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 7: Can Classical Christianity Be Defended?
The Christian faith centers in Christ. Christ is God come to earth in a human being. The God who came is love. He is best known through the Cross and the resurrection as suffering and victorious love. To all who believe Him, who repent and are forgiven, God gives eternal life, both here and beyond death.
Those who know such eternal life form a community of Christ, of free and full love, creative and redemptive. Such is forever the heart of the Christian faith.
Classical Christianity is flanked on both sides by false views of the Christian faith. Let us think of the classical Christian faith as the central castle in which true Christians live with deep satisfaction, a stronghold that they are bound to defend, and a home in which is the kind of life that is best for all people. It is the true home even of those who are not within it. It is beset from without by enemies anxious to raze it because they falsely feel themselves threatened by it.
Of the false positions two are on the right and two are on the left of the castle. On the extreme right are the fundamentalists. They are the ones who are stirred into great rage because the true defenders of the castle in this day of modern warfare are no longer using the crossbow.
They are more given to crying "heretic, heretic" at the true defenders and to shooting them in the back with their bows and arrows than they are to defending the castle itself with modern weapons and against the real enemies.
This is to say that the fundamentalists want to identify true Christianity with a literalism of the Bible which is impossible for any honest and educated man of our day. We cannot believe in a world made 6,000 years ago, in a flat earth with corners, or in a sun that goes around the earth.
Nor can we believe that things in the Bible inconsistent with the love of God in Christ are true or Christian. Neither is he blessed or right who dasheth the little ones of his enemies against a stone or who attributes the tortures of an eternal hell to the sovereign God of love.
Next to the fundamentalists on the right side of the castle of classical Christianity stand the neo-Calvinists. They believe in the castle, but they do not believe it needs defense from, or communication with, the people who are attacking it. They cry: "Our castle is beautiful. Let us worship in it. It cannot be taken. Let us praise it and enjoy it."
To interpret this part of the parable is to say that the neoCalvinists, such as Karl Barth, do not believe in relating the Christian message to the world either in terms of defense or of intercommunication. They insist on the principle of unconditional surrender on the part of the enemies. While they are right that the castle is its own best recommendation and defense, they do not see that the enemy outside is made up of those who belong inside and who can be reached by concerned communication.
The Christian faith can win those outside when it is willing to show on every needed level that it is saving truth and that it can truly help and satisfy the very ones who are attacking. The Christian faith should remain stoutly itself and at the same time reach out to influence educational, social, and civic behavior.
Farthest on the left stand the demythologizers. They believe that the castle of classical Christianity has no place in modern life. It can no longer be defended because it is no necessary part of the Christian faith. Therefore, they have gone out on the field in front of the castle crying that the flag and the uniforms are what makes Christianity Christian. Out on the field they fight both the defenders of the castle (those who believe in an evangelical supernaturalism centered in Christ) and those who are arrayed against the Christian faith as a whole.
Within this body of warriors stand great thinkers like Rudolf Bultmann in Europe and Paul Tillich in the United States, who have become convinced that the objective structure of classical Christianity, a God beyond this world and an eternal life beyond this world, can no longer be believed in by men stringently trained in science.
They believe, however, that the original faith of the early Christians was in the Cross and the resurrection as the power to overcome all the enemies of human existence in this life by the power of reality, the power for life and for love that are being contained within the very ground of being. They keep, therefore, the symbols of faith and discard the castle with which classical Christianity identified these symbols. They give up the structure of faith while believing that they have kept the faith itself.
Next to the castle on the left stand the liberals. They are busy with plans to put new conveniences in the castle, to modernize it. They want new plumbing, central heating, and some even want air conditioning. Then they want to invite the enemy to inspect the castle to see for themselves if the castle is not the best place in which to live.
Interpreted, this part of the parable means that the liberals want to be accepted by those who use general methods of truth. They do not want to think of the Christian faith as different in kind from other truth. They want instead to show that it is the forefront of all truth concerning life’s meaning.
Christ becomes the great example and helper for men. He shows man what true humanity can be like. He contains as much of God as man can; and by accepting the God whose will and way we see in him, all men can find their way to heaven and home.
Man is good because the God whom we see in Christ made him, and man’s reason is a reliable tool for knowledge of salvation as well as for knowledge of how to navigate the seas. What man needs is to become serious and concerned with regard to the will of God. Then the God who is love will give him a new social order and will grant him at last either peace after life or life after death.
What then shall I say of this parable? I believe all positions to contain genuine truths, but all positions, too, need to come home to the castle. They need to move into the center. Fundamentalists are right in defending classical Christianity in supernatural, evangelical terms. God in Christ as creator, redeemer, and consummator is our only hope. Christ is our Gospel, the God who came to earth as universal holy love and who waits and woos to save us now.
The fundamentalists, however, need to listen to the demythologizers. The extreme right needs to listen to the extreme left. The Bible needs to be radically rethought in terms of Christ and the best knowledge we have. Whatever in the Bible can be shaken by legitimate science is of earthly knowledge. The heart of the Christian faith, God in Christ as holy love, cannot be shaken.
Those on the extreme left, contrariwise, ought to recapture the vision of the evangelical faith. My book Faith and Reason shows that the structure of the classical Christian faith alone can satisfy the fullest and most stringent demands for knowledge.
If the extremes come together in Christ, we shall keep the heart of both the fundamentalist and the demythologizing drives: the drive for a full, saving faith and the drive for integrity of knowledge within faith.
Similarly, the neo-Calvinists ought to learn from the liberals, even though the liberals revolted originally against them. Any neo-Calvinist movement that has not passed through the liberal concern for knowledge and for social responsibility finds itself in a brittle position. It is an isolationist position that denies the Christian faith at its heart.
At the same time, the liberal position has lost the Christian heart, God’s own unique presence in Christ as Savior. It has surrendered the claim for a special revelation that is obnoxious to man, who is dominantly sinful and in need of redemption. The sinner will not and cannot see the Christian revelation unless he repents and is born again. When he does so, his eyes are cleansed by faith.
Let the neo-Calvinist learn that the Christian faith, though distinctive, can and must be related to education and social responsibility, even though in an unexpected and revolutionary way. God’s love comes also as light, albeit as the "subversive fulfillment" of the expectations of the natural man.
Let the liberal, too, return to the center of God’s holy presence in Christ. When he does, he will find that his concern for the relevance of truth and for social responsibility is helped, not hindered, by Christ, the truth. He will have to reinterpret human nature as sinful in the stronger light of God’s revelation in Christ, and the whole question of community and communication will be revolutionized.
Those who return to the center will not, I believe, quickly leave the castle. Christ is the answer, not the easy answer of repristination, but the creatively demanding answer of constantly discovering how rich and deep and satisfying is the universal love of God, issuing always in open and concerned community. Christ is the creative, revolutionary answer to man’s need for life and truth.
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