In the past thirty or forty years drastic changes have taken place in European theology. These theological changes are visible against a complex background; and to take account of their background is to be reminded again that theological development is interwoven with history. The theological climate of a given time is always profoundly influenced by historical events. In times of prosperity and calm, theology takes on an optimistic color; in other times catastrophe throws a shadow over theology. Theology, in the sense of believing reflection on the truth of the Christian faith, does not stand unmoved within the events of a given area. It is constantly taken up, in thesis and antithesis, in struggle and confrontation, into the situation of the times.

Temper of the times

In the nature of the case, there is always a real danger that a theologian may fit his theology to the mentality of a given era and thus capitulate to it. This has often occurred, as appears from the modernistic theology of the nineteenth century, which, under pressure of the natural science popular at the time, sacrificed decisive points of the ancient confession of the Church to the current Zeitgeist. When this happens, a time in history is no longer viewed in the light of the Word of God, but rather the Word of God is interpreted out of the presuppositions of a given epoch. Thus, the Gospel is assimilated to the mind of the time. And finally, it is no longer the Gospel, but the temper of the times that speaks with authority.

Post-evolutionary hypnosis

It is clear that theology in Europe today has arisen out of the crises of many catastrophic events that are still vividly alive in our memory. These events are concentrated around the two world wars and all that is intimately associated with them. I do not refer only to the problems that arose directly from them, such as the problem of the state, the question of the demonizing of life, and the problem of Israel, all of which have stirred up lively discussions in Europe during the past ten years. I refer primarily to the crisis in the optimistic, evolutionistic thought of the nineteenth century.

In the previous century we were hypnotized by the idea of the progress of humanity as it was spurred on by the development of the sciences. Fascinated by the optimistic notion of the imminent evolution of the Kingdom of God, we were blinded to actual threats to our existence that were even then arising. People gave up belief in the reality of demonic powers (as in the reality of angels), and they spoke seldom about the corruption of the human heart and the corresponding judgment of a holy God. What was formerly called corruption was then seen as the “not yet” of human development. The coming of the living Lord into history, paled in the light of the development of culture within history.

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Secularizing of theology

The theology of the nineteenth century mirrored in many respects the optimism and evolutionism of the era. Books of dogmatics appeared in which eschatology was given only a passing notice and the message of the coming of Christ was scarcely heard. Correspondingly, the ancient dogmas of the church went through a profound crisis. Sharp critique was directed against the doctrines of the two natures of Christ, the confession of the Trinity, and redemption through the blood of Christ. In all of this we encounter what was actually a radical secularizing of theology; the scandal of the Gospel was disappearing. This development proceeded into the beginning of the twentieth century; even then, hearts were still full of faith in the promise of the future. The expectation was translated by voices who said that the new century would be the age of the soul or the century of the child. The developments of the century then past appeared to guarantee this future.

The waves of pessimism

These expectations were unfulfilled. Our century is the opposite of an age of peace. One sometimes wonders whether this hard and uncompassionate century has any room at all for the innocent child and whether in spite of the rise of the science of psychology—it is not precisely the soul of man that is lost. One wonders whether the proverb about the sickness of heart caused by deferred hope (Prov. 13:12) has not become a reality in our time.

A wave of pessimism rolled over Europe after the First World War. Spengler’s The Decline of the West reflected the bitter disappointment of Europe after the intense expectations of the nineteenth century. This disappointment is reflected in the literature as well as in the theology and philosophy of the postwar era. It was sensed increasingly that human development was not so obvious as had been imagined and that immense threats haunted the horizon of human existence in spite of and within its cultural and technical enrichment.

Recovery of the vertical

These threats, with the insecurities and fears they caused, were mirrored in theology. The break with the optimistic past was executed toward the end of the First World War. We think of the rise of dialectic theology with its onslaught against the optimism of the past and against the tendency to identify religio-socialistic ideals with the Kingdom of God. This movement called men to a respect for the majestic judgment of God, for His wrath (of which nineteenth-century theology knew scarcely anything), for the inescapable crises in the entire human situation—in culture, and in morality and religion as ways for man to get to God. Salvation for man was recognized as possible only through Divine forgiveness, only through the justification of the ungodly. The horizontal line of evolution gave way to the vertical line of God’s grace and judgment. This mode of thinking called attention so insistently once again to the eschata, the end, that we can justly speak of the eschatological theology of the twentieth century. In this the emphasis was laid on the unfathomable majesty, the unapproachable holiness of God, on His hiddenness, His grace and judgment. (In 1917 Rudolph Otto had written his celebrated The Idea of the Holy, which by 1925 had had its thirteenth printing.) The corollary of this was also set down, the nothingness of the creature in his lostness and rebellion against God. Eschatology—not now in the sense of a distant future event—became real and existential, a present actuality in the dynamic and in the tension of the coming of God into history.

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Shift of perspective

This effected a profound shift in the thinking of theologians about the relationship between God and man. The distance between God and man came sharply into focus (“God is in heaven, and thou upon earth,” Eccles. 5:2), and the accent fell on the fact that only in recognizing this distance could the light of grace and the experience of comfort be captured. Man had been placed in the center of things by nineteenth-century theology; dialectic theology attacked this vehemently and set God in the center. Appeal was made for a theocentric theology. Schleiermacher, with his optimism, his Christology and his eschatology, was a favorite target of men such as Barth and Brunner. For Schleiermacher’s Christology did not recognize God in Christ and his eschatology had no place for a real coming of God into history.

This initial attack on nineteenth-century theology has proceeded in a line of development that, it seems to me, has been unbroken. The same questions put then are still acute. They are concentrated about the central questions of the Church’s confession and, in connection with it, about the nature of the last things. We see clearly that the struggle which began with eschatological questions still is centered there. More than ever, problems concerning the significance of the Kingdom of God are the order of the day. The extreme alternatives are still the view that would have the Kingdom as our task and the eschatological view that sees it exclusively as a future act of God. For us, the consciousness that the New Testament knows nothing of such a dilemma and, on the contrary, warns us against one-sidedness, becomes ever clearer as we observe the theological struggles or Europe.

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A stubborn resistance

This remarkable development in theology does not mean that the influence of the theology of the last century is completely broken and that it has permanently disappeared from the stage. The resistance to the Church’s confession was too stubborn to be drowned so quickly. It should not surprise us that we still encounter attacks on the apostolic confession, with its virgin birth, resurrection, and ascension statements, nor that the fierce critique of the Christological confession of Chalcedon is carried through into the twentieth century.

In this connection it is important to note the strong influence of the German New Testament scholar, Rudolph Bultmann. Bultmann was part of the dialectic circle at first, but later came into sharp conflict with Barth in regard to the foundations of theology. The most striking element of Bultmann’s theology is that, with his program of “demythologizing” of the New Testament, he continues the critical line of the liberal nineteenth-century theology. This is manifest in his teaching that the New Testament has come to us clothed in the mythical view of the world common to the time of the New Testament, a view which has become impossible for modern man to accept. The Incarnation, the virgin birth, the resurrection and the return of Christ on the clouds of heaven are all inextricable parts of this mythical world picture. Modern man cannot accept the naive New Testament world picture, and therefore, cannot accept these mythical forms in which the New Testament presents the Gospel. It was Bultmann’s conviction that theology must make it clear to modern man that Christianity did not stand or fall with its Biblical, mythical setting and that theology must not put an unnecessary stumbling block before modern man by maintaining the antiquated mythical setting of the Gospel.

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Dispute over basic concerns

In all this, we are not dealing with a struggle that was played off as a competition within the quiet libraries of theologians. It hit the Church in its vitals of faith. The Church could not observe this development from a balcony; she was brought into it with her entire confession and with her preaching. We see more and more that the struggle around orthodoxy, which took such fierce form in the nineteenth century, is not a thing that belongs only to the past. In the overwhelming flood of theological literature of the postwar era of the forties and fifties, we can see the struggle increasing in intensity. In Europe (we limit ourselves to this continent, although the same tensions are observable in other areas of the world) the struggle still centers around the same basic questions raised by the modernism that has influenced theology for a century now. In this struggle, as observed in Bultmann’s theology, the foundations of the whole Christian faith, and therewith the absoluteness of Christianity, are affected; and the Church of Jesus Christ is directly involved.

As we are impressed with this fact, we realize that our strategy cannot be that of a retreat to an intellectual no man’s land where we can withhold ourselves from genuine scholarly involvement. It is this approach which, if pursued, could do such a journal as CHRISTIANITY TODAY great harm. We would then be giving the impression that we are afraid of scholarship and, moreover, that we have reason to fear it. This is the position of fear. We must take the position of honest scholarship which is bound by the Word of God and which does not retreat with the Word but rather enters the struggle with faith, unafraid.

We have been placed by God in an extremely exciting time, an era charged with tension. The struggle is being played off on almost every theological field, in the Biblical as well as the dogmatic arena. If we insist on carrying on the battle, it is not because we are bound by conservatism. On the contrary, when we see the Biblical studies of our own day, we are impressed with the fact that there are treasures in the Gospel we have not yet touched. We carry on the battle because we realize that the Word of God has riches we have not yet grasped. We need think only of the great theological word book of the New Testament now being published in Germany (Theologisches Wortenbuch zum Neuen Testament, G. Kittel, ed.), which is having an enormous influence on European theological study, to see evidence that the Word of God is powerful through all heterodoxy. If I see it correctly, there is a special calling for true Christian theology implicit in today’s theological climate. We can be faithful to this calling only as we are seized by the Gospel of Christ and are willing to give ourselves wholly to an understanding of and obedience to the Scriptures.

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Love and dogmatic debate

Naturally, there is danger of sterility and intellectualism, as there always has been in orthodoxy. But there is also another possibility. I think of John, the apostle of love. He lived in a time when a hard battle had to be fought for the reality of Christ come in the flesh. As he pursued the battle, he was the apostle of love; but in and from love he waged a hard and moving fight, not hesitating in his situation to point up the temptation and threat of the Antichrist. Evidently the strength of love did not disqualify the beloved apostle for pitched battle. I see in this the program for “orthodoxy,” or, if you will, for CHRISTIANITY TODAY, in the changed and still changing theological climate of our time. Orthodoxy has often been accused of being loveless and conservative for conservatism’s sake, possessed with an antiquated mentality without consciousness or feeling for the changed times. Whatever justice this charge may at times have had, it will be our continued calling to come to a unity of life, without unbearable tension between faith and science, and without conflict between love and orthodoxy.

The earnestness of life

In the midst of the continuing battle over the confession of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, redemption through the blood of Christ (and, in the background, the authority of the Scriptures), we shall have to understand that, in all the changed and changing times, there is one question which shall never be relegated to the sidelines. It is the question that, when Christ first asked it, stirred up a crisis: “Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am? … But whom say ye that I am?” We may not allow ourselves to forget that after Peter confessed His Lord, the Lord gave a benediction. In our theological reflection too, we must remember this benediction. In theology, we do not deal with an intellectual joust, but with the very earnestness of life itself. It is in this earnestness that we must make our theological decision as to the offense of the cross, an offense that remains the same in every changed situation.

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Natural understanding, regardless of the time, seeks other ways than the way of the Cross. Hence, in all changes of climate, there is also a prevailing continuity. The calling of the Church and of theology is to enter the struggle in order to serve with the Gospel, the Gospel that is not according to man. If we in common responsibility use the phrase CHRISTIANITY TODAY it must not be as an empty motto; but as a program and a perspective, a task that, without fear, we willingly take on. We shall not think too highly of our own strength or of our own thinking. We shall be comforted and led by the Word of God that is applicable here: “Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days.”

G. C. Berkouwer, Ph.D., is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Free University of
Amsterdam and author of Studies in Dogmatics, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, etc.

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