Chapter 1: Two Theories of Man’s Destiny

God’s Grace and Man’s Hope
by Daniel Day Williams

Chapter 1: Two Theories of Man’s Destiny

The Christian religion has always created hope in the human spirit. It has produced men who live in the world of affairs with a unique expectancy. Christians see present wrong and failure as always surrendering the last word. New life, new good, new resource are forever available as God lives. In the concentration camps and battlefields and political struggles of our day the Christian faith has its witness in men and women whose separate hopes have been shattered and yet whose hope has never been taken away.

This book has been written out of the conviction that Christianity can bring to the human spirit today a rebirth of hope. It can enable us to face without fear or hysteria the grim struggle to bring the destructive powers now in our hands under some kind of intelligent control. It can help to set free the resources of will and intelligence which must be summoned if we are to achieve some tolerable solution of pressing human problems.

The further conviction which underlies this book is that there is an intellectual problem to be solved if the Christian faith is to possess that inner clarity which releases the power of Christian preaching and living. The particular problem to which the book is addressed is our confusion about the hopes by which we have been living. We Christians who believe in progress had such bright hopes for the world. And now we are perplexed about them. We share the anxiety and uncertainty of a world in which the optimistic idealism of the recent past appears naive. When President Roosevelt in his Fourth Inaugural Address said, "We shall strive for perfection. We shall not achieve it immediately, but we shall strive," even his slight qualification of optimism gave warning of a radical shift toward a realistic temper.1 Whatever realism there has been in the spirit of democracy, and there has been a great deal, it has generally had superimposed upon it a vision of perfection, and with a notion of man’s life as continually moving toward a higher and higher good. Liberal Christianity shared that vision, sometimes qualifying it with a more realistic appraisal of human nature, sometimes exaggerating its romantic hopes. Today we cannot imagine the recovery of that simple optimism nor have we, most of us, any interest in returning to it. We know we must shift from one perspective on human history to another. But to what?

The need is imperative for a restatement of the Christian doctrine of man and his historical destiny. We must see the problem of human progress from a Christian interpretation, recognizing that it is not so simple a problem as romantic idealism made it, nor yet so simple as the present somewhat contemptuous rejections of it suggest. We must try to find a more compelling expression of the Christian conviction that faith and hope and love are the abiding realities which sustain the human spirit within and beyond the fates of individuals and civilizations.

We shall get our bearings by setting forth in this first chapter the two different ways in which Protestant thought today describes our human pilgrimage and defines the kind of hope which is possible for those who believe that God is, and that he has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ.


Two sharply conflicting versions of the Christian faith about man’s life in history are competing for the mind of Protestantism today. I shall use the terms "liberalism" and "neo-orthodoxy" as labels for these two standpoints; but it should be understood that these terms are meant neither for praise nor for abuse; and further that each of them embraces many theological tendencies which need to be carefully distinguished. Still, in their broad outlines, these two interpretations of the course of the human pilgrimage and its outcome can be characterized and contrasted.

Both these theologies are Christian. They both attempt to solve the problems which have troubled Christianity from the beginning about the relation of God’s final rule, His Kingdom, to the kingdoms of this world. In order to see clearly what the issues are let us begin by briefly recalling the bedrock convictions on which all Christian thought is raised as superstructure.

The foundation of all Christian faith is the conviction that the meaning of man’s life lies in his relationship to God. When Milton’s archangel Michael begins his prophetic story of the future of mankind his preface is: "Good with bad expect to hear, supernal grace contending with sinfulness of Man."2 Here are the essentials of all Christian experience: man, the creature. standing between good and evil, snaring in both; man, the sinner, rebelling in his freedom against his Creator and Judge: God the merciful Father, contending for man’s soul.

In the Christian faith all human history is understood as the working out of God’s redemption of a world which He has created good, which has fallen away from Him, and which He redeems from sin and death through a victory whose cost is the death of His son on the cross. From the creation of the world before time to the consummation of all things at the end of time, the Bible describes the life of man with God as a series of events which taken together constitute the history of the work of redemption. The fall of Adam and Eve, the covenants with Israel and its deliverance from bondage, its falling away and punishment through new sufferings, the speaking of the divine word through the prophets, the birth of Christ in human flesh, the life and death of Jesus, the experience of the resurrection, and the history of the Church, the expectation of the final events and the established reign of God in love and peace -- all this is the Biblical understanding of what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do for the judgment and redemption of the world. The Christian lives by the faith that this life comes forth from the hand of a good God, and by the assurance that its outcome is the victory of that goodness. This victory has a tragic side. The way is dark with suffering, sacrifice, and the death of God’s son for our sakes. Redemption lies on the other side of judgment, and there are lost men who make their beds in hell. Yet against the darkness, the mercy of God shines clearly. The damned show God’s justice, the saved show His mercy, and both show His glory. As "the stream of divine Providence" began in God, so it ends in God. "God is the infinite ocean into which it empties itself." Thus Jonathan Edwards characterized the meaning of the great drama.3

Alongside this triumphant faith there has existed from the beginning a perplexity in Christian thought. What is the relation between God’s final victory, and the resolution of the immediate problems of justice, order, and peace in this world of time, death, and conflict? Does this redemption promise a new historical period when mankind shall have been restored to moral health and sanity? Are God and man together to "raise an Eden in this vast wilderness?" Why do the wicked prosper, and shall they always prosper, so long as man is man?

The greatest of the prophets of Israel wrestled with this problem and never resolved it. They pled for moral regeneration, calling upon the whole nation to turn its back on evil. Some of them, like Isaiah, made specific political suggestions as to Israel’s responsibility before God. Yet the prophets were driven close to despair concerning the possibility of this rebirth. Perhaps only a remnant shall remain upon whom God can depend. Perhaps not even a remnant. Suppose God finds not even one righteous on the earth? As Israel moved through the violence and terror of the years approaching the birth of Jesus the hope for a Davidic King and a perfected state yielded to the vision of an apocalyptic shattering of this world in the final clash of God’s power with the power of Satan. For that day men can prepare and watch as they live in this world which lies under the shadow of evil.4

For a brief moment the early Christian Church was able to overcome the uncertainty about the time of the conquest of evil. The Messiah had come, had been crucified, and was risen from the dead. He was coming again soon. It was enough to live in the little colony of his people, drawn apart from the corrupt world, seeking to save individuals and experiencing already that perfect love and joy which was the foretaste of life in God’s Kingdom. When the Christ did not return and the Christians began to find their way in a world in which men still work and buy and sell and govern and go to war and die, the long story of the Christian attempt to be in the world and yet not of it had begun.

One can easily become cynical over the ensuing compromises with "the world," the accommodation of the Church to nearly every evil which has raged through human society, the plain perversity of this all too obviously human institution. But let us remember what the problem has been. Men who live with faith in the God of love continue to live in this world with its evil, and with this human freedom subject to every temptation. It is as if the Christian were holding before his eyes a map of eternity and trying to find his way along the broken paths of time. Two different countries! No wonder there has been stumbling, confusion, and a continuous argument along the way.

It is dangerous to make any one generalization about the multiplicity of ways in which Christians have tried to solve this problem; but this at least can be said. On the one hand, Christianity has never been willing to accept an irresponsible position either for the Church as institution or for the individual in relation to the problems of human society. It has maintained a continuous moral pressure against the evils which it has regarded as blocking the fulfillment of human life. On the other hand, there is a bewildering variety of ways in which Christians have interpreted the meaning of moral action, and the kind of expectations for man’s life in history which it involves. Those who live by faith in God who is lord over all time can never quite be "domesticated" in this world. The conviction that we seek no earthly city here below, we seek a city to come, is at once the glory and the perplexity of Christian living. What then shall we do in the earthly cities?

We proceed now to examine the contrasting ways in which "liberalism" and "neo-orthodoxy" interpret the faith that the kingdoms of this world are judged by and are to become the Kingdom of God and of His Christ, and how they answer the problems which arise for the Christian when he seeks to express his faith in moral decisions.


By "liberal theology" I mean the movement in modern Protestantism which during the nineteenth century tried to bring Christian thought into organic unity with the evolutionary world view, the movements for social reconstruction, and the expectations of "a better world" which dominated the general mind. It is that form of Christian faith in which a prophetic-progressive philosophy of history culminates in the expectation of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. Its classic American expression is still, I believe. Walter Rauschenbusch’s A Theology for the Social Gospel, which appeared at the time of America’s entry into World War I.5

The liberal vision sees God working in human history for a progressive achievement of a higher order of life for mankind. The culmination of His work will be the establishment of a universal brotherhood of justice and love. The historical process taken in its overall course is thus essentially, if not wholly, the story of God’s success with man. In the liberal perspective, we understand the meaning of our human existence when we see our place in this mighty drama of God’s creative achievement.

Through infinite time God has been at work to make a world, and to make it a good world. With patience and power beyond our imagination He has made a cosmos out of primordial chaos. He moved through the struggle and surge of the evolutionary process, bringing new levels of life into being, and crowned His work with the creation of mind and spirit. He has created free men who can participate with Him in the ongoing task of world-making. Man has risen from savagery and barbarism to civilization in response to the divine working within him. In the progress of reason, in all cultural expression, and supremely in the growth of moral and religious insight man has had his life opened to the new adventure of partnership with God. God’s power and purpose have been revealed everywhere; but it is in the experience of one people, the Hebrews, that the depth of that purpose was clarified and made known with power. In one life, which arose in the midst of that people, God uttered His truth and spirit in such a way that His love, which is His very essence, became known and operative in human history with transforming power. Through the light and spiritual life which stream from Jesus, mankind received the impulse which enables it to move upward toward the fulfillment of that unity of all life in love which is the Kingdom of God. The hope of the Christian rose to a crescendo during the bright days at the turn of the last century when it looked as if the ramparts of evil were beginning to be battered down. There is not a single barrier. men thought, lying across the creative advance of the great community of love which cannot be overcome. As one liberal thinker, Ozora Davis, expressed it,

At length there dawns the glorious day

By prophets long foretold;

The day of dawning brotherhood

Breaks on our eager eyes,

And human hatreds flee before

The radiant eastern skies.6

Only superficial thinkers who did not really understand this view of human life ever talked of the way upward as if it were easy. It is costly to God and to man. Only in the light of the sacrificial death of Jesus and the continuing sacrifice of all loyal servants of God can we see how really difficult is the way to His Kingdom. But the hope which lives in this faith is not shattered; for God does win His victory, gradually, as men are persuaded to respond to Him and to work with Him. This is His world and who can say that He cannot bring His Kingdom on earth? Does God will anything less than that His reign should be complete over all his creation?

This was no humanistic view. Man can do nothing without God. No one said this more clearly than did Walter Rauschenbusch: "The Kingdom is for each of us the supreme task and the supreme gift of God. By accepting it as a task, we experience it as a gift."7 God works against the inertia of nature, the stupidity of men, selfishness, cruelty, the wrong entrenched in institutions; so man should work against these with hope.

Given such a hope, the ethical task of the Christian is clearly one of loyal co-operation with God in world-making and world-fulfilling. To serve the God of love means to do what needs to be done to clear the way for that society of justice, peace, and growing brotherhood which God wills. It is true the liberal ethic split into two camps over the question of the means and strategy of this conquest. One group believed that the spirit of love is itself a pure and unique method for dealing with all evil; hence the Christian ethic is one which expresses this spirit persuasively, intelligently, in all situations, and withdraws from all methods and means which resort to something which is other than the spirit of love. Hence liberal Christian pacifism. Other liberals said that love must be expressed directly in all social struggles, but with the effective means at hand, whether political, economic, or even military which may be necessary in an imperfect world. On this ground nonpacifist liberals supported the nation in World War I.

In spite of differences on the ethical problem all Christian liberals conceived of ethical social action as rooted in a religious conception of the meaning of that action and with a religious faith which gives hope for its success. It is in this union of the sacred and the secular that the real prophetic power of liberal Christianity is to be found. It said to everyone, "When you do your best in the spirit of love to cope with the demands of God’s justice and love in the political, social, and economic orders, indeed anywhere in life, there you are actually meeting God Himself, whose work is being done through you, and God is winning." Death comes to all; but for the most part the liberal faith conceived of immortality as a continuing opportunity for further growth and work with God.8

Thus to bring the inner realm of man’s freedom and the whole outward task of human culture and social advance into one religious unity, with a clear ethical imperative and sustaining hope, was the supreme achievement of the liberal Christian mind. Its critics rarely appreciate its depth, its power, and its contribution to Christian thought. The prophetic element in the theologies which today criticize liberalism most vehemently are in part dependent upon the liberal achievement.

The word "progress" has been omitted from this interpretation of the liberal hope. The reason is that the secular doctrines of progress lack religious depth. Christian liberals used the term "progress"; but they never accepted the humanist’s notion that progress can be achieved without God; nor did they accept the idea that progress is automatic. The religious understanding of the conflict between good and evil, the fact of the stubborn resistance of the human heart to the love of God and its demands, the vision of the divine strategy of sacrificial love in the life and death of Jesus as the climax of history, all this is foreign to most of the philosophies of progress, but it was the heart of the great expressions of Christian liberalism. It is true that the romantic vision of progress was seductive and many Christians succumbed to it. But one has only to read the book of a leading liberal, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Christianity and Progress, written in 1922, to see that the deeper insight of Christian faith was not surrendered. He said:

This is no foolproof universe, automatically progressive, . . . moral evil is still the central problem of mankind. . . . Jesus said that two masters sought man’s allegiance, one God, the other mammon. . . . That conflict still is pivotal in human history. The idea of progress can defeat itself no more surely than by getting itself so believed that men expect automatic social advance apart from the conquest of personal and social sin.9

No progress "apart from the conquest of personal and social sin." Now over twenty-five years after Dr. Fosdick’s remarkable book, we are even more deeply troubled about this conquest. What it is that makes us uncertain about the liberal faith is epitomized in a brief comment which appeared as the conclusion of a column written by the New York Times military expert, Hanson W. Baldwin, during the early days of February, 1945, when the struggle of the Nazis and the Russians was moving toward its climax. Baldwin wrote:

History has again turned full cycle. Teuton and Slav are locked again in the age-old tragedy of man, and the great death-grapple on Germany’s eastern marches has begun. - . For the surging tides of opposition, national and racial ambitions ages old, are meeting in ultimate conflict at the Oder and tide-rips and cross-currents will sweep across our world for generations to come.10

In these arresting lines a military analyst puts the stark reality which every philosophy of history must face. Here are the gigantic historical forces sweeping mankind along beyond the power of any individual or group to alter. Are we not as individuals embedded like bits of rock in the glacial forces of historical process? Here is the tragic clash of ambitions, hatreds, and ideals, for war is impossible without the enlistment of the pride, the loyalty, the ideals of men. Here is the undeniable truth that the consequences of this violent struggle will in large part form the shape of the world for centuries. We start with no clean slate in history; we start with what is left to us of both the achievements and the wreckage of the past. Here is the reminder of death, which puts a question mark after every human hope. Suppose now that war is not an isolated problem, but symptomatic of the whole plight of man. Suppose that there lies within human life everywhere an ineradicable conflict of powers and wills. What have faith and hope and love to do with human history if this be its substance and its outcome? "Neo-orthodox" theology has tried to answer that question.


"Neo-orthodoxy" is a term which points to that widespread movement in contemporary Protestant theology which seeks to recover the central theme of the Reformation: justification by faith in the redemption wrought by God in Jesus Christ, as the foundation of the Christian Gospel and of the Church. The three names which probably stand out most prominently when we think of this movement are Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr, not only because they are among its leaders, but because their writings are most widely known. Certainly there are important differences in method and in content among them. Some of these differences we must note later on. Here, however, I shall run the risk of treating the standpoint as a whole, My thesis is that all the neo-orthodox thinkers neglect a fundamental Christian insight into the meaning of life within the grace of God. They overlook it in different ways, but they all overlook it. The following characterization of the general tendency of neo-orthodoxy, including the thought of these three theologians mentioned is, I believe, accurate.11

We must bear in mind one important way in which neo-orthodoxy differs in its view of history from traditional orthodoxy. The fall of man is no longer taken as an event at the beginning of human history, nor is the "end of history" a literal conception of a point of time at which the world ceases to be. All of this becomes "myth" or symbolic expression by which we can interpret the realities at our human situation.

Neo-orthodox theology sees human existence in the tragic perspective. The plight of man is this: man is so created in the very structure of his being that the meaning of his life is the realization of his freedom in love to God and to his neighbor. But man actually misuses this freedom, turns against God, his neighbor, and himself, making of his life a dark arena of anguish and greedy scramble. Now all Christian theology has said man is a sinner. But neo-orthodoxy is unique in this, that it returns to the doctrine of sin as the actual status of all men universally, but no longer depends upon an original "fall" of man for the explanation of the universality of sin. Sin is not a series of misdeeds from which we can be extricated through moral education and effort; it is a status which characterizes our human existence. Yet we are free beings who are actually sinners in our own self-will. Every man is his own Adam.

How can this universal actuality of sin against God in whose image we are created be understood? Neo-orthodox theologians say this is one of the places where reason breaks down. We can "understand" this only in faith. The fact is that we are sinners, everywhere, at all times. We can no more explain it than we can explain our existence itself.

It is one of the great merits of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought that while he regards the doctrine of "original sin" as a myth which is absurd to reason and necessary to faith, he has given us one of the most astute analyses of the source of sin in human nature which Christian thought has ever achieved.12 His account is this. We are finite creatures, having our lives in the flux, the insecurity, the mystery of nature, of history, and of freedom. Finiteness is not sin. But free and finite creatures become anxious in the face of the perplexities and insecurities of life. Anxiety is temptation to sin, that is, to take flight from the self, or to the pride in which we seek to make ourselves more secure than we have a right to be. Anxiety is the serpent in the garden of life, and the serpent is always there. This leads to a most important consequence. If we want to understand sin, let us look first not at what we ordinarily call the badness of human nature; but let us look at the "goodness" of our ideals and moralities. For it is just at the point where we use our ideals, our reason, and our religion to baptize our special privilege, to rationalize our selfish interest, that sin is manifest in its most terrible and destructive form.

We must recognize now that we are not analyzing a temporary phase of the human situation; we are analyzing that situation as it necessarily is and must be so long as man is creature. Man will always be suspended between ideal perfection and the insecurities and imperfections of life. The temptation to sin is not eradicated by the development of man in history; for while we may eliminate certain insecurities, we cannot eliminate insecurity itself or the basic anxiety of human existence. Now we see why the Kingdom of God is a symbol for an order which stands beyond this existential order. The Kingdom can come only at the "end."

What, then, of hope for a better world? Here Niebuhr, Brunner, and Barth share the same general position, though with some differences in emphasis.13 They all agree that the social orders which form the structure of human history, such as the family, the state, the economic order, betray an essential separation of man from God. The state, for example, must defend its order and its existence, establish a relative justice, restrain violence, by the use of the sword. So Karl Barth says: "The State as State knows nothing of the Spirit, nothing of love, nothing of forgiveness. The State bears the sword, and at the best, as seen in Romans XIII, it does not wield it in vain."14 Economic activity is governed by calculations of profit, reward, and competition, not by principles of unselfish service. Even the family, where the direct expression of love between persons is possible, depends upon the compulsions of our sexual nature and the protections of custom and law for its order and stability. Gunther Dehn puts the position extremely, "We must learn to recognize that there is no one form of State life, of economics, or of any other social order, that is more in the Spirit of the Gospel than another!"15

This view that the structure of our human life is both protection against our sinful nature, and at the same time opportunity for the manifestation of sin, has serious consequences for our expectations regarding the course of history. The inner contradictions of human life will again and again erupt in historical crises, wars, catastrophes, ages of despair in which the fact that life contradicts the demand of God’s Kingdom will be disclosed. This is a tragic view of human history set over against a progressive view. History is education, but it is an education in humility. "Age after age the tragic empires rise."16 Of course there are all kinds of developments in techniques and in cultural achievements; but the point is that man s moral position before God remains the same. Niebuhr says: "There is not a single bit of evidence to prove that good triumphs over evil in this constant development of history."17 More recently he declares that man’s plight becomes progressively worse: "The real fact is that while history solves many problems. it aggravates rather than mitigates the basic incongruities of human existence."18 In support of this he points out that the development of greater scientific power also makes it possible for those with power to try to achieve a wider and more tyrannical dominion over larger areas of life.

The principle that Christian ethics and the Christian hope are correlative is illustrated by this doctrine of man’s predicament in history. Neo-orthodoxy holds that what the liberal expected, the transformation of the orders of this world into social orders which express and support the expression of Christian love, is precisely what we cannot hope for. What we must understand about the orders is that they are what they are because we do not love God and our neighbor as we ought. Even the reborn man in whom the spirit of love has become the new way of life still lives in a world which contradicts that love, and the conflict is never resolved in this life, even within his own soul.

The question of what we can and ought to do in a world which does not yield directly to love is the most difficult problem that this theology has to face. The answers given to it vary considerably. In Brunner’s The Divine Imperative, and in Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings we have been given profound analyses of the moral problem. There is something for the Christian to do. There are elements of justice, of freedom, even of brotherhood to be achieved through human effort in society. We must do what we can in response to the love of God, yet as those who know that the world in which we act will be, until the end of time, in opposition to that love. We can appreciate the Christian absolutist who seeks to stand wholly against involvement in the evil of society; yet as he does so he must realize that those who are working for relative gains within the social order are doing a necessary work in the service of God.

Whatever one thinks of this theology, it wholly misses the mark to interpret it as an ethical retreat. It looks like retreat to liberals because it denies certain notions by which liberalism supported social action. But ours is a world of concentration camps and atomic bombs, and the omnipresent threat of war. In such a world the neo-orthodox theologians have set ringing again the great bell of evangelical faith. They have asserted faith in God and in the necessity of moral effort before the very doors of hell. They see that Paul’s words are addressed as much to our time as to his: "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now; . . .and even now we groan within ourselves waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our bodies, for we are saved by hope."19

We have reviewed, then, two ways in which the Christian mind has tried to grasp the infinite mystery of the human pilgrimage. Both are Christian; both have their roots in the prophetic moral thrust of the Gospel against the wickedness of human society and the human heart; both believe that Christian responsibility leads us to act in the political and social order for the sake of human justice and decency; both rest our human hope finally upon God’s saving power and His promises.

The controversy between these theological standpoints has been instructive, and it must go on. But the thesis which I wish to state and defend in this book is this: as contemporary Protestant Christians we are not forced to make a simple choice between liberalism and neo-orthodoxy. The conviction has been growing among many that we cannot make such a choice, partly because there is truth on both sides, but especially because both have left something out which is the very basis of all Christian experience. That is the fact of redemption. Theologically speaking what is wrong with both schools is that they have no place for God’s redemptive work in human history. Liberalism has no place for redemption because it does not see the need for it. It conceived the emergence of man from sin and the overcoming of evil as primarily a problem of creation, the making of the new man and the new world. Neo-orthodoxy recognizes the need for redemption; but it has never made an adequate place for the real possibility of redemption as transformation of our human existence, hence it postpones redemption to another realm. These statements may be too sweeping, but I believe they are essentially just. Neither liberalism nor neo-orthodoxy has fully interpreted the fact that we know God both as Creator and Redeemer. Let us see where this clue to theological reconstruction leads.


Christian theology has always held that God the Creator in making His world makes it a good world. It has held that there is real evil in this world and in man which must be overcome. But it has also said that God actually moves with power and wisdom and love in our human history to redeem the world from its evil, and man from his sin. In the prophets, in Jesus Christ, in the continuing life of the Church, and in all of life, God the Redeemer makes available to us resources which are our defense against the despair which comes when evil lays waste to life. Take Paul’s words out of the New Testament and out of Christian experience and what have we left of Christian hope -- "and may the Lord make you increase and excel in love to one another and to all men . . . so as to strengthen your hearts and make them blameless in holiness."20 What we need is a theology which will hold together the fact of the creation of the good world, the fact that evil invades that goodness. and the fact of a redemption which brings hope in the midst of tragic failure and loss.

Christian theology should hold the doctrine of the new life created by the redemptive love of God as the center of its interpretation of Christian experience. Such a theology would continue in the succession of those who have affirmed the experience of the new life in Christ. It would have a close relationship to the pietism of the Protestant sects, to Wesley and Edwards; but it must be far more realistic in its understanding of the continuing limitations of the life of the Christian than former theologies have been. The way to theological reconstruction lies through the attempt to discover why both liberalism and neo-orthodoxy have failed to emphasize the reality of the redeemed life. If we can point out the errors which cause this failure we can go on to show that there is a theology which squares more adequately with what we know in Christian experience.

In the chapters which follow we shall be engaged in this criticism of both liberal and neo-orthodox presuppositions in the attempt to establish an alternative theological foundation. It will help to guide us through the argument if we list here briefly the major presuppositions of the two schools which stand in the way of their achieving an adequate doctrine of redemption.

Liberal theology has always tended to obscure the nature of sin; hence it has never adequately expressed the depth of our dependence on the redemptive work of God. The reason for this is to be found not only in the liberal emphasis upon the goodness of God. It is also in the fact that the cause of sin was often attributed to factors for which man cannot be held responsible and thus sin was explained away.

1. Sin was sometimes ascribed to inheritance of animal instincts. Professor Case, for example, in his The Christian Philosophy of History, suggests that a beastly strain "inherited from Neanderthal man" is responsible for the terrible cruelties in our contemporary civilization.21 The readiness with which liberals accepted explanations of human wrongdoing in terms of some specific unfortunate circumstance in the history of the race or of the individual is somewhat puzzling, as Reinhold Niebuhr has shown. It surely detracts from man’s spiritual stature as a free moral agent, to suggest that every misuse of his freedom is caused by something outside himself. The explanation is that liberals found it hard to believe that man would willfully misuse his freedom. Further, the doctrine that evil has its source in specifiable maladjustments or difficulties inherited from the past supported the belief that these causes could be removed, and the belief that the course of evolutionary development would progressively leave the sources of difficulty far enough behind so that their influence would be nullified.

2. When either our animal or our primeval ancestors were not given the responsibility for our plight the blame was shifted to the social institutions which corrupt human nature. What happens here in liberalism is another case of a truth being pushed beyond its proper limits. Of course men are corrupted by evil social institutions; but if the social processes fully explain man’s behavior, then the freedom which liberalism has claimed for man is denied.

So Mr. Garnett:

Human nature is on the side of human progress. The problem is to set aside the damnosa hereditas of prejudice, false tradition, superstition, fear, hatred, that survives from the childhood of the race, and to develop institutions adequate to its maturity. There is in the human heart enough of natural good will. It remains for intelligence to enable it to find its way.22

3. Finally, and in some contradiction to the first two positions, liberals asserted that man in his own freedom can do what needs to be done to throw off the evil forces which corrupt him. Mr. F. Ernest Johnson, for example, in his admirable re-examination of the social gospel, speaks of the sins of contemporary men, and then says, "let them purge themselves of whatever demonic pride they have been guilty of."23 But can man purge himself of demonic pride? Is not the very assumption that he can do so a reinforcement to that pride? It is the man who can confidently say to himself, "I have purged myself of demonry," for whom further self-understanding is impossible. Man can repent only if he knows that the righteousness of God is always in part a judgment against him.

Neo-orthodoxy has recovered for us a profound analysis of the reality of sin and the need of redemption. But it has not made clear how redemption actually makes any difference in this life in this world. For Karl Barth man always appears to remain on the knife edge between the love of God and the abyss of damnation.24 Reinhold Niebuhr holds that we are redeemed from sin in principle, but whether we are redeemed in fact is not made clear.25 Christ, he says, is our hope, not our possession.26 And again he suggests that only in the moment of prayer can man really love God and his neighbor with the love which Christ has shown to us.27 Emil Brunner comes closer to positive affirmation of the new life of the man to whom the love of God has come with power. Yet Brunner describes the new nature as "consisting in the struggle against the old nature," and what is accomplished in the struggle is not clear.28 I have spoken in broad terms of these three representatives of this school. I believe that in whatever way the new life of faith, or in faith, is admitted as an actual reality by them, it exists alongside of a continuation of the actuality of sin in such a way that the new life is always just sheer beginning or sheer hope. It never is described as a perceptible and orderly movement toward a new structure for this human existence.

There are three reasons why no convincing assertion of a real "growth in grace" appears in this school:

1. Neo-orthodoxy’s treatment of the doctrine of original sin has led to a distorted version of the natural life of man. Dr. Niebuhr, for example, holds that the created order is good, yet it produces such insecurity that man is so tempted that sin is inevitable. Where now is the goodness of the creation? It is further clear that Niebuhr regards as evil many aspects of life which are not necessarily evil. He holds, for example, that all conflict within the self or between selves is evil. But one has only to think of play, or of the element of growth in conflict, or of the educative value of coercion to realize that conflict is not necessarily evil. The friction of mind against mind, will against will, is part of the natural stuff of human life. It is the way in which we become human. In Brunner a similar distortion appears in his doctrine that all the orders of existence defeat agape in so far as they are impersonal. It is only as an accommodation to sinful man that the impersonal structures, which for Brunner include all the rational and legal elements in the orders of creation and of culture, exist. But, we ask, are not impersonal privacy, the element of impersonality in law, and the impartiality of ethical principle necessary to the growth of persons in community? Brunner’s commitment to the doctrine that agape can exist only in the relationship of "I and Thou" in which all impersonal elements are eliminated is based upon an erroneous conception of human nature. That error always appears in Christian theology when the doctrine of original sin is not very carefully stated. I propose to examine this error and to show that in Niebuhr and Brunner’s thought there is an inverted romanticism in which all the natural conditions of human existence are erroneously regarded as barriers to the Kingdom of God.

2. In the second place, neo-orthodoxy has its own metaphysics in which time and process are dealt with in such a way that the element of connected development in Christian experience must be denied. Neo-orthodoxy has accepted the doctrine that human freedom exists in a series of "moments" which involve only eternity on God’s side and the "decision" on ours. This notion is inherited from Kierkegaard. In Kierkegaard’s philosophy there is no redemptive activity of God as a process in history, nor can there be, for there is no real becoming in the realm of freedom. All the meaning of existence collapses into the existential moment. It is not accidental to his view but implied in it, that the individual’s relations to his fellows is of minor significance. The isolated individual stands alone before God, others offer only the occasion, or so to speak, the stage setting for the moral and religious act. This is also why Kierkegaard has no real place for the Church in his theology. I do not deny in the least the significance of the dimension of individual freedom in God and the importance of Kierkegaard’s recovery of it. But it is a distortion of the Christian experience to neglect the factor of social process, in which the cumulative historical consequence of the work of freedom is given its place. Chapter Five is addressed to this problem.

3. Neo-orthodox theology emphasizes the true insight that the redeemed man is never beyond the need for redemption. All progress in holiness brings with it new temptation. But we get no sufficient doctrine of the Christian life by pointing out only what man cannot become. We need also to say what can be achieved by God’s power in human action. Niebuhr is right in saying that there is no solution of the problem of redemption in terms of the formulas of pietism. The word "sanctification" has not acquired its peculiar odor for nothing. The saint who is proud even of his humility is too common a phenomenon in Christian history. Yet either some break with sin in fact as well as in principle is possible or else the whole of Christian experience is a delusion. That break takes place in human experience, in history, in the process of life.

The clue to the reconstruction of Protestant Christian faith in our time is to recall to ourselves the fact that God, the Lord of life, is both Creator and Redeemer.

We shall consider now what the foundations of a Christian interpretation of human destiny would be from this standpoint.


1) F. D. Roosevelt, Fourth Inaugural Address, January 20, 1945. President Harry S. Truman in his Navy Day address in New York City, October 27, 1945, said, "We know that we cannot attain perfection in this world overnight. We shall not let our search for perfection obstruct our steady progress toward international co-operation."

2) Milton, Paradise Lost, Bk. XI, p. 560 (New York: Modern Library ed., 1942).

3) Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption, Works (Leavitt and Allen reprint of the Worcester ed., New York, 1843), Vol. I, p. 510.

4) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941-43), Vol. II, pp. 16-34.

5) Characteristic liberal works are Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1917); Eugene W. Lyman, The Meaning and Truth of Religion (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933); and Robert L. Calhoun, God and the Common Life (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955). It is to be noted that later writings of the last two represent theological developments in the same direction suggested in this book, as does also John Bennett, Christian Realism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1941). The Ritschlian theology, both in its original statement and in its American development, presents a special problem in relation to what I have characterized as "liberalism," but the discussion of Ritschlian movement deserves a full treatment in itself. Of course, "liberal Christianity" is not exclusively Protestant. See Don Luigi Sturzo, "The Catholic Church and Christian Democracy," Social Action, Vol. X, No. 5, May 15, 1944; also Edward R. Hardie, Jr., "Liberalism and Catholic Thought in England 1860-1940," in Liberal Theology: an Appraisal, ed. David E. Roberts and Henry P. Van Dusen (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942).

For historical and critical accounts of liberal theology in America see Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937), chap. iv; Heinrich Frick, Das Reich Gottes in amerikanischer und in deutscher Theologie der Gegenwart (Giessen, 1926); W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Background of the Social Gospel in America (Haarlem, 1928), chaps. ii, vii; D. D. Williams, The Andover Liberals (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1941); C. H. Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism 1865-1915 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940).

6) Hymn by Ozora S. Davis, "At Length There Dawns the Glorious Day," written in 1909. From Praise and Service, ed. H. Augustine Smith (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1932).

7) W. Rauschenbusch, op. cit., p. 141.

8) Cf. G. Lowes Dickinson, Is Immortality Desirable? (Boston: Houghton Miffin Company, 1909).

9) Harry Emerson Fosdick, Christianity and Progress (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1922), p. 178.

10) Hanson W. Baldwin in The New York Times, February 7, 1945.

11) Typical expressions of the general viewpoint of neo-orthodox theology will be found in Karl Barth, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God According to the Teaching of the Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939), his Credo, English trans. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), and Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1947). W. W. Bryden, The Christian’s Knowledge of God (Toronto: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1940), is an able statement of the issues neo-orthodoxy raises with liberalism. Two less technical works by American representatives of the school are John A. Mackay, A Preface to Christian Theology (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941), and Edwin Lewis, The Faith We Declare (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1939). Reinhold Niebuhr’s major work is the Gifford Lectures, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2 vols.

12) On Niebuhr’s view of myth see "The Truth in Myths" in The Nature of Religious Experience, ed. J. S. Bixler (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937). The analysis of sin is found in The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, chaps. vii-ix.

13) Niebuhr insists he takes a more positive and constructive view of the possibilities of social action and reconstruction than do the Continental Barthians, and this may be the case. But on the question of the relation of the love of God to the possibilities of history I can see little difference in his Gifford Lectures from Emil Brunner’s The Divine Imperative (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1947).

14) Karl Barth, Church and State (London: S.C.M. Press, 1939), p. 55.

15) Quoted in John Baillie, What Is Christian Civilization? (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1945), p. 33.

16) Recalling the phrase in Clifford Bax’s hymn, "Turn Back O Man."

17) Reinhold Niebuhr, "Ten Years That Shook My World," The Christian Century, Vol. 56, No. 1, April 26, 1939, p. 544.

18) Reinhold Niebuhr, "Faith to Live By," The Nation, Vol. 164, February 22, 1947, pp. 205-9.

19) Romans 8:22-24.

20) I Thessalonians 3:12-13. Moffatt translation.

21) 5. J. Case, The Christian Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1943), p. 213.

22) A. C. Garnett, A Realistic Philosophy of Religion (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942), p. 176.

23) F. Ernest Johnson, The Social Gospel Re-examined (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940).

24) This judgment is based upon Karl Barth, The Christian Life (London: S.C.M. Press, 1930), and The Knowledge of God and the Service of God According to the Teaching of the Reformation, esp. Lectures XI-XIII. Later writings of Barth have been surprisingly "activistic." Judgment as to whether Barth’s theology adequately interprets the moral demand in the Christian life must await the completion of his Church Dogmatics.

25) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. II, passim. There are many qualifications and apparently contradictory statements in Niebuhr’s treatment of the Christian life. He says that in Christian experience "the individual is actually freed to live a life of serenity and creativity" (p. 58), and again, "there is no limit to either sanctification in individual life or social perfection in collective life . . . except that there will be some corruption . . . . on the new level of achievement" (p. 156). If this is the position I should agree with it; but both statements involve a break with sin in fact as well as in principle.

The criticism I offer of Niebuhr’s formulation is concurred in by Robert L. Calhoun’s reviews of the Gifford Lectures, Journal of Religion, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1941, pp. 473 ff., and Vol. 24, No. 1, 1944, pp. 59 ff., and by Wilhelm Pauck, "Luther and the Reformation," Theology Today, Vol. III 1946-47, esp. pp. 323 ff.

26) Ibid., p. 125.

27) Ibid., p. 189.

28) Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt, p. 489.