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Proclaiming Christ Today by Norman Pittenger


Dr. Pittenger, philosopher and theologian, was a senior member of Kingís College, Cambridge for many years, then Professor of Christian Apologetics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, before retiring in 1966. Published by The Seabury Press, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1962. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 4: Problems in Proclaiming the Gospel Today


Problems in preaching the gospel today flow out of the necessity for relating the Christian story, the gospel, to the "ordinary knowledge" of the common man. These problems are for the most part theological in nature; and although the gospel is not the enunciation of theological propositions, the theology implicit in his preaching of it is of the highest significance for the pastor as he considers his task of bringing the "given gospel" to the "given world."

Moreover, these problems are such that the theologian may be able to say something about them which will be relevant to the whole enterprise of Christian thought and communication, as this is focused in the preaching office of the minister. Often it is what one might call "the background material" which is the most important problem for the preacher. His way of proclaiming the "given" gospel will to a considerable degree be determined by his theological presuppositions, by his way of approaching the needs that are felt in our time, and by his understanding of the questions which are raised today and must be faced by Christian thinkers. For these play their part in his preaching, quite as much as does his own personal grasp on the Churchís essential gospel.

Earlier we had occasion to note the relationship between Jewish faith as portrayed for us in the Old Testament and the Christian event which is the subject matter of the New Testament; and how it was indeed inevitable and right that the primitive Christian community should see their Lord and apprehend his significance for men, against the background of the whole history of the people into whom humanly speaking he was born. It was natural that they should have interpreted him in the light of that history, finding in him the "Yea" spoken by God to all the promises which, as the Jews had believed and as the early Christians also believed, had been made to Israel. Therefore it was also natural that the kerygma as we find it in the New Testament should not only be couched in biblical terms but also that these terms require for their proper understanding an awareness of the whole Old Testament witness and record.

But this historically necessary connection and condition has led many in our own day to feel that the gospel of Christ is exhaustively and completely stated when it has been phrased thus in the language of the Bible. Hence they regard the influence of the Hellenistic tradition upon succeeding centuries of Christian thought as both improper and dangerous. Furthermore, they look with the gravest suspicion upon any attempt made today to speak, to teach, and above all to preach in an idiom which is not in the strictest sense biblical. They assume that "biblical preaching," in the sense of preaching the message of the Bible, must mean the use of "biblical language" and that alone. I am convinced that this position is mistaken; and for two reasons.

In the first place, there is an historical objection. It is a sheer fact, undisputed by any who have knowledge of what transpired in early Christian history, that the Christian Church developed its patterns of thought, its theology, through the constant interaction of the biblical witness and the "non-biblical" environment in which the primitive Christian community found itself. One of the major contributions of recent scholarship to our understanding of the development of Christian ideas has been its demonstration that what we call the Catholic faith, as well as Catholic worship, owed an enormous debt to the Graeco-Roman culture in which it had its existence. But a good deal of this has long been known and it should give no cause for alarm. Not only was the most primitive kerygma soon seen in the light of the varied patterns of thought found in wider areas of the Mediterranean world, but the inevitable contacts of the Church with the culture of that world brought new intuitions and perceptions about the kerygma itself. Subtly but profoundly these modified the initial ways of stating and apprehending the gospel; indeed we may well say that they gave a new depth to the understanding of Christ and his significance, and even a new content to the original gospel itself, insofar as Christ came to be interpreted in the light of the needs of men and women to whom he was being preached.

Surely this ought not to trouble us, unless we are of that peculiar school of Christian thought which assumes that God speaks only in the Hebrew tongue! For those who are convinced that God "has nowhere left himself without witness," it is part of the glory of Christianity that it can include, and by including be modified by the wider range of the divine self-revelation, without losing its own distinctive and special quality. However we approach the question, it remains true as a matter of simple history that Christianity in its development represents what we might describe as the marriage of Jewish realism and of cultural forms which are not Jewish at all. In this marriage, the well-known words, "What God has joined together, let no man" -- not even a "biblical theologian" of the twentieth century -- "put asunder."

In the second place, it is plain enough that our congregations today, and even more the people outside the Church whom we wish to reach for the gospel of Christ, are quite unable to follow the intricacies of the prophecy-fulfillment pattern of the Old and New Testaments. They must come to see this after they have encountered the gospel itself in all its challenge and with all its empowering. Failure to recognize this simple and patent truth about the people of our time, whether they be educated or uneducated, sophisticated or simple, explains to a large degree the admitted failure of what is compendiously called "neo-orthodoxy" to communicate itself significantly to the ordinary man and woman of our day. Professor Elmer Homrighausen, of the Princeton Seminary, himself inclined in the neo-orthodox direction, wrote about this matter in The Christian Century (July 18, 1956):

Through my own pastoral experiences I have come to see that neo-orthodoxy -- with all its emphasis on realism in theology, on the kerygma of the Bible, on the sinfulness of personal and corporate life, on the radical nature of the new life, and so forth -- is hesitant and weak in calling persons to a positive faith.

And he went on to intimate, although he did not say outright, that at least one reason for this hesitation and weakness is that the persons to whom such preaching is addressed are in no condition, intellectually or spiritually, to get the point of the message of the neo-orthodox preacher. Nor can this intellectual and spiritual incapacity be put down simply to the sin of the hearers; rather it is the consequence of a genuine and honest difficulty in understanding. There is a cultural "block" here which somehow must be met. It is the task of the preacher of the gospel to find ways in which he can so translate his message that the block will no longer prevent the challenge of the gospel, its real "offense," from getting across to the people to whom he is addressing himself.

One of the difficulties is quite simply that many feel the clergy to be less than completely honest in matters of this kind. Dean Inge once said that the laity have the right to expect two things, and two things only, from the clergy: "that they will preach the gospel and tell the truth." A considerable number of our contemporaries think that in preaching the gospel the clergy are consciously not telling the truth. That is, these people feel that the clergy are not willing to face the full impact of the best thought of our time and the changes which that new situation must make in our ways of thinking. They feel that we are not really interested in the truth in this sense; they consider that our only concern is for winning converts or keeping them once they have been won. To what extent that is true of us I do not venture to say, but it ought not to be true at all. We can profit from a consideration of the verdict which Archbishop Frederick Temple passed on Cardinal Newman (with how much justice I am not able to say): "His initial mistake was that he began by searching for the true church rather than for the truth; he inverted the right order." We are to seek the truth and to preach the truth, for the gospel is really nothing other than the proclamation of him who is the Truth; and this ought to imply that we are committed to a recognition and welcoming of truth wherever it is found, and to the glad use of it in the imparting of our Christian message.

Nowhere is our problem so clearly shown as in the question to which Rudolf Bultmann has made the most notable, if not the correct, response. I refer to the whole matter of the biblical world-view or cosmology. A three-storeyed universe, with heaven above, hell beneath, and man and his history located in between the two; a disregarding of secondary causes and hence an emphatic declaration that the divine action and will is the one and only cause of all that happens, both good and ill; a gallery of angelic and demonic figures playing their part in the economy of things; and so much else . . . here we have a way of seeing the world and manís existence in it which has little relation, I should say no relation, to what the man and woman of our time believes and knows about both. Bultmann puts it strikingly when he says that in a world where we light our houses by electricity, one cannot meaningfully talk of disease as caused by demons. Precisely. One of the tasks which we face today, as men commissioned to preach the Lord Jesus Christ as Godís action for manís wholeness, is the disentangling of the essential gospel from this incredible cosmology.

It is simply not true that the gospel of God in Jesus Christ for manís wholeness stands or falls with this biblical picture of the world. But a great many of our contemporaries honestly think that, for good or for ill, it undoubtedly does. And those of them who hear us preach are quite likely to believe that we are not ourselves honest when we preach the gospel, because they know perfectly well that in our "secular" moments we do not subscribe to any such scheme of things. Somehow we must make plain in our preaching that this biblical science, so to say, and the cosmology which goes with it, is not integral to the gospel itself. We must take pains to show that acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord does not carry with it the three-storey universe; that to be a Christian does not imply that one believes that God is the immediate cause of all that happens, however true it may be that he is "first" and "final" cause; and that the findings of modem science as to how God in fact works in the world only illuminate the central truth that in Christ he has worked with a singular intensity and (as we might say) directness to bring to men wholeness of life.

Furthermore, the gospel inevitably has been associated with mythological ways of stating it which, while entirely appropriate to the times when the association was made, are no longer appropriate today. By my use of the word "mythological" here, I mean nothing derogatory. The language of mythology, or, as I myself prefer to say, metaphor, is the language which religion speaks; it can do no other, for religious faith is neither scientific formulae nor philosophical concepts, but a dramatic, poetic, symbolical way of speaking of the deepest realities and our apprehension of them. We have already argued this point. But, on the other hand, some ways of mythological speaking have had their day and are gone forever. Or, if they are to be retained, their character as metaphorical must be stated clearly, lest they be understood in a literal and prosaic sense and, in consequence, become stumbling blocks to faith and barriers to the acceptance of Christ as Lord.

Bultmann himself has proposed what has been translated as "de-mythologizing" the gospel. The word is highly misleading, for what Bultmann actually wishes to do is not to remove the mythology but so to enter into its meaning that it can be restated in terms which he thinks to be significant today. It is his opinion that we can best state the evangelical message and the evangelical demand in the idiom of contemporary existentialism, more particularly by use of the analysis of the human situation made in the writings of the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger. We certainly cannot be without sympathy for some aspects of Bultmannís proposal. But the way to accomplish what he rightly sees to be necessary is by a process which might be described as "in-mythologizing." By this "in-mythologizing," there is the possibility of penetration into the reality which the ancient cosmology and the mythology used by the biblical writers was attempting to state in language appropriate to their time. It is something like this that Bultmann is really seeking after; but his presentation of the project is so entangled with Heideggerian existentialism that the result is not always very clear, even to the instructed reader.

Let us consider first the cosmology of the Bible. What we ought to be able to discover in this world picture, once the incredible science is gone, is a conception of the universe in which, under what are for us weird and frequently utterly impossible images, the whole creation is seen as dependent upon a loving and active God who is its ultimate meaning and its ground of being. Or again, we are enabled to see that the contrasted angelic and demonic hosts suggest the recognition of the fact that man is surrounded and indwelt by "forces" for good and by "forces" for evil; there are "graces" which raise man up, as well as "drives" which push him down, and any realistic man lives constantly in a situation where he must decide for or against the good which is finally from God, which indeed finally is God.

Something of the same process follows in respect to the "mythology." We read of the "comings down" and the "goings up" which are more immediately associated with the gospel: "he came down from heaven," "he rose again from the dead," "he ascended into heaven," and the like. Here the whole set of images is of a highly mythological sort, doubtless related to "redeemer myths" and other primitive, or sometimes more sophisticated, schemes of thought. These images seem almost inextricably linked with the kerygma as it was first proclaimed and understood. But such ideas and pictures no longer have meaning. We cannot hope to make our people see what the gospel of Christ says to them today, unless we engage for them in the task of translating this out of the imagery in which it was first stated. It is perfectly possible for us, and hence for those who hear our preaching, to get so bogged down in the traditional biblical picture, taken in its most literal form, that the whole point of the gospel itself is lost.

In this situation it is helpful to discriminate between the kinds of language which are used in Christian discourse.* In the first place, while the language of religion is metaphorical, this blanket statement needs to be broken down so that we see that certain distinctive forms of speech are appropriate to certain distinctive kinds of biblical reference. The story of creation and the story of the fall, for example, like the account of the last things in the Book of Revelation, may properly be called myths, since they are concerned with absolute beginnings and endings or with universally predicable truths, about which no precise conceptual statements can be made and which are best expressed in pictorial language. But the Christian gospel is in a very different category; it has to do with historical event and is in the form of an epic or a saga or a story. It should not be described as a "myth," for despite a proper use of the word which might be permissible, there is a serious danger of a misunderstanding of it since generally its meaning is taken to be a "fairy-tale" -- a symbolic account of what may be most dreadfully "un-fact." The story, the epic, the saga, which tells about, and interprets the significance of, the life of Christ and his work for men, is of course told in a metaphorical idiom and might be described as mythological so far as its manner of telling is concerned. But genuine facts which actually did occur, real historicity, a Jesus who walked the ways of this earth and by his impact on men evoked from them the faith to which Christians subscribe, are basic to it all, and without such factuality it would have a meaning entirely different from that significance which Christians claim for it. And last, there are legendary tales, associated with the Christian story but not integral to its historical reality. These tales, which the form-critics would call "wonder" or "miracle" pericopes, have gathered around the saga and are closely related to its factuality. They are not unimportant, as some have said, for they are part of the evidence we possess as to the impression which Jesus made upon men. Without them we should have far less than that full impression, even though their precise historical verisimilitude may be open to grave question.

We preachers of the gospel must first see for ourselves, and then we must help our people to see, that it is wrong to take language that is symbolically apt and use it as if it were language that is philosophically and scientifically precise. To take an illustration from another area, we speak for example of manís being, in Lutherís phrase, "twisted in on himself" (incurvatus in Se). This is certainly correct enough if we do not take it literally. And we go on to say that only as this proud self-concern, this inversion of life upon the false self as its center, is "broken into" by the divine love, can man be saved. But we ought not to assume that this perfectly sound way of phrasing things, for the purpose of describing the experience of "salvation," is scientifically accurate, or is literally the truth. Or again, when we speak in the creed of the Eternal Word of God as "coming down from heaven," we surely do not think -- or at least we ought not to think -- that this is a precise statement of movement from an "up" to a "down"; we all know well enough that it is, on the contrary, a most inaccurate statement from that point of view. It is a metaphorical statement, true in its own poetical fashion; it is a most valuable way of saying in symbolical language, that he who is supreme in the order of being was for our sakes willing to be united to and self-expressed in the life of the Brother-Man who is therefore our Lord and Saviour, Emmanuel, God-with-us.

This brings vividly before us still another aspect of our problem. One of our greatest difficulties in preaching today comes from the widespread notion that in Jesus Christ, and indeed in all situations where God is believed to be especially "at work," we have what is often described as an "intrusion" from outside the world into the order of events with which we are commonly familiar. A number of distinguished Christian theologians and many popular apologists continually talk in this fashion. Mr. C. S. Lewis may be cited, for one of the apologists; and the theologians are legion. But is this kind of metaphor a very useful one today? Does it not lead to much misunderstanding as to what is really meant? One is tempted to ask, when such words as "intrusion" and the ideas that seem inevitably associated with such words are used, "From where, then, does God intrude?" Is not this whole mode of thought simply part of the evil legacy from deism, in which God was conceived as being absent from his world, and in which therefore he must be thought to "intrude" into his world, to "intervene" in it, whenever he would act in any distinctive and particular way? Surely, however, the basic affirmation of Christian theism, founded (once we have got behind the images in which often it was phrased) on the biblical witness to the faithfulness and consistency of God and to his unfailing maintenance of the creation in being, is that all things at all times and in all places are present to God, that he is always at work in them, that he constantly energizes through them, that he never ceases to move in the creation towards the accomplishment of his holy will and the revelation of his holy purpose. Thus it is plain that he does not need to "come into the world" from outside it; he is already here. If he were not, there would be no world at all. He "upholds all things by the word of his power," and ceaselessly operates in them and through them. What he does do, in this process, is to act with greater or less intensity at this or that place. He operates with subtle and sometimes extraordinary vigor here rather than there, thus bringing to pass his "work, his strange work" both in the order of nature and of history, and thus bringing to pass also his loving care and saving action signally declared in Jesus Christ. Once again, we should be on our guard lest language, which may now and again be liturgically apt and poetically appropriate, be taken in our preaching as if it were literal and precise. And above all, we should be on our guard against preaching a gospel in which the God who is proclaimed as active in Christ is other than the God who is the Lord of all creation.

In conclusion, the point should be reiterated that to say that the gospel of Christ is to be stated in language which is avowedly metaphorical does not in any sense whatever imply that the gospel is not true. Nor does it mean that, in preaching the gospel in conscious recognition of the metaphorical nature of the language we use, we are speaking in what might be styled a "Pickwickian" manner. On the contrary it is only by this honest recognition that we can make the truth of the gospel come alive to our contemporaries. They are not quite so stupid as some would think; they know perfectly well the distinction between literal speech which has an almost one-to-one correspondence with the facts, and metaphorical speech in which the truth is so vast and mysterious that no set of words can do other than give intimations, suggestions, and indications of the reality that is being spoken. Religious language is poetry, if you will; but it is poetry because "the dimension of depth" in religion (to borrow Dr. Tillichís phrase) can be spoken only by poetry. Furthermore, when in faith we are describing historical fact in all its enormous wealth of meaning -- as we are doing when we preach Christ as bringing Godís presence and grace to men in singular and decisive fashion -- we are bound to put this in language whose metaphorical quality is inevitable. But this should suggest to us that the reality to which we point is such that there is but one way to apprehend it: not by cold logic, philosophical concept, literal precision, rational explanation, but by what we have always known was required -- the commitment of the whole person to this reality, the heartís surrender to Christ as Godís self-expression in human life for the recovery of manís wholeness and for his abiding joy.

Closely related to the foregoing problem is the question of "miracle." Here we need to speak very carefully, because there is one sense in which "miracle," once we have rightly understood what that term means in its deepest signification, is the heart of religion. But that is not the sense in which the common man, and a large group of the clergy too, I fear, do in fact understand it. Unhappily, they tend to think of miracle as signifying an arbitrary intrusion into, a suspension of, or an interference or interruption in (the last two words are Mr. C. S. Lewisís), the regular course of events in the world of nature. Surely there can be no doubt at least that the average layman thinks that this is what is intended; and he assumes that when the clergy speak of miracle, this is precisely what they mean.

Such is not, however, the conception of miracle which was taught by the great theologians of the Church. The truth is that this common notion of miracle is but another bad legacy from the age of deism, a subtle form of that deism persisting in the minds of ordinary people and also (alas!) in the minds of some sophisticated modern theologians who like to consider themselves highly "orthodox." But we can say at least this: the essential meaning of the concept of the miraculous, as this has been used in traditional theology, is grounded in the keen awareness men have of the unexpected and unprecedented experiences and happenings, the novel and hence the unusually stimulating events or circumstances of life, through which men in every age have been aroused to faith in God and have been given a deepening conviction of his love and care. In this sense a miracle speaks of what Gerard Manley Hopkins so beautifully called "the dearest freshness deep down things." Life is not on a dead and uniformitarian level; it contains moments of less and of greater intensity. If this meaning is preserved, it will not be necessary for us to haggle over the historical probability and the likely evidence for the stories of miraculous events in the Bible, even for the miracle stories in the New Testament and in association with the life of our Lord himself. We shall have the root of the matter in us; we shall have come to recognize that in the history leading up to our Lord, and with the coming of Jesus himself, there were released into the world, and that in what we may rightly call an unprecedented fashion, energies for good which have changed the lives of men and through them the face of nature too, and that these same energies are still available whenever men turn, in faith and with utter self-surrender, to the Lord of all life.

For myself, I am frank to say, I could wish that the word "miracle," as a theological term, were abandoned. It has had its day. In our contemporary situation, it is so encumbered with the legacy from deism, of which I have spoken, that its use is calculated to bring out all the wrong ideas of its meaning and to put enormous obstacles in the way of acceptance of the gospel. Nor is it without significance that the word as such does not occur in the gospels save in one or two places. In the gospels we have seineion or sign, and dunamis or power, and only once or twice terata or wonders. Dr. William Porcher DuBose seems to suggest in his fine autobiography Turning Points of My Life, and James Matthew Thompson explicitly said in his Through Fact to Faith -- both of these books are nearly a half-century old -- that the soundly biblical conception of providence serves to safeguard and to state all that the term "miracle" was once used to affirm. It is too bad that this has not been more generally accepted. For "providence" is a word which tells us of the conviction that God exercises a never-failing and personal control over, even as he unfailingly works within, the events and circumstances of life, molding them and molding us in such a way that his grace and power are manifested in human history and in personal experience. Furthermore we are accustomed to recognize that Godís providential care and action are not all on one level; there are the regularities and there are the "high points," so to say, the moments of less and the moments of greater intensity. And for the Christian faith, the claim to be made is that the moment of greatest intensity is the emergence in the sphere of history and of human life of the person of Jesus Christ, with all that he was and all that he continues to be, all that he did and all that he continues to do, all that he meant and all that he continues to mean for those who respond to him in heartís surrender. Here, then, is special providence, par excellence; and it is special not by its being removed from all relationship to Godís more general providence in ordering, controlling, and caring for nature and history and the lives of men, but by the heightening and focussing in that one moment in history or in human life of what God everywhere and always is "up to."

As in a reading glass the rays of the sun may be focussed and thus intensified, without in any way denying or darkening those rays as they shine down upon, say, the whole garden, so in Christ Godís loving concern in focussed and thus intensified, not by denying but by concentrating his other and wider operation. The result of that focussing in Christ is fire, the fire of love of God and of men made in grateful response to Christ and to what he does for those who accept him. Our task and our privilege as those commissioned to preach the gospel is to make exactly this clear and compelling to our hearers. We can do this most effectively if we see to it that the dubiously historical "wonders" with which it has been associated are no longer made central to its significance, even while we still recognize and value the testimony that all these give to the impact which God has made through Christ upon the lives of those who knew and know him.

In the second place, the point of view which would insist upon an absolute distinction between Jesus Christ and all other instances of divine revelation is not confined to the so-called "neo-orthodox." While it is of course true that those who belong to this school are perhaps most vocal in their assertion that in our Lord alone may God be seen at work, and while it is they who denounce the concept of "general" revelation as a vain fancy of sub-Christian speculation, a considerable number of other Christian thinkers take what in effect is the same position when they make central to their teaching a kind of uniqueness in the coming and the person of Christ which effectively removes him from the context of the total sell-expressive operation of the Eternal Word. And in the preaching of the gospel this same notion frequently shows itself, when the minister who proclaims in Christ the action of God for manís wholeness puts our Lord in a total isolation from other men in whom something of the divine activity is at work. For one of the most frequent emphases in contemporary theology, and consequently in a good deal of contemporary preaching, is that there is (what is styled) an absolute "difference in kind" between the sell-expression of God in and through any and every man, and that which was accomplished in Jesus Christ our Lord. Such a position is theologically unsound and homiletically disastrous. In saying this I am in no sense succumbing to the so-called "unitarian" leveling-down of all Godís revelation to one uniform method and way. There is nothing whatever to be said for that view, which indeed should be described not as "unitarian" but as "uniformitarian." Any honest survey of the situation makes clear that there are very considerable differences in the movement of God in and through nature, history, and human life. God is more intensively at work, more actively present, in this or that place than in these or those other places.

The point here, however, is that the view that our Lord is absolutely different in kind from any and every other work and presence of God is impossible to maintain, and that for several reasons. It is impossible because, for one thing, such an absolute difference in kind as is often proposed would carry with it the corollary that there is no way in which we are able to recognize what God was "up to" in Christ when we meet him there. In fact, there would be no way in which we could recognize God as being there at all. That which is absolutely different, as Aristotle implied long ago, is unknowable. There must be some kind of continuity in experience if genuine knowledge is to be possible. Furthermore, this kind of preaching and teaching tends to make the Incarnation of God in Christ an unrelated wonder or prodigy which, because it has no relation to the totality of the divine action, cannot reveal the eternal purposes of God; all too often, such a position is associated with a sophisticated modern kind of Marcionism, that leads to a contempt for the Old Testament in its own integrity and for the revelation of God found there quite apart from its fulfillment in Christ. If our Lord has no genuine and close relationship with those whom he was willing to call his brethren, then it would seem that that which was "determined, dared, and done" in him, to use Christopher Smartís stupendous verbs, is but done to us and hence is unshared and unshareable by those who are in common Christian experience given the power to live "in him."

Indeed, we can best understand the difference between Jesus Christ and his human brethren in whom God (by definition of theistic faith itself) is in some manner present and energizing, as the difference between that One in whom God lived, acted, and expressed himself in the fullest adequacy which we can conceive possible in human life and experience (while it remains genuine human life and experience), and those in whom that same God is indeed at work, as the necessary ground of their life and the invisible secret of their action, but in whom his energizing is, as we might say, of lower intensity and with less adequacy. The reason for this difference is not only that in these others Godís energizing is blocked by human willfulness and sin. More important and more basic than that, it is because Godís own purpose of self-expression does not there expect and provide for such adequacy as was achieved by him once for all in human regard, when by his prevenient preparation, his concomitant grace, and his effectual action he was "made flesh" in the person of Jesus Christ. Here, as Karl Barth has rightly maintained, is the signal instance of divine "election." Jesus Christ is the "Elect One," not by some effort of human nature alone, for that would not be real election, but by Godís eternal purpose which "from the beginning of the world" -- and long before it, too, if we may so speak -- has determined that "in the fullness of the times" there shall be just such an actualization of the potential God-Man relationship as Christian faith discerns in Christ our Lord. Such a position I believe to be within the limits of Christian orthodoxy, and especially of some of the great Patristic teaching -- although certainly not within the limits of much modern neo-orthodoxy, whether Catholic or Protestant. But that is another case where a view that is fashionable in many circles today, and likes to call itself alone properly "orthodox," is sometimes surprisingly close to an ancient heresy.

Some may think that all this is irrelevant to the preaching of the gospel. I cannot agree. It is precisely after we have made an effort to face such problems as these that we can bring the kerygma in all its glory to the people with whom we have to do. There is no salvation in telling men that Jesus is an "intruder" from another world, who has not really shared our condition because, as an alien, he is not in fact one of us. But there is great salvation in proclaiming that God in Christ has accomplished the purpose for which man was made, and through which his weakness and failure, his sin and shame, are overcome. That purpose is that God may be known and loved, worshipped and served, in the Man Christ Jesus, in whom he is made so vividly and poignantly plain to us, and that as a result he may fill our lives with his grace and conform us to his image. In Christ we have the Diamond, "immortal Diamond" (in Gerard Manley Hopkinsí noble phrase), while in us we have but the charcoal; yet the two -- Diamond and charcoal -- are of the same stuff, for both are carbon; and it is by the action of that Diamond upon this charcoal, that the carbon -- the God-man relationship which in its full adequacy is found in Jesus Christ -- may be seen for what it is, and that we who are the charcoal may be taken into the life of him the Diamond, as men who are "in Christ" for now and for eternity. The analogy, of course, is imprecise and even inaccurate, for diamond does not work upon charcoal in this fashion; yet the point of the analogy is clear enough and is the right point to make.

Indeed, we may do enormous harm and often deter those who would come to an acceptance of our Lord, when we insist that they must begin their acceptance with complete assent to the fully developed Christian affirmation that he is truly divine as well as truly human. With the disciples, surely, it was otherwise; it was through the wounds of his humanity, as a French Roman Catholic writer once remarked, that the disciples came to the intimacy of his divinity. It is likely that this will also be the way with a considerable number of our contemporaries. They may, for the moment, discount the claim that in him God is truly present for their wholeness; but at least they are willing to say that they find in him the highest and best manhood that any of us can know and that they will give him their hearts and seek to follow in the "blessed steps of his most holy life." We who proclaim Christ ought to have enough faith that our Lord is what we claim him to be, to permit such men and women to have, if not full then some limited, participation in Christian life in the community of faith; for we are confident, or we should be confident if we really believe what we say about Jesus, that such fellowship with him in the company of his people will lead them more and more deeply into the true significance of his person. We can have confidence that they will be brought sooner or later to say, "My Lord and my God." If we do not believe that this is true, then we had better admit that Christianity is false from the start; and we had better stop preaching it altogether.

It is for these reasons, among others, that more emphasis is needed today on the wonder and glory of Jesusí humanity. Let us admit, as we must, that our knowledge of that humanity comes to us "from faith to faith." Let us admit too that it is a knowledge which is not precise in detail, but is very much more like a painted portrait than a photographic snapshot. Still the fact remains that we do know quite enough about the historic life of Jesus to catch something of his filial obedience to God, his loving concern for men, his unceasing following of the will of his Father, and his equally unceasing desire to bring the Fatherís shepherding care home to his children. A good deal of the time we may find it useful to begin there; and our preaching of the gospel, once it does begin there, can then move on with the profound logic of experience to the bold affirmation that in this Man, in all his human conditioning, God is discovering himself to us as at no other time and in no other place.

We have already noted the necessity for a "point-of-contact" between the gospel and the patterns of thought of contemporary people. Some German theologians would deny that there can be such a "point-of-contact." The gospel, they say, comes as condemnation of sin; and since, in the definition of these theologians, men are utterly alienated from God and entirely estranged from Godís purpose, nothing in ordinary experience can be of use in relating the gospel to their situation. This position would seem to be an almost blasphemous denial both of the goodness of God and of his common sense. The creation is always Godís creation; and we do not honor him if we assume that he has let it get so completely out of hand that nothing of him is still to be found in it. Historical Christianity, as a matter of fact, has taken a quite different line. It has said that the whole experience of man in its every phase -- from the genius of the artist and scientist and poet and thinker, to the commonplace life of the family and the daily round of the office and shop and school, not to speak of nature and its beauty, its regularity, its predictability, its reliability -- is all in its way and in its degree a means for the divine self-revelation. It has gloried in the divine activity in what we may call the "secular world."

That is why we who are preachers of the gospel of Christ may seek for the homeliest and simplest, as well as for the most exalted and sublime, analogies for "gospel truth" in the life and work of our people. That also is why the experiences of human life, with all its perversions and distortions, may yet be used as a proper illustration -- and it was so used by our Lord himself -- for the divine charity in its outreach to men. And that is why human relationships may be taken, as our Lord took them, as analogous to man in his relationship with the ultimate source of his being. We need to remember how our Lord constantly employed in his teaching such homely, and such sublime, analogies: "if ye then . . . how much more." It is the "how much more" that makes the difference, of course; the a fortiori is essential to the parable. But yet, the fact remains that in manís "common" experience, in those very human and historical -- and sinful -- limitations we know so well, we have the right to find in parabolic fashion creaturely representations of that which God is, and that which God has done, and that which God purposes to bring to pass in and for and through and with and to this his world and the men and women whom he has placed in it.

Thus we can move away from that kind of preaching in which our whole time is devoted to telling men what "rotters" they are, and come to the point where we can assure them of the wonder and glory of Godís purpose for them. The gospel is indeed concerned to make us all see how terribly estranged we are from the God who is yet present with us. But it is chiefly concerned to tell men what they may become in Christ, what indeed they already are in the divine intention: sons of God, made in his image, fallen into sin by their willfulness, and now by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ able to be conformed to his likeness, the evil and the sin which they know so well being done away through Godís forgiving love shed abroad through him.

Finally, we have the problem of the "finality" of Christianity. We are not called upon to claim that our Christianity. in its present institutional form and in it present empirical dress, or in any other historical shaping which may be given it, is final and absolute. The only real finality is Jesus Christ himself, the Lord whom the gospel proclaims, and those corollaries of the gospel which are so immediately associated with him that without them he would not be himself. And the finality of Jesus Christ, in whom true God is active for the wholeness of men, consists in his endless fertility; as a modern saint has put it, "He is adequate," and his adequacy is not for us alone but for all men everywhere and at every time. If Jesus is what the gospel proclaims him to be -- that One in whom the love and light and life of God possessed completely a genuine human life, possessed it so fully that we may say of him, as Mr. Basil Willey has well phrased it, that "the life of God is seen in him in human life" -- then we can preach Jesus Christ as decisive, as definitive, as the norm for the God-man relationship and the clue to whatever else God may be purposing and accomplishing in this vast and mysterious creation.

That, I suppose, is the basic meaning, religiously speaking, of the creedal word homo-ousion, "of one substance with the Father." As a matter of theology, the word asserts that "whatever is divine" in Jesus, his deity, is as truly and fully divine as very God himself; but as a matter of religious conviction and experience, it is the assertion that very God, in all his mystery and in all his glory, is of "one substance with," is the same reality as, that which in Jesus Christ we have been given to see and know and touch and feel. So we dare to say, with the Johannine writer, that "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all."

Some wise words of the former Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge are helpful to us in thinking of all these matters. Writing on "Bible and Dogma," Dr. John Burnaby has said:

It should be the work of Christian teachers in every generation, first, to understand the Scriptures, to distinguish what gives unity to the message of the Bible from what is peculiar to this or that writer, what is central from what is peripheral, what is essential from what is accidental; and then, on the basis of such understanding, to develop a doctrine of the act of God in Christ which will be intelligible, or at least not meaningless, to the contemporary mind.

If that is the "work of Christian teachers," how much more does it indicate to us the nature of the task which is set for Christian preachers!

Our task, as those who would be faithful preachers of the Word of God, is to bring to our people the Lord Jesus Christ, so that they may share in his "grace and truth." This task we perform in the setting of the Church, whose gospel we proclaim. But we preach to people in this day and age, and we must be aware of the problems which face us as we seek loyally to mediate the everlasting gospel to them in their condition. Christ cannot fail, even if we can and do. Our only hope is in his using us, in all our weakness, for the fulfillment of his great purpose, that men may have "life in him."

 

*For a fuller treatment of this theme, see Pittenger, The Word Incarnate (New York: Harper & Bros., 1959), pp. 33-44.

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