H. L. Mencken described theology as the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing. This slander gains unfortunate credence from the instability of modern ecumenical positions. Much recent theological thought may be viewed as religious rationalism under a variety of pious aliases.

A significant and disturbing development is now overtaking the European theological scene. The effort of the theology of hope to transcend the faltering dialectical-existential theology of the recent past is already showing its weakness. The widely heralded theology of resurrection—affirmed by Pannenberg and Moltmann to give objective historical grounding to divine revelation—is giving ground. In its place a radical social theology is championing Marxism. The theology of revolution has begun to sweep divinity schools in Germany, and there are distressing signs that it is preempting the interest of many theological students. The consequences of this development for European Christianity and for Western civilization may be staggering, the more so because of the ecumenical priority assigned to church-and-society issues in a radical mood.

The “transcendent” world in which this current religious surge is interested is the socio-economic-political future, not the invisible spiritual world of divine realities. Marx, not Jesus, is its prophet; the Nazarene is disowned by the radical divinity students as “a man from yesterday.” Some observers see in this a kiss of death upon biblical studies.

After Bultmannian existentialism became fragmented in the early sixties into competitive strands, Pannenberg and Moltmann gained prominence as exponents of an emerging theological movement promising to outflank the compromises of dialectical and existential theology. This thrust specially emphasized the Living God’s decisive revelation in the external or historical resurrection of the crucified Jesus, and thus presumed to reinstate a dimension of objectivity to the case for divine disclosure, in contrast with the neo-orthodox denial of external divine revelation and substitution of an internal encounter theology.

There are significant differences between Moltmann and Pannenberg; the latter so much emphasizes all history as revelatory of God that he is sometimes thought to destroy any basis for special divine revelation, whereas the former so defers to critical history that the historicity of the resurrection on which he insists sometimes appears in doubt. But striking similarities may be seen; both tend to place historical process in the nature of God, and forfeit divine revelation as a rational category involving the communication of universally valid truth. What remains obscure, in these circumstances, is the ontological nature of God and the fixed and precise content of the divine will for man.

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Now the momentary enthusiasm for the resurrection-oriented theology of hope is flagging, and increasingly adverse pressures harrass this most recent neo-Protestant alternative to historic evangelical theology. The student swing is toward the so-called theology of revolution, to which the Geneva Conference on Church and Society sponsored by the World Council of Churches gave ecumenical momentum in 1966. The interest in radical Marxism on the German campuses runs deeper among theological students than among university students generally, and it has less evident ties to Eastern European political interests than to the German churches viewed as instruments for swift social change and as strategic channels of public influence.

Western Berlin and Hamburg are noteworthy centers for student radicals, and while the radicals are clearly a minority, they exercise an influence far beyond their numbers. At Hamburg University 5 per cent of the student body is estimated to be in the radical camp. But 40 per cent of the divinity students enrolled in German universities are now reported to be interested mainly in social changes of a Marxist sort. Of sixteen theological students in southern Germany enrolled in a preaching seminar—the final stage before assignment to active ministry in the churches—only two indicated any interest in pulpit proclamation; the vast majority are heading for the churches as instrumentalities for social revolution. Much as Hegel’s student Marx inverted the supernatural orientation of the Absolute and identified economic determinism instead as the fixed center of history, so the ministerial radicals seek to fill the theology of hope with socio-political aspirations.

Marx is said to have described the Church as the gin-shop in which men stupefy themselves against the weight of the world’s woes. But today the Church more and more resembles a socio-political institution that ostracizes spiritual realities. Neo-Protestant dogmatics preserved only a bikini remnant of the biblical heritage, although it complained vociferously whenever it was accused of such near-nudity. Contemporary theology has been becoming what Mencken suspected it might be, a series of speculations revised by the theologians themselves before students can master their positions. Every heralded advance in recent modern theology has become merely a prelude to an early relapse. Neo-Protestant theories have become an ecclesiastical encrustation that obscures the authority of Jesus and the Bible. In these circumstances, social revolutionaries even in the divinity schools are understandably tempted to canonize Marx and to bolt Jesus in a Palestinian tomb.

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The divinity faculty enrollments in Germany are already showing marked decline; at Hamburg, enrollment has fallen from about 350 to fewer than 100, and Ulrich Wilkins, one of the Pannenberg school’s spokesmen, stopped lecturing this spring. Even Helmut Thielicke has suffered popularity loss; alienated radicals consider him a symbol of the establishment. At Munich, where Pannenberg is dean, radical students give Pannenberg less and less hearing. Notably, Goppelt far outruns Pannenberg in student interest with his evangelically oriented lectures that employ the critical tools of neo-Protestant theologians to demolish their own theories. Moltmann at Tübingen fares somewhat better than Pannenberg, more because of his spontaneous involvement in Christian-Marxist dialogue than because of his theological perspective, and because of the feeling of some students that Moltmann’s category of hope can be readily filled with a Marxist-socio-economic content. So-called biblical studies in German seminaries are mainly non-evangelical in orientation, and tend to be heavily weighted with speculative presuppositions. Student interest in such courses is at an all-time low.

The crusades of evangelist Billy Graham have had little theological impact at the academic level. Neo-Protestant theologians tend to dismiss them as an exercise in religious patriotism for “pro-church” survivors. But among German church-goers there can be little doubt that Graham has nourished what lay remnant hopes there are for spiritual revival. As the theology of revolution crowds the churches, this evangelistic theology may have to root outside the churches.

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