Do we have the right to generalize about “modern theology” or to speak of the “modern theologian” as though he belonged to a well-defined class? Can we say that the various competing contemporary schools of theology and all their different advocates have anything in common beyond similar titles and the fact that they exist today? “Classical” or orthodox Protestantism and its modern adherents are easy to identify by their fidelity to the great Reformation confessions of faith. “Liberal” Protestanism, which has supposedly been theologically obsolete since World War I at the latest, is still with us today, more deeply entrenched than is often recognized. Neither of these two schools is what is meant by the expression “modern theology.”

The Unity of Modern Theology

There are at least two other major trends in recent theology: the “theology of the Word of God” and the theology of “existentialist interpretation.” Each has some legitimate claim to the label “modern,” but the two combat each other vigorously. With the “theology of the Word of God” we associate certain parallel or similar trends: dialectical theology, neo-orthodoxy, crisis-theology, and more recently “heilsgeschichtliche Theologie,” and such names as Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Heim, Oscar Cullmann, and most recently Wolfhart Pannenberg. The term “existentialist interpretation” covers the school—now in its third generation—that was molded by its encounter with Martin Heidegger’s existentialist analysis of human self-understanding. It includes the famous name of Rudolf Bultmann as well as those of such disciples and friends of his as Ernst Fuchs, Ernst Käsemann, and Gerhard Ebeling; in a slightly different sense we could also mention Albert Schweitzer, Martin Werner, and Fritz Buri, who so thoroughly tied the historical figure of Jesus to an unfulfilled promise of an immediate, apocalyptic end of history that Bultmann’s kerygmatic Jesus, speaking to us in the eschatological now, seemed to many to be the only way out of the supposed failure of the historical Jesus.

Undoubtedly there is much that divides these schools. Nevertheless, they are united by a common motive: a desire to abstract the meaning of Jesus from the particularities of his historical setting. This desire, which Georges Florovsky has called a perpetual companion and peril of Christian theology since the days of Justin Martyr (c. 110–c. 165), was stigmatized again in 1959 by Pannenberg as common to both major “modern” schools:

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Their common starting-point can be seen in the feeling that historical-critical research no longer left any room in its scientific determination of what had actually happened for any redemptive event. For this reason, Heilsgeschichte theology fled into the haven of supra-history or—with Barth—pre-history (Urgeschichte), supposedly safe from the flood of historical criticism. For the same reason, existentialist theology retreated from the objective course of events, which it saw as lacking in meaning and in saving force, back to the experience of the meaningfulness of history in the “historicality” of the individual [in Grundfragen systematischer Theologie, Göttingen, 1967; translation mine].

A less prominent but nonetheless significant equation between the two schools was made in a popular pamphlet by Martin Voigt published in Germany in 1966, What Does Modern Theology Want? Voigt speaks of “three discoveries of recent theology”:

1. the humanity of the Bible;

2. the literary forms of the Bible (form criticism);

3. the central content of the Bible as dialectical theology.

(The evangelical will quickly recognize that the human role in the origin of the Bible is not a discovery of modern theology but is itself a biblical teaching [2 Pet. 1:21, for example]. The scholarly method known as form criticism has brought considerable advances in some areas of our understanding of the biblical documents, but its uncontrolled proliferation has also spread much confusion and misinformation. As to the idea of dialectical theology as the central content of the Bible, this is not merely not a “discovery”; it is positively false. But at the moment it is not our task to challenge the accuracy of Voigt’s analysis; we need only recognize that he reflects what modern theology thinks of itself.)

After having “recognized” these things, theology then turned its attention to the hermeneutical problem, i.e., to the characteristic concern of Bultmann and his successors. Voigt speaks (1) of separating the kerygma from supposedly historical but factually false accounts; (2) of separating it from “mythological” conceptions; (3) of rejecting all interest in the historical reality of a New Testament event such as the Resurrection, because we are concerned only with faith in the Risen One today; (4) finally, of deliberately abandoning every kind of assurance or security in faith, so that existentialist interpretation achieves a new, liberating, “authentic” self-understanding.

Even though dialectical or neo-orthodox theology would not be very happy with Voigt’s second and third steps, it too achieves step 4, and makes it a principle to do away with every trace of assurance or confident possession in our relationship to the Christ whom we approach by faith. Despite dialectical theology’s frequent affirmations of the reality of God’s redemptive action in Christ, Voigt is correct in seeing (a) a lack of interest in history and (b) a programmatic rejection of assurance or security in faith, as common factors uniting the divergent strains of modern theology and giving us the right to speak of it as a unity in some significant respects. An examination of modern theology’s distaste for real history will cast some light on its rejection of security, traditionally one of the great benefits of the Reformation, and enable us to sense something of the fateful nobility—and destined futility—of the courage of the modern theologian.

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The Withdrawal from Real History

Professor Willi Marxen, born in 1919, is not only one of Germany’s more prominent figures in New Testament scholarship but also a very precise and clear writer—a particularly praiseworthy quality in a theologian in any age. He has devoted a considerable amount of attention to what seems to be a radically skeptical historical analysis of the New Testament teaching on the Resurrection, well illustrated by his pamphlet The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical and Theological Problem, (Die Auferstehung Jesu als historisches und als theologisches Problem, Gütersloh, 1964). In the second paragraph of this essay, originally a guest lecture in Heidelberg, Professor Marxen warns his readers of the “Babylonian confusion” that often arises in formulating the problem of the Resurrection and says this can be avoided by “a more precise formulation and argumentation.” No fellow scholar will begrudge Professor Marxen his desire for more precision, especially upon noting that in his first paragraph he himself brings a little “Babylonian confusion.” First he quotes St. Paul: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14); then he attempts to explain what the sentence means by putting it slightly differently: “If Christ has not been raised, then our kerygma is without foundation, then your faith is also without foundation.” This means, he says, that “without the resurrection of Jesus, there would be no church.”

The rendering “in vain” in the King James and Revised Standard versions, like the usual German translation leer, seems a better rendering of the Greek kenòn than Marxen’s “without foundation” (ohne Grundlage); Hans Lietzmann in Handbuch zum Neuen Testament renders it “without content” (ohne Inhalt). Marxen’s substitution of “foundation” for “content” is immediately followed by the paraphrase of Paul’s argument, which in Marxen’s view means “there would be no church.” The hasty reader can easily overlook the serious implications of this false equation. Recognizing (a) the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and (b) its importance for the life of the Church, he may well fail to note that what St. Paul says is significantly different from Marxen’s interpretation. To say, “Your faith has no content,” is different from saying, “Your faith has no foundation”; and in this context, the difference is very important.

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Paul was speaking to a group of people in Corinth who actually constituted a congregation, a part of the young Church, though some of them denied the resurrection of the body. Since they did exist while critical of the Resurrection, Paul could hardly have argued with them, as Marxen postulates. Instead, while tacitly admitting that the Church could exist without a foundation, Paul calls the preaching and faith of such a church empty and futile.

The tragedy of the Church is that it can exist without a foundation; it often does. The tragedy of the theologian is that he can proclaim a message without content, and hold a faith without content. For him to do so is a difficult and dangerous undertaking: it requires the courage of the modern theologian. The courage of the modern theologian lies in this: where the Apostle—and historic Christian theology—saw a logical relation, a meaningful sequence of facts and their consequences, the modern theologian has destroyed the connection, broken the sequences, and—unwilling to lose Jesus entirely—cast himself into the gap.

Perhaps Professor Marxen is not even clearly aware of what he is doing. Where Paul has a logical sequence, Marxen substitutes a functional relation of cause and effect. Paul has the sequence Resurrection (as a historical fact)—proclamation of the Resurrection—faith in the Risen Lord—life of the Church. Marxen does not deny that the life of the Church is contingent upon the Resurrection; but for him it is contingent in quite a different way than it was for St. Paul. As his writings show, Professor Marxen feels that the historical evidence prevents him from believing that the Resurrection actually took place, or even that the apostles reported it as a fact (he contends that they only reasoned, on the basis of their visionary experiences, that it must have been a fact). So the argument of Paul, from the fact of Christ’s resurrection to the content of his own preaching and then to the faith of the Church, is impossible for him to follow. Nevertheless, he is unwilling to abandon what he calls “the cause of Jesus” (die Sache Jesu). Since he cannot deny that the Easter message caused the Church to come into being but finds it impossible to accept the logical, rationally comprehensible content of the Easter message as the real history of the death and resurrection of the divine-human Saviour, Marxen—like many others—is forced to connect the Easter story with his own faith today in a different way: in a contentless, non-rational way. Therefore, where Paul says “without content,” Professor Marxen says “without foundation.” The Resurrection is no longer for him the rational content of Christian proclamation and faith, as it was for St. Paul; it is the mysterious, misunderstood incident that triggered the faith of the church—and also, almost accidentally, the imaginative, interpretative reports of the evangelists. He wants, somehow, to hold onto the response of faith to the Easter visions, even though he cannot accept the Easter message—and that requires a special kind of courage.

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The Need for Courage

Professor Gerhard Ebeling has written these words in The Nature of Christian Faith:

It takes courage to jump off the ten-meter board into the water. It takes courage to entrust oneself to the parachute which only opens once one has started to fall, and to throw oneself into the yawning deep. It takes … incomparably more courage in the last analysis not to rely upon anything at all in the world, but to fall, so to speak, through everything into God. (Das Wesen des christlichen Glaubens, Tübingen, 1959, p. 119).

Naturally a practical man is not readily convinced that the life of the modern theologian is more daring than that of the paratrooper; yet there is something in Professor Ebeling’s statement. There is something incomparably difficult about having no one and nothing to trust, and proclaiming precisely that as “good news.” Thomas J. J. Altizer, a more radical “modern” than either Bultmann, Marxen, or Ebeling, a man who can hardly claim that his theological opinions are scientific, says that his kind of “radical Christian” must accept being banished from every hope in a transcendent life or power, and that “he has chosen a darkness issuing from the death of every image and symbol of transcendence …” (The Gospel of Christian Atheism, Philadelphia, 1966, p. 139). Altizer’s strange idea that a real resurrection would destroy the meaning of Christ comes, not from the New Testament, but from Hegel, Blake, and Nietzsche, and neither Marxen nor any other reputable New Testament scholar would follow him to those sources. But is Marxen’s view so different? He says: “We must ask precisely this: What right do we have to speak Christianly of the resurrection of Jesus?” (op. cit., p. 34). Then he tells us that we can speak of the Resurrection only if we are willing to use “older terminology” and “know the absolute limitations of this terminology.” In other words, we can talk about the Resurrection only if we know enough about the terminology to know that it can’t possibly mean that Jesus rose from the dead.

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What does it mean, then, when, in the light of such an analysis, Marxen concludes his inquiry with the affirmation: “Therefore I can confess today: He lives; He did not remain in death. He has risen”? Perhaps less as a critical historian than as a spiritual heir of the Enlightenment, Marxen feels that a “horrid trench,” to use Lessing’s expression (ein garstiger Graben), separates the real events of the life of Jesus from modern man in his need to find a meaning for his life. Unable to bridge the trench with his scholarship, having in fact contributed to breaking down the bridges that exist in the minds of others, and yet unwilling to lose contact with the mysterious and inspiring figure of Jesus, he throws himself into the trench and exclaims, after thirty pages of qualifications, “He has risen.”

The Icy Slopes of Modern Theology

Many modern theologians, then, manifest a remarkable desire to hold fast to Jesus together with a zeal to break down what we have called the logical, rationally meaningful connections between the events of his time and ours. This attitude requires a kind of courage, just as Ebeling claims. It also requires a powerful and energetic mind. Therein lies part of its attraction for theological students, as well as its Achilles heel for theologians and others alike.

Understanding traditional theology requires no specially powerful imagination. Of course, the redemptive events described in the Apostles’ Creed ultimately remain mysteries; but in their literal meaning they can be stated and grasped, and their relevance to the individual man today clearly seen. If Jesus really rose from the grave on the third day, and if he offers me a like resurrection if I believe in him, that is easy enough to grasp. But if he did not rise, if instead the apostles interpreted their own enthusiastic experiences by talking of a resurrection, then considerable imaginative power is needed to make it clear just why and how that should be significant for me today. The young theologian is naturally tempted to follow a system that makes the contemporary relevance of the Resurrection dependent on his own powers of comprehension and persuasion. (Thus Marxen says, “If I know the absolute limitations of this terminology.…”)

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Quite apart from the historical or factual difficulty involved (the very strong case in history and faith for the literal, historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead), this position has a practical difficulty for the theologian: holding onto it is difficult. Marxen throws himself into the historical-critical gap, trying with a bizarre courage to hold to the Jesus who is vanishing in his historical inquiry. But others, many others, let go. Altizer is an extreme case. But—to name some other Americans—Schubert Ogden reduces Christian faith to nothing more than man’s possibility of authentic existence; for Paul van Buren, Jesus only happens to be our liberator rather than Socrates. Examples of theologians who have lost their footing on Marxen’s icy ground could be multiplied.

The ordinary man, less inclined to attempt feats of intellectual concentration, to hold together a paradox by his own mental force, seldom even begins to follow the modern theologians into these speculative fields. It is seldom remarked but very significant that despite the evangelistic intention of Bultmann, Robinson, Marxen, et al.—that is, despite their desire to make it easier for modern, twentieth-century man in some sense to accept the Gospel—modern man does not run to them for religious help. Those who think that Christianity may have the answer usually turn to Billy Graham or to another preacher with a clear, comprehensible message. Or some searchers wander into the perfumed gardens of real or ersatz Oriental mysticism. Very few indeed turn to modern theologians in the quest for real answers to ultimate questions. In the non-intellectual man, this may be laid to intellectual sloth—but can we fairly say that Jesus came to bring his message only to those of Kierkegaardian mental powers? And the intellectual who is not a theologian—the attorney, doctor, scientist—seldom has either the leisure or the inclination to tax his mind by attempting to make it alone bridge the gap between Jesus and modern man.

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The courage of the modern theologian must be recognized. It is a strange and fatal kind of courage, admittedly. Ultimately it is rather like the courage of Dr. Faust in the earliest versions of the Faust story, who realized that God could forgive him even his pact with the devil if he would repent and claim the finished work of Christ but who resolved, for the sake of his honor, to keep his word to the devil. There is something manly about Dr. Faust; we all are attracted to rebellious courage. But to rebel against the truth of the universe is not only courageous—it is fatal. To step out onto modern theology’s icy slopes takes courage, perhaps not quite the same courage as that of Professor Ebeling’s parachutist or of the martyrs who witnessed with their blood, but still real courage. It is a foolhardy courage, however, because it flies in the face of truth. The “honor” of Dr. Faust is not something for us to emulate. And very few modern men do in fact follow the modern theologian in his mentally anguishing, self-sacrificial leap into the gap.

The Historicity of the Resurrection

Perhaps the strangest thing about all this courage is that, in the name of history, it also flies into the face of history. As the recent discussion of the Resurrection in CHRISTIANITY TODAY (April 12 issue) shows, theologians’ doubts about the resurrection of Christ spring far more from philosophical presuppositions than from historical evidence. Henri-Irénée Marrou tells us that it is the philosopher in the historian who causes the past to lose its concrete reality and become nothing but a depot of philosophical truths, and he rightly observes that this is a source of perpetual irritation to the pure historian, (De la connaissance historique, Paris, 1954, p. 256). As Pierre Barthel observes about Bultmann, he has set for the historian the three-fold task of doing, at one and the same time, historical-critical research, existential analysis, and theology on the basis of salvation by grace alone—an extremely complex task (Interpretation du langage mythique et théologie biblique, Leiden, 1963, p. 80). It seems fair to observe that such a philosophical, existential, theological task can only obscure the historian’s ability to see what really happened and its overwhelming importance for the history of the individual and of the world.

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Perhaps Pannenberg is not quite right when he suggests that the Resurrection should be accessible, through ordinary history, to any investigator of good will. There is a role for faith, for only by faith and through the Holy Spirit can we really grasp the truths of the Gospel. And this is not a weakness of our position, something to which to turn when knowledge fails us; it is a strength, a legitimate means of access to true knowledge about what really happened in our space and our time. As Auguste Lecerf says, “What must be understood is the epistemological legitimacy of the method of dogmatics which has as its internal principle the faith (fides qua creditur) which the Spirit of God attests as being His work (testimonium Spiritus Sancti)” (Du fondement et de la spécification de la connaissance réligeuse, Paris, 1938, p. 10). By epistemological legitimacy he means, for example, that faith in the Resurrection is not a substitute for a knowledge of what actually happened, but it is precisely the real grasping and understanding of what happened.

The modern theologian, then, is a lonely man, and in a sense a courageous man. He has taken it upon himself to stand in the gap between the eternal truth of God and the meaningfulness of an individual man. But the task is too big for him. Perhaps there is a kind of Faustian nobility about attempting it, but it is a fatal nobility, for it leads, in Altizer’s expression, to banishment from every hope—in fact, to taking the total absence of tangible hope, i.e., despair, and renaming it hope. And it is unnecessary as well as futile, for there is One who was sent by God to fill the gap, to give us time-bound creatures a meaningful, living relationship to the Eternal God. This One came into our history, into our space and time. His footprints can still be found there, visible to the eyes of the historian as well as to the eyes of faith. What happened with Jesus of Nazareth has meaning not because of our courage and ability to interpret and revalue the kerygma but because of who he was—and is.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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