with lower forms of religion, so that Christianity can be objectively affirmed as the highest form of religion. (Ibid., viii. 4.)
The problem becomes much subtler when Schleiermacher distinguishes the communions within Christendom. Chiefly, his problem is to differentiate Protestant theology from that of Roman Catholicism. Here he makes no explicit claim that Protestant piety is higher than Roman Catholic; yet he so presents the difference that at least to the Protestant reader the preference for Protestantism is strengthened. In Roman Catholicism, he says, the believer’s relation to Christ depends on the mediation of the church, whereas in Protestantism the church expresses and embodies the common life that emerges where individuals have received redemption in their direct relation with Christ. (Ibid., xxiv.)
The purpose of these comments on Schleiermacher’s method is to show the role of what he calls "borrowings" from philosophy of religion and apologetics. Since theology as such simply presents systematically the faith of a community, its persuasive power depends upon the conviction that the faith of the community is the highest and purest faith. Thus in the nineteenth century much of the energy that had previously been devoted to showing that Christian beliefs are true was transferred to the task of showing that Christianity is the highest or final religion. The escape from natural theology to positive theology was only partial.
Furthermore, presupposed by this whole approach is the view that religion as such is a desirable phenomenon. If religion is simply a texture of illusion or an obstacle to personal and social development, the fact that Christianity is better than other forms would hardly be sufficient commendation. Actually, Schleiermacher’s greatest contribution may have been in his defense of religion as such rather than in his vindication of Christianity and his account of systematic Protestant theology.
The positive valuation of religion depends on two things. First, one must believe that religion is not based fundamentally on illusion. The function of natural theology had been to show that reason indicated the existence of that God about whose specific dealings with the world Christianity made such impressive assertions. Schleiermacher reacted against this kind of dependence of theology upon the conclusions of philosophy and showed that religion is not primarily a matter of beliefs of this sort. Yet he could not escape altogether the problem of the reality of God.
His solution of this problem was based partly on the claim that religious experience itself, that is, the feeling of absolute dependence, warrants be-lid in that on which man is absolutely dependent, (Cf. Richard B. Brandt, The Philosophy of Schleiermacher: The Development of His Theory of Scientific and Religious Knowledge, pp. 110-130.) and partly on a minimization of statements about God and his dealings with the world. Primarily, he speaks of man’s religious experience, not about its object. What he does say about the object has caused many who formerly thought themselves unable to accept the Christian teaching about God now able to believe without difficulty. Schleiermacher requires little more than that the universe as a whole be understood as a living and infinite unity on which each of its parts must be seen as absolutely dependent. (Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, xxxiv. 2.) Specifically, Schleiermacher finds fully acceptable the philosophy of Spinoza. Systematically, we cannot say that Schleiermacher escapes all dependence on an implicit natural theology by this approach, but we can see how he was able to turn attention away from the problems of natural theology.
Much more important in Schleiermacher is the second and positive basis for the high evaluation of religion. He could assume that the critics of religion agreed with him that the fullest development of the highest capacities of man constitutes his greatest good. He had only to show, therefore, that religion is a human capacity capable of development, and that this capacity represents the very highest expression of man’s human potentials, the development of which is essential to satisfactory development of other aspects of personality as well. (Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, pp. 21,39.) Since religion is man’s relationship to the highest and most inclusive of all things, Schleiermacher’s task was not a difficult one once he had shown that religion is a spontaneous response rather than a set of outwardly imposed ideas and behavioral norms.
Even on the basis of this brief comment on Schleiermacher’s theological method it is possible to see that his influence could lead both to the development of a positive confessional theology and also to the scientific study of religion in its unity and historical diversity. The greatest nineteenth-century exponent of the former development is Albrecht Ritschl.
Schleiermacher began with the quality of subjectivity definitive of all religion and distinguished Christianity as a species within this larger genus. Hence, although the theologian as such confesses the faith of his community, he needs also the apologete to justify him in his commitment to this one among many forms of religion. Ritschl, by contrast, begins with Christian faith as such and focuses directly upon its object. The theologian does not describe primarily the movement of subjective experience within the believer but rather the object toward which the faith is directed and from which it is received.
To this extent Ritschl represents a return from anthropocentric liberalism to the objectivism of orthodoxy. However, no simple return was possible. Even more clearly than Schleiermacher or the Reformers, Ritschl saw the necessity of dissociating theology from cosmological and metaphysical inquiry. (Albert Temple Swing, The Theology of Albrecht Ritschl, pp. 27-59.) Hence, theology’s object could not be God understood as a metaphysical first principle or a supreme cosmological entity. Theology’s object could only be God as revealed in history, which means, Jesus Christ. Furthermore, when treating Jesus Christ, the theologian cannot deal with the mysteries of natures and persons in their ontological interrelations. (Ibid., pp. 96, 100.) His object is Jesus as historically given, his acts and sayings, his personality and character. Finally, what is of concern is not the sheer factuality of this or that event or character trait, but Jesus’ meaning for the believer as revealing God to him. Thus, despite the stress on the object, we find that our attention is directed to the practical (or what today we would call the existential) meaning of the object for the subject. The escape from the anthropocentric circle is far from complete.
Nevertheless, Ritschl directed research away from the study of religion in general and Christian experience in particular toward the historical Jesus. Christian theology consists in confessing his supreme and ultimate significance, and it does so on the basis of what objective inquiry guided by faith shows to be the actuality of the historic person. (Albrecht Ritschl, Instruction in the Christian Religion, in Swing, op. cit., p. 200.) In this way, faith and science are united, and the question of the relation of Christianity to other religions is largely avoided.
Ritschl’s position has systematic difficulties in its doctrine of God. Although successful in turning attention away from the nature of God in himself to God as revealed in Jesus Christ, Ritschl does not mean that God is simply identical with the historical individual. Jesus has the value of God for the believer, but when Jesus reveals God, he reveals a reality that is not only his own person. Hence, the question of the basis of believing that such a reality exists is not escaped.
Much more decisive for the decline of Ritschlianism, however, was the difficulty with respect to the marriage of faith and objective historical research, which Ritschl supported. Such research seemed to lead to the conclusion that our historical knowledge of Jesus warrants few if any assertions about his life, character, and personality. If faith depends upon reliable knowledge about such matters, its situation is indeed precarious. Ritschl’s effort to escape relativism by positivistic historical research must be declared a failure.
Schleiermacher’s effort to deal with the problem of relativism by showing Christianity to be the highest religion met its nemesis in the work of Ernst Troeltsch, who brought out clearly the implications of Schleiermacher’s anthropocentric starting point. (Hermann Diem, Dogmatics, pp. 4-9.) He saw that once Christianity is understood as a historical phenomenon it must be seen as one such phenomenon among others. It can be judged superior only by its own standards. Hence, there is no objective claim that can fairly be made either as to its truth or value that transcends the community that is formed by it. Only within and for this community can we proclaim the value of Christian religion as the most acceptable expression of man’s spirituality. In Troeltsch, theological positivism appeared to have worked itself out to inescapable conclusions that contradicted its own principles of faithfulness to the church’s experience.
It was in the context of a situation to which Troeltsch gave extreme and frightening expression that younger continental theologians rediscovered another nineteenth-century thinker who had prophetically grasped the deeper significance of his epoch and had offered a radical corrective. This man was Sören Kierkegaard, little noticed in his own day outside his native Denmark, but destined to exercise incalculable influence over the twentieth century. Both the theological positivism discussed in Part II and the theological existentialism discussed in Part III can be understood only against the background of his work.
Kierkegaard accepted the orthodox teaching of the Lutheran church of his day as an essentially adequate statement of the content of Christian doctrine. He did not think of himself as a theologian charged with the task of reconstructing his doctrine or measuring it against the norm of the New Testament. His problem was rather that of how the individual human being can come to terms with this already defined Christian teaching. (Hermann Diem, Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Existence, pp. 81 ff., 189-190; and Dogmatics, pp.20-21.)
He was quite sure that he could not come to terms with it by demonstrating its truth. The great speculative philosophy of Hegel intrigued him, especially as it undertook to expound the truth of Christianity as a necessary part of a system whose content is determined by pure rationality. But Kierkegaard held that such an approach erred in at least three ways. First, it attributed to pure, impersonal rationality a power of construction which in fact it does not have. (In this respect, Kierkegaard anticipated much of the criticism by logical empiricism.) Second, it was unable to account for the concrete individual in his passionate concern, even though only such an individual could have created the system. Third, it profoundly misunderstood the nature of Christian faith.
Christian faith is not to be identified with the rational conviction that certain affirmations are true. Equally objectionable is any view which suggests that faith consists in treating as true a belief which is in fact only probable to a certain degree. Both of these interpretations imply that faith could exist only on the sufferance of speculative philosophy, whereas in fact it has always been entirely independent of speculation. So vehement was Kierkegaard’s hostility to the interpretation of faith as involving rational belief that he taught that any objective evidence for the truth of Christian doctrine would be harmful, depriving faith of its proper province.
What, then, is faith if it is unrelated, or even negatively related, to objective evidence? It belongs to the sphere of inwardness or subjectivity. The question is not the objective one of the defense or criticism of a set of ideas in terms of their intelligibility or probability. It is the subjective one of how the existing individual responds to the encounter with these teachings. This response must be either an offended rejection or a voluntary acceptance. Faith is the decision of the subject to believe, and it is grounded only in the subjective existence of the individual. (J. Heywood Thomas, Subjectivity and Paradox, Ch, III.)
The revolutionary implications of this analysis with respect to the intellectual and scholarly work of Christian thinkers can hardly be exaggerated. Through most of Christian history, thinkers have been attempting to justify the content of Christian belief to themselves and others as worthy of belief. They have recognized, of course, that intellectual assent is not sufficient to salvation, but they have taken it as an important part of faith and specifically as that part to which the thinker should naturally address himself.
There have been repeated protests against the quality of Christian self-understanding engendered by this intellectualism. The Reformation itself, we have seen, may be understood as such a protest. Pascal represents another great protest, which remained within the Roman Catholic Church. Kierkegaard was himself deeply influenced by the protest of Johann Georg Hamann. ("Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard, pp. 164-167. A volume on Hamann, including Selections from his writings, has recently appeared in English: Ronald Gregor Smith, J. G. Hamann, 1730 -1789). Hence, Kierkegaard stands in a long tradition of defenders of the faith who have seen the dangers in the effort to justify rationally the content of Christian teaching.
Kierkegaard, however, went farther than any of his predecessors in spelling out the basis and the significance of the protest. He turned his attention to the inner life of the individual and explored this with a subtlety and depth that have never been excelled. Furthermore, he focused attention upon the radical difference between the inner life of subjectivity and the outer world of objectivity in such a way as to show that the categories used to investigate the latter are irrelevant to the investigation of the former. The objects with which science and speculative philosophy are concerned are properly treated by objective thinking, but far more important to man as man is the world of subjectivity, which is altogether misunderstood when it is objectified.
The radical character of Kierkegaard’s emphasis on subjectivity appears in his strange assertion that subjectivity is truth. (Sören Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, pp. 169 ff,) This doctrine he developed against those who seek to achieve truth by surrendering their individuality to the impersonal universal reason. That this procedure may lead to a grasp of objective truths such as those embodied in mathematics, Kierkegaard never questioned. But the grasp of such truths is compatible with madness. (Ibid., pp. 173-174.) Sanity demands that the truths that are grasped be those which are relevant to the actual situation of the existing individual, and this means, his subjectivity.
Furthermore, the truth of the existing individual is not an appropriate selection from the previously defined sphere of objective truth. Objective truth deals only with objects and universals, whereas the decisive truth is concerned with subjects and individuals. There is no rational transition from the former to the latter. Subjective truth is sui generis, incapable of the kind of verification that characterizes objective truth but infinitely more important to man as man. The grasp of this truth is correlative with the intensity and passion of subjectivity, not with the amount of detached deliberation that precedes its acceptance.
Kierkegaard analyzed the alternative ways of life open to man to show how the decisions involved in choosing one or another are not based upon any objective calculus of truth or probability. Reason can show only its own limits by raising without answering the question of existence itself. By showing its own limits it points to the absolute otherness of that which lies beyond those limits with respect to what lies within them. (Thomas, op. cit., pp.108-109.) By that very fact, it makes clear that with respect to what lies beyond there can be no evidence whatsoever. Every argument that God exists presupposes its conclusions and is rationally useless. The only way of moving from subjective acceptance of the truths of reason to belief in God is by a leap, a decision of the whole person centering in the will.
It must be made clear that the leap of faith has nothing in common with the acceptance as probable or true of the opinion that what is beyond is of a certain sort. Whether God exists is a matter of absolute concern to the individual. The leap of faith is a decision for a way of existing, not for the entertainment of an opinion. That which is believed in is not God if it is not a matter of infinite personal concern. The leap is the decision to believe, that is, to live in subjective certitude. Neither before nor after the leap does this involve any evidence for the truth or falsity of the opinions involved or any objective certainty about them. (Ibid., Ch. IV.) This complete disproportion between subjective certitude and objective uncertainty is the heart of the paradox of which Kierkegaard often speaks.
But Christian faith involves a still more striking paradox. It asserts that God became man, that the man Jesus is God. This doctrine is absolutely absurd to rational man. It affirms that that which is wholly unlike became that which is like without ceasing to be what is wholly unlike. This claim is the offense of Christianity and can never be made rationally acceptable. Therefore, it confronts the individual with an absolute either/or. Either he must believe this claim, or he must reject it. (Ibid., Ch. V.)
Objectively, of course, one may remain in doubt or vacillate between two opinions. Degrees of conviction are possible. But subjectively one finds himself confronted by a question of infinite concern. If the Christian claim is true, then one’s eternal welfare hinges upon the decision. There is only belief or unbelief, and the decision belongs to each individual in his utter solitariness.
For this decision no historical evidence is of help. So far as objective knowledge is concerned, the historian is always limited to approximating knowledge that is necessarily wholly disproportionate to the absoluteness of decision. But in any case the deity of Jesus is in no sense accessible to historical investigation. Even the contemporaries of Jesus could only believe or disbelieve; they could not see his deity or base their conviction on cumulative evidence.
The decision of faith is a radically individual one, and it is a decision for a life of suffering. The disproportion between subjective commitment and objective evidence is paralleled by the disproportion between Christian existence and the life of comfort and culture. Just as Kierkegaard attacked all theological accommodation to what seems plausible, he also attacked all personal accommodation to what is socially acceptable and compatible with worldly success. Hence Kierkegaard, who accepted and defended the inherited teaching of the church, bitterly attacked its hypocrisy and complacency. For him, Christianity is a radically individualistic faith.
Although Kierkegaard intended to deal only with the question of the subjective appropriation of Christian teaching and not with the objective content of that teaching, which he accepted as such, in practice the distinction repeatedly breaks down. His analyses of human existence are rich in transforming significance for the doctrines of faith, sin, repentance, justification, and sanctification. Furthermore, in relation to these analyses of subjectivity he also develops distinctive doctrines about God and Jesus Christ. In its formulation of all these doctrines, modern theology has been deeply influenced by him. However, those who have been led by this influence to identify the subjective analysis of believing as the grounds for developing Christian doctrine as such have in fact profoundly betrayed Kierkegaard’s basic intention. (Diem, Dogmatics, pp. 21-23.)
In conclusion we may note, first, how Kierkegaard became the source of philosophical existentialism and, second, the implication of his thought for theology in the twentieth century. Kierkegaard gave a profound stimulus to philosophical existentialism by forcing attention upon the otherness of subjectivity from objectivity and by demonstrating the possibility of treating subjectivity with clarity and rigor without employing the categories of objectivity. He contributed many specific analyses, such as his famous discussion of anxiety, that have been influential among philosophical existentialists. He called attention to the necessity of decision and of the element of the absurd, in the face of which man decides.
The theological position that Kierkegaard supports is a thoroughly orthodox and dogmatic one. The implications of his thought move radically counter to any accommodation of theology to culture or philosophy or any effort to redetermine the content of the faith. He assumed a harmony of the orthodox teaching of his day with the New Testament, and he did not foresee how New Testament scholarship would undermine this apparent unity. Hence, one cannot say just how he would have dealt with some of the specific theological problems of the twentieth century. (Diem points out that the dissolution of dogmatics by historicism cannot he dealt with in Kierkegaard’s terms. [Dogmatics, p. 32.] Thomas’ argument that Kierkegaard’s understanding of the absolute paradox of the God-man is not disturbed by modern Biblical studies is not entirely persuasive. [Op. cit., p. 114.])
In addition to the specifically existential influence that has implications for theology as well as for philosophy, Kierkegaard contributed three principles that have played a prominent role in determining the methodology of much twentieth-century theology. First, he stressed that God is radically beyond the grasp of reason and can be known only in faith, hence that the Christian affirmation of God has nothing in common with any philosophical affirmation whatsoever. Second, he stressed that Christian faith is based upon the absolute paradox that God became man in Jesus, and that the concern of the thinker can be only to point to this affirmation and to show how its affects the human situation — never to explain or justify it. Third, he dissociated faith from the communal and sacramental life of the empirical church and affirmed it as a relation between the individual and God.
Throughout the nineteenth century there were not lacking conservative Protestants who kept alive the Scholastic, pietistic, and to some degree the Reformation, approach to theology. In recent decades there has been a marked revival of sensitive Reformation thinking in both Europe and America. It eschews the violent obscurantism and indiscriminate hostility to modern ideas that partly justified the earlier caricature of fundamentalism. It turns the focus of its attention away from the issues that are specifically in dispute with modernists to the central affirmations of historic orthodoxy, thereby escaping the danger of becoming cultic. (Cf. Edward John Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology, Ch. VIII.) Its leaders have contributed critiques of liberalism and other forms of modern theology that have been recognized as responsible and damaging. (J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism; Edward John Carnell, The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr; Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner; Gerrit Cornelis Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth; Carl F. H. Henry, Fifty Years of Protestant Theology.) But it remains profoundly loyal not only in general but in detail to the doctrines of the Reformation and especially of Calvin and his early followers. Some of its leaders make considerable use of philosophic reasoning, but others deserve not less than Barth and Brunner the name of theological positivists. Among these perhaps the most impressive is G. C. Berkouwer.
Berkouwer represents the finest flowering of a Calvinist tradition that has developed primarily in terms of its own inner dynamics rather than as a response to the changing intellectual environment. He is, however, surprisingly open to the new winds that are blowing in other theological circles and has written one of the most perceptive accounts of the theology of Karl Barth. (Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth.) He takes to task his conservative brethren when they simply dismiss the theology of Barth because of its differences from the system of thought that they have identified as orthodox. (See criticism of Van Til, ibid., pp. 384-393.) For Berkouwer the only final criterion is loyalty to the Word of God, and in so far as Barth is open to that Word, his thoughts are to be considered seriously and appreciatively.
Berkouwer is even more sensitive than Barth to the dangers of using philosophical categories in theological exposition. (Ibid., p. 16, n. 21, pp. 20,21.) Nevertheless, he does not simply dismiss those who do make use of such categories. (Ibid., pp. 21, 389.) Each man is to be judged in terms of the degree to which the Word of God controls and directs his thought, whatever the terminology may be. For his own part, he remains remarkably close to the language of the Bible and the Reformation confessions, although he also defends ideas couched in the more speculative language of the ecumenical creeds and of much orthodox theology. (E.g., the cautious defense of the idea of the impersonal humanity of Jesus Christ. (Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, pp. 305-326.)
To a considerable extent the conservative Calvinist tradition from which Berkouwer comes, although avoiding philosophical entanglements, worked out the rationally consistent implications of key doctrines that it found in the Bible. For example, some of its spokesmen so interpreted the doctrine of divine election as to set beside it, as on the same level, the doctrine of reprobation. (Berkouwer criticizes Van Til for taking this position. (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, pp. 391 — 392.) He also criticizes some assertions of Calvin and the Canons of Dort that are subject to misinterpretation in this direction (Divine Election, pp. 173, 181, 188, 190.) Thus God’s rejection of the many is treated as a divine act in just the same sense as his election of the few. Berkouwer recognizes a certain rational neatness in such a scheme, but he deplores the theological tendency to affirm such rational coherences in the face of the silence and even the opposition of Scripture. (Berkouwer, Divine Election, p. 173,) The Bible, Berkouwer argues, attributes only the divine election to God as its cause. On the other hand, this does not mean that Berkouwer questions that many are lost or that the divine sovereignty is less clearly manifest in condemnation than in election. He rejects also any effort to make the divine condemnation conditional upon God’s prevision of man’s lack of faith. (Ibid., pp. 197-201, 203.) To accept any of these alternatives to the doctrine of double election would be just as unfaithful to Scripture as is that doctrine itself, The theologian’s task is to faithfully affirm what is affirmed in Scripture, and not to attempt to reconcile apparently conflicting emphases in a rational scheme. (Ibid., pp. 181, 207-209.)
Although Berkouwer feels free to criticize Calvin and the Calvinist confessions at those points where they have gone beyond the teaching of Scripture, they function for him as guides and norms by which to check his own reading of the Bible. Hence, on each doctrine that he investigates, he devotes much of his attention to the teaching of the church in which he stands. Since this teaching includes the acceptance and reaffirmation of the ecumenical creeds of the early church, these also function as guides to the interpretation of Scripture. (Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, p. 75.) However, for Berkouwer, these creeds are accepted ultimately because they accurately reflect the meaning and intention of Scripture, not because they have been accepted by the church. (Ibid., pp. 159, 161 ff. Here Berkouwer defends the creedal affirmation of the deity of Jesus from Scripture.) As a faithful reader of God’s Word, Berkouwer stands in dialogue with others who acknowledge this same Word, convinced that in the main it has been faithfully reflected in those creeds and confessions by which his church lives.
In order that we may grasp the relationship of this conservative Biblicism to the positions with which Part II is primarily concerned, we should note first its relation to the theology of the Reformers. Conservative Biblicism differs from Reformation theology in several respects.
First, and by necessity, it differs precisely in its attempt to be loyal to the Reformers’ teaching. The spirit of Luther is highly individualistic and even revolutionary in that he relied upon a quite fresh grappling with the Bible. He did not concern himself much with how others had understood it, but counted upon its power to offer its meaning directly to him. Although Calvin was partly guided by Luther and other early Reformation figures, his spirit remained much the same as theirs. He confronted the Bible freshly, seizing the meaning that it gave him as the Word of God.
For later generations impressed by the work of the Reformers a choice is necessary. On the one hand, one can simply attempt again the fresh confrontation with the Word of God, allowing it to lead wherever it may. But the history of Protestantism, even in the time of the Reformation itself, shows that this leads to endless multiplication of sectarian interpretations. One can therefore avoid this consequence by learning to read the Scriptures basically through the eyes of the Reformers. This does not exalt the work of Luther and Calvin into a new canon, but it does give to them an authority with respect to the interpretation of the one canon which is not wholly unlike that claimed by the more moderate advocates of the Roman Catholic Church for its tradition. (Cf. George H. Tavard, Holy Writ or Holy Church: The Crisis of the Protestant Reformation, pp. 244-247.) The argument, then, becomes that as to which tradition is in fact more loyal in its interpretation to what it intends to interpret.
On the whole we may say that whereas Barth takes the risk of the first alternative to a very considerable degree, Berkouwer tends strongly to the second. It is for this reason that we may call his Biblicism conservative in a sense that does not apply to Barth.
A second divergence from the Reformers — or at least from an element perceived in the Reformers by the adherents of Neo-Reformation theology — is manifest. The Reformers taught, according to this view, a nonidentity of the written words and the Word of God. (I have suggested above that this had a somewhat different meaning for Luther than it had for Calvin.) For the Neo-Reformation theology, this provides an opening for accepting many of the conclusions of the critical scholarship of the past two centuries and for supporting in principle the continuation of critical study of the Bible. (For example, the vigorous assertions of Brunner, The Theology of Crisis, pp. 19-20; and The Word and the World, pp. 92-104.) ,Berkouwer, on the contrary, takes as his starting point for theological work the identity of the canonical Scriptures and the Word of God. (Gerrit Cornelis Berkouwer, Modern Uncertainty and Christian Faith, pp. 12-16.)
Berkouwer does not suppose that any rational proof can be given for the identity of the Bible and the Word of God. Only the Holy Spirit can convince us of the truth. (Ibid., p. 14.) However, this faith can be supported without defensiveness against the attack of critics within and without the church. Also, the need of the world for the clear affirmation of the unqualified authority of the Bible can be shown.
The problem confronted by theological positivism in the twentieth century may be gathered from what has now been said. It must continue and complete the task of establishing the total independence of its starting point from philosophy and contemporary culture. It must witness to the faith in such a way as to overcome all tendency to relativism. It must recapture the radically theocentric character of Christian faith.
All this can be done fairly easily by those who, like Berkouwer, first establish the inerrancy of Scripture. But for the major spokesmen of theological positivism in our day this possibility is ruled out. Both the historical research of the nineteenth century and the nature of faith itself make the return to an objective Biblical authority of this sort impossible for them.
The special problem for them centers around the doctrine of God. In the first century and also in the sixteenth the reality of the revealed God was simply not in question, but today it is everywhere doubted. Some philosophers still provide rational arguments on varying grounds in favor of belief in deity, but the use of reason in this way is repudiated by theological positivists. Nineteenth-century theology made belief in God a function of human experience, but the anthropocentrism that this implied is emphatically rejected. Conservative Biblicists can affirm God’s reality on the basis of the inerrancy of Scripture, but no such argument is available for the major positivists.
In the two following chapters we will examine and evaluate the solutions of Brunner and Barth to the methodological problem posed by this situation. Since Barth initiated the movement and profoundly influenced Brunner’s development, it would seem that one should treat him first. However, the thought of Brunner is more readily comprehensible to American readers and provides a useful foil against which to set that of Barth. Furthermore, the Barth of the Church Dogmatics appeared in full self-consciousness only after the influence of the early Barth had led Brunner to formulate a quite different systematic position. Hence Brunner is treated first.