‘Minimal State’ The Ideal

Theological Ethics, Volume II: Politics, by Helmut Thielicke (Fortress, 1969, 696 pp., $12.50), is reviewed, by Ellis Hollon, associate professor of philosophy of religion, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina.

In this second of his Theological Ethics, Helmut Thielicke applies his “contextual hermeneutic” to the ethical problems posed by two unique facts of our time—the “nuclearization” of the world and the “secularization” of the Western so-called Christian states. Thielicke’s approach to these two essentially political problems depends primarily on his crucial presupposition that institutions are “objectifications” of individual fallen men. The centrality of this presupposition for Thielicke’s argument can be shown by the following syllogism (constructed, I admit, by me: Premise One: The individual is a fallen, post-Noahic man whom power corrupts and whom absolute power corrupts absolutely. Premise Two: The modern democratic state and its institutions are objectifications of the individual fallen man. Therefore: (To quote Thielicke at this point) “A provisional emergency order does not apply to spheres which can be handled by other means on a non-emergency basis.”

To say the same thing another way: Thielicke, striving to employ his famous methodology of judging and deciding only “within a situation,” infers that an awareness of the “eschatological relativization” of the state brought about by man’s sin necessarily leads the Christian moralist to postulate the “minimal state” as the ideal. This means, concretely, that social responsibilities that can be handled apart from the state (by families, neighbors, business enterprises, and especially by the sacrificial efforts of individual Christians) should not be “sloughed off” on the state. Thielicke finds little hope in the secularized “welfare” state, and less hope in such a state’s ability to handle “legally instituted power (potestas)” properly. Too often, he observes, the power of order (potestas ordinans) committed to kings, states, and rulers by God as an emergency, post-Noahic necessity becomes disorderly power (potentia inordinata), “a tool of the lust for power, of rebellion, and of pride.”

This ambiguity of the secularized, post-Noahic state manifests itself especially in the modern state’s grappling with the “nuclearization” of the world. Even when we realize that a “revolt of means” has occurred with the advent of the nuclear bomb, and even when we further realize the contemporary irrelevance of Luther’s judgment that war can be “not the least part of the divine mercy” when used to ward off an external threat to peace, we yet find it necessary to manufacture nuclear arms for self-defense. The necessity of a “psychological deterrence” arises because the state is itself a potential element of chaos in that “its sovereign authority to bind citizens within implies its own freedom from bondage without.” To Thielicke, the political and ethical problems raised by the “nuclearization” of the world strongly suggest that “every decision we make in this aeon has the character of a compromise.” If Von Clausewitz was accurate in his observation that war is “only the continuation of state policy by other means,” then it must be said in our time nuclear war might well be the termination of all states by the final mean!

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What is the Church’s task in this highly explosive but ambiguous situation? Thielicke views it as primarily prophetic:

If the origins of war both cold and hot are to be sought in the most inward areas of fallen man, the church … must warn against all false hopes, e.g., the hope that war can be overcome by institutional and organizational measures such as treaty systems, disarmament conferences, the achievement of an atomic peace, unilateral renunciation of defense, etc. For as man cannot justify or change himself by good works, so he cannot alter the world—which is the objectification of man—by organizational and institutional works [pp. 492, 493].

Thus Thielicke holds up the “minimal” state as the exact opposite to the “maximal” state, and he definitely sees the “eschatological relativization” of the state “as an essential antidote to all totalitarian tendencies.” But he insists that even when it is prophetically criticizing the state, the Christian Church must not make the mistake of “mythologizing” the state or its power. Only because man posits himself absolutely does he posit absolutely the objectification of himself and of his favorite values in the state. So Christian preaching in any kind of state—totalitarian or democratic—must be to the individual man who alone is responsible and who alone can repent and be converted. “It is only the men who establish and operate the institutions—not the institutions themselves—that can be summoned to repent and be converted.” As Thielicke says, all this means “we should commit to the state, not everything we can, but only what we must.”

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Here, then, is Thielicke’s Politics. What does one say to all this? To be quite frank, the thesis of the “fallen man” and the “post-Noahic world” cuts both ways. If from it one can infer that the state will use an expansion of its efforts in education and welfare to nourish the tree of totalitarianism, one can just as correctly infer that the “fallen man” is in the Church too, and that if education and welfare, housing and discrimination, and all other social ills are left to be healed as best they may be by the Church alone, then either one of two things will very probably happen: (1) either the Church will use its social service as an avenue through which to nourish the tree of churchly totalitarianism (as happened in the days of the late Roman Empire when much of the charity was dispensed by the Church), or (2) the Church will let the illnesses go unchecked (as it has done for the most part in the twentieth century) because it is wallowing contentedly in its material success and is unwilling to make the enormous sacrifices required to meet the social and physical needs of those discriminated against because of poverty or race.

Thus, it is the conclusion in our syllogistic construction of Thielicke’s argument for the “minimal” state that is false, containing as it does an inference not supported by, and, indeed, actually contradictory to, either the first or the second premise—or perhaps to both! There are no nonemergency orders; the Kingdom of God is coming but not yet come; the “fallen man” lives in the Lord’s house (the kingdom on the right hand) as well as in the Devil’s house (the kingdom on the left hand). After all, there can very well arise a “totalitarianization” of minimalism, and this may be what has actually happened to the twentieth-century Church in its tragic and disastrous failure to respond compassionately and dramatically to the social ills so radically manifested in our time. If it is true, as Thielicke holds it to be, that “the state stands in the halflight between what it ought to be in virtue of its origin, namely, a divinely willed institution to guard against chaos and to help bring the world through to the last day, and what it actually is, namely, an objectification of man himself, and consequently a reflection of the cleavage in man between creation and sin, blessing and judgment, destiny and present condition,” then how much more can the same thing be said of the Church!

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First Of A New Series

The Broadman Bible Commentary, Volume 1: Genesis and Exodus, and Volume 8: Matthew and Mark, general editor Clifton J. Allen (Broadman, 1969, 407 and 402 pp., $7.50 each), is reviewed by Clark Pinnock, professor of systematic theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Bannockburn, Illinois.

After a decade of planning and preparation, the first two volumes of a projected twelve-volume series is offered to the public by a press of the Southern Baptist Convention. These volumes manifest a comprehensive, serious, and highly competent interpretation of holy Scripture. The first sentence reads: “We begin with the affirmation—the Bible is the Word of God.” The New Testament volume especially maintains a consistently high regard for the veracity of the text and repudiates radical critical conclusions.

The commentary on Matthew (by Frank Stagg) and Mark (by Henry Turlington) is prefaced by superb articles on New Testament theology (by William L. Hendricks), on text and canon (by James A. Brooks), and more. The commentary on Genesis (by British Baptist G. Henton Davies) and Exodus (by Roy L. Honeycutt) is introduced by an article on biblical authority (by the general editor), on hermeneutics (by John P. Newport), on Old Testament theology (by E. C. Rust) and on the history of Israel (by Clyde T. Francisco). Each writer is expert in the field assigned, and the result is a commentary of first rank.

Unfortunately, from the viewpoint of the evangelical reader, the Old Testament volume reflects the negative critical theories of the current Old Testament scholarly consensus, and lacks the moderate conservatism of the New Testament volume. The commentary on Genesis and Exodus, while it acknowledges that more traditional views have their defenders, consistently works from “the orthodox critical view of the J, E, D, P, documentary theory.” The commentary is punctuated with speculations as to how the several documents have become interwoven in the present text. In accord with this critical stance, creation is set in the realm of faith rather than history, Adam is mythic, representative man, and the flood account is an Israelite transformation of a Canaanite story, dubious both historically and morally.

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Professor Davies holds that God has given us two sources of revelation, the Bible and nature, and that we should assess the truthfulness of Genesis in matters of fact in accordance with the findings of science. While this dodge from all possible criticism into the circle of unverifiable faith is familiar to anyone acquainted with neo-orthodox dialectic, it robs the plain assertions of Scripture of normative significance and makes faith meaningless. To allow that the Bible is mistaken in the testable (scientific) parts is to make the claim wholly unconvincing that it is truthful in the untestable (theological) parts.

This compromise of the absolute truthworthiness of Scripture is all the more tragic because it is based upon a critical approach that is unproven. Kenneth A. Kitchen has shown that the lexical and stylistic criteria on which this superficially imposing hypothesis rests were applied to the Old Testament in a vacuum, and produce absurdities when they are imposed upon comparative Near Eastern compositions (see his Ancient Orient and Old Testament, Inter-Varsity, 1966, pp. 17–20, 112–38). Evangelical biblical criticism begins with a decision about the nature of Scripture that determines our approach to the phenomena. This decision providing our hermeneutical Gestalt, when taken in accord with Christ’s teaching about scriptural infallibility, excludes the kind of negative theories this volume proposes.

The introductory article to the entire series elaborates the low view of biblical inspiration that accounts for the disappointing nature of the Old Testament volume. Editor Allen rejects verbal and plenary inspiration in favor of an imprecise “dynamic” theory. Christ is lord of Scripture, and that which is the result of human misunderstanding is to be interpreted in the light of what we know of him. The real authority of Scripture is seen to reside, not in the given text of normative, binding significance, but in the Christ of self-authenticating experience. In this way the objective, unerring standard of the written Word is replaced by the old familiar egoistic principle of authority. Legions of Southern Baptists who only last June (in their national convention) reiterated their commitment to an infallible Bible will surely demand something better than this.

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An Answer To The Hippies

Zen-Existentialism, by Lit-sen Chang (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969, 254 pp., $5.95), is reviewed by Walter R. Martin, director, Christian Research Institute, Wayne, New Jersey.

At long last we have a thorough analysis of Zen existentialism and its relation to Western culture and philosophy. Lit-sen Chang is an authority on world religions and a special lecturer in missions at Gordon-Conwell Divinity School. He has grasped the significant truth that modern hippie philosophy is directly related to the influence of Zen existentialism upon certain schools of American philosophy, and he reviews the background that made this possible.

Professor Chang, a first-rate intellectual who became a Christian convert after fifty years in Buddhism, offers this basis thesis:

Non-Christian philosophy is immanent and anthropocentric by its nature: it begins by absolutizing and deifying a created aspect. So, it is akin to the spirit of Zen. It is implicitly blasphemous since it seeks to honor and deify the sovereign man.… It was also the root from which liberal Christian theology as well as the Western humanist culture have grown.

Non-Christian philosophers erect, in place of the God of revelation, a temple founded upon human wisdom in which they bow before the idol of “sovereign reason.”

Chang does not stop with a general survey of the history and teachings of Zen. He deals with such subjects as “the crisis in Western philosophy,” which he believes paved the way for modern atheistic existentialism to penetrate the minds of Western students, and the semantic maze that has made it possible for people to use identical terms to describe antithetical concepts. Particularly impressive is his ability to relate Zen existentialism to such diverse schools of thought as pantheism, “God is dead” theory, Schleiermacher’s theology of immanence, and so-called Christian atheism, as well as to today’s hippie movement.

Chang is a gifted, if not always lucid, writer with a penchant for definition of terms, a vast grasp of Eastern mysticism and philosophy, and an evangelical zeal for those enmeshed in the syncretism of Zen existentialism. This book is an outright apologetic written from the inside, an exposé of that twilight world of agnostic and skeptical philosophy where, as Tertullian once put it, “Athens and Jerusalem can never agree.” Professor Chang has moved from Athens (the love of human wisdom) to Jerusalem (the love of Divine Wisdom). His analysis and conclusions cannot be dismissed lightly by any person who wishes to come to grips with revolt against reason and logic so evident in our day.

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Emphasis On Eschatology

Well-Founded Hope, by Hendrikus Berkhof (John Knox, 1969, 107 pp., $3.25), is reviewed by Ralph Earle, professor of New Testament, Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Missouri.

Hendrikus Berkhof is professor of dogmatics and biblical theology at the University of Leiden. This book contains twelve lectures he gave at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1967, plus a final chapter of more technical theological background.

The word that most aptly characterizes the twentieth century is “change,” and theologians have been far from immune to this spirit. They have swung from Barth to Brunner to Bultmann, and now to Moltmann, whose Theology of Hope is the latest fad. Berkhof’s volume is a popular definition and critique of this view.

He begins by pointing out the obvious fact that the early Church was much more interested in eschatology than is most of Christendom today. But the existentialist domination of the 1950s is now being challenged by a futurist theology.

Berkhof stresses that the future is always related to the past. He writes: “The future is the continuation, confirmation, extension, and fulfillment of what God has accomplished in the past and present.… We may say that the eschatology of Israel is the confession of God’s faithfulness projected on the screen of the future.” But what of the new covenant? “… In the New Testament the future is seen as an unfolding of what is given in the resurrection of Christ”—this, together with “the work of renewal which the Spirit has begun.”

In another lecture the author declares that “the future will show—on a larger, and eventually worldwide scale—a repetition of what has happened in the crucifixion and resurrection.” In this chapter he gives a very helpful treatment of the poetic nature of apocalyptic language.

“Time and Eternity” furnishes an excellent corrective to the somewhat one-sided view of Oscar Cullman in his Christ and Time. Berkhof does an unusually fine job, it seems to me, of “holding a straight course in the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) in the area of biblical eschatology. On the much debated question of what Paul means by a “spiritual body” in First Corinthians 15:44, he makes this excellent comment: “A spiritual body is not an unbodily body or a refined body but an existence which also in its bodily aspect has been transformed by the Spirit to be fit for the glorified existence awaiting us beyond the borders of the resurrection.”

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In his lecture on “The Double Image of the Future,” Berkhof seems to approve the idea of a final universal salvation. He writes: “Does this therefore mean that we may hope that the rejection has a limit and that hell means a purification? Yes, we might say that.”

But this is a small blemish in a book that on the whole is faith-building and inspiring. Unlike most Continental theologians, Berkhof writes with a clear, readable style.

Book Briefs

I, Too, Am Man, by James R. Dolby (Word, 1969, 143 pp., $3.95). Studies the relation between biblical Christianity and insights of the social sciences.

A Layman’s Introduction to Christian Thought, by James Kallas (Westminster, 1969, 140 pp., paperback, $2.45). Offers helpful insight into the origin of different views within the framework of Christian theology.

Power Structures and the Church, by Davis S. Schuller (Concordia, 1969, 175 pp., paperback, $1.75). Seeks to present a biblical understanding of the Church’s use of power in confronting contemporary social problems.

Revelation Theology, by Avery Dulles (Herder and Herder, 1969, 192 pp., $5.95). Though one may question some of the analyses presented, this volume offers a helpful survey of the concept of revelation as it has found expression in the thought of various theologians throughout church history.

The Douglass Sunday School Lessons 1970, edited by Earl L. Douglass (Word, 1969, 394 pp., $3.50). This familiar lesson guide follows essentially the same pattern as in previous years. Offers a very helpful guide to audio-visual aids.

A New Look at the Apostles’ Creed, edited by Gerhard Rein (Augsburg, 1969, 87 pp., paperback, $1.50). This look by such scholars as Von Loewenich, Bornkamm, Conzelmann, and Ebeling is so “new” that one can hardly recognize the Apostles’ Creed.

Sören Kierkegaard, by Robert L. Perkins (John Knox, 1969, 46 pp., paperback, $1.25). An introduction to Kierkegaard’s thought, written for the layman. In the same series: Alfred North Whitehead, by Norman Pittenger.

The Exploration of Faith, by R. E. O. White (Moody, 1969, 125 pp., $3.50). A helpful devotional study of Hebrews 11.

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If God Is God, by Richard Edwin Koenig (Concordia, 1969, 100 pp., paperback, $1.50). Brings the truth of historic Christianity to bear on some of the questions of today’s youth.

An Introduction to Religious Counseling, by Richard P. Vaughan (Prentice-Hall, 1969, 164 p., $5.95). Written from the standpoint of the Christian counselor, this volume offers many helpful insights for those charged with the responsibility of dealing with problem-laden people.

That Amazing Galilean!, by Jesse Hays Baird (Lantern Press, 1969, 123 pp., paperback, $1.75). A former moderator of the UPUSA Church in a warm personal way shares truths that have undergirded him during his years of ministry.

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