Gilbert murray, in his Five Stages of Greek Religion, diagnosed the sickness of later Hellenism as “a failure of nerve.” This was, he suggested, marked by a turning from the classical and the universal, to the narrowly private, the particularistic, and the esoteric. Hellenistic thinkers, formerly creative, began to attempt to shore up their positions by courting the favor of prevailing power and opinion. Retreating from the outer world, they took refuge in the realm of the subjective.
As one considers the conventional wisdom of today’s avant-garde theologians, he is inclined to think that a similar malaise may be gripping today’s thought world. Voices are raised in chorus to declare that the doctrines of historic Christianity are no longer acceptable to Modern Man—that he simply will not tolerate them! Unhappily, some evangelicals are proving to be vulnerable to this type of supine reasoning.
The conventional argument runs thus: belief in scriptural inerrancy died yesterday, and adherence to scriptural infallibility lies gravely ill. Let theologians therefore hasten to formulate a basis for authority that will be acceptable to the “now generation” (particularly of theologians) whose orientation is almost totally humanistic and existential.
Robert S. Alley has given expression to this mood of surrender in his recent volume Revolt Against the Faithful, whose subtitle is “A Biblical Case For Inspiration as Encounter.” Dr. Alley’s approach is pragmatic rather than biblical. His volume is, in general, an echo of writers who have gone before him, notably Schleiermacher, John A. T. Robinson, Altizer, Kasemann, and Ebeling. Recognizing with John Macquarrie that “the belief that the Bible is infallible is one that dies hard in some parts of the Christian world,” he nevertheless sees as inevitable the demise of the historic understanding of revelation.
To Alley, the validity of the contemporary critical-historical approach to Scripture is beyond question. He has no hesitancy about making the Bible speak the language of critical-historical scholars. Basic to his understanding of the encounter-type of revelation is his definition of the term “Word of God.” This he sees as a free-floating force operative in the realm of the human spirit, similar to “Wisdom” in the Book of Proverbs or in the Wisdom of Solomon. It is the Word of God, thus conceived, that he claims to be the source of religious dynamic within the hearts of men, including Jesus.
His key assertion is that the Bible itself is not the Word of God, but a witness to that Word. To this view, the Bible can never be regarded to be more than an anthology of stories of “encounters” between the free-floating Word and selected individuals. Its role is strictly functional, designed to recreate similar encounters in the experience of those who read it.
In this view, the entire creedal structure of Christianity is due to be scrapped. After lying in the night of spiritual darkness for nineteen centuries, the Church is to be liberated from wrong opinions through the method of “revelation as encounter.” Religious men and women are to be released from the alleged bondage of belief in a body of revealed Truth. They are to be guided henceforth by the existential deliverance of their “enlightened” study of the Bible.
At this point one is impelled to ask, What in the stance of the liberal advocates of the critical-historical method has served to intimidate some evangelicals, and to tempt them to surrender convictions central to their faith? The major element seems to be the dogmatism and self-assurance with which the methodology and conclusion of the critical-historical techniques are thrust forward. Typical of this is the series of statements by Ernst Kasemann in his Exegetische Versuche und Besinnungen, particularly in his section dealing with the issue of “non-objectifiability” in theology (pp. 224 ff.).
Professor Kasemann asserts that the huge majority of the miracle-accounts of Scripture must be reckoned as legends, that his method has definitively deprived the miraculous in Scripture of all objective validity, that the New Testament writers had no conception of “natural and supernatural” as we understand the terms, and that historical criticism has disintegrated most of the miracle accounts of the Gospels, and has proved the problematical quality of the remainder.
It would be difficult to top this as a tour de force, and one cannot wonder that amateurs in theology are impressed by it. But it is doubtless time for evangelicals to cast a more critical eye over the sweeping claims being handed down ex cathedra for the critical-historical method. It goes without saying that every careful biblical scholar pursues his studies with a critical eye, and always in terms of an analytical view of history. But it is a most serious error to equate the current anti-supernatural form of the method with a valid scholarship. Likewise, it is supreme academic arrogance to claim finality for it as a hermeneutical tool.
More important still, the evangelical needs to cast a careful eye over the claim, made on every hand, that we must adapt the Evangel to the climate of the times. Did not the members of the apostolic body proclaim a faith that cut squarely across the mood of the “modern men” of their time? Did the writers of Scripture cast about to see what teachings would enlist social support before they committed their messages to writing?
Had they been mere water-testers, the Christian Church would not have been launched. And in the long run it is seriously to be doubted whether a compromising Church will win anything but contempt in the eyes of the world if it continues to make such a cheap bid for popularity.
Perhaps the time has come for theologians to ask themselves whether the relative impotence of the Church in our time may be due, not to the supposed retarding influence of those who proclaim a high view of biblical inspiration, but to a misbegotten mania for “relevance” that compromises the Church’s message. To put it another way, may it not be time for those in high places to join those of more humble placement in proclaiming a “Thus saith the Lord”?
Somehow I am not greatly impressed by Dr. Alley’s assertion that such a proclamation denies Modern Man’s demand to be free. I recognize, of course, that accepting the message contained in Scriptures as normative does impose limits upon the intellectual and behavioral life of man.
Could it be, however, that much of the purely human quest for freedom is short-sighted and abortive? Perhaps the Christian Church is much too timid in its prophetic role—of announcing that in “captivity to Christ” a generation that is adrift may find a more realistic view and experience of freedom.
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