Chapter 7: The New Theology

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 7: The New Theology

In what ways, if any, do the new views of the world and of man affect Christian theology? There are some who want to say that theology is little affected by these temporal matters, for it has to do with the timeless truths which have been revealed by God once and for all and which must therefore remain the same for ever. It is noticeable that such people are usually reluctant to admit that there is a new view of the Bible, a new view of the world or a new view of man. In other words they resolutely shut their eyes to the new world which is fast emerging around them.

On the other hand there are those who conclude, often reluctantly, that religion, theology and Christianity have come to the end of their course. Certainly, when we compare the story of the sciences with the story of theology over the last six hundred years, the latter looks rather like something from the Looking-Glass world of Alice. Six hundred years ago the sciences did not exist, two hundred years ago they were getting into their stride, today they seem to have the ball at their feet. But six hundred years ago theology seemed to have the ball at its feet, and felt that it knew a great deal about God, a hundred years ago it was ready to confess that there were some things about God it was not sure of, today theology wonders if it knows anything about God, and tomorrow, so some believe, theology will not even exist.

In between the two extremes there are those who want to be faithful to the heritage from the past, and at the same time take seriously the challenge of the new world. The attempt to reconcile these two did not start all at once, any more than the new world emerged all at once. The task has been accepted in academic theological circles for a long time, but only in the last few years has there been more popular and widespread interest in what is going on. Bishop John Robinson, as much as anyone, may be given the credit for breaking through the academic barrier and stimulating the so-called man in the street to take an interest in the contemporary theological task. The names of Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have now become quite widely known. It has led to the popular use of the term ‘The New Theology’. This name (whether it is a good one or not is beside the point), raises a crucial question. If a theology relevant to the new World appears, and immediately is labeled ‘new theology’, how is one to judge whether it is the genuine successor to the more orthodox theology of the past? May it not be some sort of ‘pretender’, whose claim to be heir to the throne of the queen of the sciences is actually false?

Our first task is to discuss what theology is, and to distinguish it from several other things with which it is closely related, such as doctrine, Christian experience, and philosophy. The word ‘theology’ means the study or knowledge of God. But where does one start? If there were a body of fixed and permanent knowledge about God which He himself had already revealed, then theology would consist of the attempt to understand it and discuss it. Some people do think of theology in these terms. But we have seen that whatever Christians might have thought in the past, we can no longer say that we actually possess a body of knowledge which answers to this description, whether it be by revelation or by science. Not even the Bible can any longer be treated as if it were a quarry of timeless propositional truths to be mined like diamonds and then set in a gleaming diadem of Christian theology. Theology cannot therefore be defined as the study of the revealed knowledge of God, for there is none.

Neither is theology to be confused with philosophy. There have been times in the past when these two did seem very close. They are both intellectual disciplines dealing with the deepest questions of human existence, and when they were being pursued by men of Christian convictions, who were asking the same kind of questions, they were not easy to separate. But many of the questions about which men used to philosophize have now become disciplines of study in their own right. One of the earlier names for the sciences was simply ‘natural philosophy’. Nowadays philosophy mainly sees its task as one of assisting other disciplines to think clearly and meaningfully about their particular areas of study. Philosophy has aided theology a good deal within this century in helping it to examine its own language critically, and there is still an important place for philosophizing about the nature of religious experience, and the reality of religious truth. But theology is not the same as philosophy, for theology has its own distinct area of study and that is the Christian faith itself.

Now whereas any honest clear thinker can be a philosopher of some kind, no one can be a theologian (we are here confining ourselves to the Christian religion) who has not already embraced the Christian faith himself. In doing this he has professed the Christian faith as a reality in his own life and he has committed himself to some form of Christian obedience. It is at this point that we see the clear relationship between theology and Christian experience. But whereas all theologians must be Christian by profession of faith, not all professing Christians are theologians. It could be said of course that whenever a Christian is making an honest attempt to think out some problem connected with his Christian faith, then he is taking the first steps in theology. The only difference between him and the professional theologian is that the latter is pursuing the problem at that greater depth which the tools of an academic discipline make possible.

But how does the Christian go about thinking his way through his theological problem? Well, first of all he turns to the source of his faith. He became a Christian (or, alternatively, chose to be confirmed in that in which he had been nurtured from infancy) because of the influence of the Christian heritage, guarded and proclaimed by the Christian church. He is bound to study that heritage for himself. It takes him first and foremost to the Bible, which is the definitive witness to the period of origins. Then he turns to the long story of the church and the history of Christian thought. The latter has become crystallized in creeds and confessions, and in the most widely accepted writings of the theologians of the past. All this is sometimes referred to as Christian doctrine. But just as the Bible must be understood within its own historical context, as we have already seen, so all Christian creeds and writings of the past must be related to their own time. They reflect the period in which they were written, not only in the common presuppositions of men of that time, but in the kind of questions then being asked.

But we live in our own historical context, and we are concerned with our own questions and with those of our fellow-men. These are not necessarily the same as those of past ages, for history is always bringing change. While the theologian is bound to take seriously the heritage of the Christian witness and thought of the past, that is only half of his task. In the light of this heritage he must think through the meaning of Christian faith and obedience afresh from the standpoint of the contemporary context in which he finds himself. If theology merely consisted of summarizing the affirmations and thoughts of the Christians of past ages, an electronic computer could be designed to do it better. Theology must always be a fresh living expression coming from the lips of Christian believers who are keenly aware of the problems and questions of their own time.

It is thus possible to define theology quite simply as the attempt of the Christian to think about his faith and experience, to test it in the light of the past heritage, and to relate it to all the knowledge and experience of his own time. The theologian then finds himself at a point of tension, where he is trying to reconcile the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, i.e. the old heritage and the new questions and knowledge. If theology is genuine and alive, it is always new, for in each new generation it is taking as its starting point a new historical context. The more the historical context changes, the harder and more demanding becomes the theological task, and the more likely it is that the living theology that comes out of that period will be labeled the ‘New Theology’.

The theologian must try to steer his ship between the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis. If he answers the contemporary questions in a way which does not do justice to the heritage of the past, his ‘new’ theology may no longer qualify as Christian theology. If he faithfully affirms the answers given by the theologians of the past, but does not come to grips with contemporary questions, he is not expressing a Christian theology, and his words will be increasingly passed by as irrelevant. There is no theological radar or automatic pilot to which he can turn over the responsibility for steering the straight path. Whether by nature he leans to the conservative right or the liberal left, he must steer his craft by faith alone.

Let us briefly look at some of the periods of the past where this tension caused by concern for both the old and new has been most acute. First of all it is reflected in the Bible itself. The opening two chapters give us two different expressions of the beginning of things. The older one is now in chapter two and reflects the comparatively simple world view of the semi-nomad of the early second millennium BC. The later account, now in the first chapter, reflects the more sophisticated world view of the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. The Jewish scholars who put the first five books together during the fifth century BC. preserved for us both the old story and the new story and placed them side by side. This blending of the old version and the new version is to be found in many places in the Old Testament.

The problem of the old and the new came critically to the fore in the advent of Jesus of Nazareth. The Jewish community to which he belonged was by now so wedded to the written form of the old heritage, that it could not tolerate the thought of a new prophet, proclaiming something new. Jesus is reported to have countered the charge that he was abandoning the ancestral Jewish heritage by saying, "Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to complete. I tell you this; so long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a stroke, will disappear from the Law until all that must happen has happened." On the other hand the Gospel of Matthew in the very same chapter portrays Jesus as one who clearly recognized that there was something new in what he said, for we have the repeated words from his mouth, "You have learned that they were told . . . But what I tell you is this . . ."

The tension between the old and the new continued to mark the life of the church in her first two centuries. It was no easy task to reconcile the old with the new. It is all too easy to assume that Jesus in his teaching entrusted the content of Christian theology to his disciples, and that the task of theology thereafter was simply to ‘contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’. This is far from the truth. It was not the teaching of Jesus which became the focal point of the Christian faith, but the person and activity of Jesus himself. The first one to hammer out anything like a theology of the Christian faith was Paul, and curiously enough he appears never to have met the flesh and blood Jesus of Nazareth, let alone to have heard his teaching on the ‘Kingdom of God’ direct from his lips.

Not all Christians of the mid-first century agreed with the way in which Paul saw the ‘old’ consummated in the ‘new’, as his letters to the Galatians and the Romans make clear. Although Paul’s theology was destined to be the dominant model for all later Christian thinking, it is fortunate that the New Testament preserves for us some other embryonic theological patterns, notably the Johannine writings which go so far as to express this theology in the form of speeches attributed to Jesus. There were other interpretations of the person of Jesus which were never caught up in the main stream of Christian development, and later died out, but the fact that this amount of diversity of thought was eventually included in the New Testament shows the willingness of the church to hold in suspension varying and sometimes conflicting viewpoints.

Even in the second century when the rift between Christianity and Judaism had become wide and permanent, the church was still wrestling with the problem of how to reconcile the new Gospel centered on Jesus Christ with the old heritage inherited from Israel. When there was a spirited move on the part of some to cut Christianity off from its Israelite origins completely, and abandon the Old Testament as Jewish scriptures, the church resolutely rejected it. On the contrary the church moved to the point where it accepted as its Bible both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Nothing could demonstrate more clearly than this, the determination of the Christian community to hold together in tension both the old and the new.

And there is a tension in the Bible. The church has never been quite sure what to make of the Old Testament. On the one hand there have been various ingenious attempts made during the centuries to resolve the tension in the Bible by trying to make it say the same thing in all its parts. On the other hand voices have been raised, as again in this century, which say that the tension should be eased by jettisoning the Old Testament.

After the first five centuries had witnessed a succession of theological controversies, the point was reached where a pattern of Christian thought was formulated which was destined to serve the church well for many centuries. But time does not stand still, and, with its passing, new experiences and new questions press themselves upon the life of the church. Such a time was the thirteenth century when there arrived at the newly emerging universities of Europe some of the teaching of the ancient Greek thinkers, Aristotle in particular. This stimulated considerable interest in academic circles and also a little alarm. It became a question whether Christian thought could assimilate the new learning. Full credit must be given to St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74), who, building upon the work of his teacher Albertus, constructed such a magnificent synthesis of traditional Christian doctrine and of the new knowledge that it became the standard expression of Christian doctrine for the Roman Catholic Church up until the present day.

The only other period of theological ferment which we need refer to here is that of the sixteenth century Reformation. It is rather paradoxical that those who are most inclined to idolize the Reformation period seem to be among the very ones who are most suspicious of the winds of theological change which are blowing in our own day. It is true that the Reformation was chiefly concerned with a few very relevant though central issues, and that many affirmations and presuppositions of Christian orthodoxy remained undisturbed. At the same time in the eyes of the Catholic theologians of that time, reformed theology appeared to be a ‘new theology’, which deserved to be rejected just on those grounds. But there was one important principle that emerged that is particularly relevant to our discussion: that the readiness to recognize that no reformation of Christian doctrine can ever be final. The ecclesia which is genuinely reformata is semper reformanda. Reformation is a continuing process, and this applies as much to Christian thought as to Christian practice and ecclesiastical structure.

In the light of these glimpses into the fluid state of Christian theology in times past, and the tension the theologian has felt between the demands of present experience and faithfulness to the past heritage, we now turn to try and appreciate the task of theology in our own day. When one considers the magnitude and radical nature of the questions posed for the theologian by the new world, it is not surprising to find that theologians are beginning to speak about a new reformation more radical than that of the sixteenth century.

For if the theological task can be defined in terms of facing the tension between the old and the new, then it is only to be expected that both the speed and the extent of the change, in which we are at present all caught up, will inevitably bring changes in theological expression greater than at any earlier period in Christian history. It is fair to say that the world has changed more in the last hundred years than in the previous eighteen hundred. Until a little over a hundred years ago men were using the same means of travel as had been used for several millennia -- the horse by land and the sailboat by water. Education was still the privilege of the few. Today travel and communication have reached speeds and diverse forms which were unthinkable a century ago. Universal education is rapidly spreading and reaching ever higher standards. Medical practice has changed completely. It is said that something like ninety-five per cent of all scientists who have ever lived, are still alive. This is the kind of world that the theologian lives in and to which he must relate the faith by which he lives and the Christian heritage which has been entrusted to him. Is it any wonder that theology is today in a more fluid state than at any time since the period of Christian origins?

In the previous chapters we have already noted some of the specific questions which the new world is forcing us to ask with a new sense of urgency. Let us turn to what could be regarded as the most fundamental question of all theology. What reality lies behind the word ‘God’?

We start with a sketch of the mental image conveyed by the word ‘God’ in the world view which obtained in Christendom before the new world began to emerge. This can not be fully appreciated without remembering the complete supernatural world which was thought to lie beyond this visible world, and which had such an overpowering reality for the medieval mind. Heaven and hell, along with those who dwelt in them, were conceived in spatial terms. Although they were beyond the stars, or under the earth, they were thought to be places just as real, and certainly more lasting, than the earth on which men live. Besides the souls of the departed who were thought to reside in one or other of these two places, there were varieties of angels and immortal beings which were thought to have peopled heaven since the time of creation.

It was from within this spatial heaven, far above and yet real, not of the temporal quality of earth and yet within space, that God ruled both heaven and earth from a golden throne. There is little doubt that in the human imagination he was pictured in the form of a man, and thus the painters often portrayed him. While some may have wondered what was the most adequate way of attempting to portray the Holy Trinity, the risen Lord Jesus is described by the two most ancient creeds as sitting on the right hand of God the Father, and so it naturally led to a mental picture in which the three ‘persons’ of the Trinity were pictured as individual forms though acting in unison. This whole picture of the Lord God in His heaven all hangs together very well, and readily wins a response from the mind of the believing Christian.

But what happens when this heavenly world is caused bit by bit to disintegrate and lose its reality? For that is exactly what has happened over the last four hundred years, as all the aspects of the new world have been slowly impressing themselves upon man. The new world view of space made it steadily clearer that this supernatural world could not be located any more in some distant space area of the universe. By last century men were preparing to eliminate a personal devil, and were inclining to the view that a hell of eternal punishment was hardly consistent with the goodness of God. Then the ministering spirits and angels began to recede into the background and lose their former reality. This left a very indistinct picture of the disembodied souls of the departed, conceived as being in the presence of God, in some rather vague existence still called heaven.

But since the new view of man has virtually deprived the concept of a disembodied soul of any meaningful reality, it means that the medieval picture becomes further simplified to the plain affirmation that God is in His heaven. (This, incidentally, is much closer than the medieval picture to the Biblical understanding of heaven.) But now we must ask to what extent the common conception of God itself derives from the same kind of projection of the human consciousness out into the unknown, as that which initiated animism, Platonism and the doctrine of immortality. Plato did in fact speak of God as the great soul. But if we can no longer accept the reality of a disembodied human soul, then what does it mean to attribute consciousness, thinking powers, will and emotions to a non-physical bodiless being, however greatly exalted? When Bishop Robinson startled the world in 1963 with the headlines of an article "Our image of God must go!" he was simply putting into plain words something that theologians had been recognizing for some time.

The fact is that while the medieval picture is still held with conviction by some, for many others the image of God as a supernatural being has already gone. On the assumption that God must be defined as ‘a supernatural being’, it has led some to atheism as the only alternative. Increasing numbers have become agnostic, in that they do not profess to know what the basic realities of man’s world are, and are unprepared either to affirm or to deny that one called God is a reality.

Here we must hasten to point out that among Christian thinkers over the centuries the conception of God has varied considerably more in expression than is often popularly supposed, and theologians have always wanted to guard themselves against the implications of such crude and concrete images of God as may have been prevalent in the popular imagination. Here for example is how John Scorns Erigena (c. 810 - 877), a deeply original thinker and a great scholar, long before our time expressed his concept of God in the words of a prayer:

O thou who art the everlasting Essence of things beyond space and time and yet within them; O thou who dost transcend and yet pervade all things, manifest thyself to us as we feel after thee, seeking thee in the dark places of our ignorance.

Theologians have always recognized, to some degree, that one can never talk about God with the preciseness that is possible with tangible objects. For this reason it has been acknowledged that human language, evolved for communication in and about the finite world, will always be inadequate for discussion of the infinite God. In particular it has been realized that when terms drawn from human experience and personality are applied to God, they must inevitably be metaphorical and symbolic in character.

But while this has always been so, it is fair to say that today theologians are more aware than ever before of the tentative and symbolic nature of all talk about God. In the new view of the Bible we see one of the main reasons for this. Now that the Bible must be regarded as the witness of ancient men to what they believed God was saying and doing in their own day, and not the verbatim revelation spoken by God Himself, then even the biblical language is relative to its age and cannot be appealed to as if it were God’s very own words about Himself. Nor is it sufficient just to say that religious language is symbolic. How is one to show that there is some unseen and intangible reality to which the God-talk refers by means of symbols?

In the past there has been no real need to show that God-talk is meaningful, for belief in some kind of supernatural reality was then a common premise that could be taken for granted. This is no longer the case. T. S. Eliot has put it clearly:

But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before;

though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.

Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no god;

and this has never happened before.

It is important to appreciate this new situation. It is not just a question of an isolated rebellious individual proclaiming defiantly, "There is no God". In earlier days he could be written off as a fool. But today, for reasons discussed in earlier chapters, it is simply a widespread cultural phenomenon that for increasing numbers the God-talk and religious language in which the church proclaims her message possesses little or no reality. It is ceasing to be part of the common language and cultural presuppositions. Before the emergence of the new world the church proclaimed her message in what was already a religious context, no matter where she turned. The advent of secularization has meant that the traditional religious language of the church has now become a specialist language which to many in the secular world is not meaningful, and indeed even non-sense.

What is the church to do in this new cultural situation? By and large the church has been reluctant to venture far away from its traditional language because of the conviction that certain fundamental terms and concepts are indispensable to the Christian faith, and if the world does not want to try to understand them, then it is so much the worse for the world. It wants to affirm that God has revealed Himself in such and such terms in the Bible and in the life of the church, and men have the choice of responding to or rejecting the Gospel in this form, for there is no other. Karl Barth (1886- ) is the most outstanding contemporary exponent of this ‘revelational’ theology. For him the revelation of God as attested by Scripture stands over against contemporary human culture, whether religious or secular, with the divine Word of promise and judgment.

There are other Christian thinkers who believe that the new cultural situation must be taken a lot more seriously. Paul Tillich (1886-1965), for example, has tried to break out of the traditional language and discuss God and the Christian faith in terms that are still common to all men whether secular or religious. He has interpreted the meaning of the word ‘God’ in terms of man’s ultimate concern. "This does not mean that first there is a being called God and then the demand that man should be ultimately concerned about him. It means that whatever concerns a man ultimately becomes god for him, and, conversely that a man can be concerned ultimately only about that which is god for him."

A few have startled the Christian world by going even further. They believe we are in the process of entering a post-theistic age, in which the word ‘God’ by reason of all its past associations is becoming increasingly irrelevant and there is no possibility of, nor even any point in attempting to salvage it. In this present decade they have been called the "Death of God" theologians. Some of them speak of the death of God as if it were an event that has taken place in our time; others simply avoid the word ‘God’. Paul van Buren, in his book The Secular Meaning of the Gospel has given us an interpretation of the Christian faith which does not depend upon the use of the word ‘God’ at all.

Naturally many Christians regard this extreme form of the contemporization of the Christian faith as such a radical departure from Christian orthodoxy as to be something quite different, and perhaps they are right. But on the other hand, if the church insists on speaking to the secular world in its own traditional ‘religious’ language, it is possible that the Christian faith will be written off as irrelevant to the new world, and will fade away as a cultural force. Such are the issues of theology today.

So far we have been concerned to try to state and appreciate the nature and the gravity of the questions which the new world poses for the Christian faith. We have as yet made no attempt to meet these challenges. To this task we shall presently turn. But at this point there is one final thing to be said. Whether we are Christians, agnostics or atheists, we are all involved in the present cultural crisis. For two reasons at least, the present ferment in Christian thought is, at the same time, of widespread significance for the total human situation.

Firstly, it is true that the new world has challenged at many points the validity of the traditional Christian answers to such basic questions as: What is man? Where did he come from? What is he here for? Where is he going? But no scientist, philosopher, or secular prophet has supplied alternative answers. Here and there the quest of man for the ultimate answers has given rise to a certain resurgence of religion, both Christian and non-Christian, both orthodox, and more often, unorthodox. In some areas the communist ideology has, temporarily at least, given men something to live for. But secular man for the most part is left with his questions unanswered, sometimes still hopeful, as with the humanist, sometimes despairing as in some forms of art. Sometimes he does not know what is causing his unease, and sometimes he is aware of the God-shaped vacuum in his life.

Secondly, it must be acknowledged that it was out of Christendom that the new world emerged. To understand the new world we must go back to the seeds and roots from which it sprang. Perhaps we shall find that just as the continued vitality and fruitfulness of the tree depends on the nourishment it receives from its roots, so the new world depends more than is realized on the nourishment it receives from its cultural roots. If the new world turns its back on the past heritage it may find itself to be like an uprooted tree, which will wither and die, and cultural thorns and thistles will spring up where once it proudly stood. And over the withering tree will be heard those puzzling words:

For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.