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 12: Where Do We Go from Here in Theology?
At the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches held at Evanston, Illinois in 1954 many persons recognized the need for a more profound American theology. In Europe, I was once told by a group of Christian leaders that they looked to America for a revival of effective theology. Europe is too tired, they said, to produce constructive thought. Having lived through two world wars and standing on the edge of hitherto undreamed-of destruction, its more mature leaders are too shocked by events to think daring thoughts about God’s ways with human history. Living in the shadow of frustration, the younger leaders also seem unable to create a theology of hope. These Christian leaders therefore urged American theologians to produce an effective Christian theology.
The embarrassment at Evanston and the request from these European leaders coincide with a general turn to theology. To put it in the vernacular, a rush to religion is on. The more thoughtful in this rush are increasingly devoting their attention to theology.
Such a turn to theology is healthy, for theology is study concerning God. By God we mean the ultimate nature and purpose of existence. Therefore, the turn to theology is really a deliberate attempt to understand the ground of our being, the goal of our lives, and the direction which we must choose in order to fashion the goal of our lives in line with the ground of our being. The turn to theology is thus our deliberate confrontation of our most important decisions, whether as persons or as a society.
Fortunately, I can point without hesitation to a Christian theology which places full stress on objectivity, prized by fundamentalists and neo-orthodox, and on subjectivity, emphasized by liberals and existentialists. Both elements -- objectivity and subjectivity -- are within the organic necessity of truth. The Christian revelation alone can provide the whole truth for life.
The Christian faith is grounded in the bedrock of the historic revelation. The Christian faith therefore acknowledges a necessary mediate relation to God. This historic givenness of revelation has, furthermore, both an objective and a subjective side.
The objective side comprises God’s own presence and work in the Christ-deed, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the Bible. The Christ-deed is God’s own incoming into human history as the Son. The Christian faith stands and falls with its affirmations not only of the power but of the presence of God in human form. In Jesus, the God who is love came, acted, and spoke. This does not mean that God was absent from history until Jesus came, but, rather, that then he came in matchless fullness as the turning point of all history. Then he came as eternity fulfilling time. The Christdeed, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the Bible. The Christ-deed is God’s act of revelation and redemption in the fullness of time. The universal, unconditional, sovereign love, who is God, came, acted, and spoke for the salvation of all men, that whosoever believes and lives this Gospel of God’s love may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.
The Holy Spirit, moreover, in one of his aspects, is God himself, God in the Church. As Jesus was born of Mary, yet became enmanned or indwelled, by God the Son, so the Church has its own authentic human side, as a human community, while yet indwelt by God the Holy Spirit. Revelation at its most intimate and real is always, as Robert Barclay pointed out, by "the inward and objective Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit, like Christ, becomes organically, personally, united to the Christian community; Christ is the pattern, structure, and substance of love, while the Holy Spirit is God’s energizing, whether for counseling, comforting, enlightening, sanctifying, assuring, or for establishing. Christ is ultimate to each new creature; the Holy Spirit is ultimate to the community of creatures in Christ. To receive Christ is to be born again as a new person, but also inevitably to be born into a new fellowship of the Spirit. Christ is the pattern of the unity of God in the individual believer and for the community of faith. The Holy Spirit is the energizer of Christ, the alpha and the omega of the new creature, for the fullness of self-being in Christ and in the Christian fellowship. The Holy Spirit is God in the Christian community and for each member of it. His presence and work are objective through and through, of God and not of man, but at the same time part and parcel of man’s new creaturehood in Christ and in the Church. Thus they are genuinely and inseparably the decisive aspect of man’s new subjective situation as an individual and as a social being.
The Christian Church is also objective. It comes from God. It comes as God. It comes for man. As a human institution it is of man. It is man’s response to God in the Christian community. Yet, first of all, the Church is made up not of man’s response but of God’s gracious calling in Christ by the Spirit. The Christian Church is primarily God’s presence and power for a new kind of community on the part of those who are new creatures in Christ. The Church is the extension of the Incarnation, of the atonement, and of the resurrection, not as a self-sufficient prolongation of Christ or as the vicar of Christ or as a substitute for him. It is Christ, present as "the head of the body." It is the contemporary Christ in human history. It is the Holy Spirit calling, winning, and perfecting saints, those called by God and justified by him. It is Christ giving himself ever anew in a broken body and the shed blood. It is the love who is God, caring in the Community of Concern. Still the Christ comes within the weaknesses of the flesh as the triumph of saving power, no longer in the physical body of Jesus, but now in the risen body of the Universal Church, in those who know the reality of his universal love to save, to create, and to promote community.
In addition to the Christ-deed, the Holy Spirit and the Church, on the objective side of the Christian faith, there is also the Bible. The Bible is an objective strand of history reporting man’s response to God’s Christ-deed, his sending of the Holy Spirit, and his founding of the Church. The Bible has its authority in the God who has thus acted to save mankind. The Bible is the exemplifying history of human experience interpreted by God’s love in Christ. The Bible shows us God’s preparation for the Christ-deed and the culminating revelation and redemption of man. When the Bible is read with dedicated intelligence as the living Word of God’s universal love, we behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. "The truth as it is in Jesus" becomes our criterion of all truth and conduct, showing us both the nature and the will of God. The Bible becomes the objective rule of faith, the lamp for our feet, illumining the will and way of God with all men and for all times.
These four -- the Christ-deed, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the Bible -- are the objective factors of the Christian faith in history that are permanently valid. They are the mediating realities through which we come to God. They determine whether our faith is genuinely Christian and, therefore, whether it is fully in line with truth.
The subjective side of revelation also contains four factors. The first of these is the response of the original faith-witnesses. They were real and free human beings reporting as best they knew. Because they responded as finite human beings, touched with sin, to the holy facts of God’s saving presence and mighty acts, the biblical record shows us the absolute truth, but not absolutely. Even as the Son came incognito in order to preserve our freedom to find God in the fullness of experience -- including after his coming, however, his very presence in human history -- so comes the holy book, not as an errorless compulsion confronting finite man, but as the saving fullness of objective reality touched with the foibles and fallibilities of the original faith-witnesses. The truth to which they testified is altogether and absolutely true; the way in which they testified to that truth was to report what they saw and heard as they saw and heard it, and to report what was remembered through a period of oral tradition and through the fallible transmission of writings. The reality of the fullness of God’s saving love in his Son, his universal concern for all men, thrusts itself upon all who are ready to accept and to walk in the light of the holy Incarnation, but amidst secondary contradictions and misinterpretations due to the subjective failings both of life and of light, on the part of the early disciples.
Secondly, the Church as the community of confirmation has not made sharp and constant the one and only criterion of God in Christ, which is holy and universal love. There is a whole history of subjective response to God’s historic revelation. The original errors of the first faith-witnesses have persisted as part of the holy tradition along with the holy Gospel. The chaff has never been winnowed from the seed. These errors and misinterpretations have accumulated in Christian history, owing to the subjective and fallible nature of our response, and have become solidified in Christian theology, particularly as this has become expressed in terms of alien philosophies and divergent world-views. The community of confirmation transmits through history the reality of the Gospel, man’s constantly vertical relation to God in acceptance, forgiveness, and fulfillment, but the confirmation has been through a glass darkly, a situation which has made it possible for many to worship the shadows as the light, either because they prefer the darkness to the light or because no one has trained them to distinguish true light from darkness. The whole history of confirmation has been a history conditioned by a subjective response on the part of the believing community to God’s objective acts of salvation.
Third, our present knowledge of the historic Christian faith, the work once wrought by the Holy Spirit, is subjectively conditioned. How we know it depends upon the quality of our own response, both in intensity and in the kind of faith which is ours. Only those who were already translated saints could respond perfectly to God’s historic deeds in Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the Bible. We therefore must be humble about our own reception and interpretation of the historic Christian faith. Our witness to others of our holy faith must be humbled by the consciousness of the forgiveness of our sins and of our failings because we are finite men. Even though God’s part in the historic revelation is absolute, there is always our human side to it, which is relative and clouded by sin.
Fourth, man’s creative response to God’s objective self-disclosure is also subjective. History presents new situations. Revelation cannot be repeated exactly as it came the first time. History requires constant choice, the relating of the old to the new. The Church is not only the community of confirmation, but also, in some sense, a community of experimentation. History demands new thought. The new, while unavoidable, is always dangerous. We men are sinful and finite, and it is as such that we handle the immortal message of God’s redeeming love. We sometimes essay creation without having been triumphantly redeemed or without being fully in the service of the Holy Spirit. The finiteness we cannot avoid; sin besets us too easily. Therefore, as the contemporary community of experimentation we actually impose a subjective element on the Gospel we present. Only a few in the community keep close enough to Christ and are sufficiently trained to follow anew "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith," and even they judge as creatures, not as God himself.
There is, thus, the mediate relation to God, presupposing the historic Christ-deed, the work of the Holy Spirit up to now, the Christian Church as the community of confirmation and as the community of experimentation, and the Bible. All of these involve objective and subjective factors of God’s work and man’s response. Without these mediate relations, there is no Christianity. The Christian faith is a historic reality which concerns us. It claims nothing less than the revelation and saving activity of the absolute God. Therefore, to accept the Christian faith is to renounce all other faiths as either inadequate or false at heart There can be only one absolute revelation, whatever way God’s wider work in nature and history be afterwards related to that revelation.
Nevertheless, the Christian faith is not merely mediate. It worships a living God. Man’s basic relation in life is to God. The horizontal direction is ever under the vertical. Jesus knew that God is Spirit and must be worshiped immediately in Spirit and in truth. The four objective factors in history must therefore become objective for present experience, structuring God’s immediate revelation. The Christian faith lives by such encounter of the living God. The content of the Christian experience could never be mediated without the historic faith, even as what we now experience could never be interpreted for what it is apart from the history of our experience. The Christian faith is mediated immediately.
Therefore, God must reveal himself ever afresh in the Christmen. The living Christ is God as Son conclusively fulfilling those who understand and accept him. God must become Christ in us "the hope of glory." He who once came to fulfill his eternal purpose in Christ Jesus must keep coming to fill full that purpose by his ingression organically -- redemptively and creatively -- into all men. Man finds fulfillment only when God becomes his true subject. The human self is not eliminated or curtailed by God’s taking complete possession of it, but is fulfilled and made free. We are made for God and for his community; the more passive we are to him, therefore, the more active we become and the more real as human selves. The more we resist him, the more we are slaves to what is alien to our deepest selves. Therefore, God must continue his holy Incarnation to express himself and to finish in glory his own creation.
God also will enter us as the Holy Spirit, the guide and energizer of our new life in Christ. Christ is the perfect fulfillment of God’s purpose for us and of our human natures. The Holy Spirit is the intimate companionship of God within that new relationship. We are not only born again by the revolutionary entrance of Christ into our lives, making us new creatures in him, but we are also allowed to grow in grace and in the fruit of the Spirit by means of the present objective work of God the Holy Spirit.
The Church also becomes, in the present, the creator of creeds, not the mumblers or even the repeaters of them. A creed is not Christian if it is other than a symbol which directs faith. Such a symbol is existential, the mediating context of an immediate confrontation. The early Councils wrote afresh the creeds. They were creative of new and better insight as well as defensive of false directions for faith and practice. Dark years and deadened periods of history imprisoned faith within the contexts of the past, putting the living heart of confession within the corpse of formulation. The throbbing life of commitment, which once created a symbol to match its information and decision, became embalmed within the cadaver of a former faith. God must work ever anew to write creative creeds that free the spirit, match its present knowledge, and serve as the occasion for its fullest commitment. The creed is Christian only when it is the declaratory statement of contemporary worship and theology. Although it structures faith, it is expressed by it creatively, not imposed upon it.
The Bible, too, is living light. Too often the Bible is only a book -- dead fuel never catching fire. The Bible mediates God’s objective self-revelation as the Son. There can be no other revelation that is real and final than God as holy love, conclusively and universally concerned for all men and sufficient for all needs. Yet such a God is present now as the author of his living word. The Bible cannot become a closed canon without denying the Christian faith at its very heart; that God lives and encounters us now for our salvation; prayer and worship are no empty rituals but living relations to the One Lord. The Bible is God’s living speech to men, and therefore the Bible is buried in mediacy unless it is resurrected in the immediacy of the present revelation for contemporary needs. Revelation is not limited by mediacy but is ever open to the illimitable truth of God. God still publishes his Word; he will publish it to the end of time; and great should be the company of them that publish it!
There are, then, the following four objective, immediate revelations of God in the present: (1) through the God-men of every today; (2) through the Holy Spirit, not merely as a decisive event on Pentecost, but as God the present guide into all truth; (3) through the Church as the real presence in human history of the new creatures in the eternal Son of God and as the continuing community of the newborn; (4) through the Bible as God’s living speech in direct experience, the kind of speech which generated the written Word.
The subjective side of this objective immediacy of God as universal love we may think of particularly, for our purposes, in terms of our response for one world in Christ. God wants to make of one spirit all the divided men of human history. He wants to create true, unlimited community to the utmost of our allowance. He never compels fellowship, but, as we let him, he breaks down barriers of religion, race and nature, and unites men in the unity which is ever creative diversity. Our role is to be open and effective channels of communication for the grace of God, whether on the level of creation or on the level of redemption.
God also wants intensively to renew the whole social order with his healing freshness. Our opportunity in this sphere is to consecrate to him our every talent and attention. Under God, every vocation becomes a divine calling. God today is calling plumbers and preachers, economists and politicians, educators and housewives, to work, each in his own way, to make a new social order. With our cobalt bombs and computing machines, our jet planes and television, our general education and specialized social engineering, this job is too big for any one of us or for all of us -- except we understand and truly believe that ours is only the subjective side of the great objective acts of God which have made this new world possible.
Our response to God’s act is even more for the sake of the celestial oneness of the whole company of God on earth. The Holy Spirit is one, and all in him are one. Therefore, the present divisions and competitive wastes in Church life are due to man’s refusal to own the Holy Spirit. Sectarianism denies Christ. We cannot picture the creative nature of the Church which the Holy Spirit can effect, but we can accept him and start to build within his creative design. He will himself unfold it, if with all our lives we dare to trust him for a new day of co-operative concern for all men. Man is made for the Christian kind of community, for freedom and faithfulness in fellowship based on Christ’s love, and made possible only by that love. Our response is subjective, and we weary quickly except as we venture out into the great unknown of God’s creative will within the peace and power of the Holy Spirit.
We need also the eschatological response to God’s creative Bible, the Bible of contemporary revelation read toward the future. What God has done in the past is recorded for our decision in the present for the future. The Bible, past and present, must be released as the full pattern of God’s love for man, within which man can creatively discover the unity of truth for all life and thought, both theoretical and concrete, but only against the backdrop -- the widest possible that finite man can see or understand -- of what God is about to do to conclude all things in heaven and on earth in Christ.
In conclusion, then, we need a Christ-centered, evangelical supernaturalism based on revelation, which can be found only by faith; generating and sustaining freedom, open to reason and using it fully; energized by the Holy Spirit of truth and a concern for the individual and for society; made conclusive in Christian community, which lives to the glory of God and finds fulfillment only within his will. Against such a faith, alive in love, firm in God, and flexible within the humility of human finiteness, no power of evil can prevail. Such a faith has been given once for all as our own holy heritage. Let us arise to take full possession of it.
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