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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 8: Contemporary Theology in the Light of One Hundred Years

Christian theology deals with the eternal reality of God and the eternal relativity of man. The theologian confesses that in Christ the Eternal has come, but within the limitations of human time. Gustaf Wingren, the Swedish theologian, has written that theology moves between the poles of hermeneutics and anthropology: the steady truth of the Bible and the changing way men in history must necessarily interpret and apply its truth.(Theology in Conflict [Muhlenberg Press, 1958])

Søren Kierkegaard calls the attempt to look forward in the light of the past "repetition." It is, he says, repeating the past forward.

Hope [he writes] is a new garment, starched and stiff and glittering, but it has never yet been worn, and hence one does not know whether it will fit or how it may become one. Memory is an old garment, and quite useless, however beautiful, for it has been outgrown. But repetition is an imperishable garment, fitting intimately and tenderly.... Hope is a beautiful maiden who slips through your fingers; memory is a handsome old dowager, never quite serving the purpose of the moment; repetition is a beloved wife, of whom one never tires.(Philosophical Fragments, Introduction, p. xxi. I cite the passage from this book rather than from Repetition because of David Swenson’s beauty of translation).

In this spirit of repetition we have chosen to look at the present in the light of the past for the sake of the future. Mere memory is death in the past; the future, too, tempts us to escape from reality. Full health and vigor is evidenced by learning from the past in the present in order the better to live in the future.


The last hundred years of theological thinking inherited two main lines of theological pursuit: classical Christianity and anti-supernaturalism. In some real sense the two streams may be called respectively the theology of authority and the theology of autonomy. The two rivers, however, are far from being fully visible and distinct. There are places where the main beds lie fairly open to clear view, but often they are all but hidden. Especially difficult is the task of determining exactly from what stream certain underground branches come and whether in the lower reaches between them at times the waters do not in fact flow together.

Classical Christianity affirms a living God who ultimately is creator, controller, and completer of human history as well as of the conditions necessary for it. Its God is supernatural. He sent his only Son in the fullness of time to die for the world’s sin and to give eternal life by his conquest of death through the resurrection of his Son from the dead. Man is a fallen creature who can find salvation and eternal life, now and after death, only by believing in Christ and by appropriating his work on man’s behalf. Faith in such a God rests either in the authority of the Church, a supernatural institution, or in the authority of the Bible, the deposit of a supernatural revelation. New England Calvinism lived within the assumed authority of the biblical revelation. A hundred years ago classical Christianity was in a larger measure precritical in the sense of not having faced modern man’s problems: the natural sciences, the historical consciousness, and the social sciences. For most churches, classical Christianity was also their naturally assumed faith.

The antisupernatural stream, at least in the Hebrew-Christian understanding of "supernatural," may be thought of as making a new methodological beginning with Descartes.(Actually, Descartes made God central ontologically, as in his use of the ontological argument, and operationally, as in God’s mediation between thought and substance. Both the operation and man’s certainty of the world depended on God. But methodologically Alfred North Whitehead is justified in attributing to Descartes the basic origin in the Western world of "the subjectivistic bias," and William Temple has reason for calling his method "the Cartesian faux pas.") Actually it runs back through Scotus Erigena to Plotinus, and before them who knows how long and far back into historic thought. Part of this river is pantheistic, part of it agnostic, and part of it merely this-worldly. The stream goes back in a special way to Descartes, however, because of his sharp break with external authority as the road to truth and because of his substituting for it a subjective method and standard. Spinoza’s "God or nature" was a natural step from there, as was British empiricism. Hume then carried out the logic of both the mood and the method when he attacked the teleological and the cosmological proofs for God and showed that from within a world of finite causes, considered as effect, we cannot arrive at an infinite cause, but only at a finite cause that is subject to continual regression. Furthermore, this finite cause cannot, from the facts of experience, be shown to be wise and good. Kant thereafter claimed to kill reason to make room for faith, but his major achievement was actually to undermine all intellectual faith in the transcendent, as he called the supernatural, and to reduce religious knowledge to a dependence upon a thisworldly morality. The religious thinker then faced the dilemma: if knowledge is univocal we do not go beyond this world; if it is equivocal, we can know nothing beyond this world. The ontological argument (Kant showed) is merely verbal or definitional and without all power of proof unless the equation of thought and being is presupposed.

As a result, positivisms began to flourish with theological agnosticism as a natural accompaniment. We need recall only such thinkers as Comte, Mill, and Spencer in the fields of general knowledge. Of far more influence, however, were foundational leaders of learning like Darwin, Marx, and Freud. Darwin was himself both an expression and a formulator of the evolutionary theory that had already become, generally and mysteriously, a wave of thought, sometimes rather carefully expressed, as in Chambers and Spencer. Explanation from below became current in biological, sociological, political, and psychological thought.

Evolutionary ideas fitted best theologically, of course, with divine immanence and with belief in religious progress. Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Feuerbach, with their several kinds of pantheism, were part of the stream and added to its dimensions. The growing power of physical science, without need of the hypothesis of God, as Laplace pointed out, the new interest in history and the development of stringent historical methods, plus the birth of the psychological and the social sciences, combined to focus man’s attention on this world. Overwhelmingly, the nontheological intellectual leadership veered sharply away from all suggestions of supernaturalism as an active alternative for man’s understanding of himself and of his world.


Into such a world theological liberalism was born. This movement was an attempt to conserve the distinctive truth of the Christian Gospel in the light of man’s catapulting knowledge and of his growing absorption with the problems of this world. Liberalism was an attempt at an honest and effective synthesis of classical Christianity and modern knowledge. Classical Christianity, in ecclesiastical or biblical terms, became increasingly isolated and defensive. Incidentally, out of this situation and mood fundamentalism was born as a biblical authoritarian reaction to liberalism. Liberalism was the attempt to give Christian content to the stream of man’s general nonauthoritative knowledge and to do so by means of a nonauthoritative method based on reason, experience, and history. Liberalism sought the reality, or at least the values, of the Christian faith, but wanted these established by, and related to, man’s general knowledge.

Liberalism is a complex response to God and the world and cannot be defined in any simple terms. The Unitarians revolted against Calvinism’s harsh view of God and its low view of man. The more conservative William Ellery Channing was almost classically Christian, revolting mainly against tritheism and a docetic, mythologized Christology, whereas the more radical Theodore Parker carried the liberal method and message to a fuller conclusion. John Murray could not square the teaching of a God of sovereign love with eternal hell, and he carried his faith in the sovereign God of love to its reasonable conclusion by proclaiming love’s ultimate victory over man even beyond death, thus breaking with an external biblicism. Albrecht Ritschl and his followers threw away metaphysics, anchoring theology in the historical Christ and in the Christ of faith, discoverable by man’s judgments of value. Others like Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden applied to man’s social conditions the promises of the Gospel, but by means of a method of reason and experience that had been enlightened and touched by the compassion of Christ. American theologians like William Newton Clark and William Adams Brown, and British theologians like John Baillie, William Temple, and Herbert Farmer took various streams of Christian tradition and general thinking and wove noble tapestries of Christian syntheses.

Of particular importance for their present perseverance as perhaps the strongest existing liberal group are the personalists who, generally speaking, combine German idealism with Christian perspectives. Borden Parker Bowne, owing much to Rudolf Lotze was a towering liberal figure and his book, The Immanence of God, was once required reading in many theological seminaries. Followed by the Kantian, Albert Knudson, and the Hegelian, Edgar S. Brightman, Bowne still lives in highly competent advocates of personalistic liberalism.

A careful study of liberalism’s method and standard of authority will reveal how deeply it became enmeshed in general theories of knowledge. Such a study can compare on this point James Martineau’s The Seat of Authority in Religion with Auguste Sabatier’s Religions of Authority and with John Oman’s The Vision of Authority. Even P. T. Forsyth’s The Principle of Authority shows the persistent power of the liberal synthesis, the combination of Christian content with various degrees of dependence on the methods and attitudes of man’s general knowledge.(A fascinating discussion of this question is found in Robert Clyde Johnson, Authority in Protestant Theology [Westminster Press, 1959] chap. iii)

No one who is sensitive to man’s despair in the face of the evils and the brevity of life can fail to honor the liberal thinkers for their concerned faith and work in trying to keep the Christian Gospel and man’s best knowledge together. Nor can liberalism be dismissed as a unit of faith or of thought. Sometimes the synthesis was mostly Christian including only from man’s general knowledge some sensitive adjustments as to the age of the earth or the patent nonscientific character of the Bible. Sometimes the method of general knowledge carried the liberal thinkers way out into the stream of humanistic optimism. Accommodationism went far enough at times to place man’s hope in science, education, or ameliorative legislation. It cannot be said that liberalism was merely a way from man to God, from reason to revelation, from general experience to religious experience, but it can be said with weight that the fact that liberalism sought to justify and secure faith’s claims by means of the methods of general knowledge tended to drag it continually by a heavy burden toward the human side of the God-man relation.

Christian content, however, can be adequately accounted for and made available by no lesser means than a thoroughly Christian method. For the Christian faith to be self-consistently strong in thought and motivation it needs as central both a Christian method and a Christian content. As it was, the Christian faith was often advocated for its social effectiveness. Liberal Christian apologetics, in fact, usually assumed as right and determinative the general standards of human thought and hope. Thus an inner dry rot set in, to the point where, when the cold winds of despair and disillusion followed our two irrational conflagrations of this century, liberalism itself generally collapsed. The inner inconsistency of liberalism could not be detected so long as it was itself carried along on man’s human confidence and general cultural achievement. With the collapse of cultural optimism the liberal synthesis between Christian reality or values and general methods of knowledge was shattered. Its inner inconsistency was laid bare. Its repudiation was merely a matter of time.


The smash was sudden and dramatic. Karl Barth, a young Swiss preacher, resurrected "the terrible Dane" in the second edition of his Epistle to the Romans. The risen Kierkegaard pounced upon the liberal inconsistency between message and method, and pulverized liberal theology with his grinding fury. Once again classical Christian authority was majestically enunciated. The Christian faith is not the word of man but the word of God. Its method is not from man to God. Its mood is not the high hopes of human dignity and achievement, but human despair in the woes of utter crisis.

The synthesis between Christian reality or values and man’s general knowledge was riven lengthwise and crosswise. Armed with Kierkegaard’s dictum that there is an infinite, qualitative distinction between time and eternity, Barth demolished every base in human knowledge, experience, history, or conscience. At no point, not even in the historic Jesus, could there be sure knowledge of God or sure hope of salvation. Knowledge demolishes Jesus Christ; from history we learn nothing; there is nothing of God in nature, history, or man. Christian preaching centers in the Bible as God’s living speech to man, particularly in the Christ who condemns and does to death completely the old man before he accepts man by sheer grace and faith. Nothing in humanity or history, which at best is proximate, can ever one whit secure or add to the absolute revelation in Christ. God himself is his own method and message.

Nearly one hundred years before, Kierkegaard had spotted the inconsistency between content and method in liberalism and had driven home with terrible vehemence many of the truths which now underline linguistic analysis (verification philosophy) and existentialism. Forsyth felt the problem and saw it in part, but he never could cut loose completely from his liberal involvements. Barth has changed in many respects and at many times both in method and in content, but on the main point of keeping Christian content and method together he has never wavered. Neither has Emil Brunner, who has given more room to man and creation in his theology. Other theologians of first rank, like Gustaf Aulen and Anders Nygren, have maintained an equal consistency at this point.

The problem of all of them, however, is the problem of arbitrariness of standard and the need for full relevance of their theology to our actual world. The Swedish theologians just named have stated specifically that our time is one for diastasis and not for synthesis, but it is also obvious that they are increasingly aware of the missing dimension in their thought. Brunner has made several attempts at a relevant outreach, particularly in Christianity and Civilization, his Gifford Lectures dealing with natural theology. He has not violated, however, his basic unity of method and content, but neither has he obtained the desired contextual control or relevance for relating the Gospel. Barth also repents of his complete absorption in Diastase rather than Analogie, as he puts it in Die Menschlichkeit Gottes, but neither has he solved his problem.

We are left with the situation that the smashing of the liberal synthesis was needed, that the reunion of method and content within an existential, Christocentric, biblical theology was good as far as it went, but that the need which liberalism tried to meet, namely to relate effectively man’s general knowledge to Chrstian realities and values, has not been met at all by the theologians of sharp transcendence. The breaking of the liberal synthesis by means of external authority, with whatever room for existential response, met a powerful need and found an overwhelming theological response. But the theology of transcendence was no full answer to our theological problem.


The liberal synthesis was shattered with equal vigor from the opposite direction. The return to the authority of the transcendent on the right was accompanied by a return to autonomy on the left. This autonomy was not, to be sure, that of humanism, epistemologically or ontologically, but rather that of antisupernaturalism. It was even called theonomy. Supernatural revelation based on external attestation, however, was definitely rejected. The autonomy was, in fact, an unashamed revival of the stream of immanence based on man’s best knowledge and analysis of the world he actually knows. Classical Christian supernaturalism was dismissed as primitive superstition which had long since ceased to be a live option for educated man. A God before and beyond the world was dismissed both as extraneous to it (supranaturalism) and as a being beside other beings, merely one of many and therefore finite. A personal God was accused of being localized and limited.

Since there was, thus, no being or realm beyond our world of knowledge, all talk of creation, providence, incarnation, atonement and resurrection, whether of Jesus or of life after death in general, became futile in every literal or direct sense of reliable intention. Consequently, they became myths or symbols. These were held to be part of the objective superstructure of the precritical world within which the Gospel was manifested, not the original reality and power of the Gospel. The kerygma itself was the power of reality, called God, to resist nonbeing and to make for harmony of being; or the kerygma was the faith that through the passive acceptance of the Kingdom of God men could be set free from the anxiety of life.

The man in Christ, especially Bultmann’s man in Christ, became the one who shared with Christ in his own repeatable experience the power of the Cross and the resurrection, namely, to die to self and to rise into the freedom of the resurrection power. The past contained in the present was understood to be open to the decisive victory of God for an open future. The Gospel rightly interpreted ensured no fancied life beyond death by some wished-for personal God beyond this world, but was the actual power of God, of the very ground of being or of the stream of reality, now to set men free in this life from the powers of sin, law, and death. Supernaturalism, in short, according to this view, belonged to a precritical world. Its rejection did not forfeit the true Gospel, but became a help to the true and full proclamation of the kerygma.

The men who shattered liberalism from the left were Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. They were less prophetic, to be sure, than Barth in his dramatic smashing of the liberal synthesis, but they were equally convinced, competent scholars, and persistent prophets in their mounting attack on liberalism. They started out with Barth in his revolt against liberalism, and have continued their sharp antiliberal attack. They also reject, of course, the content as well as the method of the new biblical authoritarianism, except as they present its truths in terms of symbols. In this realm of myths and symbols there is strong common ground, most of which is aggressively antiliberal. That is the reason why this school of autonomy is often mistaken for its opposite, so-called neo-orthodoxy.

Tillich rejects supernaturalism on both philosophic and scientific grounds. His ontology precludes taking literally the framework of classical Christianity.(In my home, before a gathering of philosophers, Tillich recently characterized his thought by the following interesting analysis: "My spiritual father is Schleiermacher, my intellectual father is Schelling, my grandfather on both sides is Boehme.") Nor can he get there by means of the existential aspect of his method. He rejects liberalism for the mixture of method and content that it actually is.

Bultmann also rejects supernaturalism as unscientific. While rejecting all philosophy or Weltanschauung as the importation of Stoicism, he nevertheless assumes as generally consistent with the New Testament teaching the existentialist analysis of Martin Heidegger. From these two bases, science and Heidegger’s philosophy, Bultmann throws out both supernaturalism and liberalism. Barth’s star is beginning to wane perceptibly while the star of Tillich’s and Bultmann’s antisupernaturalism has been rising rapidly, until now a cloud suddenly seems to be sweeping over that star as well.

This cloud has been created by the confusion concerning the relation between myth or symbol and reality, in the position of autonomy. The supernatural nature of the Christian faith is, in fact, indelible. It is intrinsic and cannot be shed. It centers in the personal God, the personal Spirit who is agape, who came in the fullness of time in Jesus Christ and who, in being and beauty, transcends eternally every created order. For a time, Tillich and Bultmann were interpreted as merely modernizing the faith in terms of the demythologizing of outworn world-views. Then many began to question the relation between myth, symbol, and reality in their systems. Finally, it is becoming more and more obvious that ontologically the whole Christian interpretation and offer of salvation are not only radically altered and shrunk, but in fact surrendered.

As Barth has done the Christian cause great service, however, by pressing the claim for message and method to go together, even so Tillich and Bultmann have put Christian thinkers deeply in their debt by rejecting the inner inconsistency of liberalism. They have also rendered a service by decrying the arbitrariness and irrelevance of Barth’s biblical authority inasmuch as this is informed by total transcendence and worked out in terms of the sheer ontological discontinuity of God and man, without some mediating category for the purpose and semi-independence of creation.


Where, then, shall we go in theology? The two main streams now are Barthian transcendence, which lacks adequate incorporation of the order of creation, offering unity of content and approach, but at the same time being guilty of arbitrariness and irrelevance; and antisupernaturalism, which, for modernity, scuttles classical Christianity in its own essential dimensions as the full Gospel of salvation in and beyond this life. Two minor movements persist as well. Fundamentalism is the modern, partly defensive and partly aggressive response of precritical, classical Christianity. It creates a permanent gulf between the believer and the thinker, and offers no real way out. Its adherents now respond ambivalently between a bitter attack on nonfundamentalists and a new openness to the problems posed for educated man. The other minor theological movement of our time is the continuation of the liberal movement; but besides being out of fashion (which is no criterion of truth!), liberalism suffers from internal bleeding and from weakening due to inconsistency between its content of faith and its method.

This summary is obviously no place wherein to launch a new theological movement! It can be said, however, that whatever the new approach may be, if it is to stand the tests of time and truth, it must center in the Incarnation. Incarnation is neither a movement of transcendence nor a school of immanence. In Christ, the Event-meaning who is agape, we find the God of the Bible, the personal Spirit who is the faithful creator, ruler, and savior of the world. With utmost care I have tried to show in Christ and the Christian how Incarnation when interpreted in Scriptural terms becomes the key to both knowledge and life. He who cannot be contained nor explained by this world, but who best fulfills and illumines the meaning of life, mysteriously and immeasurably transcends the world we know; while as the central meaning of life and existence he is also least arbitrary and most relevant. He who once came to us in the fullness of time comes to us now not primarily as explanation but as salvation. Indeed he explains only as he saves. Not description but prescription is the way to the knowledge of God and of man, of history and of nature.

Those who advocate transcendence are right in that God is God and not man. We need to pull out all the stops for this theme. Nevertheless, God has become man in order to become relevant for us. The truth we see is for experience. It is existential, calling for decision beyond explanation. Therefore, those who refuse as revelatory the arbitrary and the irrelevant are also right in their concern. Those liberals who sought for a meaningful relation of the Gospel to the world of experience were surely right in their deepest commitment as far as it went, but truth was permitted to degenerate into meanings continuous with the world we know.

The advocates of transcendence knew that the Gospel could not thus be scaled down to man’s scope, therefore they denounced and renounced meaning for the sake of God’s revelation through events and encounter. In this they were mainly right. Christ is God’s own incoming, the mighty Christ-deed of God. He never can be reduced to meaning, but nevertheless from him all full meaning stems. This life is also the light of men. The Christ who is best communicated in the Bible by the verbs of God’s activity, by story and event, also gives rise to the biblically needed propositional truth: "God is love."

Without in any way trying to develop or even suggest how the Incarnation of God as agape answers the internal requirements of the Christian faith and also the demands made upon it externally by man’s best thinking, and without relating this central fact to other channels which help authenticate, secondarily and confirmingly, the supreme authority of the Christian faith -- the Bible, the Church, and Christian experience -- we end this analysis by the confession that beyond the historic problems of the theology of the last one hundred years lies the eternal truth of the Christian Gospel: "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself."

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