“To Interpret the Christian Faith in a direct and personal way by asking how it is related to the basic structures of human life as we know them today” is the commendable aim of Dr. F. W. Dillistone in his new book entitled The Christian Faith (J. B. Lippincott Co., New York, 188 pp., $2.95). More particularly, he has endeavored to communicate the relevance of the doctrine of the Trinity “through the medium of four perennial symbolic forms,” namely, security, freedom, order, and meaning, which together comprehend the abiding needs of man in the existential situation. “In presenting a personal interpretation of the Christian faith,” says Dr. Dillistone, “nothing, I believe, should be allowed to distract the attention from the central doctrine of the Trinity and its relation to the basic structures of human life.” We applaud this conviction.
Equally welcome is the author’s rejoinder to those who wish to draw a sharp distinction between doctrine and ethic and advocate the abandonment of all doctrinal statements or systems of belief, as though some kind of morality were the whole essence of Christianity. To such persons the reply comes that “nothing could be clearer from the New Testament than the fact that its ethic is derived directly from its doctrine”; indeed, that “so far as the New Testament is concerned it would be unthinkable that its ethic could ever be divorced from its doctrine or that the one could be left vague and optional while the other was made clear-cut and obligatory.” One of the things that most needs emphasizing in our world today is that “the Christian ethic is the corollary of Christian doctrine,” that “Truth is in order to Goodness,” and that “it is in and through action that faith or belief reveals its true nature.”
There is much that is illuminating in this book, and occasionally something that is memorable—such as the epigram: “After the frontier, the city.” Christians are called to be frontiersmen. They should always be pushing the boundaries of the Kingdom outward and forward. Their abiding city is not yet. Like Abraham, they are challenged to turn the back on earthly security, moving onward in obedience to the divine will as pilgrims and strangers in this world—God’s frontiersmen—looking ahead to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God, eternal in the heavens. And in that city the security, freedom, order, and meaning that they have sought and found in Christ will have their everlasting consummation.
All this is involved in God’s new creation in Christ Jesus. Moreover, it is effected by the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men—the Spirit who (as Dr. Dillistone says in a notable passage) “delights to weave the pattern of Jesus’ own life into the very fabric of human existence.” This means, further, as Paul shows us, that the priority of divine grace must never be forgotten. “The Grace of God is primary, the faith of man follows. This faith would have been impossible, unless God in His royal grace had taken the initiative. Yet this faith is a willed response to what God has done. And it is faith energized by the Holy Spirit. No form of words can entirely resolve the paradox that in every response I make to the initiative of God it is I who respond, and yet it is not I but the grace of God working with me: it is I who seek to be united with Christ in His death and resurrection and yet it is not I but the Holy Spirit bearing witness with my spirit. Faith is ultimately a mystery and no analysis of a philosophical or psychological kind can exactly define its operation. Yet faith is a reality and the citizens of the city of God are those who have transcended all natural structures by committing themselves to the Christ in trust and obedience through the directing agency of the Holy Spirit.”
Our attention is drawn to the term reconciliation, employed by Paul, as “perhaps the most comprehensive word of the New Testament, for it tries to gather within its embrace the original creation, the estrangement caused by evil in all its forms, and the restoration brought about through the work of God in Christ.” With reference to First Corinthians 2:7–13, Dr. Dillistone observes that “the whole context of this remarkable passage shows that the revelation of God’s wisdom in history has been made in Christ and His Cross,” but that “the interpretation of that event, the unveiling of its innermost truth, the relating of it to the essential nature of God Himself—this is the work of the Spirit. The Spirit illumines men’s minds and gives them means to bear witness to what they have seen. In this area of imagery the Church is the company of those who have received the Spirit of truth and are being led by Him to an ever deepening apprehension of God’s revelation in Christ.”
Again, he stresses the significance of the expression in Christ. “Eternal life is simply an existence in Christ. No phrase is more characteristic of Paul’s understanding of the Christian revelation than these two simple words. In Christ all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell. In Christ the eternal purpose of God has been realized. In Christ the meaning of the whole creation is brought to focus.… In Christ the alienation of man from man is resolved within a creative reconciliation. In Christ death is overcome and life reigns supreme. Those who are in Christ have already died to self, to sin, to death itself. In Christ they have been raised to fulness of life, a life which is hid with Christ in God.”
This is not a large book, and almost inevitably this means that there are some things left unsaid which we would have wished said, and other things said which we would have wished said differently or more fully. For instance, when Dr. Dillistone tells us that the truth that “life and love are identified in the eternal relationship which exists between the Father and the Son” may be expressed in another way, namely, that “the Spirit who unites the Father and the Son in perfect relationship is the Spirit of a life of unbroken love,” he seems to approximate to Augustine’s unsatisfactory definition of the place of the Spirit within the Trinitarian Godhead—a place little better than that of a quality or attribute or relationship. This, no doubt, is one of the dangers of analogical description; and, to be fair, elsewhere Dr. Dillistone seems as anxious as was Augustine to safeguard the full “personality” of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, he recognizes that the framework within which he has chosen to express his thoughts may seem to some to be “a dangerous narrowing down of the Christian faith.”
Be that as it may, this book reflects the personality of its author, and that means it is marked by graciousness and gentleness. The charm and kindliness with which it is informed can hardly fail to commend the Christian faith to those who read it. At the same time, however, there are points where the presentation would, we feel, have been enhanced by greater vigor and boldness. Yet such an essay at understanding in the light of God’s revelation of himself in his Son Christ Jesus cannot fail to stimulate us to be faithful ambassadors in our own day.
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