Fifth in a Series

Metaphysical perspectives have faded from the modern scientific and democratic community. An absolute authority and an objective revelation are difficult to understand and even harder to accept. How are we to cope with this predicament? By accepting secularization? By “demythologizing” the Gospel and changing theology into anthropocentric Existenzverstandnis? Or shall we retain traditional terms like revelation but redefine them speculatively?

No! replies Uppsala professor Birger Gerhardsson. Instead, he insists, we must confront the present crisis by probing these two fundamental questions in a new way: (1) What is revelation? (Does it or does it not contain certain “facts” and “information” which, if altered, change truth into a lie?) (2) What is divine authority? (Does faith involve a measure of belief in authority and specifically in divine authority?)

This connection of divine deed and divine information in the Swedish scholar’s discussion of revelation puts a finger on the second basic issue in contemporary theology—namely, the character of revelation as truth and not simply as act.

That divine disclosure occurs in history and not merely as personal confrontation or as subjective stirring on the fringe of history is increasingly emphasized over against existential and dialectical viewpoints. Conservative scholars like Adolf Köberle stress that Christianity rests on historical revelation and that God’s saving disclosure is given objectively in special historical events: “In the New Testament,” says Köberle, “the great deeds of God are proclaimed like news: ‘The battle is finished; the victory is won; the trespasses are forgiven.’ Then the reader is called to appropriate this subjectivity and to realize this good news for himself. But everything hangs in mid-air if the divine events have not already taken place.” So the Tübingen professor insists that in order to progress beyond its present dilemma, European theology must again recognize that what God has done and said is fully as important as what God is doing and saying; the former is, in fact, the presupposition of the latter.

This inclusion of God’s Word in the discussion of historical revelation, and the refusal to confine it to God’s Work or Act, focuses attention on the crucial question of revealed truth, which once again has become a subject of theological concern.

From Word To Deed

Admittedly, the breakdown of the dialectical Wort-theology has encouraged a readjustment of the understanding of revelation to other categories than God’s Word. Gerhard Friedrich of Erlangen, revision editor of Kittel’s famous Wörterbuch, thinks that theologians in the near future will emphasize that “Jesus is Lord” more than that “God speaks.” As he sees it, the Church must now locate the center of Scripture in the message that “Jesus is Lord of the world.” Likewise, Ethelbert Stauffer thinks Barth too narrowly understood revelation as the Word of God.

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To emphasize deed-revelation brings in some respects a wholesome corrective to the dialectical severance of revelation from history. Edmund Schlink of Heidelberg contends that, with its historical ingredient modified and strengthened, “the Wort-theology has a future.”

But in other respects the Wort-theology represents a peak of disillusionment at the end of an era Karl Barth inaugurated with his hopeful invitation to hear the Word of God anew. As a matter of fact, the widening shift of European emphasis from Word to Deed or Act, in defining revelation, diminishes the intelligibility of revelation.

Although Barth’s dialectical formulation precluded identifying events or concepts as revelatory, it is noteworthy that his “objectifying” additives bolstered the emphasis on revelation as truth more than the emphasis on revelation as history. In contrast with the earlier hesitation to speak of revelation in concepts and propositions. Barth today refuses to say that revelation contains no communication of information about God. Now that some European theologians are moving away from a theology of “the Word of God” toward a theology merely of “the Deed of God,” Barth stresses that God’s acts are not mute, and that any disjunction of Deed and Word would be “deeply nihilistic.” “What would revelation mean,” he asks, “if it were not an information whose goal is to be universally recognized, although not everyone recognizes it as such?”

Barth sees no hope in any movement away from a Word-theology and deplores any such development as futile. “The Word of God is the Word that is spoken by Him in and with His action. Act and Word belong together. God’s revelation is not one of mute acts, but an Act which in itself was a Word to humanity. Any theology that disjoins God’s mighty Acts from His spoken Word will ultimately prove destructive of the Christian idea of revelation itself.”

Revelation And Truth

In his early writings Barth ruled out all statements about essential divine being on the ground of God’s inconceivability. The argument was blunt: non-dialectical propositions belong to speculative metaphysics; theological ontology involves the illicit objectification of God, who is unknowable and unthinkable. But in later writings Barth affirms that God is an object of knowledge: God’s revelation in Christ provides a basis for genuine ontological statements. In Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum (1931), widely regarded as a bridge between the two editions of his Church Dogmatics, Barth depicts faith as a call to cognitive understanding. Assuredly the 1932 revision of his Dogmatics reflects many passages in the earlier mood: we can know only God’s acts, not his essence as such (I/1, p. 426). Yet in revelation we are given “a true knowing of the essence of God” (I/1, p. 427), a “real knowledge of God” (I/1, p. 180), a knowledge in terms of human cognition (I/1, p. 181). True faith includes the actuality of cognition of God (I/1, p. 261).

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Yet even in the revision of his Dogmatics Barth’s movement from critical to positive theology is hesitant and halting. He places greater emphasis upon analogy than upon dialectic. And he still disowns conceptual knowledge of God. While “the logico-grammatical configuration of meaning” is present both to belief and to unbelief, the religious reality is present only to belief. Theological theses are so inadequate to their object, he contends, that no identity can be affirmed between the propositional form and its object. Theological propositions are finally “adequate” to their object only on the basis of an internal miracle of divine grace; theological predications about God do not constitute universally valid truths independent of personal decision. The correspondence and congruity of our ideas with the religious reality involves no epistemological identity between God’s knowledge of himself and our knowledge of him. All human words are “confounded by the hiddenness of God … and … in their repetition in another man’s mouth they are not exempt from the crisis of the hiddenness of God” (II/1, p. 195).

For all his attempts to strengthen the connection between revelation and truth, Barth’s position is, therefore, still widely criticized in European theological circles. The criticism is aimed not only at Barth’s rejection of general revelation—although that is often in view—but also at his concessions to Kantian speculation about the limits of reason, and at his suspension of Christian truth upon private response.

The Loss Of General Revelation

Contrary to Barth’s definition of all divine revelation as saving, the insistence on general revelation found expression in many theological centers in Europe. Brunner at Zurich, Althaus at Erlangen, Thielicke at Hamburg, and Scandinavian scholars as well were among those who opposed the Barthian formulation. (It is noteworthy that Pannenberg of Mainz stops short of a commitment to general revelation. Although he insists that everyone has a general knowledge of God, he does not equate this with revelation; moreover, like Barth, he holds that all divine revelation is saving.)

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Over against Barth, Anders Nygren speaks of continuing divine revelation in nature, history, and conscience. He does not, however, approve natural theology, in line with the distinction that Brunner has impressed upon three decades of contemporary European theology. Nygren sees man as standing always in some relation to God on the basis of rational, moral, spiritual, and aesthetic a priori factors. Nygren’s theological successor at Lund, Gustaf Wingren, also insists on both general and special revelation. He holds, too, that while the revelation of forgiveness (the Gospel) became known through the sending of Christ into the world and the apostolic proclamation, the revelation of wrath (the Law) is found in human life itself, independently of preaching, and that general revelation ends in the law. Contrary to Nygren, Wingren departs from Barth’s formulation by preserving the traditional sequence of Creation and Law, Gospel and Church.

But the critique of Barth’s doctrine of religious knowledge does not end with the reaffirmation of general revelation. Wolfgang Trillhaas, a former student of Barth now teaching theology at Göttingen, protests that Barth so oriented theology to critical questions and to critical reason that Bultmann could readily seize the initiative. But in working out his objection to Barth’s separation of revelation and reason, Trillhaas does not preserve revelation in the objective form of concepts that are valid for all men irrespective of subjective decision.

Barth himself has struggled with this problem of concepts adequate to the expression of spiritual truths. The route by which he proposes to escape agnosticism while preserving a dialectical “yes-and-no” is to many theologians both complicated and unconvincing. The dialectical theologians disparage any revived emphasis on conceptual revelation as a kind of resurrected Hegelianism. Nonetheless, the doctrine that divine revelation is given in historical events, concepts, and words belongs to mainstream Christianity; a pre-Hegelian emphasis, it has in fact been held also by ardent anti-Hegelians. Yet it is true that many post-Hegelian scholars infected this emphasis with a doctrine of radical divine immanence that violates a scriptural view of revelation. But now, in the aftermath of the equally radical doctrine of divine transcendence sponsored by the dialectical theologians, the interest in conceptual revelation is once again being explored.

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The Significance Of Reason

Nygren realizes that the significance of reason is at stake in the modern controversy over revelation. “Reason is one of God’s gifts to us,” he remarks, “and He wills that we should use it for understanding the things in this world and for understanding Him.” He disallows the dialectical premise that divine revelation is never given objectively in historical deeds, concepts, and words; instead, he holds to a normative revelation given objectively in precisely this manner, but supremely in Jesus Christ. “God is revealed in material things and in history, and He is specially revealed in biblical history and biblical concepts and words.” Hence Nygren views history and concepts not merely as sign-posts to revelation but as the bearers of revelation. When God speaks, he speaks “in human words—and not in the twisted vocabulary of the dialectical-existential theologians.” His critics, Nygren adds, with an eye on the dialectical theologians particularly, cannot argue that his view implies God’s retirement, for the Spirit still “takes the revelation of God and makes it our own.”

Nygren wishes, however, to avoid a “rationalistic misunderstanding” of his view and to preserve man’s dependence on revelation. Curiously enough, he seeks these ends by backing away from the full adequacy of concepts for divine revelation, and deliberately stops short of the widely held evangelical view that identifies revelation in terms of propositions. “The words of the Bible are revelation, but not as propositions,” he says. But this negation troubles him, and so Nygren compromises it: “We cannot press this distinction with reference to Jesus; what He says is revelation. Jesus of Nazareth is revelation. God is once-for-all revealed in the prophetic-apostolic revelation, and especially in Jesus Christ.” Yet Nygren contends that even God’s revelation in Christ cannot be fully captured in concepts, “not because it is inherently irrational—for it is rational indeed—but because it is too big to be captured.”

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The Uppsala exegetes Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson also insist on the objectivity of revelation. They move, too, beyond the Heilsgeschichte emphasis on deed-revelation to divine revelation in concepts and words as well as in action, and beyond this to divine revelation in Christ’s words as well as in his person. They stress a special divine inspiration in the prophetic-apostolic writings and in the Church’s collection of the Canon.

While certain European theologians are now concerned about the significance of reason in Christian experience and about the truth-content of Christian revelation, Wolfhardt Pannenberg of Mainz is zealously formulating the case for the universal validity of revealed truth. Some Continental thinkers tend to downgrade “the Pannenberg school.” Gerhard Friedrich of Erlangen refers to it as “five or six young theologians who set Hegel’s philosophy over against Heidegger’s, but they are already past their peak.” Pannenberg is rather widely characterized as “Hegelian”—a favorite device by which many dialectical thinkers now stigmatize theologians who insist on the essential congruity of revelation and reason. The Mainz theologian rejects the label, albeit somewhat ambiguously: “I am not an Hegelian. But Hegel has been greatly misunderstood—and there is a kind of ‘classical dialectic’ of Hegel’s to which I can be related.” “If we must speak of dialectic, then Hegel’s is most to be respected,” says Pannenberg. Bultmann views the Pannenberg movement seriously. And while he deplores any theology that does not emphasize revelation as act in contrast to revelation as objective fact, he calls Pannenberg “very gifted and clever.”

Universal Validity Of Revelation

Pannenberg’s criticism of dialectical theology—be it Barth’s, Brunner’s, or Bultmann’s—goes far beyond an insistence on objective, historical revelation. He does not, it should be said, return fully to the emphasis of historic evangelical Christianity concerning divine revelation given objectively in concepts and words, nor does he identify the whole Bible with revelation. Revelation, for Pannenberg, is objective in the form of historical events, but not in concepts; while revelation does take the form of thought, he holds it does not do so authoritatively in the special form of concepts supernaturally given once for all, as in old Protestant theology. The Christian tradition is always in development, he contends, because revelation is given “in deeds or acts that remain to be explained.”

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But as opposed to the whole “theology of the Word” movement, Pannenberg insists that revelation carries a truth-claim for all men and is universally valid. He criticizes Barth, despite Barth’s theological self-correction in the area of religious epistemology, because Barth maintains that in the final analysis the truth of Christianity enters into the hearts of Christians only by a miracle of grace. All the objectifying factors in Barth’s more recent dogmatics notwithstanding, Barth remains with Bultmann “a disciple of Herrmann,” says Pannenberg; in other words, he subordinates the rational knowledge of God to trust. But if faith is in the first instance obedience, laments the Mainz scholar, there can be no reason for faith, nor any place for addressing questions.

“The Christian truth is the one truth for all men,” Pannenberg stresses, in refuting the dialectical notion that the truth of revelation becomes truth only for individuals by personal appropriation. “There are not two kinds of truth—one covering the arena of modern life and thought, and the other that of Christian faith and life and thought.”

Thus Pannenberg goes also beyond the theological milieu at Heidelberg, where he was offered but declined the chair of philosophy of religion. In revelation, both Edmund Schlink and Peter Brunner find a truth-claim of universal validity wholly apart from subjective decision. Brunner contends, however, that this truth-claim is mediated not through the historical revelation but through the means of grace. And, while he avoids Barth’s terminology, Peter Brunner nevertheless bridges to the Barthian dialectic: “God revealed Himself in the historical Jesus, but you cannot prove that He did. You cannot demonstrate revelation as a fact to one to whom revelation is not revealed. Insofar as Barth emphasizes that you cannot handle revelation as you would a loaf of bread, his position has an element of truth.”

The predicament of Continental theology must be located in its unsatisfactory juxtaposition of objectivity-subjectivity, of Historie and Geschichte. But even scholars who think the objective element in revelation needs more stress than Barth assigns it often seem to yield essential terrain to the dialectical school.

With respect to revelation and reason, for example, Wilfried Joest of Erlangen insists that Christian concepts are not to be reduced simply to our own ideas about God but must include an element of universal truth, and hence constitute truth for everyman. Yet Joest emphasizes the imperfection of human concepts, wants no part of a fundamentalist view of “inspired Scriptures,” and holds that God remains incognito and cannot be theoretically proved outside the phenomenon of revelation and response. He concedes there must be an existential interpretation of Christianity but of a non-Bultmannian sort, one that is “both modern and yet more congruent with the Church tradition.”

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The Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer, of the Free University, Amsterdam, asserts that “of course men can know Christ as Pilate knew Him, and Christian truth can be intellectually cognized.” But it is “neither understood nor fulfilled in its real purpose apart from an act of grace.” At the same time, Berkouwer thinks it unwise to reinstate the old objectivity-subjectivity antithesis and fears Pannenberg’s approach may lead to a revival of natural theology. “The theological scene is now characterized by a lack of definition. What is meant by ‘objective’? Surely Christian faith does not have its origin in our subjectivity. But the old objectivity-subjectivity antithesis is transcended by the fact that the Christian revelation is always ‘directed’ and ‘kerygmatic.’ God’s communication always has a special purpose. We must reject the demythological facet of recent theology, but not the direction of the kerygma.”

Truth Is Truth For All

In Lund Anders Nygren forthrightly rejects the prevalent dialectical notion that, while the meaning of the Christian message can be universally known, its “real meaning” can be grasped only by believers. “There are not two senses of ‘meaning,’ ” he says. “The truth of the Christian message can be understood without personal faith. If that were not the case, all discussion with unbelievers would be impossible. As a Christian I am convinced that Christ is the Truth. He could not be the Truth, however, if He were not the Truth for all men. The truth of Christianity is universally valid for all men in all times and in all places irrespective of personal faith.”

Barth, for all his effort to strengthen the adequacy of concepts for divine revelation, still insists that this adequacy exists only on the basis of recurring miracle. Revelation is “for all,” he emphasizes, “but not all may catch it. The Word of God is understood only by the power of the Spirit.”

Otto Weber of Göttingen, an able expounder of Barth’s views, has sought to rise above the position that Christian truth exists only for the believer through grace. Divine revelation is true for the believer and also for the Church, says Weber, and therefore for all men. Weber complains that Barth did not connect revelation and reason “strongly enough” and insists that the dialectical theology must be developed in the direction of a more satisfactory relation between revelation and reason. Weber’s larger interest is in a Christian ontology: “We cannot have theology without ontology,” he asserts.

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So, over against Barth, Weber contends that if revelation is indeed true, it is true for all men. “Revelation is for all but not in all and saving for all,” he stresses. Does he therefore intend that the truth of revelation is given in an objective structure similar to mathematical propositions and thus valid for all men? Here Weber hedges and keeps one foot in the dialectical camp. “No man can know revelation as truth until he becomes a Christian,” he holds. “Revelation is true for me as a Christian and for the Church and therefore for all,” he continues. Theological theses are objective only because God in himself and in his revelation is “open in Christ” toward man, and is willing to communicate. In other words, Weber rejects the thesis that truth is truth for the Christian because it is universally true, and substitutes the thesis that truth is truth for all men because it is true for the Christian and the Church. Pannenberg, however, counters with the assertion that divine revelation is true for all men, and therefore true for the Christian and the Church.

So dawns the end of an era in which Ritschl held that the validity of religious judgments can be known only through an act of the will, in which Troeltsch found himself unable to assert the universality of the Christian religion, and in which both Barth and Bultmann failed to vindicate the universal validity of Christian revelation apart from a miracle of personal grace or an act of subjective decision. But if the deepest truth of God is found in Jesus Christ, if the contention is to be credited that Christianity is a religion for all nations, bringing men everywhere under judgment and offering salvation of import to the whole human race, then it is imperative that the Christian religion reassert its reasoned claim to universality.

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