Chiefly responsible for the tension in contemporary European theology is the speculative notion that divine revelation is never communicated objectively—neither in historical occurrences nor in intelligible propositions—but is always subjectively received through submissive response.
This assumption contradicts the historic Christian concept that divine revelation is objective intelligible disclosure. The classic Christian view, moreover, states that divine revelation is addressed by the Logos to mankind generally through nature, history, and conscience, and is mediated more particularly through the sacred history and Scriptures, which find their redemptive climax in Jesus of Nazareth. On this basis—of the accessibility of a trustworthy knowledge of the Living God and of his purpose in creation and redemption—historic Christianity emphasizes the possibility of personal salvation through experiential appropriation of the truth of God and of his provision for sinners. While the Holy Spirit is indeed the sole source of regenerate life and the illuminator of sinful man’s darkened mind, and while faith alone is the instrument of salvation, the ground of faith—so evangelical Christianity insists—is a historical revelation and redemption; moreover, the Spirit uses God’s objectively revealed truth to persuade unregenerate sinners to appropriate for themselves the saving truth and work of Christ. In a word, then, the historic Christian Church has understood divine revelation to be an intelligible, objectively given disclosure, whether that revelation be universal (in nature, history, and conscience) or special (in the redemptive deeds and declarations of the Bible).
This objectivity of divine revelation, respecting both its historical character and its universal validity, is expressly repudiated by the dialectical and existential movements in contemporary theology. In fact, the traditional “intellectualistic” view of divine revelation is deplored as a “doctrinaire” and “rationalistic” perversion of Christianity. It is ascribed to a misunderstanding of the nature of faith, which presumably is independent of a historical basis and of belief in truths about God. Not some past divine activity in the stream of objective history, nor information mediated to and through chosen bearers of God’s disclosure, but rather present divine confrontation and personal response, an event here-and-now, becomes the crucial carrier of divine revelation. For more than a generation this emphasis on revelation in present-day divine-human confrontation has been the dominant theme of Continental theology, even to the extent of refashioning the doctrine of faith itself.
Much that this approach sought to correct in the many reductions of biblical Christianity needed rectification. Medieval, modern, and recent modern philosophy had all left scars upon the Christian outlook. The lamentable result was evident both in the medieval scholastic and in the neo-Protestant readiness to expound Christianity in the speculative categories of secular philosophy. It was seen, too, in the Hegelian reduction of reality to an immanentistic process in which the Absolute could be viewed only as More but never as Other, so that man’s mind was exalted as part of God’s mind. Other weaknesses were the modernists’ loss of an authoritative Word of God in the plurality of pontifical pronouncements by their influential philosophers of religion, and the prevalent notion even in Continental Protestant churches that salvation is simply a matter of adequate catechetical instruction in Christian doctrine. Moreover, certain conservative theologians, who quite properly emphasized the propositional character of divine revelation, tended to project a schematic theology that neglected the progressive historical character of biblical disclosure. And there were those fringe fundamentalist writers who were obsessed with discovering in Scripture minute and intricate predictions of a scientific and eschatological nature. Many aspects of the theological situation might therefore have encouraged a bold, new presentation of the nature and content of divine revelation.
Nonetheless, one could have discredited and eliminated departures from apostolic Christianity without at the same time rejecting and repudiating the objectivity of divine revelation and its intelligible or universally valid propositional form. But the newer anti-intellectualistic theory of divine disclosure not only opposed certain lamentable compromises that had become current in Protestant Christianity but also proceeded to correct them by an equally egregious error. It opposed not only modern misunderstandings but also a supposed “misunderstanding” of revelation itself that virtually spanned the entire Christian era. The late Cambridge theologian J. M. Creed may have deplored the fact, but the historical actuality remains: “Had any Christian of any Church between the end of the second century and the closing decades of the eighteenth been asked a question as to the content of the Christian religion, his answer could scarcely have failed to be to the general effect that the truths of the Christian religion were contained and conveyed in the inspired books of holy Scripture …” (The Divinity of Jesus Christ, Cambridge University Press, 1938, p. 105). In fact, this confidence in the supernatural and infallible divine communication of propositional truths is characteristic also of the New Testament writers, so that the supposed “misunderstanding” of revelation existed even in apostolic times within the dimensions of biblical Christianity. If the new anti-intellectual theory truly reflects the character of revelation, one would have to contend that the “misunderstanding” permeates almost every portion of the holy Scriptures! The divinely chosen prophets and apostles, and Jesus of Nazareth too, view divine revelation in terms of revealed information about God and his purposes. If this is intellectualistic perversion, then not only a “doctrinaire” view of revelation but Jesus himself and the apostles themselves must be disowned.
The dialectical and existential redefinition of divine revelation—for such it is—clearly reflects the influence of recent philosophical currents. Thus it cannot be explained simply as a corrective reaction to recent compromises of the Christian revelation.
Contributing to this novel reformulation of revelation were numerous speculative trends. Kant emphasized that the concepts of human reason cannot grasp metaphysical realities and maintained that affirmations about the spiritual order therefore lack universal validity. Schleiermacher insisted that God communicates himself but not truths about himself. Lessing believed that no historical event can communicate absolute meaning. Darwin taught that reflective reason is a relatively late emergent in the evolutionary process. Kierkegaard stressed the disjunction of the temporal and the eternal as being so radical that only a leap of naked faith can bridge it. Bergson declared that conceptual reasoning imposes an artificial structure upon reality, whose rationally incomprehensible dimensions must be grasped intuitively. There was also Ebner’s emphasis that God confronts persons only as Subject, never as Object. And Heidegger held that reality must be existentially experienced rather than conceptually grasped. In one way or another, these currents undermined confidence in the ontological significance of reason, in the rationality and objectivity of divine revelation, and in the role of cognition in religious experience.
So many and so great are the differences among the dialectical and existential theologians of our generation that should any effort be made to combine them into a single formula, one might expect an immediate disclaimer from almost all quarters. When one notes the divisions between Barth and Bultmann, for example, and Barth’s increasing inclusion through the years of more and more “objectifying” elements to escape an existentialized “Gospel,” it might seem inaccurate indeed to view the whole dialectical-existential development as a theological monstrosity that rejects objective revelation.
But a simple test will justify classifying both the dialectical and the existential schemes in this way. However much a theology stresses “objectifying” elements, the determinative question is whether or not it views divine revelation as objectively given in historical events and in intelligible concepts and words. While the dialectical-existential theologians differ from one another at many secondary levels, they all agree in respect to this ruling notion of the non-objectivity of divine revelation. Whether the so-called Pannenberg school projects a wholly adequate alternative may be open to serious debate; but its spokesman, Wolfhardt Pannenberg of Mainz, at least recognizes the fatal flaw in contemporary Wort-theology—namely, its denial of the objectivity of divine revelation and of the validity of that revelation for all men irrespective of subjective decision. A former student of Barth, the Mainz theologian considers Barth’s theology, for all its “objectifying” reinforcements, unable to escape Bultmann’s existentialist critique because Barth does not insist upon an objective character of divine revelation.
If ever a theologian has been driven from pillar to post in trying to preserve authoritative divine revelation while disowning its objectivity, it is Karl Barth. His tardy repudiation of existentialism involved no rejection of dialectical theology. Even his more recent attempts to escape the consequences of a dialectical predicament in the arena of religious knowledge involve no return to objective divine revelation. And so Barth’s “objectifying” facets simply exemplify rather than resolve the basic problem of contemporary theology.
The early agreement of Barth’s Römerbrief with Bultmann’s perspective is unquestioned. Bultmann pressed this rejection of objective intelligible revelation increasingly in the direction of sheer existential encounter. He viewed the miraculous aspect of the Christian tradition as unessential myth, and its historical aspect (except for the bare fact of Jesus’ earthly life and crucifixion) as irrelevant to faith. Thus Bultmann retained a rather orthodox view of real objective history, passed a negative critical verdict upon the miracles, sought to overcome the destructive consequences of this negative verdict in historical critical research by his independent grounding of faith, and aimed to preserve the uniqueness of Christianity through an existential interpretation of revelation. In the 1932 revision of his Church Dogmatics Barth repudiated this “demythologizing” existentialism as perverse speculation that destroys the essence of Christianity. Barth struggled to maintain quasi-objectivity for divine revelation. But he did not directly engage in the debate over the outcome of historical criticism; instead, he placed salvation-history in pre-history, and increasingly distinguished Geschichte from Historie. It was the late Karl Heim of Tübingen who protested that Barth had prodded theologians all over Europe to look for the Christian realities “on the rim of history,” but that nobody had as yet been able to locate that rim. Meanwhile, Bultmann continued to give larger scope to historical criticism and repudiated all efforts even to quasi-objectify the basis of Christian faith.
The broad displacement of Barth’s theology by that of Bultmann reflected a growing confidence that Bultmann’s version is the more convincing exposition of dialectical theology. Not only so. The rise of Bultmann precipitated among other scholars a growing conviction that Barth’s theological sleight-of-hand with Historie-Geschichte—by which he accommodates miraculous elements that do not exist merely for faith yet are not historical—was a costly innovation that could not withstand Bultmann’s counterattack, and hence needlessly sacrificed the cause of biblical theology.
The post-Kantian notion that theological assertions cannot be unified with historical and scientific truth blunted the nineteenth century’s devotion to historical investigation. Compatible with this premise, the dialectical-existential movement viewed the historical aspects of the Christian revelation as dispensable, insisted on the “kerygmatical” character of Christian faith, and assigned Christian revelation such independence from philosophic and scientific truth that it remained unrelated to the realm of objective knowledge. It is in this context that one must assess both Barth and Bultmann.
In their insistence on objective historical revelation, traditional conservative scholars are now being joined by Heilsgeschichte scholars and the Pannenberg movement in a fresh probe of the problem of revelation and history.
A Library For All The People
The Library of Congress is not only the library for Congress but also a library for the public. We have found our visits to it rewarding. Probing its vast interior is like exploring levels of meaning in Moby Dick. The dignified sweep of entrance stairs leads to the first floor, with its marble halls and vaulted ceilings, and then to the glassed-in exhibits including the Gutenberg Bible, which no reader should miss while in Washington. This is the surface, or tourist, level.
The regular user, however, soon learns to avoid the dignified approach and gradually penetrates to the air-conditioned Jefferson reading room in the annex (a little more out of the way than the non-air-conditioned main reading room), the friendly little snack bar in the sub-basement, and the restaurant one reaches via the basement below that. If he can prove his need, he will be permitted to breathe the rarefied air of the private study carrels and the somewhat mustier air of the stacks, those labyrinthine ways, easier to get into than out of. He also learns to fill out book request slips properly, so that they do not come back like so many rejected manuscripts.
We express our appreciation to the Library of Congress, and especially to the Information and Publications Office, the research staff, and the Loan Division for their unhesitating help in our frequent times of need. Our recent requests have ranged from the exact wording of a phrase in a speech by President Kennedy to information on traffic laws in Scandinavia. One of the legal experts, evidently well up in the hierarchy of experts, took time to help us with the latter, and he invited us to come back if we had any other questions.
Congress recently commended Dr. L. Quincy Mumford for his ten years of service as Librarian of Congress. It has increased the direct appropriation to the library from $9½ million in fiscal 1954 to over $23 million in fiscal 1965.
“The Library of Congress is in all probability the world’s largest library,” says one of its publications. In its two buildings are close to 13 million books and pamphlets and about 270 miles of bookshelves. Our experience has been that if one selects a book, any book, from the card catalogue and fills out a request slip for it, the book will be on his desk in less than an hour, provided that it was on the shelf.
We doubt whether there is another library anywhere like this one; we feel a quite nationalistic pride in it and are grateful for the privileges it accords us. May its books increase, its air-conditioning never fail, its patience and good will endure. And may its users stop occasionally to count their blessings.
One Mistake Away
Our world is only one mistake away from vast destruction. We are safe only as long as the men who control the push buttons of nuclear warfare act infallibly. One mistake would mean the end of life for hundreds of millions, and survivors would discover that the conditions for human survival had also been largely destroyed.
Unlike the pope of Rome, the men who sit on the thrones of nuclear power claim no infallibility. They claim only to be responsible men. This is not enough for comfort, for the mistake that could lead the world into massive destruction need not be an act of malfeasance. An unintended error will do. Such an error occurred recently when Khrushchev’s remarks about nuclear weapons, in the translation into Japanese and English, came out as an assertion about a new weapon that could destroy all life on our planet. This time, thank God, there was opportunity to correct the translation. Next time there may not be.
As long as we are but one mistake from global destruction and live by the grace of Premier Khrushchev’s and President Johnson’s infallibility, we have a witness in our fearful times that Jesus Christ is Lord of our history. It is he who holds our souls in life, whether we be popes, presidents, dictators, or scientists, or those whose only terror is global destruction.
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