It is a mark of the “now” generation, I suppose, that breakfast-food premiums, like the cereal itself, are instant. In my youth we had to save box tops and send them to the manufacturer, then wait an agonizing three weeks or more for the prize to arrive by mail. Today the precious trinket is enclosed in the cereal box. One day recently I found on our table a cereal box that promised to contain, in addition to the minimum daily requirement of certain vitamins and minerals, a toy plastic gyroscope. I eagerly removed the parts and assembled them, wound “a heavy thread, two feet long,” around the shaft, then with a quick pull set the flywheel spinning. The plastic wheel was not as heavy as the metal wheel of the gyroscope that had brightened one of my boyhood Christmases, nor was its shaft as straight, but its behavior was the same. It balanced on our table-top. When its base was tilted at an incline, it remained perfectly vertical, tipping neither right nor left.

The gyroscope is a helpful reminder that there are different types of motion. In an age that is dynamically-oriented, motion and change seem inherently desirable. Yet there is a vast difference between stable and unstable motion. Anyone who can remember his first efforts at bicycle-riding or ice-skating, or whose car has ever skidded out of control, will know immediately what I mean. Motion to be useful and constructive must be motion with equilibrium.

There is much motion in the Church today. Shifts are occurring in doctrinal conceptions, forms of worship, and life-style. Yet the history of the Church suggests a need for care that the motion shall be stable motion. Too often the Church has veered from one extreme to another, over-reacting to each in turn. To move forward with equilibrium would mean that corrections of direction are made, but that the major expenditure of energy and motion is directed toward the ultimate goal. To fail to do so means that most of the movement is given to the alternations from one sideline to another.

An interesting phenomenon today is what I term the “ecclesiastical crisscross.” As one segment of the Church reacts away from one extreme, a different portion moves from the opposite extreme, and the two careen past each other somewhere near the middle. For example, many evangelicals have reacted recently against informality of worship and are seeking more liturgy. At the same time, however, some persons from more liturgical backgrounds are abandoning pipe organs, Bach anthems, Gothic architecture, and polished homilies and are worshiping with guitars, sitting on the floor, and exercising charismatic gifts.

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It is not my task to comment on the entire life of the Church. My responsibility on the seminary faculty is in the broad area of theology. I propose therefore to discuss a few areas of theology that have particular implications also for the Christian life. These are areas where we can examine this tendency to over-reaction, and can perhaps grow wiser as a result.

The first is concern with the fact that theological and ethical concepts presuppose a certain view of reality, an ontology (doctrine of being). Metaphysics is the discipline that asks about the nature of reality. As such, it goes beyond the phenomena perceived by the senses and tries to reveal the underlying basis of these experiences.

This whole metaphysical endeavor has been under fire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Immanuel Kant in his monumental Critique of Pure Reason argued that the claim that there is knowledge without a sensory content is illusory. Existentialism insisted that abstract concepts relating to “being” are irrelevant to personal, subjective “existence.” Pragmatism rejected the attempt to find the meaning of objective reality in theoretical “objects” that cannot be perceived by the senses. Rather, the pragmatist insisted that the meaning (C. S. Peirce) and the truth (William James) of a statement are its practical consequences. Logical positivism attempted to give metaphysical inquiry the coup de grâce with its verification principle: that no statement has any meaning unless there is a set of sense data that shows it to be true (or false).

Theologians who accepted these changes altered the nature of theology accordingly. Thus Schleiermacher redefined the fundamental nature of religion to consist, not in doctrines about an objective reality beyond the sensible world, but in feelings, and particularly the feeling of dependence. Ritschl suggested that the essence of theology is to be found in value judgments—i.e., personal and social ethics—rather than in metaphysics.

To be sure, metaphysical speculation had sometimes been carried to incredible extremes. According to what is probably an apocryphal but apt story, some medieval scholastics went so far as to discuss how many angels could stand at once on the head of a pin. Some of the Lutheran orthodox developed in detail a Christological conception termed the “communicatio idiomatum”: that the attributes of the divine nature of Christ were communicated to his human nature, and vice versa. In seeking to avoid exaggeration, however, the danger of overreaction is ever-present.

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The twentieth century is not charitable toward substantives. One of the commonplaces of neo-orthodoxy was that God reveals himself through his verbs, not his nouns, i.e., in what he does, not what he is. The person of Christ, according to Emil Brunner, should be approached through the work of Christ. The tendency is to speak disdainfully of metaphysics in theology and to prefer functional concepts.

We need to bear in mind, however, that adjectives, adverbs, and even verbs cannot stand alone. They must attach to some substantive. Function is always the function of something. We must ask what form is presupposed as a basis for such a function. If not, we will develop a “Cheshire cat theology.” Like the cat that gradually faded away, leaving only a grin but no face to which the grin belonged, a function without a form that functions will not endure long.

The same is true in Christian ethics. Joseph Fletcher has decried the metaphysical or ontological approach to ethical judgments. The only thing that is substantively good in itself is love. All other goods are so only derivatively. Yet Fletcher’s “love” is so lacking in content that it gives little real guidance for conduct.

A second area of concern is the approach to Scripture and what is necessary to understand it. Here, too, the theological teeter-totter is operative. In some pietistic circles, careful scientific study of the Scriptures was regarded as unnecessary. God spoke to the earnest seeker, through Scripture. On the basis of this, the person had something to live by.

Some of these messages from God appeared to serious students of the Bible to have relatively little relation to the historical meaning of the text. Either the passage was allegorized or an interpretation quite at variance with its historical setting was adopted. As a result, these students of Scripture advocated intensive exegetical study. The very best of the tools of biblical research were to be brought to bear upon a passage in order to determine its precise meaning in the historical context. Knowledge of biblical languages, historical-critical methodology, and hermeneutical techniques was essential if the message of the Bible was to be heard.

In this endeavor, however, a new danger is latent. Since the Bible is thought to be properly understood only by those possessing these special skills and tools, a new priesthood arises. Only the initiated can unlock the esoteric secrets of the sacred Scriptures. The ordinary layman finds merely the surface meaning of the text, which may be in actual contradiction to its true meaning. As in a new type of Gnosticism, certain higher truths elude most Christians.

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A number of voices have arisen suggesting that this approach has gone too far. Robert Blaikie, noting that the Reformation insisted that Jesus was the only mediator between God and man, says:

Today, therefore, when exalted claims are made for the critically trained academic clergy as the essential mediators of the truth of God to men, then talk about the need for a New Reformation seems extremely apt.… The Church today, if it is faithful to the principles of the Reformation and to the guidance of the Living God, the Holy Spirit, will not continue to tolerate or approve a self-exalting hierarchy of would-be essential mediators-to-men of the truth of God. [‘Secular Christianity’ and God Who Acts, Eerdmans, 1970, p. 27].

James Barr, also, has suggested that although those who have a good grasp of the original languages will always have a more accurate understanding of the biblical text than those who do not, “it is unlikely that in more than a few special cases this knowledge will lead to a recognition of some Biblical conception which is vital to the understanding of the Bible, but which is invisible to the reader of the English Bible” (Biblical Words For Time, 1962, p. 162).

Paired with the emphasis upon technical rational study must be the doctrine of the internal illumination by the Holy Spirit of which Reformed theologians have made so much. There is also what Helmut Thielicke has termed the “spiritual instinct of the children of God,” which may be the same thing Calvin had in mind. The mainstream Reformation principle was neither the Word alone nor the Spirit alone but the two in conjunction. It would seem that neither the rationalistic study of the Bible nor the subjective inner speaking by the Holy Spirit is to be followed alone.

A third area of concern is the conception we hold of the Christian life, and beyond that of the nature of man himself. I refer to the tension between self-discipline and self-indulgence. Here again there has been the same tendency to radical veering from one extreme to another.

The Puritan heritage left a deep mark upon American Christianity. The original intention of the Puritans was positive: to develop to the maximum the believer’s spiritual potential, for the glory of God. Abstention from various activities was less because of the evil of the activity than for the purpose of highlighting the positive virtues. Over the years, however, this became distorted (in my judgment) into the negative ethic. The good Christian was measured by the length of the list of things he didn’t do: drink, smoke, gamble, and so on. Thus arose the caricature of the Puritan as a person who didn’t enjoy life and didn’t want anyone else to enjoy it either.

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Recently we have seen a reaction against this view of the Christian life. Life is good, all things were made by God, and we ought to enjoy all things to the fullest. So goes the reasoning. In this pell-mell rush to declare our liberation from all false legalism, I see again the danger of over-reaction.

The New Testament ethic makes much of the idea of becoming that for which we are destined by God. In this there is a superficial resemblance to the Aristotelian self-realization ethic, and it surprises me that New Testament scholars have not seen herein a “Greek” influence. There is, however, a notable distinctive about the Christian thrust. The Christian exists for the glory of God (Eph. 1:12). He is to let his light shine so that men will see his good works and glorify his father in heaven (Matt. 5:16). To this end, Paul speaks of disciplining himself (1 Cor. 9:24–27; 2 Tim. 2:1–7).

Jesus seemingly indicated that happiness or satisfaction or a sense of fulfillment comes as a by-product of the effort to please and satisfy God, not as the object of direct effort. He said that one ought to seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and these much desired “things” would be added (Matt. 6:25–33). His instruction to the believer to deny himself (Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23) has been much misunderstood. The word he used is the same word Jesus used to describe Peter’s denial of him. What was being suggested here, it appears to me, was a state of self-detachment in which one’s own ambitions, needs, wants are felt no more strongly than those of any other person, even the stranger. Is this not implicit, too, in the instruction to love one’s neighbor as oneself?

Our understanding of the nature of faith needs watchful care, as well. At times faith has become purely intellectual assent, and evidential proofs buttressed this commitment. At times this virtually wrung the experiential element out of Christian faith. Today we see the opposite tendency. Intellectual content and evidence are subordinated to personal experience and vivid immediateness.

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In my judgment, both of these extremes are unwise. If Christianity attempts to make its appeal solely to one facet of human existence, it will fail to compete successfully with the other options. In an age of reason, Christians attempted to rest their case completely upon reason, and for the most part found themselves outgunned. Conversely, the appeal today simply to “get high on Jesus” puts the emphasis upon experiential immediacy. I seriously doubt that in this respect the Christian experience can exceed the force of the hallucinogenic drugs, or the rapidly growing Eastern religions with their mystical experiences. If there ever was a need for some rational criteria for choosing among emotional options, it would seem to be now. To deride the place of the intellectual and the cognitive seems to me to be a religious kamikaze mission, with the significant difference that the kamikaze pilot realized that his was a suicide trip. The genius of Christianity’s appeal is not in an ability to outdo competitors in any one-sided emphasis but rather in its balanced satisfaction of the whole man.

It is not enough to observe that the Church has sometimes behaved like a drunk, staggering from one post to another. What positive endeavors of Christians in general, and theologians in particular, would assure the kind of stable motion that is called for here?

A first suggestion is careful scrutiny, identification, and description of problems, issues, and alternatives. To the extent that the Church’s conceptions become vague, it will have difficulty knowing where it is and whether it has gone too far. We need to keep our thinking sharp. Some current communicators strive hard to put things in the lowest common denominator of language. With the blunting of language, clarity is gained but precision is lost. It is like turning up completely the contrast control on your television set: the white objects stand out sharply from the black but all the details are blotted out. Ultimately, only silhouettes remain. In our desire to communicate, we must make sure of what we are communicating. We lose some consensus when we get specific about what we are saying and doing, but we grow in our understanding of our own message and action. William Shakespeare had a usage vocabulary of more than 25,000 words! Think of what his recognition vocabulary must have been, and the richness of thought that resulted from the fine shadings of reality and nuances of meaning available to him.

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Some time ago I came across a new punctuation mark: the interrobang. It is a composite of a question mark and an exclamation point, one super-imposed upon the other. I interpreted it as an emphatic question, a radical interrogative. Of late, however, I have come to see another meaning for it: an emphatic declaration that something is, accompanied by dubiety regarding what it is. The emphatic perhaps, the absolute whatever, and the unequivocal somewhat may sound impressive, but may call for careful examination.

I am reminded of the pilot of a transoceanic jet who announced to his passengers over the intercom, “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we have a strong tail wind and are making 650 miles per hour. The bad news is that we are lost somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean—we have no idea where we are.” The evaluation of our effort depends not only upon how much we are doing but also upon where we are and what we are doing.

We need, secondly, to think through the implications of what we believe and do. Where will a contemplated course of action take us if we adopt it? Anticipating the results and the conclusions to which someone else will take them is hard work, but it must be done. Although we may not want to accept the consequences of our ideas, others will do so and will follow them.

Maturity, it seems to me, involves the ability to look ahead. One component in driving skill is how far beyond the hood of his car the driver drives. To put it another way: how good a driver you are can be measured by how long your brakes last (relative of course to the type of route you drive). Often a driver keeps his foot steadily on the gas pedal, or accelerates even though he sees a red traffic signal a short distance ahead, then vigorously applies his brakes. It is a mark of greatness to be able to admit one’s mistakes and sins and repent of them. The best time to turn away from both our errors and our sins, however, is before we commit them.

But how can one know what the future result of an idea or an action will be? Most of us are notoriously poor predictors of the future; I am reminded of Langdon Gilkey’s statement that what one thinks the future will be is usually simply a reflection of what he thinks it ought to be. We do have the past, and it is an invaluable help. This is why constructive theology for today must cling so closely to history. It is theology’s only laboratory, or at least the only one it can afford to use. What has been done with similar situations in the past? What has been the outcome? This may be a clue to the outcome of the present option.

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Finally, we must carefully evaluate the adequacy of the evidence for the proposed way of thinking or acting. An idea is not good or bad because it is either old or new. It is good to the degree that it possesses merit. There are myriad theories that are plausible and appealing. If we simply respond to something that “grabs us,” we will be like the man whom James describes as “like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (Jas. 1:6). Professors do sometimes leave their mark upon students, and one who influenced me was Eliseo Vivas, who had a convincing way of responding to plausible but unsupported hypotheses presented in class. With his Latin-American accent and gestures he would reply: “Very nice theory. Only one thing wrong: no evidence!” Bernard Baruch once said: “Every man is entitled to his own opinion. No one has a right to be wrong about his facts.” I am impressed that the successful investor is generally the one who does his homework. The same is true of the trial lawyer. Observe in books like Louis Nizer’s My Life in Court the painstaking research into detail that goes into this type of practice. These men strive to get at the facts.

Now the point is this: Christianity, its practice, its promulgation, is predicated upon truth. The truth will not be an extreme or a distortion, for it will be seen in the context of the whole of truth. The Church should have a brain-trust of its very best men and women, whose task it is to seek truth: vigorously, persistently, tenaciously, uncompromisingly. This cadre of leaders must ask of every idea and action: Is this the best?

Lest someone think that this is simply a restatement of Aristotle’s famous doctrine of the golden mean, let me set the record straight. I am not advocating a carefully calibrated position, precisely halfway between two alternatives. Sometimes the correct position will be farther to one side than to another. What I am suggesting, however, is that the Christian not be so swept along by the current fad that he loses sight of other truths. It is perhaps a modern version of Romans 12:1–2 that I commend instead:

With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves toward the goal of true maturity.

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