Living Options in Protestant Theology
by John B. Cobb, Jr.


This book is written in the hope that it constitutes a responsible survey of the present situation in Protestant theology. Only on the basis of some such survey can one intelligently define his own position. But a survey can lead to responsible decision only if it points up the bases on which such decision must ultimately rest. Since it is my judgment that these bases must be understood in terms of methodology, this survey is oriented to the critical study of the methods employed by major theologians.

A critical comparison of theological methods in the contemporary scene must appear to the average Christian and even to the average student of theology to be quite remote from the vital concerns of faith and of the church. Yet it is undertaken here from personal necessity and from the conviction that it is urgent because it is a means toward the revitalization of faith in our day. In this preface I want to indicate briefly the reasons for my judgment of the importance of methodology.

Usually when a man sets out to present his theological position, he takes as given his own imaginative insights, his traditional convictions, and his intuitive reactions to the ideas of others. Undoubtedly much of the most significant theological writing in every age is formed in this way. It bears the imprint of the living personality of the thinker, and in this lies its power. But in this lies also its weakness.

Theologies of this sort can be endlessly proliferated, and there is little reason to hope that they can ever be reconciled. For those who follow rather than lead the theological movement, only chance or personal inclination can determine who will be accepted as a guide.

Both Roman Catholicism and Protestant orthodoxy have known how to keep the creative individuality of their thinkers within asserted the authority of Scripture and of tradition, differing, of course, between themselves in the interpretation of each and of their mutual relations. The appeal to authority by no means stifles imaginative originality among the faithful, and the variety of tolerated opinion usually exceeds the expectations of the outside observer. Nevertheless, the body of established doctrine provides a secure springboard for pioneering thought and a sufficient grounding for the life of the church.

Even in liberal Protestantism during much of its history, the real consensus of the church has been sufficiently secure to allow wide diversities among theologians without serious danger and at the same time to hold these diversities within bounds. Hence, the often strange and radical ideas of leading thinkers could be tolerated by the church and eventually, in moderated form, even assimilated. But today in many of our larger American denominations the sustaining consensus of faith is largely dissipated. Divergences of attitude and conviction go so deeply into the heart of the inherited faith that agreement is more easily achieved on questions of mores or social action than on the issue of the fundamental purpose and mission of the church.

In this situation two courses seem to be possible. We can continue to drift with the secular currents of our time, measuring our achievements by our institutional success; or we can undertake the study of theology with radical seriousness to attempt to recover a sense of direction that will enable the church authentically to be the church. In the face of the existing chaos in theology the latter course is fraught with the utmost danger. It cannot but bring to the center of attention existing differences within the church that have been largely concealed for purposes of amicable co-operation on practical and institutional goals. To these differences it must add whole new ranges of issues of which most churchmen are not even aware. Finally, it will reveal for all to see the insecurity of our faith and our pitiable vagueness as to what it is or should be.

Such a course can be recommended in the face of such dangers only because the other alternative seems to lead to the death of the church. The church can be itself only in so far as it has a clear commitment that sets it off from the secular values of its time. During the past century the presence of such a commitment has been increasingly threatened at the conscious level, but the church has survived because of the great reservoir of unquestioned self-understanding left it by centuries of believers. In many critical areas that reservoir is nearly exhausted. It cannot be refilled by anything less than heroic efforts and profound suffering.

The twentieth century has witnessed a theological revival within the liberal context that seemed to offer hope for a line of movement between the two extremes I have identified. In many different ways we have been called to a return to the Bible as read through the eyes of those great Protestant leaders from whose work our denominations sprang. We have been assured that we can thereby recapture the vitality of early Protestant faith without the intellectual obscurantism and arbitrary authoritarianism of some of the orthodox and fundamentalists. In one way or another most of the leading Protestant thinkers of our time have supported this program. However, as a response to the need of the church in our time, this program, for all its admirable achievements, must be pronounced a failure. That is, it has not in fact brought us closer to real clarity of real conviction. It cannot do so for two reasons. First, as I have tried to show in Varieties of Protestantism, the living faith from which we still draw such virility as we have is itself deeply divided. This did not weaken its power in the past, when men could take their stand unequivocally in one tradition or another. But today, at least in America, the traditions have so intermingled that most of us cannot return to a pure affirmation of any one tradition without felt arbitrariness. Second, the challenge of secular thought is far too profound to be met by a return to a purified form of earlier Protestant theology. Western man’s spiritual situation has been radically altered by the rise of the new sciences and their interpretation in philosophy. Secularism rather than Christian faith seems now the "natural stance in a way that was utterly alien to the experience of earlier generations of Protestants. Even the idea that we can solve our problems by a return to their thought expresses the gulf that separates us from them.

The leaders of the theological revival of our century have increasingly recognized the complexity of the theological task. They have perceived the need for thorough exposition of the content of faith as they see it. They have seen also the necessity of explaining fully the principles that guide them in their affirmations. This means they are self-consciously concerning themselves not only with systematic theology as doctrine but also with the method of systematic theology. In the process of articulating their teaching and their method it has become clear both that their divergences from each other are very serious and also that these divergences arise largely from differences in method.

Typically, in the past, explicit concern for method has arisen only late in the life history of theologians. First they develop their distinctive emphases on the basis of intuitive insight and conviction. Later they consider how these insights may be systematized and justified. The process of systematization and justification often brings about alterations in the doctrines, hut it is not surprising that sometimes affirmations are retained that are incongruent with the explicit discussion of method.

Today the church’s need for theology is too acute to allow this approach to dominate. The man who utters his personal opinions in an oracular fashion does not help the church in the sober task of articulating its faith. Whoever wishes a hearing must be prepared to explain the grounds on which he affirms whatever he affirms. Only then can others judge intelligently the worth of his statements. If we are to develop responsible theology, doctrines must be accepted or rejected not on the basis of our spontaneous liking or disliking of them but rather on the basis of our judgment of the grounds on which they are affirmed.

There are, of course, many assertions in any given work on theology that can be accepted or rejected on grounds other than that of the theological method employed. A large part of the content of most works consists in interpretation of history, summary or criticism of the opinions of others, and comment on the present situation of man. To some degree we must recognize that even here basic theological assumptions color much of what is said, but accuracy of description and profundity of interpretation are partly independent of such perspectival influences.

However, our present concern is with what is affirmed as essential Christian truth. Here method is all-important. Is the affirmation made on the basis of personal experience? If so, it has just the authority that we attribute to the experiences of the writer. Is it intended to express the consensus of the Christian community or some branch of it? If so, we must determine what authority to attribute to the community in question. Is it an appeal to the message of Jesus or Paul or the New Testament generally? If so, we are turned to the prior question of the locus and extent of the authority of Scripture. Or does the writer justify his assertions in terms of philosophy, modern psychology, or the insight of great artists? If so, we are confronted by the basic issue of the relation of all these authorities to the Christian faith.

In all these instances we are given a second criterion of judgment. That is, is the author’s position actually supported by the norms to which he appeals? Has he accurately interpreted his own experience or is he seeing his experience through distorting assumptions? Is there really a churchly consensus of the sort he affirms, or is he reading his own prejudices into the minds of others? Do Jesus and Paul in fact teach what the writer asserts, or is he insufficiently alert to the results of the great body of scholarship that should guide him in such difficult judgments? Is the doctrine in question in fact supported by secular disciplines, or is he selecting dubious conclusions of second-rate thinkers because they bolster his own preferences?

The point here, however, is that the latter type of criticism is secondary to the former. If a writer claims that certain doctrines are true on the authority of Paul and only incidentally points to aspects of modern psychology that agree, there is little point in arguing against him on psychological grounds. If he is shown to have completely misunderstood psychology, his position is not really affected, for its validity depends on the authority of Paul. We must decide first whether we agree as to the authority of Paul and then, if we do, whether he has interpreted Paul aright. If we do not ourselves accept Paul’s authority, we may still investigate the accuracy of the writer’s interpretation, but this will not have for us the basic theological significance it has for him.

The above suggestions of possible authorities for theology are of course altogether oversimplified. Most serious thinkers are concerned about the relations of a variety of authorities rather than simply the selection of one. A position would not be Christian at all if it did not accept some authority of at least some aspect of the Bible. At the same time it would not be theological at all if it consisted entirely of Biblical texts unselectively assembled. Any serious statement of Christian theology must have some concern for the present cultural-intellectual-spiritual situation of man as well as some concern for the Bible.

The real question is, then, how the Bible is to be used and how the contemporary situation is related to it. Here the greatest variety of possibilities present themselves. One question, however, stands out with special importance for the whole history of theology. It is in philosophy that man’s present situation achieves its clearest and most explicit expression. How then should Christian theology relate philosophy to the Biblical affirmations? Should we take philosophy as the starting point and interpret the Bible as supplementing the knowledge we derive therefrom? Or should we oppose the Biblical faith to all philosophy? Or should we distinguish within philosophy areas that are authoritative for us from those which are not? In any case, what philosophy should we employ in this age of philosophical relativism? Or, by much the same token, what aspect of the Biblical teaching shall we take as normative for us?

If the question of theological method is as important as I am arguing, it might seem best simply to treat it systematically. We might then ask, in abstraction from what is in fact being done, just what role philosophy ought to play and just how we ought to use the Bible. Such studies are entirely legitimate and indeed I have attempted them myself. But to be really significant in a situation where there are already many competing theologies, a study must be related to the actual practice of living theologians. The question of what is cannot settle the question of what ought to be, but history has shown the danger of attempts to determine what ought to be in abstraction from what is.

For this reason I am attempting in this book to present the positions of a cross section of leading Protestant theologians in terms of the methods that they employ. By their methods I mean here, as above, to point to the question of the authorities to which they appeal or the grounds on which their affirmations can best be justified. One might call this a "logical analysis" of the positions investigated if one understands this as an analysis of the principles of verification that are operative.

It is important to distinguish this analysis from biographical or psychological study of the authors and their ideas. No attempt is made to trace the development of a man’s thought, or to determine his indebtedness to various teachers. These are interesting questions hut they provide only indirect light on the value or adequacy of the ideas as such. In cases in which there are important shifts in a man’s thought, I have concentrated on what I take to be the more systematically developed position, which is generally also the last. I have omitted biographical information almost entirely.

In one sense, therefore, this is a quite specialized study of contemporary theology. It focuses on the single question of the methods employed in theological formulation. However, I take this approach because of my conviction that any developed position is understood best when it is grasped in terms of its essential structure. This structure in turn can he understood only as the immediate embodiment of the controlling principles of a man’s thought.

The discussion of each man is divided into two sections, the first being expository and the second critical. Readers interested in an introductory presentation of the position can omit the criticisms. Others, already familiar with the theologians treated, may be chiefly interested in my critical comments. To aid both types of readers v v separates the exposition from the criticism I have kept in mind also that some readers will be interested only in selected chapters. For this reason I have kept cross references to a minimum. Most of the material in any chapter will he intelligible apart from its context in the whole volume. Nevertheless, I need hardly say that the book is written primarily to be read as a unity.

Even when I am attempting only to present and clarify the structure of a theologian’s position, I have avoided all quotations and close paraphrases. It has seemed best to present the ideas only in the form in which I am able to assimilate them into my own thinking. Thereby I can minimize the shift in vocabulary from chapter to chapter and greatly reduce the number of technical terms that are used. Thereby, also, I assume full responsibility for the interpretation of every position. The footnotes indicate passages that in my opinion support my formulation and interpretation. In many cases, however, the understanding that I express derives from an over-all view and cannot be precisely documented.

In any such volume as this the selection of positions to be critically investigated is a major problem. Few readers will approve the list exactly as it stands. I myself recognize that inclusion and exclusion are sometimes determined by such arbitrary considerations as accessibility of materials and personal familiarity. At the same time, I hope that most readers will agree that most of the major types of contemporary theology are represented.

This claim can be made, however, only within the limits I have adopted for this project. In the first place, as indicated in the title, the theology studied is limited to Protestantism. This in no way disparages the excellence of contemporary Roman Catholic theology, but such theology has special assumptions and problems that interfere with its direct accessibility to Protestants.

In the second place, no pretense is made of giving a fair representation to conservative and orthodox Protestant theologians. A brief treatment of one representative is included in Chapter 5, but again there are special assumptions and problems operative in orthodox Protestantism that render it also not directly accessible to those who have been nurtured in the atmosphere of liberalism.

In the third place, the perspective of this volume must be frankly American. As an American with very limited linguistic skills and inadequate familiarity even with the literature available in translation, I can make no useful judgments with respect to most of the work that has been going on in such areas as Scandinavia and the Netherlands. My view of the Swiss and German scenes, too, is undoubtedly distorted by special factors that have governed it. For example, the major role of Brunner in this volume reflects his importance in the American scene rather than his position in the German-speaking world. The neglect of theologians from the British Isles reflects the historic ties of American theology to the Continent rather than to the British Isles, despite the greater accessibility of the latter. I have undoubtedly chosen American theologians when men of other countries of equal or greater stature have been omitted.

I should add that I have been guided in my selections also by the explicitness with which theologians have raised and dealt with methodological problems and by a concern to display a wide variety of proposed methods. Chapters 2 and 11, in both of which more than one man is treated, should be understood as efforts to display — without, I hope, serious distortion of the thought of the men taken as illustrating these methods — systematic possibilities that would otherwise be neglected. Finally, I have limited myself to living theologians who have published major works since World War II. It is interesting to note that despite this criterion most of the men discussed are around seventy years of age or older.

The classification of theological positions under three headings is based intentionally on apparent groupings rather than on my own final judgment as to the real options that are offered. In view of the importance for theological method of the status and role of philosophy, the distinction between Parts I and II is based on the positive or negative attitude adopted toward the use of philosophy as a constitutive part of theological work. Since existentialism is a philosophy that is itself hostile to traditional philosophy, those theologians who relate themselves chiefly to existentialism are treated as a third group in Part III. Whether they can really distinguish their approach from those approaches studied in Parts I and II can be decided only in the process of exposition and criticism.

The first chapter in each Part is an attempt to orient the material treated in that Part both historically and systematically. In these chapters, I have in some instances relied heavily on secondhand sources.

The body of the work in its intention of responsible analysis and criticism lies in the other eight chapters. Although I cannot claim to have done exhaustive research on any one of the men treated, I have worked extensively with primary sources, checking my interpretation against that of others wherever possible.

The criticisms made of each position are intended as internal criticisms only. By this I mean that they are intended to expose the actual situation in the theology in question and not to judge it by any standard of orthodoxy or personal preference. They deal with the relation of the actual procedure employed to the avowed method, the internal consistency of the method, the apparent implications of taking the method seriously, and the kinds of ultimate assumptions upon which the whole position rests. This kind of analysis should help to expose apparent theological methods that leave crucial questions unsettled. It should thereby enable us to limit the range of real possibilities to those which are capable of being carried through with consistency to intelligible conclusions.

In my "Personal Conclusions" I state what seem to me to be the genuinely living options and also my personal choice among them. The task of working out constructively the problems of theological method to which this choice leads is indicated but not undertaken. My original intention had been to devote a considerable portion of this volume to this constructive task, but the book grew beyond reasonable bounds. Whatever contribution I may he able to make must be postponed until I have more time and more mature insight.

This book is almost exclusively concerned with the thought of others. For the most part these others are men who appeared on the theological scene in the twenties and thirties. The implication may seem to be that I regard their achievements as setting the limits for the work of the generation to which I myself belong.

Actually, my judgment is almost at the opposite extreme from this view. The positions presented are those which are most effectively offered to today’s student, in or out of seminary. In this sense they are the living options that he faces. Personally, however, I deplore, rather than accept, this situation. The total spiritual climate both in Europe and America has changed greatly in the past thirty years, and the tempo of change is even now accelerating. The magnificent response to the situation faced immediately after World War I is not in itself adequate to the situation that will be faced in the sixties and seventies. The great men treated in this book have adjusted to some degree to the changing times, but it is too much to expect dynamically new approaches from men now retiring from professional life. The younger generation must imitate the creative power of these men, not reproduce their systematic conclusions.

My concern for finding fresh approaches to our rapidly changing situation is expressed in my co-editorship with James M. Robinson of a new series of volumes on emerging trends in German theology. It is our hope not only to identify important new developments as they occur but also to encourage full and fruitful interchange between younger American and German theologians. It is in such undertakings that we may look for real theological progress.

But we cannot progress in theology by ignoring the achievements of our teachers. There must be a real coming to terms with their thought before a meaningful advance is possible. It is to facilitate such a "coming to terms" that this book provides these schematic critical presentations of some of the major accomplishments of the older generation.

v v

My first extended attempt to confront the problems of theological method was in my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago. A few pages of what I wrote then have found their way into this volume. My first systematic attempt to come to terms with the range of theological proposals that confront us today was in lectures delivered to the Southern California-Arizona Conference (Methodist) Pastors’ School, in September, 1959. The present book began as a revision of these lectures, but in fact it is an almost totally different work.

The writing of this book was made possible by the combined generosity of the Southern California School of Theology at Claremont and the American Association of Theological Schools. To both I am deeply and permanently indebted. I did most of the writing while living at Drew University. At the kindness of Drew in not only allowing me use of the library but also providing me with an office in the library building I am gratefully amazed. I can imagine no more favorable situation for a year of concentrated study than was provided me at Drew. To the administration and faculty of both seminary and graduate school as well as to the library staff both collectively and individually I am profoundly grateful.

Profs. L. Harold DeWolf, Henry Nelson Wieman, and H. Richard Niebuhr graciously read and commented on the chapters dealing with their thought in substantially their present form. Prof. Reinhold Niebuhr read an earlier essay of mine on his thought similar in content and thesis to what I have written here. I do not, of course, claim their agreement with all that I have said, but I have tried to take some account of their criticisms and have been reassured as to the general accuracy of my accounts of their thought. In the case of Wieman, I have avoided, in the text of my chapter, substantive changes based on his response, since that response has taken the form of an essay, "In Defense of My Faith," that he intends to publish. I have, however, made some references to this response in footnotes.

Among other persons who have been especially helpful, thanks are due to Profs. Thomas J. J. Altizer, John Dillenberger, Edward Dowey, Robert Funk, John Godsey, Ray Hart, George Lindbeck, Schubert Ogden, Donald Rhoades, James Robinson, and Thomas Trotter. Each of these men gave me the benefit of his encouragement and advice, and in some instances enabled me to correct serious errors of interpretation. No one has read more than a small fraction of the whole, and for all remaining errors and confusions I remain, of course, solely responsible.

Mrs. Frances Baker typed the entire manuscript with conscientious care. Frederic Fost has worked over the entire manuscript, improving clarity and accuracy of expression. He has also corrected the proof and prepared the indexes. Without his intensive work and frequent counsel the book would have been much poorer.

Finally, my greatest debt is to my wife, whose co-operation and assistance in countless ways cannot be itemized.

J. B. C., Jr.