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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.

Chapter 1: Myth and Symbol

The contemporary world is almost pathologically concerned with the problem of communication. Frequently we hear that in the modern world communication has broken down. Certainly this is a fact. The question is, however, whether communication has broken down in the technical sense or has been destroyed because we are not sure about what we are communicating. Perhaps it is not only communication but faith that has broken down. Perhaps we fail in both faith and reason. It can be that we have come short of the kind of community that nourishes both faith and reason. Possibly this community itself has become alienated and estranged from its own source and reality.

Man may be unable to communicate because he is a stranger to himself and to God. Where there is no God, says Kierkegaard, there is no self. (A theme in Sickness unto Death (Princeton University Press, 1941). Communication may also have been cut off because man has become a stranger to his fellow men. Thus, the concern about communication may be basically a concern about community, and the problem of community may itself be the problem of faith.

If this assumption be right, communication has broken down negatively because of fear, or even more fundamentally, because of anxiety about the self, about others, and about God. Faithlessness disrupts community and destroys communication. On the positive side, communication may have become impossible because the God that provided the unity of discourse for communication has been deposed as too small. There are deep drives of honesty that reject too narrow and too ignoble views of God. Maybe a deeper layer of reality in man is refusing outworn faiths, and arguments not truly adequate to authenticate real faith.

Positively and negatively, the question of communication may be the question of community in relation to faith. Linguistics, however, is a science in itself. We have no intention of starting a discourse on theological language and then shifting the investigation from communication in the religious realm to the question of community as such or to the question of faith. But we should, at the very beginning, keep in mind that the question of communication cannot be isolated, either from the person or from the community, or even from faith and reason as organized activities in ordinary usage on the part of individuals and communities. This chapter will be concerned basically with the question of symbol and myth, and their proper use in language. In this connection we shall consider in particular Paul Tillich’s use of symbol and Rudolf Bultmann’s use of myth.


By a linguistic symbol, I do not mean a sound or a written word that directly signifies a thing, a relation, or any property of the thing or of the relation. When a word stands for a thing, an event, a being, or for relations among these, that word is a sign and not a symbol if its signification derives from custom, convention, or from ordinary usage in a generally accepted manner. A reliable sign indicates directly or denotatively what is signified, what is intended. A sign, therefore, in this sense gives us literal language. A symbol is a sign used to indicate, within a context of common understanding, a reality not directly or literally designated but indicated, suggested, or represented by the sign. The distinction must never be made between a sign indicating some actual reality of a physical nature, and a symbol indicating meaning and not existence. Such a distinction is "loaded." It is prejudicial from the start. Both the sign and the symbol, when correctly used, point, but one points directly or denotatively; the other points indirectly, suggestively, representatively, or connotatively. The word "unicorn" as a sign means a fictional being; as a symbol, along with the lion it suggests the British Empire. Here the sign indicates the fictional; the symbol, the actual. However, the existence or nonexistence of the thing signified, the designatum, is not the difference between the linguistic signs and symbols.

To demonstrate this, let us look at another example. As a sign, the word "flag" indicates a piece of cloth of a certain pattern. As a symbol, the word "flag" signifies the country it represents. In this instance both are equally real; but one is indicated by a sign literally, the other by a symbolic representation of it. If I say, "I am going to buy a flag," the sign usage is clear; if I say, "I love my flag," the symbolic usage is generally understood.

A symbol is legitimately used only when there is common understanding regarding the nature and reality of that which is symbolized; otherwise, the symbol is vague or misleading. The expression "Christmas day" as a sign generally signifies December twenty-five. "Santa Claus" can be a symbol for Christmas if by custom or convention he represents the general mood and activities of the secular aspects of Christmas. "Santa Claus" is not properly used as a symbol for the meaning of Christmas in a historic sense. The word "crèche" is a proper symbol for the true meaning of Christmas, the historic fact of the nativity of Christ. Similarly, the word "God" as a sign indicates the Supreme Being; the words "light" or "rock" may stand for God symbolically. Neither usage determines the question whether God is real or fictional.

Trouble comes linguistically when the nature and reality of what has been commonly symbolized as real is called into question and disbelieved. Then the literal reality disappears, to be replaced by fiction. Linguistically, this situation gives rise to the improper expression "only a symbol," meaning that this no longer is or never was legitimately a symbol for something real. Thus, when the supernatural events symbolized by the word "crèche" are not taken to be historic fact, the crèche is improperly called "only a symbol." It no longer symbolizes in the accustomed linguistic sense. Therefore, to call it a symbol in this sense is misleading. The status of what is symbolized has been changed, and the word does not now have "only" symbolic meaning, but "different" symbolic meaning.

The myth, or even the saga, is of similar nature, but according to custom and convention it is used in the opposite way. A myth stands for a historic event which is fictitious. A saga stands for a legendary happening, an event not literally true. Whether or not these words were differently used before Pindar, for instance, is only of historic importance. The main dictionary usages now indicate fictional events. A myth may involve historic reference with more than human actors or dimensions. What matters is that "myth" linguistically is properly used only in accordance with custom and convention, for only thus is communication reliably effected. For this reason, the expression "only a myth," when used to indicate that what is given in communication is not real but fictional, is a phrase properly used.


But is there no other legitimate place for myth? Cannot a myth, for instance, speaking in literal, historic terms, stand for more general historic fact that is not fictitious in nature, and yet is not directly signified by the myth? Cannot the virgin birth of Christ, for instance, instead of being a literal, historic, biological fact, be a dramatic, "metaphysical" myth signifying the literal, historic fact of the primacy of God’s initiative in the Incarnation? Or cannot the dramatic death of Jesus on Calvary represent, mythically, beyond any literally ascertainable causation, the total self-giving of God for man? Cannot myth stand for realities suggested by concrete, vivid events of life, historic or fictitious, that are less adequately represented by literal, nonsymbolic language? In such a case, the myth signifies an objective counterpart, a reality beyond itself, although a reality less literally defined. The content of what is signified becomes more general, or at least less concretely indicated. The historic myth can then symbolize, beyond its literal fictional meaning, a metaphysical or theological truth both in (Cf. Kierkegaard’s claim that "the myth represents as outward that which occurred inwardly." Concept of Dread [Princeton University Press, 1944], P- 42) and beyond human history. Does not a myth thus used elicit the richness of the imagination and actually convey more of the truth intended than does a nonsymbolic statement? A myth in this sense is the symbolic use of a historic event.

To return to the case of the symbol, can there be a more extended use of symbol that is not improper? For instance, can the sign-word symbolize not a reality beyond itself or other than self but a reality, a depth reality of its own self in which it participates? The symbol then serves to clarify the fuller meaning, nature, or power of the thing, relation, or description which is not obvious in a literal or nonsymbolic use of the word. Thus, says Tillich, the literal meaning of Jesus as a historic figure may fail decisively to suggest the symbolic meaning of his life -- the power of being not only to maintain itself in being but to make for harmony of being. Meaning and being can thus be used in the fullest possible way through the symbol of a concrete life. Literally, we know little with full accuracy about this life, but a picture is suggested by it, says Tillich, as to the kind of reality in which that life and ours participate. This is the way in which Tillich uses the word "symbol." In this usage, the life of Jesus is both sign and symbol, but only the symbol participates in the reality of that which is symbolized.

Can myth similarly stand both for the fictitious nature of what is literally signified and also for the richness of experience that cannot be reduced to nonsymbolic, propositional language? This is Bultmann’s use of myth. Thus the Cross and the resurrection can be fictitious as historic occurrences of supernatural events -- a god dying and being resuscitated in human history literally -- but at the same time convey the fullness of such authentic experience as alone affords salvation. The myth, when genuine, then, serves to clarify and direct experience; but when not genuine, Bultmann maintains, it is merely fictitious, referring human historic events and realities to another world which science has shown us to be nonexistent. True myth should be used, but false myths should be destroyed or demythologized.

Is there sound reason why the use of symbol and myth cannot be extended creatively in this way? Language refuses to "stay put." The main requirement of language is integrity of communication. Language requires clarity of usage as well as honesty of intent. Therefore, the following rules obtain: (1) When the natural meaning of the symbolism is intended, as in supernatural activities present in the nativity of Jesus, there is no problem except capacity and depth of understanding on both sides of the communication through symbols. (2) When faith in what is naturally symbolized is gone, with no new meaning taking the place of the old, to use the symbol as "only a symbol’’ is improper use of language. (3) To use the symbol without indicating lack of faith in the nature and reality of what is symbolized is misleading usage, forfeiting integrity of language.

The more difficult case arises when a new content has taken the place of the naturally intended meaning, as in the case of the use of the virgin birth to indicate the miraculous initiative of God in the Incarnation, although not necessarily through a biological miracle. Such usage may be justified, for instance, if the speaker stands within a tradition where these symbols are constantly used. Then merely either to affirm or to deny the signification of the symbol is misleading. Integrity in such a case requires the speaker to clarify beyond all culpable confusion his own use of the symbol, both by declaring what he does not mean to convey and by indicating what he literally does intend. Accepted usage means reliability of communication. Something is offered for knowledge as nearly, completely, and accurately as the speaker can convey the content of his thought.

Tillich and Bultmann have every right to use language creatively, even when they thereby deny and deviate from the historic faith. They claim that they have shed the husks and are maintaining and bringing to light the true grain of the historic affirmations. (For detailed discussion of Tillich’s position see Chapter 11 and for Bultmann’s, see Chapter 10.) Difficulty arises when they fail to communicate clearly and definitely what they really mean. Thus, in their use of the resurrection or of life eternal they have misled innumerable hearers and readers who have understood them to be affirming the actual rising of Jesus from the dead and literal life after death as the continuation of personal existence within the grace and glory of God. Instead, they have been referring to possibilities for present experience, for resources of reality and healing in this life.

The difficulty has been multiplied by the fact that many readers have mistakenly taken their teaching as a natural but elevated use of symbols, while other readers have been uncertain of what is actually intended, and only a small though increasing number of initiates have accepted these theologies precisely because of their radical difference from the historic doctrines. We find in Tillich’s case that he believes it best not to disillusion people by stating clearly what he means, and therefore he advocates the use of symbols with all three groups of people: the precritical, the hesitant, and the initiated. (Cf. The Dynamics of Faith [Harper & Brothers, 1957], pp. 52-53.)

Now, however, a problem arises in the use of language by Tillich and Bultmann, for that which a few experts have understood for a long time -- namely, what these men really mean to communicate -- is becoming increasingly clear to more and more people. Their use of symbol and myth to refer not to a separate, uncreate divine realm centering in a personal God who is creator, ruler, judge and fulfiller of earthly and human history, but rather to the conditions, categorical or existential, for human life and authentic existence, is revolutionary, and should have been more carefully communicated in the first place.

To be sure, both Bultmann and Tillich have made some efforts to this effect. In The Dynamics of Faith, Tillich has set forth his views of symbols almost in terms of the problem of Clement of Alexandria, as a sophisticated gnosiology, a new gnosticism; and we have Bultmann’s famous essay on demythologizing. Tillich of late has been increasingly willing to clarify his use of symbols, as witnessed, for instance, by the second volume of his Systematic Theology. The fact is, however, that the Church as a whole has been carried along without knowing where it has been led. Many interpreters have used the writings of these men in the belief that they had intended the historic fact and the historic faith. Now there is increasing confusion among people regarding the use of the theologies of these two great scholars, and many of them find return to classical Christianity impossible after long living with these writings.


The question then arises: Have Bultmann and Tillich no right to the use of symbol and myth? If they are convinced of the truth they see, and find their truth centering in the radical reinterpretation of the original Gospel message, are they not delivering the Church from faith in externals of interpretation of cosmology as well as of objective thinking and supernatural terms generally? Are they not, then, midwives of true faith, and should not the delivery be as easy as it is possible to make it? Should it be required of them that they raise the prejudices of their readers, that they paint in bold pictures the outworn shell which they are asking people to surrender for the living kernel of truth? If we assume them correct in their interpretation, have they not a right to their method, which is adapting usage to new truth? Alfred North Whitehead called such strategy the essence of sociological wisdom. If we assume them wrong, however, we may feel that they were underhanded in not being more explicit in their use of symbols and in allowing the general reader as well as numerous interpreters, to read their own meanings into these teachings. We may feel that they are guilty of guile.

The whole question rests on the legitimate use of symbols in communication. Can the usage of these two leading scholars help us to determine the proper place and power of theological language? We can understand their own feeling of allegiance to the historic faith, intellectually and emotionally. We can also enter into their personal need to be accepted by the historic community. We can, besides, identify ourselves with their desire to communicate truth and dispel error as effectively as possible by the use of symbol and myth. These are convenient and potent means. We have no right, therefore, to deprive them of their usage.

In the long run, however, mankind depends on the integrity of linguistic usage, and when the fuller use of symbols by these men is understood, there is bound to be deep disillusionment, widespread confusion, and great hardship in returning to the historic faith or in finding a faith adequate for life. It had been better, far better, I believe, if they had stipulated unmistakably their idiosyncratic usage of symbol and myth.

The proper use of symbol and myth is not easy to define. Suppose, however, that neither the historic doctrines, especially in their literal biblical forms, nor the radically severe rejection by Tillich and Bultmann of classical Christian transcendence is right. What then? What can we say of the proper use of language? Is it possible that symbols and myth in the Bible and in the creeds cannot be used in their usual historic signification? Certainly in innumerable instances this claim seems almost a platitude to modern man. What educated modern man really believes, for instance, in Noah’s ark and the flood covering the whole world? Do we have to choose between fundamentalist literalism and Tillich’s and Bultmann’s denial of the heart of the classical faith?

Suppose, instead, that the symbol stands correctly for a reality more than, other than, "beyond" cosmic existence and human history, and not only a logical presupposition or as an invisible power or as some ground available within cosmic existence and human life, but as an actual, personal Purpose, as the eternal concern of personal Spirit, correctly and centrally indicated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What attitude shall we then take toward the use of symbol and myth by these men?

If the Christian faith at its classical center is true, as I believe, then to accept the content of these men’s faith is obviously disastrous for the Christian community. Without a personal God, without providence as God’s guiding activity, without prayer as communion, and without life beyond death, the Christian claim of Christ loses its power and promise. On the other hand, if the biblical myths and such historic faith can no longer be taken literally as reliably intended in that form by the believer, these men have dared to pioneer in their use of symbol and myth. The liberals often dispensed with symbols and myths as irrational and unreal in their signification and reduced them, all too often, to "nothing but myth" and "only a symbol." Can we accept their position? Is truth fully expressible in propositional form or is such usage of language the reduction and eventual destruction of the faith?

If theological language is not thus reducible to propositions, can symbol and myth be used properly without needless confusion, misguidance, and possibly lack of integrity in communication? How can this matter be justly and creatively settled?


There are three ways to arbitrate and adjudicate in these matters: history, experience, and truth in general.

History as man’s life on earth is our first judge. To it we address the question whether faith, once it is radically reoriented and transvaluated by Tillich and Bultmann, is the same in basic nature and reality as it was before. Is the new faith at heart what the original faith basically intended? History gives Tillich and Bultmann no right to claim that their new faith was the "original" rather than the "objective" Gospel. They base their assertion on their own conviction that the objective structure of classical Christianity is unreal or false and that therefore it could not have been what gave the early Christians the unity and power which changed the course of history.

The evaluation or appraisal of the truth-claim of the Gospel, however, lies outside the realm and method of history as such and cannot be settled within its jurisdiction. The only claim the court of history can settle is the question whether the original believers basically claimed to believe the objective structure and content of the Christian Gospel, or whether their testimony shows that what really moved them was the power and reality released within their own experience. Boiled down, the question is whether faith in the objectively existing God and in the actually risen Lord, plus faith in life beyond the grave, were indispensable to the original believers or whether in fact these questions were secondary to their faith.

The answer cannot be entirely clear, nor is it easy; but it seems that apart from unself-conscious faith in the God of the Old Testament, the creator, the Lord of history, and apart from faith in the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection from the dead of the believers, the disciples would not have been capable of the faith of the martyrs. Paul summarized this historic fact by saying that if the hope of Christians lay in this life only, they were of all men most miserable. Without this objective faith they felt, indeed, as the Revised Standard Version expresses it, pitiable, and even that they were making God a liar.

Love expressed in a new kind of community and God-centeredness characterized the early Church, as Adolf Harnack vividly explained: the mission and expansion of Christianity could not have come, apart from a driving faith in the supernatural God of the Bible. It was in him they trusted. As far as we can see an answer from history, this answer belies the centrality of the disciples’ original faith in what Bultmann calls "authentic existence" and what Tillich calls "the power to maintain and make for harmony of being," rather than the objective faith in the literally living God who created nature and life, and raises the dead. Details of Christ’s first coming and coming again could and did vary, but not the fact of his supernatural nature and Lordship -- the man whom God anointed and made to be both Christ and Lord.

Then what of experience as judge? What is its answer to the nature and reality symbolized by Christian terms? When Bultmann claims that we can know only experience, and God as he comes in experience -- that we cannot know God objectively without reducing him to a finite, controlled object, one among many -- experience becomes both channel and standard of knowledge. But such experience is artificially and fatally cut off from its own history. Apart from knowledge as a social act where sources of experience have been identified, evaluated, sorted, and communicated for countless ages, there can be no rich and deep experience in the present. We bring an objective structure of interpreted experience to the existential continuum to clarify it and to make possible response and appropriation or rejection. The existential nature of all true knowledge is indeed necessary, but the existential interpretation of experience by itself truncates it into impotence. Apart from an objective continuum of social interpretation, the individual experience is thin beyond all imagination and certainly no court at all for deciding about the nature of what is experienced. Even subjective confessional language presupposes such a history of concepts and ideas, the meaning of language within an objectively enduring community. Tillich is aware of the fact and avoids much of the danger of existentialist subjectivism by his use of the logos, or rational structure within the universe, whereas Bultmann tries to skirt the danger by appealing to the New Testament for what God did in Christ. He also aims to avoid it by using objective language like God’s "meeting us in Christ," an expression which misleadingly indicates knowledge of an objective reality, the very thing that he passionately rejects. Thus, Bultmann tries to have his cake and eat it too.

The existential language these men use stands for a permanent and intrinsic need of faith and should be appreciated and appropriated. However, the existentialist philosophy is a partial virtue, which when taken as the rejection of objectivist affirmation deals a wounding blow to faith. Such philosophy cannot at all decide concerning the proper use of symbols. It has no basis of common, communicable interpretation. If we assume common human nature, our meeting the same kind of experiences, as Martin Heidegger does, we are already well on the road to objectivist interpretation. Although we cannot draw easy or premature conclusions from this fact, we can see, at least, that experience as such cannot be the court of appeal concerning the proper use of language, whether of symbol or of myth.

The third judge is truth in general, the knowledge of the nature and meaning of what we experience, however hard such truth may be to establish. If there is no such truth, we are left with a completely relativistic, existentialist viewpoint where the subject cannot even be meaningfully discussed. But both Tillich and Bultmann appeal to history and to science as well as to philosophy. They both speak of "modern man" who can no longer believe the classical Christian message at its transcendent center. Whatever be their specific views on science and philosophy, they both affirm that the personal God, the creator and Lord of all earth and history, is a symbol or a myth that educated man cannot accept. They thus affirm a world-view, whether they admit it, as Tillich does, or deny it, as Bultmann does. In doing so, they lean on a faith, a mystique, a naïve ultimate, a credulity far harder to believe: namely, that the long history of creation, with its series of organically related and fulfilling novelties constituting the unity of the universe that we now know, especially at its highest, most complex becoming, has come to be without any transcendent cause, concern, and purpose; or else they leave unexplained, in the order of being, the nature of this process of creation.

To think that there is no creative ground beyond process is to affirm that the most meaningful developments of cosmic process have come from nothing, and completely by chance. Such a denial of the need for explanation is never justified by recourse to minimum hypothesis, for adequate hypothesis is equally important. Explanation must either give adequate account or point beyond itself, by inference to the most likely ground or to mystery. To deny the need for adequate explanation is to undermine the meaning of reasoned knowledge. Such denial may be due to lack of adequate analysis, an innocent ignorance, or it may be due to the subconscious or conscious fleeing from conclusions. Evolution as a theory of explanation, not as a description of development, is a most incredible faith, not worthy of hardheaded thinkers.

No matter how the problem of evil is then approached, this problem cannot nullify the reality of the creator. Perhaps he can also be conceived of as love. If we start with the truth of suffering as seen in the meaning of the Cross, and if we get a view of God incomparably, immeasurably larger, in the reality and in the scope of his working -- certainly far beyond our earthly lives -- the most adequate faith then remains, and is increasingly to be sought in the nature and reality of God as centrally signified by the Christian symbols and myths. Linguistically it is better, however, to speak not centrally of symbols and myths, but of the Christ-deed or of the revelational event as leading us to the knowledge of faith. As we use these terms, however, symbol fits Christian usage more readily than myth.

On the level of knowledge alone, the question cannot be settled as to the nature and reality of what is symbolized or involved in the true use of religious symbols or myths. But neither a denial of the dimension of transcendence nor the existentialist avoidance of it can satisfy an open, searching, and competent faith. How such transcendence can be pictured and established in the modern world is another matter. "The need for transcendence is one of the most basic needs of man."(Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving [Harper & Brothers, 1956], p. 51.) All philosophizing, claims Karl Jaspers, is directed toward transcendence. To deny the classical Christian transcendence is certainly not the answer. Rather must we understand it in terms of, and in relation to, our best modern language. Faith must remain faith, but faith can be informed.

In the next chapter we shall discuss two main questions concerning knowledge: that of paradox and that of analogy, discontinuity and continuity with human knowledge as two possible main roads for theological language. In the third chapter we shall treat the modern question of linguistic analysis and how classical Christian transcendence can still be accepted by competently informed and honest modern man.






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