How Bad Is Our Confusion?

It had been an age of cut-rate homers and dime-a-dozen Dantes, an age when everything was great because nothing was very good. It had been the age of Capote and Warhol and Updike and Pollock masquerading as the age of Pericles; an age in which multitudes of creative writing teachers had suddenly become “important” rivals of Shakespeare; when rock lyrics “leaked bits of near-meaning that made beyond-sense”; when technicolor images of perverted sex and sadistic cruelty drew the hallelujahs of the nation’s media elite; an age when “hollow people wrote hollow books for hollow critics.”

How bad is “it,” meaning our own confused century? According to critic and essayist Bryan Griffin, the rot is deeper than any of us had thought, which, in most cases, is pretty deep. But there is hope, because:

“It was all over: from Havelock Ellis to Shere Hite … the names and noises and postures that had defined the bizarre cult of the infantile for the greater part of this spiritually stagnant century had suddenly become the targets for general intellectual ridicule.”

And ridicule them he does, in a brawling, audacious style, buttressed with plenty of documentation. None of the popular media pundits, social-engineering academic bullies, small-minded publishers and soi-disant sages are spared. Evangelical readers who know from Scripture “what is in man” will not be surprised, but they will delight to have some of their own judgments stated so bravely and pop culture’s catechism of can’t so effectively decoded. “The awful pallbearers of the nation’s shabby legacy,” according to Griffin, have had their day.

But why did it all happen? Griffin examines the prophecies of some of the last century’s true wise men and concludes: “It is the tragedy of the false cultural democracy that pretends that virtue and meaning and wisdom can be obtained from swarms of unimpressive men. It is the tragedy of the democracy that sacrifices the possibility of excellence to the lie of equality: that in Florence equal tribute would have been paid to Leonardo and his apprentice; that in Jerusalem would have given Jesus and Judas the same vote.” All those attempting to form an intelligent and thorough critique of modern culture—those who wish to be salt and light in the world—will value the analysis.

Griffin does paint with a wide brush and is open to the charge of being too negative and, in places, repetitive in his treatment. A few writers deserve better than what he gives them. Some will love this book, others may hear the sound of an ax grinding and hate it. His case is also weakened by a reluctance to divulge information about himself; even his publisher knows very little about him. But Panic Among the Philistines deserves to be read by everyone because the author does not stop at painstakingly diagnosing the problem and the reasons for it. He offers solutions; among them:

Article continues below

“Go back to where you began: to Socrates and Plato; and follow that light to Aristotle and Virgil, to Epictetus and St. Paul, to Luther and Erasmus.… He reminds readers that they are part of “the everlasting battle in which there are no truces. A battle between those who would preserve and extend the highest values of civilization, and those who would use the tools of civilization—education and knowledge and liberty and peace—to savage those values. It is the battle between host and parasite, between those who seek and those who drift, the battle between those who stand for something and those who will tolerate anything, between those who find happiness in the pursuit of goodness and those who become miserable in the pursuit of happiness.”

Much, much more could be quoted. There is commentary, investigative reporting, and timely exhortation here; even, yes, some reasons for optimism. The ideas are packed tight. The book is not for those whose minds are untrammeled by thought. Those who ignore Panic Among the Philistines do so to their own loss.

Panic Among the Philistines, by Bryan F. Griffin (Regnery Gateway, 1983; $12.95). Reviewed by Lloyd Billingsley, a writer living in Southern California.

“Truths We Keep Coming Back And Back To”

Robert frost once wished he could be monarch of a desert land devoted to the “truths we keep coming back and back to.” So too it seems with general revelation: we keep coming back and back to it, for it discloses enduring truth that nourishes the mind of the church. Two recent works nudge us in that direction.

Since evangelicals believe in Jesus Christ, “through whom and for whom the whole universe has been created,” they cannot, T. F. Torrance says, ignore “the empirical reality of the created order.” By fully believing in the incarnation of God the Son, they confront “the inescapable realism of evangelical theology” (p. 11). If we are truly to know God, our knowledge “must be grounded ultimately in the reality of God” that is accessible to us (p. 21).

Such knowledge is possible, Torrance argues, if we take a unitary view of knowledge such as outlined by Michael Polanyi and other scientifically oriented thinkers. They refuse to separate empirical and theoretical aspects of knowledge and argue that they mutually inhere in each other and all that is. If evangelicals can grasp the implications of a realism that seems emergent in contemporary scientific circles, they will have an opportunity to think and develop fresh, better-grounded perspectives.

Article continues below

Doing so presents “theological questions to biblical scholars,” however. Dualistic notions of earlier ages, whether in Augustine’s theology or Newton’s science, seem untenable in the age of Einstein. Evidences of such dualism in biblical scholarship—“Subjectivist existentialism” on one hand and “linguistic formalism” on the other—suggest by their inadequacies that a better, “basically theological exegesis and interpretation of the Bible” (p. 69) needs to emerge in evangelical churches.

We learn truth about God as we listen to the Word of God, in which “we hear ‘God speaking in person’ ” (p. 77). Authentic learning, as Plato so clearly taught, emerges from dialogue as one personally appropriates truth that can never be exclusively conceptual (and thus overly abstract) or perceptual (and thus overly concrete). “Audits” as well as precepts and concepts constitute knowledge. The Word of God in Holy Scripture is the Word of God. Scripture does not merely contain God’s Word. But the Word of God in Scripture transcends the words inscribed therein, for the Word of God speaks truth to mankind. The Word is the meaning, the truth of the words we hear as we listen to what is said. Rejecting both liberalism and fundamentalism, Torrance believes a realistic evangelical theology can more adequately interpret the Bible.

Such a theology enables us to understand and proclaim God’s self-revelation, preeminently in Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word. With that disclosure, as well as the Word in Holy Scripture, the listening church can develop doctrines as men and women hear the Word and coherently understand it. Doctrinal statements rightly present such understanding. They are true insofar as they rightly state what is with reference to the Truth. As Anselm taught, there is an “ontological priority and objectivity of truth in all genuine knowledge” (p. 132).

Consequently: “We must penetrate through the created truth, speech, and rationality of biblical statements to the solid ground of the Truth, Speech, and Rationality of God upon which they rest, in order that everything may be understood and expounded directly in the light of the Truth that God himself is, under his constant guidance, and in conformity to the structures of rationality or conceptuality which are given when we listen to the Truth and submit our minds to its compelling claims” (p. 135).

Article continues below

This book contains the 1981 Payton Lectures that Torrance delivered at Fuller Theological Seminary. They reflect the work he has been doing for a number of years, trying to blend insights from philosophers of science with orthodox theology. Deeply rooted in the classical theologians of the Christian church, thoroughly aware of movements in modern science and philosophy, he certainly makes a strong case for recovering a fundamentally realistic evangelical theology.

In today’s pluralistic world, diverse claims constantly circulate concerning man’s knowledge of God. “At the heart of the contemporary debate,” Bruce Demarest holds, “is the problem of general revelation” (p. 9). While acknowledging its past pitfalls, while clearly asserting that only special revelation grants us redemptive knowledge, Demarest believes evangelicals must recover an appreciation for the integrity and instructiveness of general revelation, especially as we seek to understand and address the non-Christian peoples of the Third World.

He clearly states his position: “Man, made in the image of God and enabled by common grace, effably intuits (in the first moment of mental and moral self-consciousness) eternal changeless principles, including the existence, character, and moral demands of God. Thus equipped with a rudimentary knowledge of God, man adduces further knowledge of God’s character and purposes by rational reflection on the data of nature and history. From the light of general revelation, then, all people know God as Creator, Preserver, and Judge of the world” (pp. 22–23).

In his fallen condition, however, man stubbornly resists and refuses to follow the truth he inwardly knows. Thus God in his mercy extends special revelation (Scripture and Christ), which elicit saving faith and a fuller knowledge of his nature and will. But special revelation effectively reaches and teaches man within the context prepared by an awareness of God already cultivated by general revelation.

To clarify his case for such general revelation, Demarest surveys its development throughout church history. He discusses the classical Catholic, Reformation, Puritan, liberal, neo-orthodox, neo-liberal, Vatican II, and non-Christian positions. His presentations are readable, concise, and enlightening, though he might be hard pressed to defend some of his judgments on Vatican II, liberation theology, and non-Christian religions.

Article continues below

Given the mass of material addressed, insofar as the book is designed for college and seminary classrooms, it achieves its end and opens up historical and contemporary perspectives on general revelation. One finds particularly impressive the attention and reverence given general revelation by some of the greatest theologians of the past. Disdain for it (a la Barth) seems a peculiarly modern attitude, whereas overemphasis has flawed pantheistic perspectives both past and present.

Having made a historical survey, Demarest concludes with his own appraisal of the biblical perspective. He believes the Scriptures support, in the first place, an “intuitional knowledge of God” innate within every man, “created in the image of God and universally illumined by the Logos” so that he “effably intuits the reality of God as a first truth” (p. 228). Second, human beings have an “acquired general knowledge of God” that is possessed but suppressed. “When man confronts the indicia of the intelligibly ordered cosmos with an open mind, his innate idea of God is supplied with further characteristics that augment his overall understanding of God” (p. 234). Third, an available “knowledge of God as redeemer” has been graciously extended in special revelation and is needed by non-Christian peoples for salvation.

Though Demarest sides with Calvin and many others who allow that God may certainly work in exceptional ways and save some who have not heard the Christian gospel, he holds that only biblical truth can properly point men and women to salvation. Thus the missionary thrust of the church should build upon the knowledge of God possessed by all men everywhere, impelled by the awareness that without the special revelation of God-in-Christ, the world is lost.

This volume is scholarly, readable, useful. “Demarest has undertaken,” Vernon Grounds says in the foreword, “the herculean task of examining Christianity’s epistemological foundations” and “has produced an outstanding work of scholarship that places him in the front rank of evangelical theologians” (p. 8).

Reality and Evangelical Theology, by T. F. Torrance (Westminster Press, 1982; 174 pp., $8.95), and General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues, by Bruce A. Demarest (Zondervan, 1982; 301 pp., $12.95). Reviewed by Gerard Reed, visiting professor of history and philosophy, Point Loma College, San Diego.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.