For decades now there has been a shaking and winnowing of the symbols by which “the something beyond man” has traditionally been expressed. Some seemingly having misread the process of change within meaning-systems, have decided that only a “death of God” or some totally new theological beginning can help Western man toward a new understanding of our Ultimate Source of existence—toward a doctrine of God.

Under the spell of secularist ways of thinking, some theologians profess actually to believe that God has undergone a real death. This they infer from the assumption that the forms by which his reality has been expressed have permanently lost their hold upon the minds of thinking men and women in our time. Others have contented themselves with a declaration of God’s absence from our scene.

One interesting phenomenon of recent times has been the gradual shift by some radical theologians toward belief in the reality of a Divine Being. Perhaps the stages by which these theologians have moved toward a doctrine of God indicate the outlines of a path along which others can be expected to move. That remains to be seen. At any rate, the process merits our observation.

If some theologians move by easy stages from radical secularism to some form of “Christian” theism, multitudes of plain people are skipping the preliminaries and moving abruptly into faith in a self-disclosing and personal God. Surprisingly, many are coming to see him as revealed uniquely and supremely in Jesus Christ.

Young people who move into Christian faith through the ministry of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade, and similar agencies do not fulfill the prophecies of the secular theologians. They seem to develop not only the conviction of God’s reality but an understanding of him in terms of many of the traditional symbols and expressions. Evangelically oriented seminaries find this to be suprisingly true among those who come into ministerial training from the secular campuses.

John Wild reminded us a dozen years ago that the God who was declared absent by the secularists in the sixties would in time again be declared present. Writing in a book entitled Christian Existentialism, Wild held that “man is open to the lure of transcendence,” a fact evidenced by “the restlessness that lies at the core of our human history.”

Will this return be described in totally new and perhaps alien terms, or will many of the historic definitions and symbols be used? If the latter proves to be the case, will formulations maintain the essential content of biblical revelation, and at the same time be perhaps more meaningful than former modes of expression? The current state of indecision seems exciting to many.

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One of the most spectacular turnabouts in theological approach in our decade has been that of Professor Paul van Buren of Temple University. In the middle sixties he was considered to be in the right wing of the God-is-dead movement, and one of the radical theologians. The religious world was astonished when in 1974 Professor van Buren declared himself, in the columns of the Christian Century (issue of May 29), in favor of a return to a belief in the transcendent.

At that time, van Buren expressed the feeling that such a return would amount to a rediscovery, but seemed uncertain about the direction in which theologians should look for their cues. With part of his mind, “it seems, he would seek for transcendence in the secular structures all about us. With the other part, he seemed encouraged to believe in the possibility of “an intense systemic consciousness-raising effort” by which men and women will again turn in faith to the Word-made-flesh.

In an address given in November, 1975, van Buren issued a call to theological renewal through a refined and chastened approach to four elements: the nature of God, Easter, the motif of “the Messiah,” and the relationship between the New Testament and the Old Testament. According to van Buren, then, the impetus for the return to theism is to come not from an analysis of the secular but from within a religious context. This call for renewal represents a 180-degree turn in emphasis. So far, so good.

The address in which van Buren issued this call was entitled “The Status and Prospects for Theology” and was delivered before the theological section of the American Academy of Religion. Starting with the current historical, geographical, cultural, and political renewal of Judaism in our time, van Buren suggests that the Holocaust, so tragically symbolized by Auschwitz, Belsen, Treblinka, and Dachau, has pressed a new and inescapable call upon the Christian world. Van Buren’s initial demand is that we reassess our understanding of God’s nature, in terms of what van Buren believes to be God’s compromise of his own freedom—an abiding and limiting compromise—in establishing the Covenant with Abraham.

Human history is thus held to have operated outside the divine sovereignty, particularly with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A. D. and with the horrendous expressions of the disease of anti-Semitism in Central Europe from 1033 to 1945—masterminded, as van Buren insists, by “baptized Christians.”

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Van Buren lays much of the onus for the perversion of Christian history upon three factors. The first is the Church’s misunderstanding of Easter, by which a triumphalist view of the Church led to an insistence upon the radical bypassing of Israel. The second wrongheaded view is Christian Messianism, which van Buren sees as having led to a deep and fateful misunderstanding of Romans 9–11, in which a controversy within Judaism was translated into a doctrine of “a Gentile interim.” The third Christian error was the acceptance of the priority of the New Testament: this error, van Buren contends, charted a course from Matthew’s Gospel, through the Church Fathers, in a direct line to the gas ovens.

Historic Christian theology is thus to be set aside. In its place is to be a radical reconstruction, based upon the assumption that mainline Christianity has been perversely wrong all along. In this restructuring, there would certainly be a rejection of the saving Deed on the Cross, the continuing lordship of Jesus Christ, and the proclamation of “no other name.”

The question that will not go away here is, Would such a restructured form of theology merit the title “Christian” at all? To this the vast majority of those who owe vital allegiance to the Lord Christ would reply with a ringing No!


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