A Secular Version Of Jesus Christ

The Secular Meaning of the Gospel: An Original Enquiry, by Paul M. Van Buren (Macmillan, 1963, 205 pp., $4.95), is reviewed by James Daane, editorial associate, CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

This book reinterprets the Gospel to make it meaningful to the Christian who, because he lives in the twentieth century, is a secular man who thinks in secular categories. Reinterpretation is demanded, says Paul Van Buren, associate professor of theology at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, because “the whole tenor of thought of our world today makes the biblical and classical formulations of this Gospel unintelligible” (p. 6). What the secular tenor of thought cannot accept, to say it all at once, is the assertion that Jesus Christ is both God and man.

Van Buren thinks that if we really take history seriously and make use of linguistic analysis, we can discover what the New Testament writers and the Church Fathers intended to say, and did say within the thought modes of their day: and we can thus retain the real essence of the Gospel while eliminating those elements of the biblical and classical formulations that are offensive to the modern, secular man.

Once an admirer of Karl Barth, the author now rejects Barth’s theological method. Barth seeks to understand faith front within faith; to this Van Buren does not object, for he does the same. But Barth thinks that if one exegetes the Scriptures he will hear God’s Word, and that nothing more needs to be done except repeat that Word to modern man. Van Buren thinks this is not enough; the intended meaning of the biblical writers and of the Fathers must be dug out and expressed in modern modes of thought and speech. What Van Buren wants is more than merely a new technique of communication, or a modern idiom. He is disturbed that Barth is not bothered by the fact that the confession that Jesus is very God of very God “may be literally nonsense to men today” (p. 8). Van Buren, in his introduction to his translation of Barth’s new book God Here and Now, expresses his amazement that Barth should be so concerned with what is said and so unconcerned about how it is said. Barth’s reply would doubtless be that Van Buren’s concern about the how has lost the what that should be proclaimed.

Van Buren wants to retain a historical Jesus of Nazareth to escape pure subjectivity; it is a historical Jesus that is seen, he says, within the Easter perspective. He therefore also rejects Bultmann’s existential theological method; for as Fritz Buri in Europe and Schubert M. Ogden (Christ Without Myth) in the United States have shown, Bultmann’s method, if consistently applied, cannot retain the need for a historical Jesus. The Easter perspective, urges Van Buren, is not sheer subjectivity; what is seen in this perspective is the actual Jesus of history.

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Van Buren then views the gospel writers in terms of their concrete historicity—men living at a certain time, thinking in terms of the then current categories, using words and language in the peculiar mode of their time. He then applies linguistic analysis to their thought, particularly to their statements, “The Word became flesh,” and “Jesus is Lord.” In the process of analysis Van Buren makes many astute observations, for he is a competent theological thinker and a good writer.

A full-dress review of his analysis cannot be given here. Van Buren concentrates on Christology; he shares the historical concerns of Ritschl and Harnack and their criticisms that Hellenistic terms like “substance” and “nature” are too static or too materialistic to do service to the verb “became” in the statement “the Word became flesh,” and to the verb in the assertion “Jesus is Lord.” Chalcedon must go; modern secular man is too aware of the nature of history to accept Chalcedon.

What is the essence of the Gospel? What were the Fathers trying to say in their time? From the perspective of Easter, they saw Jesus as the one man who was wholly free for others; and they experienced that his freedom was contagious, for they caught it, too, and found themselves so free as to be able to live for others. What they saw from the blik of Easter was a unique man, God’s man, God’s Elect, his Servant, but nothing more than a man. What indeed, asks Van Buren, could the “more” possibly mean?

The Incarnation, traditionally interpreted as God’s entrance into history, is nothing more than a pointer that points toward history. The Virgin Birth is not factually true. If it were, Jesus would not be historical in the sense in which we are, that is, wholly historical. The doctrine simply indicates that Jesus is unique, the one truly free man. An actual Virgin Birth would be open to all the same objections as is an actual Resurrection. For Easter is only the experience of discernment in which we come to see Jesus as the man who is wholly free to live in love for others. This, says Van Buren, is what Chalcedon meant when it said “God of very God”; and this, he says, is what he has said in his own way.

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He then shows how his reinterpretation relates to other Christian truths. I mention only two. The mission of the Church is to live in the way of freedom to love and serve others, and “not the way of trying to make others Christians.” He concedes that Christian prayer has been in the language of address, but for the modern man prayer is not speaking to God; it is rather a contemplation of a situation in the perspective of Easter. The twentieth-century adult Christian concerned, for example, about the weather is “as much inclined as the next man to consult the weather map and the meteorologist for the answer to a question about a change in the weather, rather than to ‘take it to the Lord in prayer.’ ”

One may doubt the accuracy of many of Van Buren’s historical and theological judgments, but not his personal honesty. He explicitly says what he believes and as explicitly says what he rejects. There is no need to wonder about his theological position. He frankly admits that he has reduced the Gospel to historical and ethical dimensions and has eliminated the religious and metaphysical dimensions. He says plainly with reference to prayer, “Our secular thinking leaves us puzzled if we are asked to posit ‘someone’ to whom to speak in prayer” (p. 188). His admitted reduction of the Gospel, he says, is no more a loss than was the reduction of astrology to astronomy, and of alchemy to chemistry. “Theology cannot escape this tendency if it is to be a serious mode of contemporary thought, and such a ‘reduction’ of content need no more be regretted in theology than in astronomy, chemistry, or painting” (p. 198); and he adds, “We would also claim that we have left nothing essential behind” (p. 200).

If we think his reinterpretation too radical, we are told that the alternatives are few and even less attractive. One of them is “a very orthodox but meaningless faith which refuses to enter the secular world” (p. 200). The question we must face—and Van Buren does not—is whether the orthodox are not after all more committed to a secular world in their belief that God enters it than is Van Buren, who keeps God outside.

Few theologians, I think, will be moved by Van Buren’s linguistic analysis, for it does not convincingly support his reinterpretation of the Gospel. It is the weakest point in his book. All too evidently, his reinterpretation of the Gospel rests rather on the modern mind, which insists that an incarnation, a virgin birth, a resurrection, or indeed any transcendent miraculous act just is not possible. Consequently, what he in his subtitle calls “an original enquiry” is nothing more, except for surface differences, than a re-echo of an old theological modernism. But even so, the Church ought not to ignore Van Buren’s reinterpretation of Jesus Christ, for he can rightfully say, “This interpretation of Jesus and the Gospel is an example of the kind of Christology which is being developed in many quarters by men influenced by biblical theology, and it is intended to be faithful to the concerns evident in the Christology of the Fathers” (p. 55).

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It is not permitted to us to judge Van Buren’s intentions as he seeks to establish his sonship. But since we have equal right to exercise “linguistic analysis” we may, on the basis of what the son and the Fathers have written, issue the judgment that this is a son the Fathers would not recognize as their own. Van Buren’s theology comes not from the Fathers but from his twentieth-century neighbors.


A View On History

History, Archaeology and Christian Humanism, Vol. I, by William Foxwell Albright (McGraw-Hill, 1964, 342 pp., $6.95), is reviewed by John Wm. Wevers, professor of Near Eastern studies, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario.

This book is divided into three parts: “General Surveys,” “Special Areas,” and “Some Scholarly Approaches.” The last section evaluates the work of James Breasted, Gerhard Kittel, Arnold Toynbee, Eric Voegelin, Rudolf Bultmann, and Albright himself. These as well as the five chapters of the middle section have all appeared in other publications. Only the three chapters in the first section appear here for the first time. These three are also the most informative for probing Albright’s approach to historical synthesis.

The first study, “A Theistic Humanism,” is Albright’s attempt to define his approach to history. He accepts Dawson’s understanding of humanism as “a tradition of culture and ethics founded on the study of humane letters.” Three main types are analyzed: classical, atheistic, and theistic. Under the last-named he discusses Dawson, Toynbee, Butterfield, Daniélou, and de Lubac appreciatively but critically. In spite of such writers as Reinhold Niebuhr, Tillich, and Bultmann, he maintains that Germans and Americans do not take history seriously.

Albright classifies historical judgment as follows: typical occurrence, particular facts, cause and effect, value and personal reactions. The first two are scientifically objective, and the last two, though subjective, necessary. Historical cause and effect is the most tendentious because it is difficult to be fully objective. Archaeological studies are of tremendous value to the ancient historian precisely because “they deal almost entirely with judgments of fact and typical occurrence”—a statement that the reviewer suspects to be more true of archaeology than of archaeologists. It is this faith in archaeology that has led Albright to a greater conservatism regarding the historical accuracy of Old Testament traditions.

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In the author’s view of the impact and analysis of cultures, he rejects both the instrumentalist and the functionalist approach, though he takes certain elements of both approaches for his own. It is correct neither to view Hebrew culture as so completely interlocking that it can be understood by and in itself, nor to understand it simply as the product or amalgam of surrounding cultures.

The second chapter is entitled “The Human Mind in Action: Magic, Science, and Religion,” the subtitle having been borrowed from Bronislaw Malinowski. Albright’s view of the kind of thinking underlying these three is strongly influenced by Lévy-Bruhl’s famous division: prelogical vs. logical mentality. Albright quite rightly prefers the term “protological,” since “prelogical” wrongly introduces the concept of chronological priority. To these forms of thinking he adds empirical logic. Formal logic began with the Greeks, thus does not characterize the Old Testament. Primitive man thought empirically (in his everyday living) as well as protologically (in his higher culture, where experience was no guide since history actually did not exist).

In Chapter 3 Albright discusses “The Place of the Old Testament in the History of Thought”; he defends the thesis that the Old Testament contains next to no evidence of protological, but rather of empirical logic. To this reviewer, this is his most important contribution. The ancient Israelites had a sense of historical movement. Salvation was a series of redemptive acts in history: the Exodus, Crossing the Waters, the Wilderness Journey, and the Promised Land. This is diametrically opposed to myth, which is timeless and static, and the sooner Old Testament theologians abandon the notion of myth the better. Israel, in contrast to Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Hittites, and Canaanites, could and did view religious experience empirically, i.e., in the light of a historical faith. Albright may not be as separate from the views of Alt, Noth, and von Rad as he pretends.

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Panel On Peace

Biblical Realism Confronts the Nation, edited by Paul Peachey (Fellowship Publications, 1963, 224 pp., $4), is reviewed by C. Gregg Singer, chairman, Department of History, Catawba College, Salisbury, North Carolina.

This symposium, with contributions by nine scholars in company with Paul Peachey of the Church Peace Mission, is an effort to arouse the Christian conscience to the perils involved in nuclear warfare and to encourage the churches to take a strong stand against any national policies in domestic or foreign affairs that might lead to such a cataclysm.

In his introductory chapter Peachey sets forth the problem in a compelling manner and offers a real challenge to his panel of scholars, who originally gave these chapters as papers at a conference held in June, 1962, near Washington, D. C. But the panel never actually meets the challenge. Although the title of the book conveys the idea that biblical realism must be the basis for any solution to the problem of nuclear warfare, it is exactly at this point that these writers fail to meet the challenge. There is in this volume no consistent biblical theology or realism with which to confront the American people. There is frequent reference to biblical passages, but the general thrust of the book is fragmented by the lack of agreement in appeal to the Scriptures. In his conclusion Peachey himself reveals a vague awareness that somewhere his panel has failed him.

The failure lies in the fact that all the panel members are in the liberal camp; some are strictly neo-orthodox in their approach to the Scriptures while others are existentialist. In every chapter it is obvious that the writer does not hold to the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures and that the acceptance of higher criticism has so vitiated the message that there is little biblical realism. Most of the authors fall into difficulty because they have no doctrine of common grace; at the same time, they try to create some kind of a substitute. This predicament is clearly expressed in the chapter by Lionel Whiston, who struggles manfully with his assignment and comes very close, only to miss the goal.

The fact that the Church Peace Mission was apparently unable to find conservative scholars to espouse the cause of Christian pacifism should raise some profound questions among its leaders. The value of this volume is that it presents the thinking of sincere liberals on one of the most serious issues of the day, and their failure to find a biblical answer for it.

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The Early Baillie

Faith in God and Its Christian Consummation, by D. M. Baillie (Faber & Faber [London], 1964, 308 pp., 30s.), is reviewed by W. R. Forrester, emeritus professor of practical theology and Christian ethics, St. Andrews University, St. Andrews, Scotland.

The great success of Donald Baillie’s later book, God Was in Christ, has revived interest in this earlier work (1927), out of print for many years but now given a second edition with an admirable and penetrating foreword by Professor John McIntyre. The latter rightly claims that Faith in God has a relevance and an importance for contemporary thought far beyond its mere historical value in giving him a “fix” at the end of the Kantian and at the beginning of the Barthian era. Though Baillie was acquainted with the earlier work of Barth and with some of Kierkegaard, there is no trace here that either had influenced him, cast as his thought had already been in the mold of idealist philosophy.

To show how dated some of the book may be, one of his earliest illustrations is of the poor but pious charwoman whose simple faith owes nothing to theological speculation. It would be necessary, to make this illustration comprehensible to the young and to our American brethren, to explain that a pious charwoman is not a medieval martyred saint but a spiritual entity of some importance, especially in the Victorian era!

The theological world has moved a very long way since 1927, and Donald Baillie too moved beyond many of the positions he takes up here. But the secular world has moved even further and faster, and in disconcerting directions. Thirty-seven years ago it was still possible to speak of Christendom and be more or less understood. It was also possible to get fairly general agreement that Christian morality was a good thing, not a series of mistakes. Many of the questions with which Donald Baillie wrestled have ceased to interest even thoughtful people. Not that we, or he, can claim to have found the answers. We no longer ask the same questions, or expect any answer to the questions we may ask.

Faith did not come easily to Donald Baillie, and he was plagued all his life by chronic ill health; yet students the world over found he spoke to their condition. In this book, as in all his others, we see abundant evidence that here was no arid theologian peeping at the world, surrounded with books in some ivory tower, churning out intellectual exercises, but a spiritual athlete of no mean stature. The faith of which he speaks he won with toil and thought and discipline and prayer. Can there be any higher recommendation?

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Mental Stimulant

New Meanings for New Beings, by Richard Luecke (Fortress, 1964, 267 pp., $3.50), is reviewed by Alvin L. Hoksbergen, pastor, Ann Arbor Christian Reformed Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Joseph Sittler of the University of Chicago makes these comments on Dr. Luecke’s book: “This is a sober, faithful book for the hour. The book is as good as we need, better than our lethargy deserves. I wish I could say that pastors and teachers will exult in it. That will not be true—which is a judgment. But not about the book.”

These are challenging words. If true, they indict today’s pastors and teachers, making the book even more important. In this reviewer’s opinion, the indictment has more truth than many of us would like to admit.

The author is not concerned with theology as such, nor with a careful analysis of the Christian religion. Neither is he interested in giving easy answers to perplexing questions. His concern is to stimulate thought on the relevance that the Christian faith should have for many crucial areas of life.

The first three chapters are concerned with the problems of language and innocent suffering. The religious language of our day must be re-examined in the light of the new world in which we live. The Church is too often busy answering questions that are no longer being asked. When this happens, the “point of contact” with modern man is lost, and we are left with a suffering mankind to which the mercy and love of God are meaningless, empty words.

The next four chapters deal with the concept of the “self” in psychological and biblical language, the corporate society made up of persons with different gifts and abilities, the relation between law and love, and the relation between church and state.

The final three chapters treat the relevance faith has for the world of physical things, for the world of learning, and for the combination of things and ideas in artistic expression.

Each chapter begins by listening to some of the “secular” and traditional “religious” language of the day concerning the subject under discussion. The author then seeks the meaning that the words and deeds of Jesus and the prophets have for that topic. Toward the close of the chapter he takes a part of the Church’s liturgy and shows how our life of worship applies to the subject of the chapter.

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Dr. Luecke has a rich background of knowledge and a keen understanding of problems. A refreshing sense of humor flows easily from his pen. This book is well suited for group studies by church or campus groups.


Written For Whom?

Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Jesus Christ, by Joseph Bonsirven, S.J., translated by William Wolf (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964, 271 pp., $5.50), is reviewed by Jakob Jocz, professor of systematic theology, Wycliffe College, Toronto, Ontario.

The author, who died in 1958, was New Testament professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and a well-known authority on rabbinic Judaism. An earlier work, On the Ruins of the Temple (England, 1931), was greatly admired by the present reviewer. It is therefore with reluctance that he exercises the prerogative of criticism in reviewing the present book.

First a word about the translation. Granting that no translator can ever reproduce the original, still with greater care many mistakes could have been avoided. There are some clumsy sentences, some grammatical mistakes, and an occasional misunderstanding of meaning. The reviewer was puzzled by the statement concerning oral law which the sages held to have been revealed to Moses “including all the decisions of the rabbis, grammatical minutiae, and even all the reflections a pious student will show his teacher.…” We suspect, without the original text before us, that this ought to read: “a pious teacher will show his students.” But on the whole the book reads easily, and the language is not the problem.

The real problem lies elsewhere.

No one can write a book on Judaism based on rabbinic sources without exposing himself to some criticism. In the case of this work there is much to criticize. The first mistake committed by the author is to treat occasional rabbinic utterances as if they were dogmatic statements. Judaism knows nothing of dogmatic formulation as is traditional with Christianity. Except for halakha, which lays down obligatory practice, Judaism is not a dogmatic religion. No rabbi can speak for the whole of Jewry, only for himself. Sentiments on the part of certain rabbis recorded in Talmud and Midrash are not statements of doctrine but views of individuals. These views were colored by the circumstances of the times, the needs of the people, the economic and political condition of the community. In his extensive bibliography Bonsirven quotes the book by C. F. Montefiore, Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teachings (1930). This erudite work by a famous Jewish scholar was occasioned by the publication of Strack and Billerbeck’s Commentary to the New Testament from Talmud and Midrash. Montefiore was able to show how Christian writers are mistaken in treating rabbinic texts as authoritative utterances.

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It is a fact that for every quotation from rabbinic sources Bonsirven uses to make a point, another quotation could be cited to prove the opposite. The author knows Judaism well enough not to feel uneasy about it, and he occasionally wonders how seriously he can treat a text.

But the book suffers from an even greater defect. The title reads: Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Jesus Christ. This is an audacious title full of promise but impossible to accomplish. There are no written rabbinic sources prior to A.D. 70. The author to some large extent depends upon the Apocrypha Pseudepigrapha for evidence, but the question immediately arises to what extent these writings represent traditional Judaism. The fact that the synagogue has eliminated these books from the Canon ought to be given full consideration. Neither Josephus nor Philo is a representative of rabbinic Judaism. The rabbinic texts are of a much later date, some very late indeed.

This brings us to the next point. Bonsirven works on the assumption that the defeat suffered at the hands of the Romans and the disappearance of the temple brought no “real revolution in matters relating to doctrine” (p. IX). But this is an utterly unwarranted assumption. Two major events changed the whole structure of Judaism: the disappearance of the priestly cultic religion and the rise of the Christian Church. When Bonsirven refers in his text to “rabbis” and “laymen,” he imports a Roman Catholic concept foreign to the synagogue: all Jews are “laymen,” rabbis included. We mention this only to show the distance from a temple-oriented to a synagogue-oriented faith. The assumption therefore that “Judaism” prior to A.D. 70 was the same as it was after the Destruction rests upon a misunderstanding.

Although the author has tried to be fair to Judaism, he has not succeeded. We are assured by the publishers that “the constant purpose of this study is objectivity, not apologetics,” but this is not borne out by the text. The author assesses Judaism, or what he calls “Judaism,” from his own theological position, and this creates an unusual situation. There is a hidden irony in that Bonsirven finds fault with Judaism in the very points that are characteristic features of his own church. It is somewhat startling to have a Roman Catholic, and a Jesuit at that, criticize Judaism for its legalism; for its “arithmetic rule of commutative justice”; for its “rigorous principle of retribution”; for the practice of superstition such as the use of “amulets” (sic); for its teachers’ giving the appearance of being better informed than anyone else about “other-worldly mysteries” (sic); for its misunderstanding of the “gratuitousness of grace”; for its emphasis upon the immortability of the soul over against the resurrection. Only once does the author admit that the Jews excel “Catholics”: in their concept of the works of charity, which is superior to the giving of alms (p. 153).

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The author has not managed to hide a certain hostility, which becomes most evident in his treatment of relations between Jews and Gentiles. It is obvious that the text was prepared before the changed attitude on the part of the Vatican toward the Jewish people. On this subject the book is most misleading and even dangerous.

It leaves the reader with the impression that the Jews harbor everlasting enmity toward all non-Jews: the heathen are God’s enemies; one is allowed to profit from their errors; Israelites may keep an object stolen from a pagan; the nations will be annihilated when Messiah comes; and the like. The extent of this lack of objectivity can be seen from the following sentence: “Another idea, formulated after the third century but suggested earlier, is that Israel will possess the wealth of the nations” (p. 222). But anyone who has read Isaiah knows that this is not an “idea” formulated by the rabbis (!). It is hardly fair to blame rabbinic Judaism for a biblical text (cf. Isa. 61:5 f).

The paramount question is: For whom is this book written? This abridged edition of a larger work is not a book for scholars. It can be no rival to G. F. Moore’s Judaism, nor to Montefiore’s Rabbinic Anthology. As a popular work, it is misleading by its bias and pretense. It lacks a glossary to explain rabbinic terms, provides no historical background, and takes too much for granted for the ordinary reader. It is also puzzling: how can Judaism be blamed for “an excessive respect for God” (p. 27)? Frequently the author both castigates and praises Judaism for one and the same thing. This is not a book we can easily recommend.


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The Heidelberg Catechism for Today, by Karl Barth, translated by Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr. (John Knox, 1964, 141 pp., $2). First English translation of Barth’s Die christliche Lehre nach dem Heidelberger Katechismus, and Einführung in den Heidelberger Katechismus. It presents a brief view of Reformed theology in the sixteenth century, and glimpses of Barth’s own.

The Teen-ager You’re Dating, by Walter Riess (Concordia, 1964, 127 pp., $1). Sound counsel in language youth will read.

The Christian Faith and War in the Nuclear Age (Abingdon, 1963, 108 pp., $1). A report of the Methodist Church’s special study commission on nuclear war. Worthy of study.

Unity in the Dark, by Donald Gillies (Banner of Truth Trust [London], 1964, 128 pp., 3s. 6d.). A conservative look at the ecumenical movement that is critical of conservative evangelicals as well as of the ecumenical movement. It says many things that should be said, and others with which many evangelicals themselves will disagree.

Tell el Amarna and the Bible, by Charles F. Pfeiffer (Baker, 1963, 75 pp., $1.50). One in the series of “Baker Studies in Biblical Archaeology,” written in such form as will appeal to the non-expert but serious laymen. This study, by a competent writer, deals specifically with Egypt in the Amarna Age (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries B.C.).

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