In recent days we have heard a good deal about the revival of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Both CHRISTIANITY TODAY and Christian Century have had editorials on this matter. It would be unfortunate if a destructive type of controversy would develop out of this endeavour. Please let us define our terms, beware of over- or understatements of the opponent’s views, and may we have the grace to recognize those as brothers beloved who acknowledge in word and deed Jesus Christ to be Lord and Saviour. That all is not well even among the critical scholars is attested by a discerning article, “The Current Plight of Biblical Scholarship,” by Prof. C. C. McCown (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. LXXV, March 1956). But has agreement been reached with regard to the Greek New Testament? McCown speaks of “the dubious predicament of the ‘science’ of biblical exegesis today, a predicament shared with all culture.” He calls for “imagination, original and creative scholarship in the face of danger of failure and defeat.” He writes:
“For 75 years scholars (like ourselves!) have been presenting their most brilliant ideas to the annual meetings and printing them in the Journal of the Society of Biblical Literature. But, not only between the Continent and America, but within the American groups, differences are sharper than ever, partly because of the altered tone of society in general, but partly, perhaps largely, because of the failure of our scholarship to attain assured and agreed results. Our very right to freedom of thought, criticism and expression is under attack in many quarters. Biblical scholarship is most directly involved in the anti-intellectual and anti-liberal movements of the present moment, as well as from those who doubt the value of both history and religion” (p. 13).
Surely, these are serious admissions of failure on the part of a leading critical New Testament scholar. He even goes so far as to say “current ecumenicity highlights, rather than subdues, the contrasts” among students of the Bible. Scholars entertain different conceptions of criticism, principles, methods and results of biblical studies. We ask: is it pertinent to inquire whether or not much of the present plight of so-called higher and literary critical scholarship may be due to a faulty starting point? In other words, scholars since Schleiermacher have not been as objective as they claimed to be. Did not the astute Schleiermacher smuggle Spinoza into Christian theology? Ferdinand Christian Baur, eminent church historian though he was, sees nothing but a nasty struggle in apostolic history.
David Friedrich Strauss, to whom Professor Bultmann seems to be beholden in many ways, radically denied the supernatural element in the Gospel. He defined the faith of the early Church in Jesus Christ as Lord as a myth that crystallized out of the pious wishes of the first Christians. And Strauss, be it remembered, ended finally in gross materialism! Bruno Bauer, left-wing Hegelian, interpreted Christianity as the religion of abstraction. To him Christianity estranges man from kin and kindred, family and people, a charge heard in our day by followers of Nietzsche and Alfred Rosenberg. F. Ch. Baur spiritualizes the fourth gospel, while Strauss sees in it the most sensual gospel.
On the one hand, excessive emphasis on rationality and the historical approach, on the other hand contempt of history and historical facts. One need only read Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus in order to be reminded by that “liberal of a higher order” of the vagaries, distortions and evasions of much of nineteenth-century critical scholarship. And has not Harry Emerson Fosdick in our day admitted the serious flaws of modernism in his sermon “Beyond Modernism” published in the fall of 1935?
But neo-evangelicals have their troubles too. Witness the present controversy between Gordon H. Clark of Butler University and the men around Professor Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary. We commend to our readers Professor Clark’s article, “The Bible as Truth,” in Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 114, April 1957. Clark realizes that theories of truth are notoriously intricate, yet we must somehow achieve a decent biblical epistemology. And Clark is convinced that “truth is characteristic of propositions only.” However, “the thesis that the Bible is literally true does not imply that the Bible is true literally. Figures of speech occur in the Bible and they are not true literally. They are true figuratively. But they are literally true.” Moreover, Clark argues, if God should speak a truth, but speak it so that no one could possibly hear, that truth would not be a revelation. Clark finds it incredible that conservative theologians deny that the Bible, apart from questions and commands, consists of true statements that men can know.
Clark combats the assertion of “The Text of a Complaint,” written by Westminster Theological Seminary teachers, of the absolute qualitative distinction between God’s knowledge of himself and man’s knowledge of God. Clark does not for a moment deny that human knowledge of God is and always will be limited. That is so because men are creatures. The fall has darkened men’s understanding. But, even though men need the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, men have some understanding of sin and God. There must be some point of similarity between God’s knowledge and our own knowledge of God, otherwise men could never receive anything that God would impart to them in his revelation. “If there could be a truth inexpressible in logical, grammatical form, the word truth as applied to it would have no more in common with the usual meaning of truth than the Dog Star has in common with Fido” (p. 167).
Needless to say that Clark’s position with regard to biblical epistemology has its difficulties as any other theory of knowledge. But it points up the fact that the neo-evangelicals are seriously talking to each other.
Erich Dinkier in “Principles of Biblical Interpretation” (Journal of Religious Thought, Autumn-Winter 1955/56) advocates a synthesis of the older historico-critical method and Karl Barth’s neo-biblicist approach. He writes:
“The historian’s task or question: How did it happen? What are the facts? was not corrected and supplemented by the questions the texts themselves were raising, the questions, How do you decide with regard to Jesus Christ, the proclaimed Son of God? How do you understand your own life before God and in the midst of this world after having encountered the risen Christ, the living Lord, and the Gospel? Disregarding these questions does not result in objectivity but in restricting our insight in falling short of understanding the inner forces and even the very core of the text. All this is done on the basis of a highly subjective conception of objectivity” (p. 26).
In other words, Christian scholars must be “open to self-criticism.” This ought to be true no matter which theological position we espouse.
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