At the end of the nineteenth century, Scotland’s James Orr prepared a series of lectures on the “Progress of Dogma” in which he maintained that doctrine follows a logical sequence (from the most basic to the less basic concepts) and that the sequence is closely paralleled by the development of dogma within church history. The earliest centuries were characterized by speculation about God, according to Orr, and these were followed by periods in which scholars worked out the doctrine of man and sin (fifth century), Christ (fifth to seventh centuries), the Atonement (eleventh to sixteenth centuries), and the Christian life (post-Reformation). The nineteenth century completed the picture with a concern for eschatology. Orr’s system was a valuable and interesting overview of Christian history. But the twentieth century has proved it premature. Instead of building upon the gains of former years, modern theology seems intent on rejecting them and starting the sequence anew—at the beginning.
There is a crisis in theology in our day, and it centers increasingly on the doctrine of God. In his latest book, Exploration into God, Bishop J. A. T. Robinson calls it a “crisis in theism,” noting that on this point theologians more and more raise fundamental questions. What function does the word “God” have in philosophical or theological speech? Is “God-talk” meaningful? Is God necessary? Is he even there? Or is God merely the smile on the face of a cosmic Cheshire cat, as Julian Huxley said?
The roots of the current crisis are not far beneath the surface. Rejecting the wisdom of the fathers and, more importantly, the substance of the biblical revelation, and basing much of their speculation upon the belief that God no longer seems to function in the cosmos, theologians like Robinson, Tillich, Van Buren, Altizer, and Bultmann dismiss the objective reality of a supernatural God. In the present crisis, many voices compete for recognition, and the speeches they give are different. All seem to agree, however, that the subject of the speech eludes description, and to acknowledge (sometimes wistfully) that it is hardly a surprise that some wish to dispense with it entirely.
Robinson builds on Martin Buber to speak of God in the “I-Thou” relationship, but man’s awareness of this comes not so much through communion with a supernatural God as in the midst of communion with finite things. Tillich’s God is “being-itself,” but not a being and hence neither the Creator of things nor the Redeemer of men in Christ. Bultmann posits a God known only existentially, thus a God who is known neither historically (in the sense of past history) nor propositionally in Scripture. Van Buren, the most radical of the “death of God” theologians, views metaphysical God-statements as meaningless—not, however, because modern man is losing a legitimate sense of God, but because Christianity is really about man anyway and God-talk no longer illumines anthropology. In his reconstruction God ceases to exist at all.
Many modern theologians also concur in the view that radical speculation is justified by the uselessness of old concepts. Man has come of age, they argue, and modern man looks to science rather than to God to solve his basic problems. But there is reason to question this defense. The man in the street, for whom the theologians allegedly make their readjustments, apparently finds less trouble in accepting the reality of God than do the theologians. At the Miami Beach assembly of the National Council of Churches, one-third of the delegates could not affirm unqualified belief in the reality of God. Yet year-end Gallup polls show that 97 per cent of adult Americans still claim to believe in God and that forty-five out of one hundred say they attend church regularly. The last figure actually represents a small rise over 1966.
To Bishop Robinson, such statistics only indicate that “somehow the traditional question has ceased to be the right one to ask.” And he does have a point. Only a pantheist could argue that God plays a significant role in the lives of ninety-seven Americans out of one hundred. It would be far more meaningful to ask: Does the existence of God make any difference in your life personally? Or even: Do you have a sense of his presence? Or a sense of forgiveness? And yet the polls say something. At the very least they suggest that the radical theologians are not so much in touch with modern man as they imagine.
Actually, the real question is not simply whether a man believes in God (this is a sound beginning, according to Hebrews 11:6) but whether he knows him. And for this question the modern theologies offer little guidance. In Europe, many now say that Bultmann’s attempt to accommodate Christianity to the modern mind has not succeeded and that Bultmann has actually diverted more students from biblical Christianity than he has won to vital Christian faith. The same might be said of many theologians in this country.
Theology must return to the biblical announcement of God’s self-revelation if it is to win the modern mind. Robinson’s Exploration into God takes its focus from human attempts to know God, but the Bible speaks of God’s self-disclosure to man. It also says, moreover, that man is unwilling to hear God and unable to place his faith in him except for a miracle of grace.
At the heart of the biblical message and at the heart of all genuine Christian proclamation is the assertion that God has revealed himself in Jesus. The eternal, transcendent God, the God whom no man can see and yet live, revealed himself in human form in the days of Pontius Pilate and is there both tangible and knowable. The early Church concentrated on this proclamation, and so does Scripture. John’s Gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). Paul adds that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19). Jesus is called “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), “the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3). Emphasis upon the reality of God’s revelation in Jesus is strikingly absent in most contemporary writings.
Many theological writings also neglect the truth that God has revealed himself in Scripture. Building upon Barth’s early disavowal of conceptual knowledge of God and fortifying their stronghold with existential material, the majority of today’s theologians emphatically deny the possibility of objective revelation and make knowledge of God subjective.
This is not the case with the biblical writers. The prophets, the apostles, even Jesus himself, view Scripture as a collection of divinely given books containing accurate and comprehensible information about God and about his purposes with men. They acknowledge as truth the teaching that God is all powerful, just, and holy, and that he demands righteousness on the part of all who would fellowship with him. They understand his promise of a redeemer literally. And they interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death on the basis of the written revelation. On this basis the early Church spoke to a world desperately in need of revelation and claimed that world for the Gospel of the crucified and risen Christ.
There is no doubt that many men today have lost the sense of God’s presence and the certainty of knowledge about him. Much of the modern theological quest is itself evidence of that loss. But the reason is not so much a change in man’s environment and outlook as it is a deliberate rejection of the ground on which God may be found. “God is revealed in material things and in history,” writes theologian Anders Nygren of Lund, “and he is specially revealed in biblical history and biblical concepts and words.” This is the voice of authentic Christianity. Until modern theology vigorously returns to these perspectives, it is the theologians themselves (not the Bible) who are doomed to irrelevance.
The French have called it the “English” vice for centuries, but it is certainly not confined to the English. Homosexual subcultures now exist in many Western nations, and in most of these nations intercourse between members of the same sex is no longer judged a crime. In America, where homosexual magazines dot newsstands in all the major cities, homophile organizations lobby for full acceptance of the homosexual under law and seek to overthrow the so-called prejudice against him. They argue that homosexuality is neither a disorder, nor a disease, nor a defect. It is, they say, merely the predisposition of a rather large minority of our citizens—estimates run from two to twenty million—and should be recognized as a valid and even laudable way of life.
Now significant numbers of clergymen are saying this too, at least in muted tones. “I believe that two people of the same sex can express love and deepen that love by sexual intercourse,” writes the Rev. R. W. Cromey in The Living Church. And he adds, “If God is present in the loving responsible relationship between two homosexuals, then we cannot call that relationship sinful.”
Last month at a one-day conference in New York, ninety clergymen from the Episcopal dioceses of New York, Connecticut, Long Island, and Newark generally agreed that homosexual acts between consenting adults should be judged as “morally neutral” and may actually be beneficial in some circumstances. Canon Walter D. Denis of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine argued, “A homosexual relationship between two consenting adults should be judged by the same criteria as a heterosexual marriage—that is, whether it is intended to foster a permanent relationship of love.”
To most ministers and certainly to most parishioners, the views of the avant-garde clergy will be shocking. And the most shocking aspect is the ease with which biblical standards are abandoned.
No one doubts that there are social and moral issues to which the Bible fails to speak, at least explicitly. But this can hardly be said of homosexuality. The Mosaic law explicitly condemns intercourse between members of the same sex—“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22). Paul lists homosexuality as a vice to which God has abandoned mankind as a result of man’s general refusal to acknowledge him as Lord: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another …” (Rom. 1:26, 27). The freedom with which many churchmen ignore these statements is at least irresponsible, if not actually non-Christian. “Clearly then,” writes Canon Kenneth J. Sharp, counseling priest at Washington Cathedral, “the Church’s condemnation of homosexuality does not indicate last vestiges of a Medieval or Victorian Church.” It is “inherent” in the explicit moral teaching of its Scriptures.
It will not do to explain these commands as the product of an accepted group morality and hence as dispensable. For society did not produce these prohibitions, at least not in biblical days. They would not exist were it not for divine revelation. The warnings against sexual deviation embody the revelation of a will and of a standard of morality above that of Israel, of those who constitute the Church, and of the pagan nations.
It is not surprising, with the great outcropping of homosexual activity in our day, that many defenses are raised for the homosexual way of life. But these are highly questionable, and the Christian need not agree with them in order to be honest or compassionate. Homosexuals argue that love between members of the same sex can be lasting and ennobling, pointing rather poetically to the practice of the Greeks. But homosexual relations are almost never lasting, and the dominant mood in “gay” bars or in the “cruising” areas of our cities is one of loneliness and compulsive searching. Harold L. Call, president of a San Francisco organization seeking to help the homosexual, says that “it is not uncommon for some homosexuals to have sex with a thousand different men in a year.” Seldom do relationships last beyond the moment. Former partners frequently engage in blackmail schemes, thus further debasing the relationships.
Homosexuals have argued that society’s condemnation of their life is an example of psychological projection—that is, we condemn the homosexual because we ourselves have similar yearnings that we do not want to acknowledge. But the reverse is more likely the case. A leading psychiatrist has argued that the deviate’s demand for acceptance by society may actually be a desire to project on society a condition he himself cannot fulfill, for very many cannot accept themselves.
Unfortunately, the Christian Church has not shown any great ability to accept them either, or to help them. And for that we are partially to blame. Acceptance cannot mean acceptance of the homosexual’s views, as many of the clergy are now doing, but it must mean acceptance of the deviate as a person for whom Christ died and for whom the Gospel holds transforming hope.
Christians have nothing to offer if they regard the homosexual as an untouchable, a sinner beyond the sphere of their concern. But they do him a disservice if they settle for less than the full biblical teaching about sex. Compassion for the deviate must involve God’s standards. It must also involve the promise of a power beyond ourselves, a power that is able to lead man into the full enjoyment of the nature that God gave him.
EPISCOPALIANS DEPLORE USE OF CHURCH FUNDS
Episcopalians in Washington, D. C., are up in arms over Presiding Bishop John E. Hines’s grant of $8,000 in church funds to civil-rights activist Julius W. Hobson. In a letter to Hines and parishioners, the vestry of Washington’s St. Alban’s Church asserted that the donation of church monies to help pay expenses incurred by Hobson, former CORE leader, in his lawsuit against the District of Columbia school system and former superintendent Carl F. Hansen puts “the Episcopal Church into a role of financing and promoting an attack on an agency of government.” Washington Episcopal leaders were further provoked by the failure of national church officials to consult local leaders about the gift.
Hines’s grant to Hobson is the most recent example of the growing practice among denominational leaders of committing funds contributed for religious purposes to socio-political ends of their own choosing. The choice of Hobson as a grant recipient indicated church endorsement of his radical political activity. In his crusade against Superintendent Hansen and the “track system” (homogeneous academic ability grouping) in District schools, Hobson promoted an illegal boycott of schools by children on May 1, 1967. The boycott was a failure; only 225 students appeared for his “Freedom School” at the Washington Monument that day. Hobson succeeded, however, in gaining a decision from Judge J. Skelly Wright in the U. S. Court of Appeals outlawing the “track system” as discriminatory. The Rev. Frank Black-welder, rector of All Saints Memorial Church, claimed that the denominational support of Hobson and his program was “a queer and unwise expenditure of church funds.” He expressed the conviction that ‘ “it is next to impossible to have any productive system of education without some form of the track method.” The Hobson grant thus involved the institutional church in a controversy better judged by professional educators.
If denominational leaders persist in committing church funds to socio-political programs rather than to gospel proclamation and benevolent causes, they will soon find a sharp drop in giving by their constituencies. And rightly so. People who invest their tithes and offerings in the Christian Church are not contributing to a political-action organization. They have ample opportunities in the community to support such groups. When they give to the Church they are making an eternal investment in Christ’s kingdom. Church leaders have an obligation to use funds contributed by members for the purpose for which they are given. That purpose is not to build a socio-economic state based on a particular political philosophy but to build the Kingdom of God.
Leaders in denominational headquarters and in local churches would do well to forgo direct involvement of their churches in socio-political programs and seek rather to bring the message of Christ to bear on their communities, thereby cultivating an ethos out of which citizens may formulate sound policies. Such an investment of lives and money will pay the greatest dividends both for the present and for eternity.
A NEW HEART FOR ALL MEN
The second heart transplant performed by Dr. Christiaan N. Barnard in Cape Town, South Africa, this month has significance beyond its status as a medical achievement. The placement of the heart of twenty-four-year-old Clive Haupt in the chest of fifty-eight-year-old Philip Blaiberg represents the union of the vital organs of a young colored man and an older white man. Haupt’s race was categorized in apartheid-structured South Africa as Cape Colored, usually a mixture of Black African, European, Hottentot, and Asian stock.
The heart transplant should impress upon race-conscious people in South Africa and everywhere else the common humanity of all men—black and white, young and old. Medical science has demonstrated what the Bible declares: God has “made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). Men of all cultural backgrounds must rid themselves of the false idea that essential differences exist among the various races. In God’s plan, he not only has “ ‘made of one blood all nations” but has “determined the times before appointed … that they should seek the Lord.…”
If men of all races today will seek the Lord, they will gain a common heart of love for the God who created them to share in a common life—the enternal life that is found in Jesus Christ.
THE CRUTCH THAT IS GIVING WAY
The breakdown of voluntary solutions, the increasing reliance on government, and a widening confusion in the political world are significant signs of the times.
Step by step, modern man has aspired to security by trading his personal freedom. Now the increasing hesitancies and uncertainties of political leaders tend to deprive the crippled modern spirit of its last crutch—faith in the omnicompetent state.
Nobody can now long doubt that the human will is itself the critical center of the contemporary crisis. Nothing good can flow from the increasing flight from personal responsibility, and dependence on government has doubtless contributed to the decrease of human initiative and self-reliance. Only spiritual and moral renewal can awaken man’s sense of personal worth, duty, and stewardship; without these, man come of age appears more and more like a half-man dwarfed by a political colossus on the way to chaos. The easiest way to confuse the tyrants with divine providence is to set one’s affections on political sustenance; the man who will not have God may then find it easier to settle for Hitler.
This issue of man’s nature and value cuts deeper than such forefront debates today as those concerning the currency problems of modern nations. Surely it is true that the evils of inflation continue to bring hardship to those whose retirement savings, the fruit of hard work across long years, are worth less and less. Some long memories recall the disruption of business and the breakdown of tax collection that vexed European nations that trusted the currency printing presses to solve their post-World War I problems. By the end of 1923 it cost 100 billion marks in German postage to send an ordinary local letter; the following year Germany completely repudiated its previous paper money. The determination to protect the integrity of the American dollar, too long in jeopardy, therefore has everything to commend it.
But it is true also that British deflation of the pound, strategically necessary as it was, has borne only a small share of its anticipated benefits; many agencies simply maintained previous prices to offset accumulated losses.
Political manipulation—whether of money, of the marketplace, or of man himself—seems only to postpone a worse day of reckoning. For the manipulators too are in trouble, despite their illusions of omnicompetence.
When once modern man awakens to this fact, he may be ready for the wisdom of a greater-than-Solomon. He calls man to a security no government can provide.
A CATHOLIC VIEW OF PRESBYTERIANS
One defense of the “Confession of 1967” by ecumenists has been that it moves the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. closer to the Church universal and hence closer to a pure understanding of the Gospel. But not everyone thinks so. Certainly not every Roman Catholic. In the January issue of the conservative Catholic journal Triumph, Dr. Leonard P. Wessel raises the question, “Are the United Presbyterians Christian?,” and answers with a judgment harsher than those pronounced by conservative Protestants.
Wessel argues that the “Confession of 1967” denies the irreformable character of “established doctrine,” relativizes much of the content of Scripture by relegating it to the realm of “then current” views, transfers the locus of authority from the Bible to the principle of reconciliation, and conceives of that principle as involving the secular perfection of man totally within this world. The Confession is sharply judged for its failure to condemn Communism as evil.
Many will argue that the “Confession of 1967” does not say everything that the Triumph article claims it does. But the article rightly argues that the Confession tends to substitute the redemption of secular social structures for the once-for-all redemption of man from sin achieved in time by Jesus Christ. Moreover, in arguing his case, Wessel clearly states the essence of the Gospel. It is an irony of our day that a voice of conservative Catholicism apparently can sound the themes of Luther and Calvin louder and more clearly than can many who are the institutional heirs of the Reformation.
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