Our Knowledge Of God: No Wordless Mysticism

Special Revelation and the Word of God, by Bernard Ramm (Eerdmans, 1961, 220 pp., $4), is reviewed by H. D. McDonald, Visiting Professor, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Some books come off the press stillborn; others, in the words of Shakespeare are “born great.” This last is true of Dr. Ramm’s Special Revelation and the Word of God. The subject with which Ramm deals is at the present time one of profound significance, and he treats it in a manner worthy of profound significance. And Ramm approaches his work well-equipped for his task.

Three main topics engage his attention: the Concept, the Modalities, and the Products of Special Revelation. The knowledge of God, it is premised at the beginning, “is the authentic map of the spiritual order.” But a map is not the same thing as a photograph. Maps need to be understood. God is, however, known only in self-disclosure, and revelation is presented as the autobiography of God. General revelation in some way, and special revelation in a very definite way, fit into this context. Ramm’s interest is, of course, in special revelation, and he consequently goes into some detail regarding its centrality and characteristics. His discussion on the modalities of special revelation is of particular interest and importance. First place is given to the modality of the divine condescension, and it is shown that it has a cosmic and anthropic context and that “special revelation possesses the same contours as those of redemption.” It has, however, its own universe of discourse—the knowledge of God—and this means that it must find its expression in “relevant analogies” and various media. The concept of the divine speaking, or the Word of God, is another modality. And the Word is essentially an uttered word. The prophets were conscious of themselves as vehicles of the divine message. Revelation as historical event has its necessary place in the scheme of special revelation since it is the substance of which special revelation is the shadow. Here Ramm discusses the nature of the biblical history: it is essentially a “prophetic-covenantal writing of history.”

The central modality of special revelation is the Incarnation, and the higher Christology of the biblical writings is the only true account of Christ. It is urged that the modality of the Incarnation is now continued in the Church by means of the Scriptures. This means that the Old Testament is important to the Church as a “Christological document.” All Scripture must be taken as mediating Christ, this “instrumental character” makes void the charge of bibliolatry.

Article continues below

Coming to the products of special revelation, Ramm deals first with its relation to language. Man is essentially a speaking being. Thus God and man are not only covenant-partners, they are also speech-partners. Thus Pentecost represents the healing of Babel. But what is spoken can only find durability, catholicity, fixability, and purity in writing. Knowledge of God is the central issue of special revelation: there is no meeting between God and man without it. Inevitably the question arises, is revelation propositional? Ramm gives a careful and convincing statement of the case against the notion of a wordless mysticism. The writter Word is the product of the Spirit’s inspiration through which the revelation is preserved in a trustworthy and sufficient form.

Special Revelation and the Word of God must be reckoned with. Theological students cannot afford to miss it. We have here in clear perspective the relation between God’s self-disclosure and the written Scriptures. The evangelical who studies it will find his ideas clarified and the liberal who reads it will find his ideas challenged. Both must not neglect it. A book “born great” will achieve greatness”: it would be superfluous for us to thrust greatness upon it.


For God’S Undershepherd

The Pastoral Calling, by Paul Rowntree Clifford (Channel Press, 1961, 139 pp., $3), is reviewed by C. Ralston Smith, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City.

Delivered originally to “a limited audience” of Baptist ministers in England, this little volume in the field of practical theology has a well-grounded and functional approach to the work of God’s undershepherd in the flock. The first of the six chapters is perhaps the strongest, with a well-documented and cryptically-presented argument for the role of the minister. “The pastor who is truly called of God will at all points strive to be sensitive to his congregation; and they, in turn, will gladly submit themselves to the word of God when they recognize its authentic character.”

Beyond this unusual beginning, there is little new in the book. There are some incisive jibes made concerning our well-oiled, gargantuan machine which is the church in the U.S. Some excellent simple techniques are presented again for our review with regard to counseling. The one or two points of disagreement in theology are not proper provinces for our present consideration. The book is attractive in its make-up, and a fine mixture of works old and new are included in its bibliography.

Article continues below


Pilgrimage To Disaster

Odyssey of the Self-Centered Self, or Rake’s Progress in Religion, by Robert Elliot Fitch (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961, 184 pp., $3.95), is reviewed by Sherwood E. Wirt, Editor of Decision.

Here is an inspired retelling of the world’s most popular romance: man’s love for himself. All the way from the sacred bamboo groves of the effete East to the blabbermouth recitals of the “beat” West, Robert E. Fitch has depicted for us on a wide screen the well-tempered egoist, either holding his head, sucking his thumb, or patting himself on the back. In a volume filled with titillating prose which telescopes the thought of Lucretius, Aldous Huxley, Erich Fromm, Jack Kerouac, and dozens in between, the dean of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, has given us the cleverest treatise on original sin since Machiavelli.

This “Rake’s Progress in Religion” develops as a weepy, breast-beating pilgrimage sans penance through the subterranean passages of self-love, self-pity, and self-annihilation. The twentieth-century citizen stands revealed as a spiritual nudist who has “shucked reason with logical positivism, shucked emotion with existentialism, shucked morals with relativism, shucked art with impressionism, shucked truth with skepticism, shucked sex with impersonalism, shucked the self with Zen and Vedanta.” He drowns every objective idea such as sacrifice, nobility, and courage in a sea of maudlin self-compassion. He appropriates the soliloquies of Hamlet, the stratagems of the doomed Chessman, and the sufferings of Jesus Christ only to magnify his own plight.

To one drenched in the bathos of such self-orgy, Lady Macbeth appears to be a “warm, feminine, sympathetic” kind of person. Shelley’s ideal skylark (“Hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert”) is lampooned as an “ethereal flying slug.” As for God, he is a Blob in the meditation room at the U.N. to whom prayer is offered like this:

“I forgive you up there …

If you ever start a war, I’ll understand.

It’s an attention-getting device …

you are emotionally insecure.”

The terminus ad quem of this kind of thinking, which the author sees prevalent everywhere today, is the underdone beatnik. This person makes an existential claim to be seeking life; actually he has rejected everything in life but himself. Both classical Christianity and classical atheism repudiate such an in-grown inhumanity. Nevertheless our age belongs to the beat mentality, and instead of being labeled post-Protestant or post-Christian, it should therefore properly be labeled post-humanist.

Article continues below

The bête noire behind all this was not so much Nietzsche, we learn, as Walt Whitman. The nineteenth-century American poet, says Fitch, was a phony—a comedian who held a magnifying glass over his navel, so to speak, and wrote “songs of myself” filled with hypocrisy, false identification, and solipsism. Like Alfred Kinsey, Whitman emerges in true perspective only at the animal level. (Fitch quotes the poet as preferring the aroma of his armpits to prayer.) Albert Camus, for all his artistry, likewise ends the self’s odyssey on the subhuman plane. “I, I, I is the refrain of my whole life,” weeps the drunk into his absinthe.

Dr. Fitch is by no means the first theologian to suggest that the Western mind is baffled by the problem of self. Reinhold Niebuhr, Alexander Miller, and others have explored the status of the self in our day, but their diagnoses have lacked this book’s Voltairean candor.

Unfortunately the author’s therapy is not as clearly delineated as his pathology. For example, he shows us the self in the fourth act of Peer Gynt, running a madhouse; but he barely mentions the final scene of Ibsen’s drama in which the self is saved by the Heavenly Father. Here and there are occasional flashes of Christian insight, but one gathers that God might well prefer (as the author obviously prefers) an extraverted infidel to an introverted believer. If that be true, we are all back on the wheel of salvation by works, and finally doomed.

Nowhere is Jesus Christ seriously proposed as a catalyst who will resolve the misery of man, save him, rid him of self-preoccupation and set him free to serve the living God.

The contribution of this book is its spotlighting of the irresponsible self in our day. “Nothing in this lousy world is my fault,” cries one of the moderns. “I don’t want it to be and it can’t be and it won’t be!” In fact, none of the spokesmen of the hour—whether Archibald MacLeish or Tennessee Williams, or the chronic alcoholic or Dennis the menace—seems willing to admit any human responsibility for the human condition. They rage, they whimper, they rationalize, they drink, they accept.

The author’s conclusion—sound as far as it goes—is that the self itself is nothing apart from the objective realities of humanity, nature, and God. (This is the real message of the fifth act of Peer Gynt. When Peer asks Solveig at the end of his travels, “Where was my real self all this time?” she replies, “That’s easy. In my faith, in my hope, and in my love.”) And Fitch drives home his sharpest point in a discussion of Martin Luther: “It is Christ … [a man] must learn to accept, not himself. It is his neighbor he must learn to love, not himself. So he looks up in faith, and looks out in love.”

Article continues below


Faced By An Either/Or

Jesus the Lord, by Karl Heim, translated by D. H. van Daalen (Muhlenberg Press, 1961, 192 pp., $3.50), is reviewed by Paul K. Jewett, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary.

The remarkable complexities of contemporary scientific theory often loom up before the student of theology as a frustrating barrier to meaningful conversation with those who are scientifically “wise.” The late Professor of Theology at the University of Tübingen, Karl Heim, was one of the few Christian spokesmen trained both in the natural sciences and in philosophical theology. Like all his writings, Jesus the Lord aims at conversation with those who need to hear the claims of Christ from the perspective of contemporary thought. The first of two volumes of Christology, it is concerned primarily with the either/or that all men are placed before, by the claims of Christ to be the Lord. When Jesus is acknowledged as Lord, one’s relationship to God is translated from an “I-It” to an “I-Thou” relationship. Heim is emphatically clear that Jesus is not just an historical person but also our contemporary, living Lord.

Probably the greatest weakness in the book is that it does not answer the question, How is Jesus qualified to be our Lord, our Führer? Is it because he is God the Son, co-equal and consubstantial with the Father and the Spirit? The author is not clear at this point. One could believe—I am not saying Heim does—that Jesus was simply a man whom God appointed to be the Leader, the Lord, of sinful lost men, because of his unique qualifications. Heim says that Jesus is the “Word of God incarnate” in the sense that a new situation has arisen with the coming of Christ. The relation between God and mankind is permanently changed.

The reader of Heim might be profited by consulting Donald Baillie’s God Was In Christ, the section where Heim’s Christology is discussed briefly.


Architectural Revolution

Liturgy and Architecture, by Peter Hammond (Barrie and Rockliff, 1960, 191 pp., 37s.6d.), is reviewed by Noel S. Pollard, Research Worker, Trinity College, Cambridge University.

Article continues below

In the foreword, Dr. F. W. Dillistone compares the impact the book is likely to have with the warning sounded to European Christianity many years ago by Karl Barth. He feels that Hammond’s pleas on the subject of architecture are of vital importance because the world is largely out of touch with the living church. For many a man the church building is the only symbol of the faith with which he still has contact.

The book aims to show how the liturgical movement, which has so strongly influenced the design of churches in Europe, has not yet reached England. The movement has returned to many of the biblical emphases of the Reformation, and has created a desire to see the people take an active part in the worship of God. The author traces the history of church architecture in France, Germany, and Switzerland, with the aid of some excellent photographs. Modern biblical theology has revolutionized the conception of church buildings not only among Protestants but among Catholics as well.

Hammond’s main attack is on the English ecclesiastical scene, where the dead hand of the Oxford Movement with its conscious romantic medievalism still holds sway. It is a lamentable fact that in many evangelical churches both in England and America, the Communion table has come to overshadow the pulpit, and has been made more like a distant medieval altar than a table round which the Lord’s people gather.

If it achieves nothing else, the reading of this book will at least challenge us to rethink our attitude to worship and cause us to look critically at the plans of the churches we use.


The Church And The World

Under Orders: The Churches and Public Affairs, by Roswell P. Barnes (Doubleday, 1961, 138 pp.; $2.95), is reviewed by Daniel A. Poling, Editor, The Christian Herald.

This is a book of scholarly distinction. The author reveals himself as the competent and eloquent appraiser of the ecumenical movement. In what he covers both historically and as an interpreter, he is just about beyond criticism. But much is not covered, as for instance, the repudiation of the layman advisory group which the NCC had itself set up and which took issue with the Council’s pronouncements in public affairs. This group had never sought veto power but had been assured that its counsel would be sought before pronouncements were released to the public. Dissenters, as they become articulate in the Council, disappear from departments and committees. As to evangelism, the author has dealt with it but so passionlessly that one could feel he omits the topic altogether.

Article continues below

Among topics covered in this dynamic volume are: Why Are Churches Involved in Public Affairs?; Social Problems in the Usual Functions of the Church; Relations with Other Agencies: Government, Other Community Agencies, Other Faiths; Christian Unity and International Conflict; Major Social Problem Areas: Economic Life, Race Relations, Foreign Policy, Social Welfare, Moral and Ethical Standards, Communism, and others.

Typical of the author’s tone of finality is the statement: “National church agencies, denominational and interdemoninational, and the World Council of Churches are in a better position than local churches to know about interests and purposes that condition the national newspaper, magazine, radio, television, and other impacts upon the people. It is a function of the world and national organizations to deal with these interests” (p. 131). This author belongs to the present day Protestant hierarchy and speaks with conviction as such.

One may well question the following: “The World Council of Churches is controlled by its 172 member national denominational bodies. The denominations are in turn controlled by their local churches, except in some totalitarian nations where the national denominational bodies are under coercion by the national government. In our country the National Council of Churches is controlled by its national denominational members.” There are many who believe that as of here and now the NCC is controlled by its executive officers.

The author of Under Orders is autobiographical even to the first person pronoun—he publishes his measured responsibility for shaping the career of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

This volume, with its many things to be commended, is also another demonstration of the authoritarian character of the Protestant ecumenical movement. Certainly the ecumenical movement is not unique in the matters under review. Business, labor, and education also use such pressures. But the professed voice of united Protestantism has developed its own system, to this reviewer at least, in an alarming degree. One cannot escape the conclusion that as of now the central purpose and passion of the Council of Churches is organic union, ecclesiastical bigness first, rather than spiritual greatness.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.