From Canada to Mexico runs the continental divide, along which two raindrops falling just a few inches apart can end up in two different oceans. There is also a continental divide in contemporary theology. Certain truths and doctrines characterize historic Christianity and, if rejected, necessarily involve its repudiation.

The present state of contemporary theology is certainly one of confusion. Whom are we to believe? Weimann with his natural theism? Bultmann with his demythologized New Testament but existentially impassioned kerygma? Barth with his massive tomes quarried from a dozen different pits? Berkouwer with his scintillating restatement of Calvinism? Bishop Robinson with his theological first-aid kit? Ebeling with his vast historical learning used to buttress the new hermeneutic? What makes the situation really confusing for the layman, the seminary student, and the average minister is that all these theologians use the same Bible and the same or similar terminology, tackle the same or similar problems, teach in historic Christian schools, work in the same historic denominations, and practice the same sacramental life.

In a preliminary way we can find three different strands in contemporary theology. (1) There is the orthodox strand, which includes the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox theologian, the traditional Calvinist, and the Methodist. It is characterized by the belief, common to all versions of orthodoxy, that Christianity is essentially a religion of supernatural salvation wrought by the death and resurrection of Christ and appropriated through faith (and the sacraments). (2) There is the modernist strand, which believes centrally that Jesus revealed perfect spirituality; this may be interpreted according to Schleiermacher as perfect God-consciousness, or according to Ritschl as perfect filial trust, or according to Tillich as the norm of new being. In modernism there is no supernatural salvation to be appropriated by a definitive act of saving faith. (3) There is also liberalism, religious faith which is built on some form of philosophical idealism or existentialism but which denies that there is anything crucial in the person of Christ or the Holy Scriptures. The liberal may include Jesus and the Bible in his system, but only because he shares in Western culture—not from principle or necessity.

It is obvious that, though modernists differ from liberals in that they insist on the centrality of Jesus to their theology and with it some normative status for the Bible, nevertheless modernism and liberalism are one in rejecting orthodoxy as the only valid version of Christianity. In a sense the modernist believes that all versions of Christianity are true. In so far as every version of Christian theology attempts to preserve the Jesus mystique (using the term, as Betty Friedan does in The Feminine Mystique, for something very real but yet so elusive that it defies precise definition), it is true Christianity. It may be surrounded with the heavy timber of antiquated theology, as in Roman Catholicism, or by experiential phenomena, as in Pentecostalism. But it is still there. And it is this pervasive Jesus mystique in all Christian bodies that is the rationale for the modernist’s participation in the ecumenical movement. We are all Christian brothers, because each in his own way embodies the Jesus mystique. But of course the modernist believes that his version is the best to date as it is supposedly freest from those elements that offend educated and cultured people.

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According to modernism, all men really or potentially have this mystique. In the “unchurched” it lies dormant, but the Christian is the person who has positively responded to the Jesus mystique and conducts his life accordingly. God is every man’s Father, and each man is brother to every other man. The human race is thus one great household of God divided into the obedient sons and the ignorant or even disobedient sons. The historic notion of men as lost sinners is rejected. The world is not divided into saved and lost, regenerate and unregenerate. The “new look” in evangelism is not reaching the lost or rescuing the heathen by Christian missions. Evangelism and missions are now creative sharing! Thus according to Tillich all men share to some degree in new being. Therefore, all men (in the older terminology) are saved; evangelism is the attempt to stir up a little more new being in the Christian West, and the missionary enterprise is creative sharing with non-Christian religions our mutual experience of new being.

On one side of the continental divide in contemporary theology stand the orthodox; on the other stand the modernists and liberals in their common rejection of supernatural salvation. But theologies do not come neatly labeled. Criteria must be used to evaluate them. The following criteria are meant to be representative rather than exhaustive as guides for finding this divide in theology.

1. Revelation. Theologians have tried to show that revelation is dynamic, not static; event, not information; existential, not intellectual; God’s personal presence, not a piece of writing; holy history, not holy writings. Certainly no orthodox theologian wants a dry, flat rationalistic, intellectualistic view of revelation. If the orthodox doctrine of revelation was becoming arid because doctrinaire, it can profit from recent writings on revelation and correct its deficiencies. But what is the critical issue in any theology of revelation? It is this: Revelation may be many things but it must at least be truth. There must be a conceptual or a propositional element in revelation or otherwise revelation is no more the Word of God as truth.

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Orthodox theology in all its versions believes that theology can originate only in truth, be the explication of truth, and be controlled by truth. If revelation is not at least truth, then Christian theology is impossible, for no reliable and authentic theology can be built from non-truth materials. There can be no logos of that which is by principle non-logos. The frequent attack in contemporary theology on “propositional revelation” never gets around to explaining how theology can be written from “non-propositional” revelation. Thielicke in Between Heaven and Earth sees the fundamentalists’ drive for verbal inspiration and inerrancy as a fanatic bid for religious certainty, but he fails to see that pulsing beneath this doctrine of Scripture is a tremendous passion for truth.

Whenever revelation is defined exclusively as insight, or religious experience, or existential communication, or a felt Presence, then that view is unorthodox. It is not true that the orthodox theologian is an unreconstructed rationalist and therefore fears the existential, the symbolic, the mythological, the divine as a Mysterious Presence. The orthodox theologian believes that religion may have many such overtones, and he would not wish to rob Christian faith of depth by being an unreconstructed rationalist. His point is that theology is logia and that a logia is possible only when there are logia materials. No logia is possible from the non-logia of intuition, religious experience, existential leap, or encounter. Therefore, he insists that revelation must at least be the Word as truth.

Certainly Tillich with his notion of revelation as ecstatic and Bultmann with his notion of revelation as a new self-understanding have broken with the historic doctrine of revelation. Barth and Brunner have a theology of the cracks! In that Barth stresses revelation as the personal presence of God, God as subject, as encounter and not as knowledge, his view is in the Ritschlian tradition and therefore is modernist. In that he stresses the objectivity of revelation in the Incarnation and the authoritative witness to revelation in Holy Scripture, he assents to revelation as truth. Thus his view of revelation is in the crack between modernism and orthodoxy.

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In that Brunner emphasizes God as mystery, God as subject, revelation as address and encounter, he continues the modernists’ view that revelation is not truth. In that he insists on the Incarnation as the supreme event of revelation and sound doctrines as the necessary presupposition for Christian faith, he assents to revelation as truth. So his theory of revelation also is in the cracks.

2. The Incarnation. The Incarnation is the unpredicted and unpredictable, sovereign, gracious, and absolute entrance of God into this world and our humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. It is God the Son freely, sovereignly, graciously uniting himself with a specific human nature. The verb taking (Phil. 2:7—labōn) affirms that he who was in the form of God and equal with God did of his own sovereign decree determine to enter the human race as Jesus of Nazareth. This has been the orthodox stance in Christology in all the various communions.

This doctrine of the Incarnation was spelled out at Chalcedon. Charges that Chalcedon is the product of the corruption of Christian theology by Greek metaphysics do not weigh seriously with the orthodox. The orthodox believe that Chalcedon can be reconstructed from the exegesis of the New Testament. Tillich and a host of modern theologians with him believe that the term “two nature” Christology is almost a dirty expression.

The real issue is not whether Chalcedon represents a timeless statement of Christology but whether contemporary theologians have remained true to the New Testament in shooting down Chalcedon. We can illustrate this briefly at one point: “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Here we have the divine expressed by “the Word,” the human expressed by “flesh,” and a union expressed by “became.” It would seem that shooting down the “two nature” Christology of Chalcedon also manages to shoot down John 1:14.

Orthodox theologians believe that contemporary theology is riddled through and through with adoptianism, the belief that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who existed in his own right, with his own parents, in his own family, and in his own vocation, and that God elected him and adopted him and called him to be the Christ. Thus the ordinary Jesus becomes the special Christ by God’s gracious adoptive act. Orthodox theology resists this with all its power, because this Christology negates the entire scheme of supernatural salvation obtained by the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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Schleiermacher’s Jesus as the model example of God-consciousness is adoptianism; the Ritschlian version of Jesus as the model example of filial piety is adoptianism; the Hegelian Christology which sees in Jesus the principle of divine-human continuity is adoptianism; Tillich’s Christology of the man Jesus surrendering himself to the Christ of new being is adoptianism: Bultmann’s Christ-event as the perfect existential example of dying to the world and rising to openness to the future is adoptianism; the new hermeneutic with Jesus as the perfect example of “the word” of existential communication is adoptianism; and all the recent expressions of young theological Turks who destroy traditional Christology but still find some kind of mystique in Jesus are adoptianism.

3. Sin. In orthodox theology, sin is primarily an offense against the holiness of God. It therefore excites the wrath of God. Few concepts of the older theology have been so belittled or so categorically rejected as the wrath of God. In the caricature God is pictured as a peeved deity, or a blood-thirsty deity, or a terrible-tempered Mr. Bang. To the modernists the wrath of God is an unfortunate imputation to God of a human weakness—namely, uncontrolled and ugly temper.

To the orthodox theologian the wrath of God is the proper response of the holy God to the human infraction of the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God. To the orthodox theologian the denial of wrath in God is a denial of all moral fiber in God. The wrath of God stands for the moral integrity of God, and thus, for the orthodox, to deny the wrath of God is to render ambiguous the moral integrity of God.

No orthodox theologian would deny the personal and social evil of sin. The liar damages himself. The racially prejudiced person creates great social evil. The international evils of Stalin and Hitler beggar description. But the essence of sin is not its destructive effect on the self nor its cancerous influence in society but its defiance of the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and caused the death of Uriah, yet in his anguish cried out, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). He furthermore recognized the rightness of God’s wrath toward him for his sin, for he said that God’s sentence was justified and his judgment blameless.

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In the modernist, liberal, and existentialist view, sin appears as an expected human foible. It is like making an error in mathematics, or a mistake in an experiment, or a blunder in social conduct. The game of life is complicated; no man can pick his way through it without some mishap. Man is really more a victim of sin than an agent of sin. It is hardly fair to blame a teen-ager for being unruly, if he comes from a broken home; the professional thief is a product of inner-city decay; the drunkard is the hapless victim of destructive psychodynamics; and the homosexual is the pitiful product of a pathological home.

This is to say nothing new. Chapters 4–11 of Genesis have been called the greatest theological tract on sin in the Old Testament. They reveal that, once sin is let loose in the race, man as a matter of fact is as much victim of sin as he is agent. This does not lessen our view of sin but reveals its tragic character.

Because man is both victim and agent of sin, the final assessment of a man’s life can be made only by God. God alone can sort out a man’s life and determine that which is victim and that which is agent. An inhuman and graceless moralism or legalism in regard to sin is not part of the orthodox view of sin. No orthodox theologian wishes to minimize the destructive effects of sin in personal and social life. No orthodox theologian wants to judge heartlessly the poor victims of the destructive forces of sin. But the orthodox theologian insists that those theologians who see in sin only human foible, only human error, only human miscalculation, only existential unauthenticity, who do not see sin as defiance of the good and perfect and holy will of God nor the wrath of God as that which corresponds to this defiance, do not measure up to historic orthodoxy or to the biblical revelation. Thus as long as Barth and almost all neo-orthodox and existentialist theologians along with him teach that the wrath of God is merely the inverse side of his love, or, with C. H. Dodd, teach that the wrath of God is merely the personal, social, and historical consequences of sin, they fail the biblical revelation of the wrath of God.

4. Salvation. In all versions of orthodoxy, salvation is the person and work of Christ, particularly his vicarious death and his resurrection. Personal salvation is the faith response to the supernatural salvation in Christ. The entire process from incarnation to regeneration is through and through supernatural.

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In liberalism it is meaningless to talk of salvation, for there is nothing to be saved from except an attitude of irreligion, and that cannot be very serious if there is no such thing as lostness or damnation. In modernism, salvation is not really being saved but is merely the arousing of a religious potential that lies dormant. Preaching the perfect spirituality of Jesus sparks to life the religious element in men who previously were irreligious. Thus the difference between Christian and non-Christian becomes relative rather than absolute.

Representative of much current thought is the theology of Paul Tillich. All men have ultimate concern and therefore “new being,” or, in more conventional existential language, “authentic existence.” If they did not have some ultimate concern, some new being, they would cease to be men. Buddhists, Communists, and atheists have ultimate concern in their lives and hence new being. Christians differ from them only in that they believe that in Jesus as the Christ we have the norm for judging all instances of new being. In short, modernism in all its forms is universalism. Nobody is really counted out. As one modernist phrased it, the difference between Hitler and Ghandi was purely relative; Hitler was way down on the scale of spirituality (but not lost!) and Ghandi was way up (but not because he was justified or regenerated).

The continental divide in modern theology is revealed in the varying answers to the Philippian jailer’s question: “What must I do to be saved?” One would say, “Make the existential leap and thou shalt be saved.” Another would say, “You are saved, you fool. Just start living that way.” Another would say, “Clean up the conditions in the jail and go to work on the social injustices in Philippi, and you are being saved.” Still another would say, “My dear man, in view of our present knowledge of the Bible and the modern mentality you have asked a meaningless question. This selfish business of personal salvation was a bit of primitive nineteenth-century evangelism. Christianity is not being saved—perish the thought; it is identifying oneself with the forces of love and justice in the reconstruction of society.” According to such answers, Paul never could have been more wrong than when he replied, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”

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5. Sacramental theology. Orthodox theology in all its versions believes that the sacraments either convey supernatural grace or witness to supernatural grace imparted by the Holy Spirit. Sacramentalism and non-sacramentalism in orthodoxy are both grounded in the supernatural grace of God founded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The consistent liberal must deny the sacraments. His “naturalistic theism” takes the ground from under them. The modernist believes that Christian fellowship must include the liturgical, and so he retains the sacraments as a form of Christian fellowship. But only the most naïve person would ever believe that a modernist intends by baptism and communion what an orthodox person does. When a Lutheran or a Presbyterian in the orthodox tradition baptizes an infant, it is within the schema of the supernatural salvation obtained by Jesus Christ or the covenant relation of God’s supernatural grace. But a modernist Lutheran or modernist Presbyterian cannot baptize the infant on these grounds. To him infant baptism represents the Christian estimation of children, or the responsibility of parents in Christian nurture, or the place of the whole family in the Christian Church. But it is not a witness to the supernatural salvation of Christ realized in the infant by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.

One has to ask what a sacrament can possibly mean to Bultmann or to Tillich or to Ebeling, because all these men deny a supernatural act of God either in the deed of Christ or in the sacrament.

6. The Church. In historic orthodox theology of all versions, the Church is based upon the supernatural salvation wrought by Christ in his death and resurrection and communicated in a supernatural act by faith in regeneration and justification, and the supernatural binding of believers together by the mystical but real bond of the Holy Spirit. When modernists deny a supernatural salvation in Christ, deny a supernatural act of salvation by the Holy Spirit, and deny the supernatural connectedness of all believers by the mystical union of the Holy Spirit, they destroy the historic, orthodox Christian understanding of the Church.

What takes its place? The Church becomes a society, a natural, human, non-supernatural religious community. It is bound together by purely natural ties, such as a common heritage in the Bible, a common belief in some sort of uniqueness in Jesus, a common belief in the historical continuity of Christians, and a common ethic of love. Now the Church is a society. But this is secondary to its being the supernatural body of Christ. Modernism in all its forms, the older Fosdickian version or the new hermeneutic, reduces the Church to a religious society, nothing more, nothing less; for it denies the entire supernatural foundation upon which the historic doctrine of the Church was built.

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The conclusion is that there is a continental divide in contemporary theology. Despite all the confusion that exists, this divide can be located in “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” Those who really know the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith can differentiate the kind of theology which falls on the right side of this continental divide from that which falls on the wrong side.

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