Today it is commonly affirmed that the classical doctrine of the inspiration and authority of the Bible is no longer tenable. The genesis of this affirmation is to be sought in the rise of modern rationalism, which has its roots in the humanistic perspective of the Renaissance. The setting up of reason as the criterion of what is admissible in religion, and, for example, its equation by Locke with natural revelation, was not intended to oust God from the scene; but it inevitably led to a reduction of the role of God so that, by one means or another, the situation might be accommodated to the control of the human mind. This reduction was achieved either through pantheistic views, which virtually identified the Creator with his creation, the arena of rational investigation, or through deistic formulations, which virtually shut God out of his world and thus removed the necessity of taking him into account.

It is perfectly true, of course, that man is a rational creature, and that God, in addressing man, addresses him as such. But God also addresses him as a sinful creature whose being, including his reason, is in need of redemption. Failure to recognize the debilitating effect of sin on the rational faculty of man—chiefly displayed in the lust of man to usurp for himself the place that belongs to God as the source and center of all reality (see Romans 1:18 ff.), thus bringing about a radical misrepresentation of the true nature of things—produces pretensions and perspectives that are false and, indeed, basically irrational.

The preaching of the adequacy of reason naturally calls in question the necessity of revelation, and therefore the necessity of an inspired and authoritative Bible. The Bible can be allowed only on condition that it, in company with all else, is subject to the scrutiny of reason. Furthermore, this attitude carries within itself the seeds of hostility to metaphysics or the realm of the supernatural, since metaphysics implies an area of reality that is beyond the grasp of reason and therefore poses a threat to reason. Accordingly, the last two centuries have seen the development of destructive biblical criticism (which is something quite different from the services of the textual criticism of the Bible), culminating in the drastic demythologization of the scriptural text with which we are familiar in our day. The end product of this process is the diminishment of Jesus to a “mere man,” no different in his ordinariness and relativity from all other men. His miraculous birth, resurrection, and ascension are dismissed as non-historical myths, and his divinity is repudiated except as a value judgment—a revival (though prompted by different motives) of the psilanthropism propounded in the third-century adoptionist heresy. (See, for example, Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament, Volume II [1955], translated by Kendrick Grobel, pages 46, 75.)

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Associated with the belief in the primacy of reason is a problem that looms large in modern theology, that of the relevance or existential significance for contemporary man of events of past history, such as the life and death of Jesus. The problem was posed nearly two hundred years ago by Gotthold Lessing, who maintained that there is an unbridgeable gulf (his celebrated “ugly ditch”) between the accidental truths of history and the necessary truths of reason. For him, the facts of history were in the nature of the case restricted by relativity and temporality, whereas the truths of reason were absolute and constant.

If the historical and the absolute are in fact mutually exclusive, then Christianity is in an acute dilemma, for it claims to be a faith that is both rooted in history and also absolute in its truth. On Lessing’s premise, Christian truth if it is historical cannot be absolute and if it is absolute cannot be historical. Confronted with the choice between the relative and the absolute, unwelcome though that choice may be, we plainly must give our approval to the absolute. Accordingly the historical events described in the Gospels, even if we accept them as having really happened, cannot, because of their remoteness and their inescapable relativity, have any relevance for us today; and, further, the metaphysical truths that the New Testament authors associate with these events—for example, the eternal Sonship of Christ, his death as an everlasting ransom for sinners, and his exaltation as the Lord of Life—must be rejected as illegitimate since, ex hypothesi, contingent events are incapable of serving as the vehicles of necessary truths.

The logical outcome of this position is twofold: first, the denial or depreciation of the dogmatic (absolute) truths propounded in the New Testament because they are tied to historical (relative) events of the past, and second, the enthronement of religious subjectivism. This, in turn, requires the abandonment of the Church’s classical confidence in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. A religion that is historical and propositional is, indeed, seen as an obstacle to faith. History is for reason to investigate and pronounce upon; propositions, likewise, are for reason to accept or reject or to formulate. Faith, consequently, is regarded as belonging to a realm other than that of reason. Hence the dichotomy that Immanuel Kant postulated between faith and knowledge, a dichotomy that became fundamental in the thinking of Soren Kierkegaard. Faith, indeed, is linked with the irrational, the absurd, that dark area of human existence which is marked by finitude and anguish and death, and which faith, itself an act of absurdity, seeks to conquer or annul. For the essence of Kierkegaardian faith is that it is “a leap in the dark.” This, however, is not faith but desperation. The irrational has supplanted the transcendental.

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The supremacy of subjectivism remained equally secure both in the stern rationalism of the Enlightenment and in the reactionary romanticism of Schleiermacher and the pietistic movement, for the introspective preoccupation of the latter with the “inner life” of feelings and motives successfully insulated it from the objectivities of the biblical perspective. But it is in our own day that subjectivism has been carried to its furthest extreme, in the guise of existentialist philosophy.

The existentialist, for whom subjectivity and freedom stand together as correlative if not synonymous terms, has attempted to isolate himself entirely from all that he judges to be outside the orbit of his own selfhood, whether it be the so-called lessons of the past, the sanctions of social ethics, or the generally acknowledged standards and values of civilization. The only history that can possibly have meaning for him, he maintains, is his own history. All other history is alien and remote. His authentic existence is inseparable from his complete freedom. He is free from the past, free in the present, and free for the future. This freedom may not be compromised. Indeed, he cannot escape from it, for he is his own freedom.

His autonomy asserts itself in the passionate choice of that over which he has no choice: in particular, his future, the irrational, unpredictable, uncontrollable not-yet, and most of all his death, beyond which all is darkness and nothingness. For the existentialist, the supreme act of faith is his leap into the abyss of non-being. But faith in what? For it is faith without content, faith without an object, and that is the negation of faith. It is the affirmation, rather, that he has nothing in which to place his faith and must submit himself to annihilation in his hostile waters of hopeless irrationalism.

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The spirit of subjectivization has also captivated the religious mentality of our time. The result has been divorce of theology from the historic faith of the New Testament and the virtual banishment of any recognition of biblical inspiration and authority. This spirit displays itself in the antimetaphysical existentialism of Rudolf Bultmann, in Paul Tillich’s aesthetic gospel of ultimate concern, in John Robinson’s humanistic universalism, in the reformulations of the Catholic radicals and the contortions of the “death of God” theologians. The attempt of the so-called process theologians to reinstate metaphysics, far from indicating a return to the absolutes of the apostolic kerygma, has done no more than postulate God who is himself enmeshed in the becoming, the evolving, the relativity, and the imperfection of our world.

Even Karl Barth’s massive reaffirmation of the transcendental character of the being of God has left Lessing’s ditch unbridged. This becomes apparent, for example, in the distinction he postulates between Histone and Geschichte, which may be interpreted, respectively, as secular history (open to the scientific investigation of the historian) and revelational or redemptive history (the truth of which is available only to the man of faith).

Barth borrowed this distinction, including the terminology, from Martin Kähler; but the concept had already been formulated in Kierkegaard’s subjective understanding of history. With Lessing, Kierkegaard affirms the irrelevance and unimportance of past history for us: our eternal salvation cannot be dependent on the knowledge of a historical fact; our faith cannot be at the mercy of historical criticism. Kierkegaard circumvents Lessing’s ditch by postulating the eternally contemporaneous character of the action of God in Christ. This event of the divine self-revelation is not less contemporaneous for us today than it was for the apostles in the first century, and it is experienced as contemporaneous in the “moment” of faith—the “moment” which, being neither past nor future, transcends time and is the existential point at which the reality of the eternally present is known. It is, moreover, no passive moment but the active moment of self-commitment in the “leap” of faith.

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The same principle lies behind Barth’s distinction between Historic and Geschichte. Even though he maintains the interdependence of the two concepts and does not deny the historicity (Historie) of so cardinal an event as the resurrection of Christ, it is a distinction that enables him to relegate the Bible to the realm of Historie as a human book, like any other, full of errors and contradictions, while the realm of Geschichte is reserved for the Word of God and the reality of faith. This word of man can and does become the Word of God; and this takes place in the “event” or “happening” (corresponding to the Kierkegaardian “moment”) of divine-human encounter when, thanks to God’s free and sovereign activity, that which is not the Word of God becomes the Word of God and that which is not inspired becomes inspired. Thus, in order to safeguard the “freedom” of God to “become,” Barth (as Kierkegaard had done before him) assigns God, and his Word, to a transcendental non-rational sphere, in virtual isolation from our world, which, as the arena of history and science and literature, is the sphere of the temporal and the rational. Hence his total rejection of the possibility of what is known as natural revelation. For Karl Barth, too, reason and faith are kept in separate compartments.

The dichotomy between reason and faith reaches its ultimate elaboration in the thought of Rudolf Bultmann, whose view of the world as a “closed” system demands the elimination of all supernatural elements from the christology and soteriology of the New Testament (demythologization). The salvation-event of the New Testament is to be sought not in the incarnation, substitutionary death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus—since he was a mere man who lived and died like all other men—but in the apostles’ belief that Jesus was the Christ, the Risen Lord, the Son of God (a value judgment based on his existential reality to them), and in the expression of that belief in their preaching (kerygma). In other words, the rising of Jesus from the dead took place, not as a miraculous historical event of past history, but in the proclamation of the apostles; and it continues to take place, over and over again, every time that this kerygma is proclaimed, and to be experienced every time the response of existential commitment is made. By removing the sphere of redemption and faith from the sphere of the historical in this way, Bultmann has relentlessly carried through his attempt to solve the problem of Lessing’s ditch. He has divorced Historie and Geschichte and put them in two quite distinct categories. And the Bible has been shut up in the former of these categories.

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Barth, indeed, accused Bultmann of “sheer superstition” for supposing “that only things which are open to ‘historical’ verification can have happened in time” (Church Dogmatics, III, 2, p. 446); but Bultmann retorted that it was “perfectly clear” that Barth was “interpreting the pronouncements of Scripture by means of an imported body of abstract categories,” and asked:

What kind of way of “endowing with faith” is it, if

faith is to be brought over against the assertion of events which are said to have taken place as history in time and history, yet cannot be established by the means and methods of historical science? How do these events come into the believer’s field of vision? And how is such faith distinguished from a blind acceptance involving a sacrificium intellectus? [Essays Philosophical and Theological, 1955, pp. 260 f.].

Despite this somewhat acerb exchange, the difference between Barth and Bultmann in this matter is one of degree rather than of essence. For both, faith must wait its turn until reason has passed its judgment on the admissibility of the biblical witness. Barth wishes to retain elements whose historicity, according to him, is not scientifically demonstrable. Bultmann rejects such elements. Barth accepts much of the New Testament picture of Christ as historical. Bultmann allows little—chiefly, as we have said, the demythologized life and death of the man Jesus and the christological faith of the apostles reflected in their kerygma (the kerygma being admitted as historical but not such distinctive elements of its content as the deity and resurrection of Jesus from the dead). But both see things through the spectacles that Lessing popularized, as their agreement on the necessity for the two categories of Historie and Geschichte shows, so that, in the existential moment of confrontation, for one what is not the word of God (the Bible) becomes the word of God, and for the other what is not historical (the Risen Lord) becomes historical. The shadow of Kierkegaard’s mantle is over both.

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Lessing’s “ugly ditch,” however, is a mirage, something imagined and not really there at all. The whole point of the biblical witness is that God’s action in Christ takes place both in history and as history. It is in the fullest sense Historie. It takes its place in the sequence of world events from Creation to Judgment. It stands at a definite point in human history. At the same time the absoluteness of its significance is ensured by the fact that it is God who acted in Christ. Thus, while fully historical in character, it may not be classified as just another accidental and contingent occurrence.

The plain desire of the New Testament authors is that what they write should be treated and accepted as genuine history. They do not claim historical authority on grounds other than those by which other writings of a historical nature are judged. The New Testament authors are contemporary with the events they record; the history is written by or derived from eye-witnesses; Luke’s work is the fruit of careful historical research (Luke 1:1–4). The authenticity of the New Testament as a historical document is crystallized in John’s affirmation: “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, we proclaim also to you” (1 John 1:1–3). And the same holds true for the appearances of the Risen Lord (Matt. 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20 and 21; Acts 1:1ff.; 1 Cor. 15:3 ff.). What more can the scientific historian demand? It was as historical, and in no other sense, that the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus confirmed the distinctive content of the apostles’ proclamation (kerygma) that “this same Jesus” was “both Saviour and Lord”; and it was to these events, precisely as historical, that they invited the response of faith from their hearers. There is no “ugly ditch” between faith and history in the Bible.

The same is true of the relation between faith and reason. In the biblical perspective these are never two mutually exclusive faculties. The apostles present the historic evidence as reasonable, that is, worthy of rational acceptance. The declaration of the facts concerning Christ are expected to evoke a rational response (an essential part of the total response mentioned earlier). Credo quia absurdum est is not a biblical principle. The unjustified fear of a sacrificium intellectus has led too many modern theologians to a sacrificium fidei. But in the Christian message faith and reason go together; for faith is the decision of self-commitment on the basis of the facts that have been presented. In other words, there is no such thing as faith without an object—and the object of Christian faith is Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and our Lord. Accordingly, the expression “a leap in the dark” or “into the abyss” does not describe Christian faith (or faith of any kind); it is descriptive, rather, of folly and despair. The scriptural invitation to trust in Christ is not an invitation to a game of chance.

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The authority of the Bible resides in this, that in confrontation with it we are ipso facto in confrontation with the word of God, with the message of the Gospel, or, if we will not have that, with the message of judgment. It is true that there is an existential aspect to Christian faith. In the crisis of faith the Bible does indeed “become” the Word of God in a way that was not recognized prior to faith; but in doing so it is “becoming” only what it is all along—just as for the blind man whose sight is restored, the sun “becomes” a bright reality, though it was this all along. To the believer Jesus Christ does indeed “become” Saviour and Lord in a way that he was not known before; but in doing so he is becoming only what he is all along.

The reason for this dynamic existential experience is twofold. First, it is due to the grace of the Holy Spirit, who brings the man who is dead in his sins to new life in Christ. Second, it is due to the fact that the historicity of Jesus Christ belongs not simply to the past but also to the present and to the future, in that he is both the crucified one and also the risen and glorified Lord. His is the voice that says to the man of faith: “I am the living one; for I was dead and now I am alive for evermore” (Rev. 1:18). To deny, as Bultmann does, the objective historicity (Historie) of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and yet to preach him as the Risen Lord, with the assurance that he rises again in the kerygma, is to invite people to put their faith in a subjective fantasy or hallucination. It is the resuscitation of a docetic Christ.

It is vitally important for the Church to recognize again today that, as Herman Ridderbos has stated, “the kerygma stands or falls with the factuality of the historical events of which it is the proclamation,” since “the kerygma is, before everything, concerned with what happened once and for all, with what occurred on our behalf.” We must, therefore, strenuously resist “a kerygma theology which thinks that it can make the meaning of the kerygma for faith independent of its historical content” (The Authority of the New Testament Scriptures, 1963, p. 59). The abandonment of the Bible, indeed, cannot fail to result in the abandonment of the kerygma and, in turn, the abandonment of the Saviour who is the content of the biblical kerygma.

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Nothing could be plainer than that the authority of Scripture and the authority of Christ are bound up together. It is no coincidence that the modern assault on the trustworthiness of the Bible has been followed by an assault on the trustworthiness of Christ. No prophetic power was needed to predict this sequence. The theological confusion and evangelistic impotence of the Church of our day should not occasion surprise when the central theme of the kerygma, namely, Jesus Christ the Risen Saviour and Lord, is presented as a subjective reality for existential experience but an objective non-reality in the cold facts of history. What power can there be in the proclamation of a delusion or fabrication, apostolic though it may be? How can one who is in fact dead and buried, and held fast in the tomb, be believed to be Saviour and Lord? Where is the Good News in all this? The harvest of humanism, relativism, bewilderment, and despair must be expected from the proclamation of one who is merely human, entirely relative, and overwhelmed by death.

The way back to the Lord of the Gospel—incarnate, risen, glorified, and returning—can be found only through the acknowledgment once again of the Bible as the inspired and therefore authoritative word of God to man. And this is the way of the Holy Spirit, who gives faith, authenticates Scripture, and makes Jesus Christ a dynamic reality to the seeking heart.

Philip Edgcumbe Hughes is professor of historical theology at Conwell School of Theology, Philadelphia. He recieved the D.Litt. from the University of Cape Town and the Th.D. from Australian College of Theology.

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