In my book The ‘Is God Dead?’ Controversy, which was published in August by Zondervan and treats the theothanatological movement as of June 5, I placed William Hamilton to the left of Altizer but to the right of Van Buren. On October 28 it became evident that Hamilton’s Colgate-Rochester colleague Charles M. Nielsen had not been exaggerating when he cynically wrote of the death-of-God theology: “So powerful is the thrust toward novelty that a famous Protestant journal is considering a series of articles by younger theologians under sixty called ‘How My Mind Has Changed in the Past Five Minutes’ ” (The Christian Century, Sept. 15, 1965).
At a program on the radical theology sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Office of Religious Affairs, Hamilton gave a position paper in question-and-answer form, and the answers quite plainly showed how rapidly his mind has changed in the last few months (if not minutes). The direction of change has been—predictably—to the left, and now Hamilton stands with Van Buren at the radical extremity of the God-is-dead movement. Having presented a critique of theothanatology in the same University Lecture Series a week earlier (October 21), I was privileged to engage in close study of Hamilton’s position paper, and its interest is such as to warrant comment here.
My original basis for considering Hamilton less radical than Van Buren was his stress on the Christian as “both a waiting man and a praying man”: though the “God of necessity” (i.e., the traditional God required by believers to “explain” aspects of their world of experience) was dead, Hamilton continued to hope and pray for the possible epiphany of a “God of delight”—a God not needed but perhaps discoverable by modern secular man in the freedom of his emancipation from old loyalties. Now Hamilton has closed this door; says he: “I wouldn’t put things in this way now.… In place, in a way, of ‘waiting for God’ is the interest in the development of new approaches, godless approaches, to the sacred” (question 30).
What approaches—now that the “death of God does not refer to a disappearance of a psychological capacity,” and “the God in the phrase ‘I believe in God, Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth’ … is no more” (question 1), and “doing without God means doing without eternal life” (questions 13, 16, 17)? The new thrusts of Hamilton’s “Christian humanism” (question 4) are (baldly stated) Society, Sex, and the Simple Jesus. Society: “What once was done by God is done by social change, politics, even revolution” (question 9). Sex: “May it not be that the experience of sex can become a kind of sacred event for some today?” Hamilton answers by quoting a rococo passage from The Scarlet Letter and commenting, “Here is an astonishing event—the idea of a sexual relationship outside of marriage, in the midst of Puritan New England, possessing a sacredness that does not seem to require the idea of God” (question 16).
But, admits Hamilton, this attempt to find Jesus “concealed in the struggle for truth, justice, or “beauty” is “unstable unless one sees that it must be based on the New Testament picture” of Jesus (question 10). “I take it,” he continues, “that Bornkamm’s Jesus of Nazareth can stand as a statement of a consensus of what can be known.” Here is immediately raised “the most important theological question that can be asked of us,” namely, “Can you really maintain a loyalty to Jesus without a loyalty to God?” (question 11). Hamilton’s answer is of such consequence that it deserves to be quoted at length:
“Professor Altizer solves the problem more readily than I by his apocalyptic definition of Jesus, more Blakean than biblical, as the one who is born out of God’s death. I am not yet ready to give up sola scriptura [!], and thus my answer must be more complex and tentative.… Early in the nineteenth century, we had to face, under the early impact of historical criticism, both that Jesus was firmly committed to demon-possession as the meaning of mental and physical illness, and that we were not so committed and needn’t be. But obedience to Jesus was not destroyed. Later, at the time of Darwinian controversy, we had to face another instance of Jesus’ full participation in the thought forms of his day—the three-story, primitive cosmology. But we do not go to the Bible for science, we were rightly told, and obedience to Jesus was not hurt. At the close of the century we had to face an even more disturbing fact—the fact brought before us by Weiss and Schweitzer that Jesus was completely committed to the apocalyptic views of the Judaism of his day.… If Jesus’ demonology and cosmology and eschatology were taken at first-century views, appropriate then, not so now, needing reinterpretation and understanding but not literal assent, what is inherently different about Jesus’ theology?”
The significance of this argument for the current theological situation cannot be overestimated, for it explicitly maps the progressive demise of Christology through the consistent application of rationalistic biblical criticism. For over a century, orthodox Christians have vainly reminded their liberal confreres of the Reformers’ conviction that the “material principle” (the Gospel of Christ) cannot possibly survive apart from the “formal principle” (divinely inspired Scripture). “Fiddlesticks!” has been the reply: “Of course we can distinguish the true theological core of Scripture and the central message of Jesus from the biblical thought-forms of the ancient Near East.” But in point of fact, as Hamilton well shows, the stripping of the cultural thought-forms from the “true” teaching of Scripture is like peeling an onion: when finished, you have no teaching at all, only tears (unless you happen to be a constitutional optimist like Hamilton, who finds mankind a satisfactory God-substitute).
Either Jesus’ total teachings are taken as God’s word (including his full trust in Scripture as divine revelation) or, as Luther well put it, “everyone makes a hole in it wherever it pleases him to poke his snout, and follows his own opinions, interpreting and twisting Scripture any way he pleases.” The Bible has become just such a “wax nose” today, so that even a death-of-God theologian claims to follow sola scriptura. This is the inevitable outcome of rationalistic biblical criticism that refuses to distinguish between straight-forward grammatical-historical explication of the biblical message and presuppositional judgment upon it. Has the time perhaps come for the Church to recognize that aprioristic biblical criticism has brought theology to the bier of Deity?
Otto Piper of Princeton, in reviewing Bornkamm’s Jesus of Nazareth, saw what few others had seen but what is perfectly demonstrated by the death-of-God school: “The theologian has already arrived at the knowledge of the religious truth before he opened his New Testament, and consequently everything in the Gospels that is not fit to illustrate this truth is a priori doomed to be rejected” (Interpretation, October, 1961).
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