The publication of Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God may turn out to be one of the important religious events of our times. If that happens, the reason will be not so much the contents of the book as what it has provoked. It has brought out into the open many things that have been lying dormant, awaiting the propitious moment or appropriate motivation for expression. In particular, the appearance of Robinson’s book may ultimately be credited in large part with bringing these three things to light: (1) the real nature of liberal theology; (2) the predicament of liberal theologians; and (3) the concern of Christian laymen.

The Nature Of Liberal Theology

By “liberal” theology is meant the kind associated with Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, and Heidigger, and popularized by Bishop Robinson. Professedly this theology is an attempt to re-interpret the Gospel in the light of modern knowledge and concepts. Actually it replaces the Gospel, as this has been commonly understood, with one of the theologians’ own devising. Therefore it must be labeled a heresy.

The distinctive feature of this heresy is not that it rejects the traditional interpretations of the Christian Gospel, as has been done by many previous heresies, but that, omitting from consideration whole segments of the New Testament, it builds a theology merely on what is left and on alien elements imported from non-biblical sources. By this procedure evangelical, or New Testament (the terms are interchangeable), Christianity is transformed into another religion. This is widely recognized by writers in both religious and secular publications as what is happening today.

In the first place, liberal theologians disregard “God” in the New Testament and then proceed to characterize Christianity variously as “non-theistic religion,” “religion without God,” and even “atheistic religion.” Though some of these theologians seem to retain the deistic conception of God as the original power or intelligence that set the machinery of the universe in operation and then went off and left it run itself thereafter, all of them agree that God can no longer be thought of as a person with whom human beings can have personal communion.

A “non-theistic religion” is a contradiction in terms. Theism means belief in a God or gods. Religion means the worship of a God or gods. Every religion in the history of the race, with the doubtful exception of Buddhism, has believed in a Divine Being. Most assuredly Christianity and its predecessor Judaism, out of which Christianity emerged, cannot in any sense be called “non-theistic” without doing violence to both the Old and New Testaments, to everything Jesus himself said and did, and to everything his followers wrote about his teaching, his work, and his person. Belief in the existence and activity of a personal God with whom human beings may have intimate fellowship is the heart of the Bible. Thus it is preposterous to speak of Christianity as a “religion without God.”

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Secondly, liberal theologians disregard judgment and discipline in the New Testament doctrines of love and forgiveness. We are told so often and so glibly that God loves us “anyway,” and that he accepts us and forgives us unconditionally, that some people are led to think of forgiveness as automatic. A press dispatch reported that the first words of a teen-age lad on being apprehended for murdering a young girl were, “God will forgive me! God will forgive me!” That boy must have been listening regularly to the preaching of some liberal minister. The forgiveness of God offered in the Gospel is not that cheap, not that easy.

William Hamilton, professor of Christian theology in Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, concludes an article on today’s theologians (“Thursday’s Child: The Theologian Today and Tomorrow,” Theology Today, January, 1964) with a quotation and approval of this passage from Bonhoeffer:

Atonement and redemption, regeneration, the Holy Ghost, the love of our enemies, the cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship—all these things have become so problematic and so remote that we hardly dare any more to speak of them.… So our traditional language must perforce become powerless and remain silent, and our Christianity today will be confined to praying for and doing right by our fellow men. Christian thinking, speaking and organization must be reborn out of this praying and this action.

That is equivalent to saying that “love” is the only thing Christian theologians today can properly proclaim, and that love must be separated from atonement, redemption, regeneration, the Cross, the Holy Spirit, and the life in Christ. Yet we can safely assert, and assert it categorically, that this is not the Christian doctrine of love. The Christian doctrine of God’s forgiving, redeeming, suffering love is inextricably linked with the doctrines of judgment, discipline, confession, repentance, and atonement.

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Jesse J. Roberson, a liberal Methodist minister in southern California, says that one of the fatal weaknesses of modern liberalism is to suppose that the basic elements of human nature can be eradicated through “the medium of some apparently free-floating entity sentimentally called love” (“Liberalism’s Fatal Weaknesses,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, April 24, 1964). O. Hobart Mowrer, a research professor in the psychology department of the University of Illinois, takes Christian ministers to task for dealing lightly with the doctrines of love and forgiveness. He says that the clerical sin lies in the “practice of assuring others, individually or collectively, of divine pardon in a quite premature and abortive way”—i.e., of offering forgiveness to guilt-ridden man by “letting him off easy,” “without confessing and making amends.” All of this he labels the doctine of “easy grace” (“The Almighty’s Unmighty Ministers,” The Christian Century, October 17, 1962).

Thirdly, liberal theologians disregard moral discipline in the New Testament. Some of their favorite themes are: Traditional Christian standards of conduct are a form of legalism; Christian morals are a form of moralism; the refusal of Christians to engage in certain worldly dissipations is a form of negativism or Puritanism; and the holding up of certain great virtues as ideals is a form of self-righteousness. These cliches have been reiterated so many times in books, articles, lectures, and sermons that apparently those who hear and read them are coming to believe them. Many people, especially young people, seem to have concluded that moral discipline in any form is the unpardonable sin.

Legalism, moralism, negativism, and self-righteousness should indeed be censured. But there are valid forms of moral discipline that have been part of the Christian Gospel from its beginnings. Inherent in one’s acceptance of Christ and commitment to him and to his way of life is the obligation to exert every effort to conform one’s life to this Christian commitment. Large portions of the New Testament exhort believers to assume this obligation. The New Testament also makes it clear that the Christian’s moral discipline is his response to God’s unmerited grace. By exercising moral vigilance the grateful Christian offers God’s grace a maximum chance to work in him, with him, and through him. So Paul exhorted the Philippians: “… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12, 13, RSV). Grace and moral effort are joined together in the Gospel. What God has joined together let no theologian put asunder.

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In the fourth place, liberal theologians disregard piety in the New Testament. Another of their cliches is to charge that piety is piosity. There is indeed such a thing as exaggerated, false piety. But genuine piety—honest devotion to prayer, private meditation, and public worship—is, like moral discipline, integral to the Gospel. Mysticism, in the sense of experiencing and being affected by the presence and power of God, of the divine Spirit’s meeting the human spirit, is inseparably a part of our Christian faith.

But the derogatory word “piosity” has been used so often in some theological circles that sincere piety, in the form of private devotions, the meeting of small groups for prayer and meditation, chapel exercises, prayers at the opening of classes and at public lectures, has been disdained and sometimes even discontinued in theological seminaries.

Because liberal ministers and theologians omit large sections of the New Testament and bring in alien elements to take their place, it is now charged that liberal theology is offering us an emasculated Gospel. In his article, “Christian Theology and the Challenge of Its Parodies” (Theology Today, January, 1964), Roland Mushat Frye, speaking of “honest-to-god” (sic) theologies, calls them “parodies of the Christian faith,” and says that their rising influence threatens to “emasculate the church’s message”:

Perhaps the greatest threat to Christianity today is the presence within the church of clergy and theologians (some of them leading theologians, in unhappy fact) who tend to correlate Christianity with their own pseudo-sophisticated understandings of culture to the point where Christianity is essentially cancelled out. Only the traditional Christian words remain, but they are in effect stripped of their distinctively Christian content and remain empty husks.

Louis Cassels, religion columnist and reporter for United Press International, in an article last summer discussed Bishop Robinson’s book and the Christian theologians who share and promote his views. He declared that these theologians have “undertaken to defend Christianity by abandoning its basic precepts,” that they are “casting overboard doctrines which have been at the core of Christian teaching for 2,000 years.” All this he labeled an “emasculated Gospel.” He also reported reactions to Robinson’s book by two of the Bishop’s fellow Englishmen: Alasdair MacIntyre of Oxford “welcomed the Bishop into the atheistic fold,” and the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he didn’t see how the book could be read as anything other than a repudiation of orthodox Christian belief.

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Predicament Of Liberal Theologians

In the first place, the liberals are divided into so many schools of so many shades of opinion voiced by so many spokesmen that taken as a whole their theology is a conglomeration of viewpoints. This is obvious to anyone who reads the reports of various theological conferences such as the Consultations on Hermeneutics held in 1962 and in 1964. To the outsiders not yet initiated into the company of the theologically elite—and they include the great majority of us—the theologians seem to be like the man who jumped on his horse and rode off hurriedly in all directions. The pity of it is that many of the systems of theology imported from Europe over which they are fighting are already outmoded or repudiated in theological circles abroad.

Secondly, liberalism is now frequently subjected to the charge of being intellectually dishonest. Frye’s article says that “the use of the traditional Christian vocabulary, without reference to Christian content, can only be regarded as an act of intellectual dishonesty.” He also declares: “To anyone who has a scholarly acquaintance with linguistics and semantics, and with the history of ideas, those maneuvers would be ludicrous were they not so tragic.” Louis Cassels states that the attempt to “reinterpret the Christian Gospel” was carried on, until recently, “in theological doubletalk which few laymen could follow.” And Jesse J. Roberson charges his fellow liberals with being afflicted with the malady of “intellectual dishonesty,” or with what Walter Kaufmann of Princeton calls “double speak.”

In the third place, there are indications that the liberals are an uneasy, unhappy lot. Despite Roberson’s designation of himself as an “unreconstructed liberal,” he shows in his article that he is bewildered and saddened by what he calls “the inglorious failure of liberalism.” Still he does not (apparently because he cannot) offer a better theology than that which failed him, and he lays the blame on the personal failures of liberals rather than on their deficient and dishonest theology.

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One of the most amazing articles in many a day is the one by William Hamilton from which a few lines have already been quoted. It reveals a wistful longing for something Hamilton and his fellow theologians have lost, and resembles a personal confession intended to relieve inner guilt. “The theologian … is a man without faith,” he admits. “He really doesn’t believe in God, whatever that means, or that there is a God, or that God exists.… Something has happened. At the center of his thoughts and meditations is a void, a disappearance, an absence.”

“Does the theologian go to church?” Hamilton asks. His answer is a resounding “no.” He quotes with approval these lines of Thomas J. J. Altizer of Emory University: “Contemporary theology must be alienated from the Church … [and] the theologian must exist outside the Church, he can neither proclaim the Word, celebrate the sacraments, nor rejoice in the presence of the Holy Spirit: before contemporary theology can become itself, it must first exist in silence.” Hamilton also asks, “Is this theologian reading the Bible?” His answer is: “Of course, he is forced into a kind of affable semi-professional relationship with Scripture in his daily work.… But the rigorous systematic confronting of Scripture, expecting the Word of God to be made manifest when one approaches it with faith or at least with a broken and contrite heart, this has gone.…” Concerning the theologian’s “loss of God, of faith, of church,” Hamilton concludes: “In the face of all this, he is a passive man, trusting in waiting, in silence, and even in a kind of prayer for the losses to be returned.”

If Professor Hamilton’s views are representative of those of other theologians in comparable positions in other Protestant seminaries, then Protestant churches have great reason to be perturbed about their professional theologians.

Concern Of Laymen

For some time leaders of the major Protestant denominations have been engaged in campaigns to enlist laymen in study of the Bible and of theology. These campaigns have included church-wide conferences for ministers and laymen, lectures in theological seminaries, study groups of various kinds, and the distribution of literature designed to acquaint laymen with the writings of liberal theologians in general and, lately, with Bishop Robinson’s book in particular. Unquestionably these campaigns are producing results, although not necessarily the kind hoped for.

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Intelligent laymen are studying the Bible. They are reading liberal theology. This could become as important for the Church of our times as were the lay groups that studied the Bible and Christian theology preceding and during the Reformation period. And modern laymen are excited by what they are learning. They are thinking independently. They are asking incisive and disturbing questions.

If anyone wishes to verify this, let him read the increasing number of articles along this line appearing in our religious journals and in the religion sections of our secular press. Let him also circulate among the lay officials of the local churches of his denomination and listen to what they are saying.

Laymen are asking questions like these: “Why have our church leaders deliberately embarked upon a national campaign to promote the writings of extreme liberals whose theology is so manifestly out of harmony with our New Testament faith? Why are our theological seminaries preparing young ministers to preach that theology? Isn’t the New Testament the only authentic, historical record of our Christian faith now extant? Isn’t that where we are supposed to go to find out what the Gospel is? Are not Christian theologians supposed to have accepted Christ, committed themselves to the study of evangelical Christianity, and obligated themselves to teach and defend it? Then why do they attack that Christianity, or deny it, or substitute for it some other religious or some philosophical system?”

Laymen are also asking: “What has gone wrong with preaching? Why do preachers now talk almost exclusively in technical theological terms that are actually a foreign language to their parishioners?” And they are right in saying, “We find that sort of preaching deadening. It leaves us spiritually starved.”

Protestant laymen who read the article in Time (November 8, 1963) entitled “The Jargon that Jars” surely understood what the writer, presumably a perplexed layman, meant when he spoke of liberal theologians’ “slicing” their concepts so fine that a “new lingo” is required to understand them. They also understood his remark that the theologians appear to have invented a whole brood of complicated terms just to “intimidate the outsider.” These readers must have silently thanked the writer for quoting Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy and theologian Nels Ferre as saying that such language is “almost unusable in the pulpit” and is “not essential for preaching God’s Word.” And they would also have appreciated the report of a conference where “the ministers saw a great gulf fixed between the ministry [and, by inference, the ‘people’] and theologians,” the reason being that “theology with its polysyllables and stratospheric talk just did not communicate the Gospel to the ‘frontier’ where real people apparently live.”

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Laymen are asking: “Why is the Church trying to make professional, technical theologians of us laymen?” This concern was presented by two elders, one a townsman and the other a university professor, when they spoke to the new pastor of a Presbyterian church in a university community. Said the townsman, “We townsfolk hope you will not ‘go university,’ as so many of our pastors have tried to do.” The professor said, “We university people hope you will continue to preach sermons instead of giving lectures from the pulpit, as some of your predecessors have felt impelled to do.” In the ensuing conversations each elder in his own way said that it is a mistake for a minister of a church—in a university community or anywhere else—to talk to his congregation in highly specialized terms such as those a professor uses in the classroom or before members of learned societies; that he should remember that all men, regardless of their place in society, have the same spiritual needs and that when they come to church they want to hear sermons that feed their souls, not academic theological lectures. They urged their pastor to preach the Gospel in the language of God’s Word in which it is found. For they believed the study of the Scriptures to be his field, and they considered him an expert in scriptural interpretation, teaching, and preaching.

Yes, it is possible that the publication of Honest to God may prove a blessing in disguise. If like the Apostle Paul we believe that God is involved in the affairs of his world and that “in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28), we may live to see, as did Paul, that what at first seemed a hindrance to the Gospel later turned out for “the furtherance of the Gospel.”

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