Chapter 6: The New Spirit

Proclaiming Christ Today
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 6: The New Spirit

Bishop Lightfoot of Durham, the noted nineteenth-century New Testament scholar, once remarked that in his judgment "there is nothing so dangerous as the desire to make everything right and tight." He then went on to say that he had found that his faith "suffered nothing by leaving a thousand questions open," so long as he was "convinced on two or three main lines." It is the "two or three main lines" with which we have been concerned here; and there is nothing but danger, I believe, for Christian thought in attempting, or even in desiring, "to make everything right and tight." There are areas in which we cannot hope to have all the answers, although at the same time it is incumbent upon us to apply to our Christian faith such reason as we possess. F. J. A. Hort, the associate of Lightfoot’s in the famous "Cambridge three," wrote that "there can be no surer sign of decrepitude and decay in faith than the prevalent nervousness about naming and commending reason"; and it is certainly true that whenever men reject the right of reason to look at and study the Christian faith, they are inviting disaster.

The liberalism which is now so much decried had at its very heart such a deep concern for reason applied to faith. Doubtless, in some few of its representatives, it tended towards a minimizing of certain distinctive Christian tenets; doubtless it could lead, and with some few did lead, to what has been described as a "watering-down" of such affirmations as those concerning the sinfulness of man, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the transcendence of God. Yet even among those who manifested such tendencies, there was a concern for maintaining the other side of these affirmations; there was an insistence that man is made in the image of God, that Christ is one with his human brethren, and that God is at work in his world here and now. And these are also important aspects of Christian truth, always in need of emphasis. Above all, the liberal school sought to relate the whole world to God and God to the whole world.

As we take a long historical view, it is obvious that in addition to the influence of many different cultural factors and the pressure of historic events, one reason for the rejection of "liberalism" was that in the dialectic of thought a reaction was due. To the extent that these movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries went to one extreme, to that extent we might have expected what has indeed happened -- the reaction has gone to the other extreme. In one sense, we may say, the reaction has been salutary. And yet it might be argued that in many ways "liberalism" and "modernism" were more on the "side of the angels" than the reaction has been or is. Our reason for this is that it is increasingly our conviction that narrow biblical specialization, introspective theologizing, and self-conscious "religiosity" are really less in line with the high purposes of traditional Christian thinking than was the profound, if sometimes overextended, broadmindedness and generosity of spirit in the preceding period. At any rate, we believe that now is the time for a return to a genuine middle road -- which is yet not a "middle road" if by this is meant a compromised and compromising way, but rather a positive recognition of the essential nature of the religio-theological enterprise as a whole.

What we really need is a new spirit. What we need is a deeply religious, theologically oriented, and traditionally grounded understanding of Christianity, which is yet prepared to look critically at the inherited system of Christian thought, ready to subject it to the most careful examination, and above all concerned to restate it in such terms as shall make sense to men and women who are living today. There is no value in fancy adaptations of Christian faith or practice which will seek to cut these down to "what Jones can take"; we cannot be authentically Christian and at the same time bow before every superficial demand of modern men and women. Our present need is a reverent yet radical evaluation of the whole Christian tradition which will be determined, on the one hand, to preserve continuity with our Christian past, but which, on the other hand, will not think that that past in and of itself settles all our problems. It is to a statement of such a position that I invite your attention, in the conviction that a clear statement of the case will be in itself the best apologetic for it.

What are the essential elements in this position? Perhaps they may be summarized briefly in this way: the maintenance of the great central affirmations of historical Christianity as a faith centering in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the incarnate, risen, and ever-living Lord; and at the same time a welcome to new knowledge from whatever source it may come, with a readiness for continual reinterpretation of these central affirmations in the light of the new situations in which the Church finds itself. Thus we have freedom of enquiry coupled with loyalty to the essence of the tradition; we have openness of mind combined with abiding faith in the gospel’s Lord.

We must all admit that there is an enormous authority behind the central affirmations of Christian faith. They are grounded in Scripture, they have been tested by the Church’s experience, they are confirmed by reason, and they may be validated by their results in Christian life. But we ought to remember that the authority is a genuine consensus; it is not an imposed and coercive imperium. And old story about two Christian theologians illustrates the point: one said that he believed the faith because the Church taught it; the other that he believed it because it was true. Yet surely these two should never be separated, for the Christian Church is concerned with truth and it worships its Lord as the Truth; and for this reason whatever is true and whoever is "of the truth" should be able to find in the Church a cordial and generous welcome. And the Christian gospel, while in itself given once-for-all -- since it centers in the life of Jesus Christ and in his abiding significance -- is capable of application to all kinds of situations in all kinds of cultures; it is capable of statement, theologically speaking, in many different forms and in most diverse idiom, without any damage to the declaration which it makes. Unless we believe this, surely we have an altogether provincial view of the meaning of the faith which we profess and the Lord in whom we have that faith.

Orthodoxy, both traditional and "neo-," has hold of highly important truths. It sees rightly that where much modem religion has failed is in that it has broken with the continuity of Christian thought and experience. It understands that once this heritage is forgotten or lost, there is little left to religion save emotion, some kind of vague "cosmic consciousness," moral imperatives, and social enthusiasm. Orthodoxy has recognized that any religion which is to be effectual in the lives of men must be grounded in history, conveyed through institutions, and continuous with its past. Furthermore, it has insisted -- and rightly -- that Christianity is a faith and not a philosophical or ethical system; it is a faith in which affirmations are made about an historical person in whom God is believed to be specially at work; it has insisted that we have to do with a tradition which has been nourished by the lives of holy men and women, by saints and scholars, but which is based upon the gospel, whose grounding is in the scriptural record and witness and which therefore cannot exist without constant reference to that "deposit" of God’s self-revelation.

But at the same time there is a danger that orthodoxy, with all these values, will become sterile, purely verbal, unless it is constantly open to investigation, always ready to hear criticism, and unfailingly seeking to bring itself into relationship with the new situations in which men find themselves. This is why there must be freedom for the scholar to inquire into the historical problem of Christian origins, for example; why there must be freedom to think through once again what in the Christian tradition is "central" and what is ‘peripheral" (to use Professor Burnaby’s words which I quoted in an earlier lecture); why there must be freedom to reconceive and restate what is then seen to be of the essence of the faith. Such freedom can be allowed in the Christian Church precisely because any questionings as to the manner in which the divine fire came into the world in Jesus Christ, and any analysis of the essential significance of that coming, cannot deny the fact that the fire did come and that it is burning still.

One reason for a good deal of contemporary, unthinking Christian conservatism is simply fear. And the fear is a faithless fear. We have all heard it said that if we give up this or that, if we attempt to think through once again this or that article of faith, if we have an open mind about this or that supposed historical assertion in the creedal formulae, we inevitably imperil the whole Christian position. One can only reply that if the Christian position is based upon what will not bear the most thorough investigation of its detailed particulars, it is not worth maintaining. Surely the gospel, and the faith which the gospel awakens, will not be destroyed by a knowledge, as accurate as we can make it, of how they originated. The interpretation of the significance of Jesus Christ in the light of Christian experience is a given fact, quite as much as is the historicity of the Lord himself. The justification of that interpretation is that it makes sense of the traditions about him, that it is true to the living experience of his presence and power, that it illuminates the whole field of history, and that it throws light on all nature and life. We do not need to fear that it will be overthrown by the honest and reverent effort of biblical critics to determine what actually happened to give rise to it. What is again needed today -- and remember that I am attempting to describe a position which will regard Christianity as a living, growing tradition, continuous with its past yet open to the present, ready for critical investigation and concerned to restate the faith for those who live in our own day -- is precisely this fearless attitude about the faith, this honest effort at enquiry, and this constant willingness to relate the gospel to the changed world of a new age.

This way of looking at Christianity is indeed very different from a good many popular contemporary versions of the faith. Let me give an example. A widely read book by Harry Blamires is entitled The Faith and Modern Error. Mr. Blamires has the following words:

The young of today are looking for complete systems. Hence the appeal of Marxism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Hence too, we may admit, the resurgence of Thomism as a living influence upon the young. . . . [He then goes on to speak of the attitude of mind which would] distinguish between credible and incredible doctrines as hopelessly and ludicrously out of date. The young clamor for a system. Picking and choosing . . . means nothing except to those brought up to it. The one thing we can most safely and certainly say of modernism is that it is no longer modern.

Now, the writer of these words appears to be saying that because many today, and especially as he thinks "the young," are looking for "complete systems," the Church is bound to provide one such system; and evidently it is to provide that system without regard to questions of truth, of fact, of credibility to the rational mind. To be concerned for these latter matters is for Mr. Blamires to be "hopelessly out of date." The extraordinary thing is that in Mr. Blamires’ attack on "modernism" we have a horrifying example of very bad and wrong modernism veiling itself as ancient orthodoxy. Here we are urged to make a simple accommodation to the demands of what certainly we may call the unthinking members of our generation; we have an eager willingness to accept without question what appears to be their desire for an authoritative totalitarian system which has no respect for truth; we have, in fact, a shocking submission to the worst aspects of the modern mind.

We have seen in an earlier chapter that in our concern for rethinking, reconceiving, restating, we must be aware of and concerned with contemporary ideas; yet we are never to regard the patterns of thought (or what, following Professor Alexander, we styled the "ordinary knowledge" of our time), as if these gave us the last word, the final criterion, the absolute standard. But this is exactly what Mr. Blamires and others who think like him are prepared to do. It is one of the tragedies of the present situation in Christian thought that so many popular apologists take just this position. There can be little question that it is this attitude which prevents the more thoughtful and the more honest men and women of our time from feeling any real respect for Christianity. Perhaps some of those within the Church may delight in such scandalous disregard for the claims of truth; perhaps some who are in retreat from the world may come to embrace a Christianity so presented. But it is shameful that Christian spokesmen should speak like this, in the name of the Lord who, as Tertullian once said. "called himself not tradition but the Truth."

On the contrary, those who hold the view that I am describing, will say that no matter what modification or reinterpretation may be required from time to time, the central assertions of Christianity, its gospel and the faith which the gospel awakens, stand firm. We are not obliged to retreat into the kind of obscurantism which Mr. Blamires and his friends commend. For in holding fast to the revelation of God in Christ, brought to us through the Church, as supreme, adequate, definitive, we are led to see that there can be continuing expansion, development, restatement, reconception, without peril of any essential loss. The gospel may be exposed to all the winds of God, for it is limitless in its range, sure of its ground, and able to assimilate and use everything that is good and true and lovely. The gospel is the truth which makes men free.

In a recent careful review of several studies lately published about Charles Darwin and his influence, Professor Gillispie, of Princeton University, noted that with most of the Victorian "rationalists" and "agnostics," the "decisive factor" in their turning from the Christian faith was "in no case the findings of science." Rather, he said, "in every case it was an ethical revulsion from doctrines of the atonement, everlasting damnation, original sin, and an omnipotent God who permits evil." And he went on to observe that "a theology which had drowned in rivers of vulgar evangelical piety, or which had blown away on the high ecclesiastical winds of Tractarian romance" was likely to be of little help to such men. Mr. Gillispie’s last words are somewhat unguarded and they probably require considerable qualification; nonetheless, it is not without significance that an expert in the field believes that what was lacking for most of the Victorian worthies about whom he is writing was a presentation of Christian faith which would not be intellectually absurd or morally offensive. Unhappily, the few Christian thinkers of the time who were attempting such a presentation of Christianity were either rejected or neglected by the great mass of churchmen.

In our own day, the situation is of course very different. But yet it is still sadly true that large numbers of our more thoughtful contemporaries are repelled from the Church because they find in it what looks to them like sheer unthinking obscurantism, a shockingly immoral attitude towards truth (of which Mr. Blamires’ book is an example), and a cavalier disregard of patent fact about the world in which we live. There can be little doubt that one reason for Christian failure here has been the narrowing of the significance of the gospel’s proclamation of God in Christ with its theological corollary in the dogma of the Incarnation. This point must be developed.

The Incarnation of God in Christ is not only the supreme means by which God unites himself with men and thereby makes them "sharers in the divine nature," as II Peter puts it; it is also the signal clue for our understanding of the whole of creation and the whole of human experience. Cardinal Bérulle once said that the Incarnation "is the condition, the work, and the mystery wherein God reigns, and whereby he reigns, in his creatures." So it is that the Christian faith in Jesus Christ as God’s revelation of himself is in the closest relation with the whole process in which he appears. We must be willing to recognize that the world in which we live is an order which everywhere expresses, although in varied mode and degree, the one eternal Reality who is present and active throughout, but in no sense identical with, the creation; and, in consequence, that in Christ there has appeared the focus of this process and the crowning manifestation of God as self-expressive in it. There is no absolute break between the wider self-expression of God which classical theology regarded as the operation of the Eternal Word or God Self-Expressive, and Jesus Christ and the community of which, as the late Professor C. C. J. Webb once put it, he is "the founder and guide"; that community which, as Professor Webb went on to say, is "the organ and vehicle of his risen life." In theological language, the Eternal Word, the Logos, "by whom all things were made" and who is "the light lightening every man," has in Christ achieved actualization in genuinely human terms.

Now what has all this to do with preaching the gospel? Very much, I think. For if in all the good realities of the world of nature, of history, and of human experience, the divine Word expresses himself, the whole of it may be regarded as preparation for Christ: it is a praeparatio evangelica. In him the Word, ever "coming" to men, ever "given" to them and "indwelling" them, however partially and inadequately that may be, "comes" so richly to men in a Man that he overflows this instance of humanity and lifts the whole human race to a new level of existence. We might call that new level God-in-manhood; or better and more scripturally, we should speak of it as life-in-Christ. Into that new life men are taken as they respond in faith to the proclamation of the gospel and are incorporated into the Christian fellowship. D. M. Edwards, a now almost forgotten Welsh theologian of the earlier years of this century, put the point in striking words:

Jesus Christ is the living meeting-point of heaven and earth. of God and man, the keystone of the cosmic arch, the culmination at once of emergent evolution working ‘upwards’ and of the divine self-impartation working ‘downwards,’ at once the summit of human achievement and the supreme gift of love whereby God gives ‘his very self and essence all divine.’

The gospel of Christ which we preach is the proclamation of something that is "ever old, ever new." It is old, in that it is the same Word who from the beginning has sustained the creation and unceasingly has disclosed himself in it "in divers manners," who in "these last days" has focally expressed himself in the manhood of Jesus Christ. It is new, in that this focal expression of God in Christ is the opening of a hitherto unknown possibility of life for men; as St. John Damascene said long ago, this is "a new thing, the newest of all new things, the only really new thing under the sun." So our Lard is a genuine emergent and not a mere resultant; in him we find God’s life lived in a true human life, to the end that we men may be participant in the divine life expressed in him.

In consequence of this claim, our preaching of the gospel has a cosmic sweep. We must acknowledge the real measure of divine revelation and grace which is to be found in the non-Christian religions and in any other place where men meet that which commands their fullest and purest allegiance. No man has insisted on this more vigorously than Baron von Hügel, who with all his deep faith in the fullness of our Lord’s embodiment of God, was yet ever ready to maintain that in other religious traditions, and likewise in science, art, philosophy, ethics, as well as in the simple humdrum experiences of daily life, God in some way and to some degree has been found and known. The Christian assertion is not that Christ destroys these other manifestations; it is that he fulfills, corrects, explains them for what they are. The history of religion is what Professor Webb, whom we have already quoted, once called "the story of a single Incarnation of God in humanity, culminating in the life and death of Jesus Christ, and in his risen life," with "the capacity eventually to assimilate and incorporate the whole religious experience of mankind."

This perspective redeems the gospel we are commissioned to preach from triviality and from parochialism, even while it still gives that gospel "a local habitation and a name." The late Canon Quick spoke of this in moving words:

The Christian . . . who finds, even in a primitive or possibly corrupt religion, points of contact with his own faith, is not a relativist or a syncretist, tacking together a muddled theology or patchwork; rather he is a disciple who knows so clearly him whom he has believed, that he can recognize the tokens of his presence in any Nazareth which so-called orthodoxy has despised. The Buddhist’s sympathy with the pain of the world, the Hindu’s sense of the unchanging stability of the Eternal, the Moslem’s realization of international comradeship, the Confucian’s appreciation of social morality, and . . . the sacrifices of scientific workers in the quest of truth and human welfare [and today, may we not add the Communist’s concern for social justice, the humanist’s insistence on the value of right self-realization of man’s capacities, and the secularist’s recognition of the non-religious goods in human experience?] give to the Christian a fresh revelation of the Light that lighteth every man, and of the Word made flesh. . . . The Christ is the human Savior whom men have sought and partially found in the persons of Sakyamuni, Mohammed, Confucius, and many another sage and saint, prophet and reformer, who has followed and pointed the way towards the one true God. But the Christ is found fully only in One who is even more than the Christ, because his Cross is proved to be the very wisdom and power of God himself.

It is against this background, with this understanding of Christianity, this apprehension of the truth in the "orthodox" position, and yet this belief in the necessity for the "modernist" attitude, that the preaching of the gospel can make sense today. The gospel is the proclamation that God is active in the Man Jesus, is self-expressed there, for the wholeness of men. It is this which we are to preach. But we preach it with corollaries that are intimately and immediately its own. Let us set down these corollaries:

That God is our Father, the creator and sovereign ruler of all things visible and invisible, material and spiritual;

That Jesus Christ is his Son and our Lord; that as incarnate Word of God he is that One in whom true God dwells truly in true Man; that for us men and for our wholeness he lived a genuine human life, was crucified for us, and is now alive for evermore;

That in the Spirit known through him we respond to the Father through the Son; and that we worship the three in the unity of the one Godhead;

That we are baptized unto forgiveness of our sins and thereby made members of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, to be nourished in the life of Christ given in Holy Communion and to share in the fellowship of the faithful in heaven and in earth;

That we look for the life of the world to come, confidently trusting in God’s victory over sin, evil, and death, and our entrance into his never-ending Kingdom.

All this is in fact but one thing; it is the setting for, the meaning of, and the consequences which follow upon, the gospel which we proclaim. Anything beyond this is in the nature of optional, peripheral, "indifferent" belief; and it is wrong (or at least so I think) for us to insist upon such beliefs as a condition for entrance into the Christian community of response in faith. Furthermore, those who now belong with us in acceptance of this gospel and these corollaries, ought to have reasonable freedom to interpret the how of the historical credenda in a fashion meaningful to them, provided always that their interpretation does not negate the faith by which the Christian fellowship lives. Peter Meiderlin, in words that are usually attributed to Melancthon, gave us the well-known maxim which applies here: "unity in things essential, liberty in things unessential, charity in all things both essential and unessential."

We often unduly complicate the whole business of preaching Christ, and the whole matter of Christian discipleship too, by a kind of theological intransigence. As a theologian I cannot think that theology is unimportant; I believe that thinking about the gospel and the faith, and the best possible thinking, is utterly necessary. And yet should we not all agree that the big things of the gospel and the big things of the faith are really relatively simple and plain? We shall always need theology, and it must be the best theology we can produce; but, on the other hand, there is a sense in which we should ever sit loose to theology, remembering that the "one thing needful" is the gospel itself and the faith which it awakens in the sons of men, remembering too that the articles of belief should be, in the words of Erasmus which I previously quoted, as few as are necessary.

In the long run, our credo is our amo; what we really believe is what we really love. What we call the faith is but an articulation of the act of faith, and that means our love, what we desire and yearn for with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, what we give ourselves to, in utter self-donation and self-commitment, what we are prepared to die for and what even now in this present time we are prepared to live by. We need in our preaching both simplicity and depth: simplicity of statement and simplicity of speech, depth of dedication and depth of awareness; above all we need sensitivity and devotion.