In the numerous periodicals read in preparation for this column, we found one sequence of articles to be among the most interesting and easily the most significant. We refer to Professor James R. Branton’s “Our Present Situation in Biblical Theology” and its several replies. Religion in Life (winter 1956–57) had the liberally-inclined Millar Burrows and the Barthian-inclined James D. Smart and Robert McAfee Brown respond to this lead article. Together these four articles provide something of a mosaic of the non-orthodox or nonconservative or non-creedal or non-evangelical or non-fundamental, or whatever term you use, theology of our day. Their importance is so great that we give the whole column over to a summary of this discussion.

Colgate-Rochester Seminary Professor Branton first speaks of the liberal developments of the last century which listed Harnack and Bacon among its champions and interpreted Christ as merely a social reformer. Albert Schweitzer later pointed out that the liberal school had overlooked some historical aspects of Jesus such as his consuming interest in eschatology. This “new biblical approach moved onto the stage, and accused the older of posing as objective, but of actually being so culturally bound as to involve more eisegesis (reading teachings into the Bible) than exegesis (bring out the Bible’s own teaching).” Barth and Brunner followed this new approach to the Bible itself, trusting its message versus the dictates of culture and reason. G. Ernest Wright, C. H. Dodd and Rudolph Bultmann are also cited as part of this movement which “has placed the Bible back in the center of our thoughts” and made faith, not reason, the faculty by which it is understood and its unity, rather than its diversity, of teaching, a chief characteristic. “For several years now the Old Testament and the New Testament scholars have fallen into step with this school of thought.”

Times are now changing, Branton continues. “But by now this popular revival of biblical theology is itself calling for a serious evaluation. Indeed it has been weighed in the balances of some competent scholarship and, like the liberalism it repudiated, it too has been found wanting.” Professor Branton urges the following criticisms: 1., “It has lost its real rootage in history”; 2., is guilty of some poor exegesis; 3., often approaches the Bible with its own idea of biblical unity; 4., has overworked the mythological idea in the Bible; 5., found a kernel of doctrine in the message (kerygma) of the church that was not always there; 6., did not ground its Christology in sufficient history; 7., has a tendency to cut the nerve of ethics by the knife of theology; 8., has a wild growth of subjectivism; 9., has an “exaggerated emphasis upon eschatology.”

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“Already there are signs that the needed changes are on the way. Oscar Cullman in Time Magazine (May 2, 1955) says that ‘there is a trend away from Barth … and there is a tendency on the Continent, as in the United States, toward neo-liberalism in theology.’ ”

A statement to the same effect by Harvard’s Amos Wilder is cited in which we find an interesting contrast between neo-orthodox and orthodox Christology, both of which Wilder rejects: “ ‘The Man Christ Jesus preached by the neo-orthodox is a kind of symbol X, an unknown entity—Christ is preached but it is unreality. The old orthodoxy preaches Christ, a supernatural figure, God himself—’ and neither is biblical.” (We cannot help noting in passing that orthodoxy has not merely affirmed Christ to be God, but equally emphatically has affirmed his humanity.)

Branton then suggests some necessary features of the new emerging theology. It must be thoroughly scientific. It cannot have preconceived notions and see systems where they do not exist. It must not live on an island of irrationality.

In our opinion, Professor Branton politelv kissed neo-orthodoxy good-bye. Yale’s Professor Burrows must have thought the same thing: “Let me say first that I am in complete sympathy with his (Branton’s) main position and applaud his vigorous statement of it.” He proceeds to mention various criticisms, the most interesting of which is this: “The only thing wrong with it (the older liberalism)—was that it did not go far enough. The remedy was to go all the way, not go back again to the beginning.”

Dr. James D. Smart (formerly Editor-in-chief of The New Curriculum for the Presbyterian [U.S.A.] Board of Christian Education) spoke for the theological viewpoint which Branton had described as on its way out. Branton’s position, as Smart sees it, is plain liberalism.

Branton would be justified in rejecting the new orthodoxy, he concedes, if it were guilty of all the sins Branton lays at its door. But Branton was battling a man of straw. “Any use of the term ‘biblical theology’ should take account of the wide variety of phenomena that are to be included within it.” Branton has viewed only one phase. Smart then cites a Jew, a Jesuit, an Anglican and others who are examples of “biblical theologians.”

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Dr. Smart criticizes the oversimplifications of Branton’s account of the rise of biblical theology. He then retells the whole story with much more detail and comes to the conclusion that the new theology was not a break away from the old but the adding of a new dimension, the insistence that the Bible scholar had to be a theologian as well as, not in lieu of, being a research scientist. This functioning as a theologian was what led to the discovery of unity in the Bible. “A science that had eyes only for the human phenomena of religion had lost the clue to the unity of Scripture. On the purely human level nothing could be found except the widest diversity. But a science that approached the Scriptures as the record of both divine revelation and human religion began to hear one voice in both Testaments.…”

Union Seminary’s Robert McAfee Brown’s “Is There ‘Biblical Theology’ ” throws its weight, very cautiously, on Smart’s side. He questions the assumption that there is a biblical theology in the Bible and the wisdom of asking the Presbyterian ordained, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?” His comment on this shows the uneasy conscience of such thinkers in conservative denominations: “There are ways by which this question can be answered in the affirmative but the lurking sense of inquiet remains unstilled in many a Presbyterian heart: ‘is Scripture really for the purpose of giving us a system of doctrine?’ ” He refers to (but does not attempt to prove) the “breakdown of fundamentalism” which believed there was such a system of doctrines taught in the Bible. Disposing thus lightly of the traditional orthodox position of the church, Dr. Brown seeks to find some other type of biblical theology.

The problem of authenticating of the Bible is the central problem. Brown considers three answers. First, there is the “encounter” test of the Bible (Brunner). When the Bible speaks to me it is the Word of God. When reading it I have an encounter with God: I know it is God’s Word.

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But Brown seems to be disturbed by Tillich’s criticism of this “encounter” view that it leaves no room for the fact of despair about the meaning of life. Tillich suggests “absolute faith” which has no special content. Brown, seeming very unsure of himself, “hopes” that this “contendess faith” can contain the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

Third, there is Reinhold Niebuhr’s notion of “self-authenticating” faith. This turns out to be the self-authenticating faith in parts of the Bible only. And what parts? Well, it seems to depend entirely on the individual whose faith it is. The slaying of the Amalekites, the Second Coming of Christ, for example, cannot be authenticated, according to Brown, who seems not to know that there are millions of people who think they can. Dr. Brown quaintly concludes: “in other words, there is certainly a high degree of discrimination involved in selecting those elements of the biblical perspective which we find to be self-authenticating.” Brown tries to escape the charge of complete subjectivism by saying that men learn something from some of the hard passages of the Bible too.

Still trying to escape this trap of subjectivism, or more accurately, trying to extricate himself from it, Dr. Brown introduces what he calls the principles of the Reformers. The first is the testimony of the Holy Spirit and the second is the doctrine of the Word. The Word turns out to be only the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, “the Word within words.” Acceptance of the words as authentic is bibliolatry, he says. So the reliance on Christ apart from the authority of the words of the Bible is still pure subjectivism in which anyone can make Christ what he pleases.

And the testimony of the Holy Spirit, independently of the words of the Bible, is pure subjectivism in which anyone can make the Holy Spirit what he pleases. So, we say sadly, all those who would reject the Bible theology, which has been historically expressed in the creeds of Christendom, must end up as Brown does, with no “authenticated” saving theology at all.

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