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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Preface and Acknowledgments

Books are made or grow. This one grew. It represents my most recent thinking on many subjects, with a strong common core of the bearing of this thinking on contemporary theology, philosophy, social theory, biblical interpretation, and education. This volume, therefore, may be read as a whole or by sections. Many readers are concerned now with this interest and now with that, and grope for recent, relevant discussion of them. The present work lends itself easily to either use.

The intense interest in theological language may be temporary, but it certainly is contemporary. From personal observation while teaching in both Oxford and Manchester, I know how the Church has been hurt by a false approach to it in much of British thinking. And the toll is beginning to be taken in America. We need constructive conversation with the linguistic analysts, and on the whole question of theological language. John Hick and Willem Zuurdeeg have begun to use analysis and to formulate Christian thinking with reference to it. To a large extent Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann must be interpreted with regard to their use of myth and symbol.

The first section is composed of the Adams Lectures at the First Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana. My thanks to the Rev. Benjamin Garrison and to the Trustees of the Foundation.

To inaugurate a new lectureship is an awesome responsibility. The Faith and Freedom Lectures at American University, Washington, D.C., put me in such a position for the sixth time. My foremost impression was the vision of those who made it possible for lectures to be given on so central a subject in the most strategic city of the world. My thanks to all those at American University and at the nearby Wesley Seminary who helped in launching the lectureship. What topic is more urgent in social theory than the relation between faith and freedom in its bearing on contemporary decisions? This material was also used in the Mendenhall Lectures at De Pauw University, a lectureship set up for the pastors of Indiana as well as for the students of the university. This occasion was filled with first-class theological interest. My thanks to President Russell J. Humbert and all connected with this important undertaking. Once again these lectures were used for the Elva M. Peel Theological Lectureship at the University Methodist Church in Minneapolis.

By far the largest section of the book deals with contemporary theology. The short parable of the castle of classical Christianity, although less "scholarly" in tone than the rest, serves a real purpose of preliminary orientation. Readers may rear at the sharpness, but blinders are not for mature thinkers. The tracing of theology for one hundred years as a background for contemporary interpretation is largely American in scope. It was done as part of the one-hundredth anniversary celebration of the Winthrop Club of Boston. In it American theology, however, is within the compass of the larger scene of Protestant development. The treatment of Tillich in this section as well as in the first should be seen in the light of my fuller dealing with his thought in Chapter 1l. The statement on the future of theology in Chapter 12 is the most careful one I have made. The lectures on contemporary theology were first given at Phillips University, and inaugurated the Caleb Davies Lectureship. The reception these serious lectures on theology received, especially from the undergraduate student body, still astonishes me. The interest in theology in Oklahoma runs high! Dean England and the faculty of the College of the Bible made me feel thoroughly at home. Much of this material was also presented as the Crozer Lectures at Crozer Theological Seminary and as the Moravian Lectures at the Moravian Theological Seminary. What happy memories I have of both occasions.

The section "New Light on Old Problems" comprises discussion of God’s presence in nature and Christian experience, but especially in the Bible. The chapter on natural theology is my presidential address for the American Theological Society. That year, the whole Society was dealing with natural theology. The concern over this problem has increased even more after Karl Barth’s recent swiveling in his basic stance.

One of the main reasons for confusion and consequent dissipation of strength in the Church and in theological education is the lack of a constructive Christian approach to the Bible that is thoroughly open both to scholarship and to full faith. I was invited to give constructive comments on the struggle among biblical scholars over the principles for interpreting the Bible. The chapter on hermeneutics represents more preparation and more hard work than any summation I have done of similar length. The treatment of the authority of the Bible bespeaks my basic attitude both to the meaning and to the use of the Bible for the contemporary Church. Some will feel that the two chapters differ in both perspective and attitude. Indeed, all sections and chapters in this book come at our contemporary problems from varying viewpoints and emotional involvements. Therefore, common themes appear several times, but always within differing contexts and circumstances. Such use of "searchlights" is the central meaning and motivation of the book. Lynchburg College asked me to give the Snidow Lecture on Christian experience. Leaders of fundamentalist sects fought to prevent my coming, but the college and the ministry of Lynchburg rallied quickly to the defense of the freedom of the Gospel.

The book concludes, I hope climactically, with higher education. During the next few years, denominations and national agencies will be concentrating on higher education. Since I wrote my book on the subject at the invitation of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and gave the Danforth Lectures at Boston University on the subject, I have been especially concerned with the question. The discussion of contemporary theology with respect to higher education I undertook at the request of the American Baptist Educational Committee, for its annual conference, and of the National Council on Religion in Higher Education as the opening lecture at its Week of Work. The general treatment of education and values I prepared as a lecture for Elmhurst College, and the chapter on the Church-related college resulted from an invitation to give an address at the one-hundred-twenty-fifth anniversary of Kalamazoo College.

The Adams Lectures and the Faith and Freedom Lectures are here published for the first time. Other chapters have appeared as follows: Chapter 7, "Can Classical Christianity Be Defended?" appeared as "The Choice before Us" in the Pulpit, January, 1957; in Episcopal Church News, Sept. 16, 1956; and in the British Weekly, April 19, 1956; Chapter 8, "Contemporary Theology in the Light of One Hundred Years," in Theology Today, October, 1958; Chapter 9, "The Rise and Role of Neo-Orthodoxy," in the Voice, January, 1959, and in the Moravian Theological Seminary Bulletin, Fall, 1959; Chapter 10, "The Meaning and Power of Neonaturalism and Existentialism" in the Moravian Theological Seminary Bulletin, Fall, 1959; Chapter 1l, "Three Critical Issues in Tillich’s Philosophical Theology," in the Scottish Journal of Theology, September, 1957; Chapter 12, Were do we go from Here in Theology?" in Religion in Life, Winter, 1956; Chapter 13, "Natural Theology and the Christian Faith," in the Scottish Journal of Theology, December, 1958; Chapter 14, "Notes by a Theologian on Biblical Hermeneutics" in the Journal of Biblical Literature, June, 1959; Chapter 15, "The Bible as Authority" in the Asbury Seminarian, Fall-Winter, 1959; Chapter 16, "A Definition of God in the Light of Twentieth-Century Knowledge," in Religion in Life, Autumn, 1958; Chapter 17, "The Nature and Power of Christian Experience" in From Lynchburg College, November, r957; Chapter 18, "Contemporary Theology and Christian Higher Education" in the Christian Scholar, June, 1958; Chapter 19, "Higher Education and Values" in Religion in Life, Autumn, 1960; Chapter 20, "The Church-Related College and a Mature Faith" in Religious Education, March-April, 1959. My thanks to all concerned for having granted special permission to use this material and for the chance to present it to still wider circles.

The final typing of the manuscript was done by Mrs. Robert Suddath. My wife and I worked on the finishing touches together, and we have never felt more closely united by a common task. Two of my best critics have strongly urged the publication of this material, claiming that I communicate best by this kind of writing. Whether or not this be true, I send this book out with humble confidence that it will accomplish whatever work God has given me to do.

Nels F. S. Ferré

Newton Centre, Massachusetts

January, 1961





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