Third in a Series

We are ‘on the way’ in a time of great concern with crucial problems. But we do not have final answers, and I am unsure what is at the end of this theological road. Truth is our task but it is not so much our possession.” So Gunther Bornkamm, the Heidelberg New Testament scholar, describes the prospect for contemporary European theology and its predicament.

The role of theology in the near future is wholly unclear. Some observers wonder what trend in dogmatics will replace the dialectical theology. Others ask whether German theology may not already have forfeited its opportunity to influence post-war European thought.

The Place Of The Bible

Inscribed on many pulpits in Germany is the message, Gottes Wort bleibt ewig (“God’s Word stands forever”). But the place of the Bible in the thought and life of these churches is often far less certain. Since, as Emil Brunner once remarked with unerring instinct, “The fate of the Bible is the fate of Christianity,” one may rightly inquire about the Bible’s status in European theology.

According to Professor Otto Michel of Tubingen, “The Bible remains the theme of preaching for modern theology, but it is no longer the authority for life and thought. Among the people generally its content is rather well-known, but it is not honored as the divine rule of faith and practice. So Germany today lacks a chart for life. It unites with other nations, but cannot supply spiritual direction for itself or for them as long as the Bible is unrecognized as the dress for the body of the Word of God.”

And as far as theological students preparing for the ministry are concerned, observes Norbert Rückert, professor of studies in Nürnberg’s Melanchthon Gymnasium, “the Bible is read mainly as a textbook, and all too seldom as a source of faith and devotion.”

In moving from the student to the professional level in Europe, one soon discovers the source of this dominantly “academic” interest in the Bible. Even Bible commentaries tend to be more linguistic than theological, and theologians seem to select and reject their texts at will.

If, moreover, the Bible no longer ranks as an unqualified norm among most European theologians, what has replaced it?

“The norm,” insists Edmund Schlink of Heidelberg, “must remain the whole canon under the middlepoint of the Scriptures: whatever points to Christ and the Gospel.”

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Gerhard Friedrich, revision editor of Kittel’s Wörterbuch, disagrees. “The norm of Christianity is not the canon,” he says. “Not all parts of the New Testament have the same value. Nor is it [the norm] even the center or heart of the Bible—or as Luther put it, what proclaims Jesus. It is rather [and Friedrich concedes this is time-determined] what at the time in which we live leads to man’s salvation.”

“The norm for me.…” This formula now serves to introduce not simply two, or two dozen, but a vast variety of “norms” set up by European theologians today. In fact, as many “norms” exist today as European theologians espouse for their own purposes and systems. From the ecumenical creeds to historic confessions to modern credos; from “the Absolute confronting me” to “what strikes me absolutely”; from the “Word of God” to (some of) the words of Jesus or of Scripture—the range of determinative “norms” is both striking and staggering. On any one seminary campus students usually sample but a part of this doctrinal smorgasbord; because they are free to select one or another of the proffered “norms” or even to postpone their choices, they do not experience the full discomfort and danger of such theological fare. No assessment of the present situation can hide the fact that today’s multiplicity of “norms” on the seminary scene simply evidences the absence of any one authoritative standard. Aware of this awkward competition of options, European theologians no longer confidently confess what the norm is but rather assert what “the norm is for me.”

Immediately after the Wort-theology had dethroned classic liberalism, the impression gained currency that Europe was enjoying a major theological revival. Yet it is more accurate to say that many philosophers and scientists, and most lay church members, too, have found the thinking of the theologians enigmatic, and therefore have remained quite indifferent to the theological scene.

The Next Turn?

Protestant theologians on the Continent differ about whether theology should seek to be descriptive or normative. And if normative, should theology be individualistic, confessional, or ecumenical in character?

The abundance of individualistic theologies advanced by influential thinkers during the past two centuries of confessionalistic decline has encouraged two reactions: on the one hand, a movement toward descriptive theology (history of dogma), which rejects any aspiration to be normative; and on the other, ecumenical theology (whatever that may prove to be), which, it is hoped, may supply compass-bearings in the future.

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Contrasted with German and Swiss theologians, who intend their theological systems (whether confessional or speculative) to be accepted as normative, Swedish theologians have quite abandoned such an ideal. Not even Gustaf Aulen (now eighty-five years old) and Anders Nygren (seventy-four on November 15) champion normative theology, although they are often so represented in view of even more extreme Swedish reaction toward non-normative dogmatics. Nygren, it is true, holds to normative revelation, but not to normative theology. “There are revealed truths,” he says, “but not a revealed system of truths.” For him, biblical theology is the effort to grasp revelation in the form of a science. “Theology is a systematic reconstruction of revelation. There can be no genuine theology which is other than biblical—only a bad philosophy of religion. But theology is not normative; if it tries to become so, it loses its character.”

A much deeper conflict characterizes the current theological scene in Sweden, however, than that posed by Nygren’s distinction between scientific and normative theology. At Lund younger theologians like Per Erik Perrson and Hampus Lyttkens, who, together with the Uppsala theologians, confine their interest to descriptive theology, do so on the ground that the Bible is inconsistent and therefore cannot be normative. Lyttkens’s plea for scientific theology involves also a concession to the analytic philosophy now regnant in Swedish universities, which contends that no objective propositions about God can be formulated and that religious propositions must be verified in experience. From the perspective of this analytical philosophy the differences between Barth and Bultmann are wholly inconsequential and mainly of historical interest.

On the other hand, Gustaf Wingren of Lund, although rejecting normative theology, nevertheless insists on the biblical character of a specific theology. For this reason Nygren says that “Wingren is more normative than I.” But Wingren asserts, “The fact of Christian preaching says that the Bible is normative, and modern preaching can be criticized and judged from this point of view.” It is clear, therefore, that Wingren too does not believe that any one theology ought ideally to become everybody’s theology. When asked how revelation ought to be defined, he gives a descriptive reply: “Revelation in the Bible is defined as.…”

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Swedish theologians always place the discussion of contemporary theology in the context of the history of doctrine, and especially that of Luther-research. While their exposition of systematic theology is still presented in a way German theologians neglect and reject, it is not offered as normative—as are the theological schemes of Barth, Brunner, or Bultmann. “In Sweden the question is no longer whether a scholar stands theologically on the right or on the left,” says Lyttkens (who stands considerably to the left), “but whether he is a competent research scholar.”

Although theologians in Sweden have lost heart for normative theology, the New Testament exegetes at Uppsala are more cautious. Says Harald Riesenfeld, “We do not think it worthwhile to be normative at present because the theological situation in Sweden is such that no normative theology would be accepted. But we must be prepared for a new perspective; things will change in another ten or twenty years. We are inclined to think normatively because ultimately we must face the problem of truth in biblical revelation and theology.”

A Challenge From Norway

Norwegian theologians, however, openly challenge the prevalent Swedish assumption that theology cannot be both scientific and normative. They view the emphasis on descriptive theology or history of doctrine not simply as a Swedish tradition, which it is, but also as the by-product of the analytic philosophy dominating the universities. In Oslo, Nils Ahlstrup Dahl, New Testament professor in the Church of Norway’s State Faculty of Theology, remarks that whenever the self-professed descriptive theologians preach in the churches, they forsake their detachment from normative theology. He believes that normative theology is more prominent in preaching than in dogmatic systems, which must wait for light on many problems. But Dahl’s colleague, theologian Reidar Hauge, argues that dogmatics embraces more truth than sermons can, since sermons by nature cannot raise or settle many intricate questions. Norwegian theology, he stresses, is both normative and descriptive.

The Church of Norway’s Free Faculty, which is more confessionalistic and less ecumenical than the State Faculty, insists even more strenuously on normative theology. “True theology must be normative,” says systematics professor Leiv Aalen of the Free Faculty. “The Church in its proclamation of the Gospel must have the truth of Christ, and that will accord with the Scripture and the confessions of the Church.” For Aalen the Lutheran confessional writings in the Book of Concord supply an ideal starting point in this direction. Hauge has criticized Aalen for elevating the confessions above Scripture, but Aalen denies the charge and insists that the confessions simply “protect Scripture against misunderstanding.”

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The abandonment of the ideal of normative theology must be traced in part to a reaction against the tide of speculative theologies; claiming to be normative, each has deluged Continental Protestantism with the influence of modern European philosophy. But this reaction against speculative theology may lead in other directions as well, such as toward a plea for a genuinely normative, authoritatively based theology. The real alternative to Bultmann’s theology, contends Riesenfeld, must be “a theology authorized by the churches, a traditional Christian theology, and not the private speculations of some theologian.”

The traditional conservative scholars plead for a theology whose authoritative basis is not so much established by the churches as recognized to be genuinely scriptural by the churches. Yet the loss of the biblical norm leads instead toward substitution of an ecclesiastical norm. As a result the promotion of a normative theology now tends toward two directions, one confessional and the other ecumenical.

Ideally, of course, Christian theology ought to be both ecumenical and confessional in the best sense of those terms. But at present Christendom is fragmented denominationally by competing confessions, and it is ecumenically committed in a context of inclusive theology that embraces confessional, counter-confessional, and anti-confessional elements. While member churches of the World Council of Churches have approved an elemental theological “basis,” this basis serves neither as a test of doctrine nor as a deterrent to heresy.

Some Scandinavian theologians, however, feel that the Church dare not content itself with purely descriptive theological work but must crown such research with theology of a normative nature; they wistfully look to the ecumenical movement to lead the way creatively in such a development. Even those scholars who want no part of a normative theology—adrift as they are from confessional Lutheranism—are moving beyond Luther-research into new areas of dogmatic study under the aegis of their descriptive interest in history of doctrine. In Lund, Per Erik Perrson displays a growing interest in Greek Orthodox theology, and Hampus Lyttkens in Roman Catholic theology. Harald Riesenfeld of Uppsala, on the other hand, thinks the World Council might lead the way to a return to normative theology over against the subjectivistic theological speculation now rampant in Europe.

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Because of the breakdown of contemporary Protestant theology, theologians in the old-line denominations are increasingly disposed to look to the ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches to heal the present dogmatic ailments. Heidelberg theologian Peter Brunner believes such conversations may force a new exploration of Scripture and tradition, dogma, and other themes now overshadowed by the Bultmannian preoccupation with hermeneutics. And Edmund Schlink, who represented his church as a Vatican Council observer, predicts that through the ecumenical dialogue with Eastern Orthodoxy and Rome “new constellations will appear” to revive the themes of the Trinity, Christology, and liturgy. In the “far future” he envisions a new ecumenical theology for Christendom built on a Christological foundation; he himself is busy writing a two-volume ecumenical dogmatics. These men, Schlink and Brunner, are more ecumenical and less confessionalistic in their theological writings than are many conservative Lutheran dogmaticians, such as Walter Kunneth of Erlangen and Ernest Kinder of Munster.

Ecumenical Prospects

To date, the ecumenical development has been more hospitable to theological openness and inclusivism than to definitive dogmatics. Much ecumenical effort is based on a tolerance of wide theological differences, even upon a pragmatic impatience with theological priorities. On the Protestant side of the ecumenical movement there is little manifest indignation over alternative and competitive views. Churchmen hostile to historic Christian positions and committed to views that even the ecumenical creeds would exclude as heretical are not only defended but welcomed as divine gifts to the Church. Seminaries most energetically engaged in the ecumenical development tend to become exhibition centers for a great variety of theological viewpoints rather than bearers of an authoritatively given message.

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Whether a movement that advances organizationally through theological inclusivism can also become theologically exclusive remains to be seen.

Theologian Leiv Aalen of the Church of Norway’s Free Faculty is not hostile to ecumenical dialogue. Yet because of its scanty achievement to date, he does not think it will serve to reunite the churches on the basis of scriptural truth and recovery of biblical theology.

“A new estimation of Luther is necessarily emerging in Roman Catholic circles,” Aalen comments, “but Rome is still more interested in involving Luther in her own system than in allowing him to oppose it in the name of Scripture. Is Rome really as much concerned about taking the Reformation seriously as about stretching its own point of view over new territory?”

Will the ecumenical direction of theology, one might ask, mean the loss of the Protestant character of the seminaries?

Schlink of Heidelberg thinks not. He feels, instead, that it will mean more serious preoccupation with the basis of the apostolic Church and with the Christianity of the first centuries in view of the ecumenical creeds.

Yet as the Protestant and Roman Catholic options are set side by side, new patterns of theological education are emerging. In Tübingen the Catholic seminar room is the first classroom that greets visitors. Munich, which has had only a Catholic faculty, failed in the effort to get Helmut Thielicke of Hamburg to serve as its first Protestant theologian, in the hope that he and Karl Rahner might occupy corresponding chairs. Hans Küng’s presence in Tübingen has lent additional interest to that campus. Küng wears no clerical collar, often appears in a sport shirt, and displays Barth’s writings in the front office while Aquinas’s Summa remains in the back room. “Lourdes gives me indigestion,” says Küng, who tells his classes he believes in sola fide. “If I were at Tübingen,” a graduate student in Basel remarked recently, “I’d study under Küng; he’s closer to the Reformers than Protestant theology generally.” While Küng’s public lectures are well attended by both Protestants and Catholics, his classes draw few Protestants, although he is credited with turning at least one of them toward the priesthood. American students in Tübingen speak more appreciatively of Küng than do German students, who consider Rahner the truly intellectual source of the ecumenical development but Küng primarily its spokesman.

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Karl Barth thinks this proliferation of European theology into descriptive, confessional, and ecumenical options offers no hopeful prospect. He points to Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God (“at once descriptive, since he was a scientist; confessional, since Robinson is Anglican; and surely ecumenically-minded”) as a clear indication that the alternatives run far deeper. “In this renewal of Feuerbach, of a theology identical with a certain kind of anthropology,” says Barth, “we stand at the end of the whole development of modern theology in a return to the nineteenth century. The real question for the future of theology is this: Is there a theology not anthropological but ‘theanthropological,’ one grounded in the Word of God in Jesus Christ?” Barth declines to venture a prophetic verdict on the outcome: “I cannot prophesy what the general trend of theology will be—whether theology will take ‘the good way’ or not.”

Concerning the Vatican Council dialogue, Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer of Amsterdam’s Free University says: “The contacts are many, and Rome has able men in all fields. But to speak now of a theology of the Word of God is only a beginning. We have had this formula for over thirty years, and many accept it who destroy its best sense. It does not of itself solve the hermeneutical problem which faces both Rome and Protestantism. To face this problem is not a matter of ‘unbelief’; if we do not face it, we shall be out of touch with our responsibility as well as with modern thought and life. We are called to a Gospel-conforming theology made concrete in our life work and renewed day by day.”

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