This world has never before changed so widely and deeply as in our time. Changes have taken place in politics and government, economics and industry, trade and travel, communication and education, customs and traditions, opinions and beliefs. Scarcely anyone would venture to predict what may mark the remaining decades of this century.
Our concern is with theology in this changing scene. How has theology fared in this changing world? What has theology to contribute to this changing world?
Fortunes Of Theology
How has theology fared? It too has been marked by change. For theology has been a growing science. It did not spring full-grown as Minerva from the head of Jove. It has come through a long development.
This development has not been due to slow invention. For the materials of theology were not invented by men. They were God-given. The truth with which theology deals was furnished to faith in creation and revelation. The task of the theologian has been that of “exhibiting the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles and general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole.” Slowly the data have been collected, interpreted and correlated.
Theological dogmas have long been in disfavor. I shall never forget Theodore L. Cuyler’s address the year I entered Union Seminary, Virginia. Referring to the growing dislike of dogma, he warned the faculty against relaxing their emphasis upon it. Raising himself to tiptoe, he shouted, “Invertebrate these young gentlemen!” I had never before heard the word “invertebrate” used as a verb meaning to put vertebrae or backbone into people.
Is the old theology still good theology? Has it been antiquated and invalidated by the changes? Or do we, in the light of modern discovery, need a new theology?
If the old theology was ever true, it is true now. If it was valid for any time, it is valid for our time. A valid system of teaching is built of truth and possesses permanent value.
Novelty In Theology
Yet there has been demand for a new theology. Years ago there appeared a volume titled The New Theology. Is it possible to make a theology that would be new and true? Not as to content. The proper materials of theology are now what they have been. We have had no new revelations. Men have been discovering new facts in God’s ancient book of creation and his more recent book of redemption, and have been making new interpretations and combinations and applications of ancient truth. But we have received no new substantive truth about the great subjects treated in theology. The great themes—none greater, none besides as great—are God, man and the God-Man. The truth about God in his nature, attributes, works and relations; the truth about man in his estates of innocence, sin and grace; and the truth about the God-Man in his person, office and work—this truth is now what it always has been since the Word of God was given to men in writing. Nor have the changes in the world since then made new truth necessary.
Has the reality which is God, the reality which is man, and the reality which is Jesus Christ changed since the books of the Canon were written? Have any new relations between them been instituted or revealed? Did Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Man, who came to set things right in the moral sphere, accomplish the purpose of his mission? Or did he leave realms of religious truth closed, which were afterwards to be opened and explored? True, the great Revealer, Redeemer, Restorer said on the eve of his departure, I will send unto you from the Father Another who shall guide you into all the truth. But the office of the Spirit was to take of the things of Christ and show them to us. His concern has been with implications, bringing them out; with applications, carrying them in. Has the Spirit any mission now but to light and to actuate the truth which was in Christ? “God, having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions … hath at the end of these days spoken unto us in his Son” (Heb. 1:1–2). What could he do who should come after the Son? The Son is God’s last word to man because there is nothing more to be said.
The materials of theology have been in the hands of the Church from the end of the apostolic age, and the Spirit has been in the heart of the Church from Pentecost, as the principle of its life, the source of its wisdom. The people of God have not been without divine guidance in investigating and interpreting his Word and in formulating their beliefs. We have a right to believe that Christ has kept his promise given in connection with the Great Commission: “Go, preach, and teach, and lo, I am with you, even unto the end.” It seems unreasonable to suppose that his disciples then and since have misunderstood his person and work, or have missed the meaning and message of his mission.
So I accept the great creedal statements of the past as containing the essential truth of Christianity and regard that truth as valid for us today. The world in which we live is very different from the world of the first century or of the fourth or of the sixteenth or of the nineteenth. Yet changes in men’s ways of thinking and living have not invalidated the truth of historical theology: the personality and creatorship of God; his purpose of love and grace; sin as a distortion of divine-human relations; Jesus Christ as the incarnation of the eternal word; his sufferings and death as an atonement of sin; his present activity as the supreme power in the Christian’s life; the right of Christ to universal Lordship; the obligation of the Christian to proclaim Christ everywhere as the way, the truth, and the life; his coming again to judge the world. It is possible to set the fundamental claims of theology solidly in any cosmic situation and confidently affirm that their truth is valid for any age.
Adequacy Of Theology
But the validity of theology is one thing and the adequacy of theology is another. Validity is conditioned by truth, reality; adequacy is conditioned by form and fitness; adequacy is secured by adaptation, adjustment, and fullness of statement. The truth of Christianity has been given various expressions in human language. It will doubtless receive other verbal embodiments, each formulation taking note of the time for which it is made. The early Fathers labored to express eternal truth in contemporary terms. So there is in theology a permanent element and a transitory element, a constant and a variable. In essence, eternal; in expression, temporal and temporary.
So we can contemplate with composure and confidence the changing world about us. Christianity can live and function under any conditions under which men can live. It has existed and served under differing world views and has survived many forms of society. Ages and orders, institutions and constitutions, civilizations and cultures have arisen and fallen since it appeared. It has infinite adaptability and can fit into any scheme of things that may come in divine providence.
Contribution Of Theology
What has theology to contribute to this changing world? Has it anything to offer in the way of guidance and stabilization? It has much to offer.
1. A principle of unity for all men. This world is in desperate need of such a principle. This earth is a scene of anarchy; mankind is in danger of self-destruction through disunion and strife. Where lies the hope of a united world? Not in science and philosophy, not in education and legislation, not in civilization and culture, not in diplomacy and treaties, not in trade and commerce. The world never had more of these things than now, and the world was never in more conflict and confusion than now. The hope of unification and pacification lies in religion, not in religions, plural; but in religion, the Christian religion, which is the only religion that accomplishes the purpose for which religion exists.
Christian theology proclaims the unity of God and commands all men to yield him undivided allegiance. Christian theology presents the true and ultimate view of the universe as theocentric. It is not enough that the world should have a physical center. It must have a moral and spiritual center—a personal center. Men’s world of thought and life may be geo-centric or heliocentric and still be torn asunder by internecine wars. But if their world should become theo-centric, God-centered, their divisions would be healed and their life brought to harmony and wholeness. Let the rulers of this world hear the Ruler of all worlds, saying, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. There is no God but Jehovah, and Jesus Christ is his Son. If this message could be delivered upon the heart and conscience of all nations, then wars might cease to the ends of the earth and peace and happiness prevail.
Let me say again, the world needs a unifying principle. It is perishing for the lack of it. Christian theology has and offers that principle, the only one that will suffice, namely, the personality and universality of God, who commands all men everywhere to repent and return unto him. The sovereignty and saviourhood of God are the message for the nations. Christianity holds out the one hope of a world reduced to unity under a single Sovereign.
The prophet in rapt vision sees the historical and traditional enemies of his nation joined with it in membership of one holy people of God (Isa. 19:23–24). How is this miracle of unity and community created? By the knowledge and blessing of the one true God. The Egyptian and the Assyrian leave their gods and come to the one true and living God of Israel. When all nations shall come together to the house of the God of Jacob to learn of his ways and to walk in his paths, then they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks (Isa. 2:4–6).
2. Christian theology possesses and presents for the acceptance of men another principle of unity, namely, the oneness of mankind in origin and nature. The principal parts of the Apostle’s famous message to the Greeks on Mars Hill were the unity of God and the unity of mankind. It is the message of the first chapter of Genesis, the message of the whole Bible, the message which should be proclaimed from every hilltop the world over. These truths accepted then would have swept Athens clean of its numberless gods and swept away all rational ground for the Greeks’ contempt for other nations. Pride and arrogance of race and nationality cannot live in the presence of these truths.
All men are of one species and every man a possible child of God. This truth should teach men respect for themselves and for others, their persons and their properties. This truth should make men mutual friends and helpers instead of mutual enemies and destroyers. It every man saw in every other man whom he met the face of a kinsman, bearing the marred image of his Maker, would it not powerfully affect his thought and behavior? Would it not tend to stop aggression and spoliation? Would not this truth of the unity of the race in origin and nature tend to make wars to cease?
3. A third service theology is qualified to render this unhappy world. Theology proclaims a remedy for the divisive thing which keeps the world at strife. It has a solution for the problem of sin. It is sin that keeps men from accepting the principles of unity which have been laid down. And the truths of the unity of God and of the unity of mankind will never take root and bear their legitimate fruit in human hearts until the solution of the problem of sin has been accepted and applied.
The story of the provision of this remedy is the strangest story ever told. The hero of the story—victim as well as hero—was Jesus Christ. His preexistent names were Son of God, Word of God. He was associated with God, co-worker with God, was himself God. In the fullness of time this Divine One was born a child in Bethlehem of Judea and dwelt among men. He came down to earth to go through the whole of human experience from the cradle to the grave, sin excepted. The grave? Did this Divine One die? Aye, and he died not a natural death. Believe it or not, they killed him. Sinful men in their blindness failed to recognize God in the guise of a man. They hated him, could not tolerate him. At the age of 33 they lynched him as a religious, political and social nuisance. Yes, God Almighty incarnate they hanged on a tree as a malefactor. The mighty Maker of heaven and earth submitted himself to become the victim of creature man’s murderous hate. And this is not mythology. It is history. It is theology.
The Son of God became sharer of flesh and blood, that through death he might bring to nought him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver all them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Heb. 2:14–15). He came that he might break down the mid-wall of partition between Jew and Gentile; between man and man, having abolished in his flesh the enmity; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, and so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the Cross, having slain the enmity thereby (Eph. 2:14–16).
Such is God’s solution of the sin problem. A strange solution it may seem, but it works. On the basis of Christ’s work, man is justified that sin may not condemn; sanctified that sin may not reign; glorified that sin may not be. In proportion as depravity is destroyed out of the heart, selfishness, that prolific root of all evil, is slain, and men become united under one Sovereign, Jesus Christ.
There is no other way to union, order and peace than this way, expounded in Christian theology.
4. Theology is fitted to render another service in this world of conflicting authorities, tribunals and opinions. It sets before men a perfect standard of evaluation and judgment. All persons and their actions, all that men are, have, think, say or do, must be tested and measured by this Christian criterion.
This standard is not a way of life, but a Life; not a code of morals, but a character; not a theory, but an example; not a set of principles, but a Person; not an ideal of righteousness and of all excellence, but the reality of it. This standard is Jesus, the sinless, whole, erect, radiant Christ, the incarnation of truth and holiness, who for us men and our salvation became dead and, behold, he is alive forevermore. To him has been given all authority in heaven and in earth. Authority is the right to speak and to be heard, the power to command obedience and to enforce the penalty for disobedience. It is his right to rule, and none shall be able to evade or escape his dominion.
All shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of themselves; the high and the low, the wise and the foolish, sovereigns and subjects, oppressors and oppressed, killers and killed. All shall stand before him to be judged, each according to the deeds done in the body. Nay, he will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and make manifest the counsels of the heart. For he knows our thoughts before we think them, our purposes before we form them.
At the last the only thing that matters for man or nation is the verdict of Christ on his life. If that is the only thing that matters at last, it is the only thing that matters now. And if that verdict be adverse, it is the final disaster; for from that verdict there is no appeal. Here is the one and only totalitarian authority, and it requires and shall receive totalitarian obedience or submission.
How dire is the world’s need of this knowledge! How urgent is the necessity that a voice be heard across the world. And whence is this voice to proceed if not from the Church? Let the fact and standard of Judgment by Jesus Christ be proclaimed across the continents and the islands of the seas, that trembling may take hold upon transgressors and the weapons of their violence may drop from their palsied hands.
5. Finally, theology is prepared to make another contribution towards order in this world of confusion, namely, a correct doctrine of teleology. Teleology is the doctrine of end or goal. It is concerned with destiny. It answers the question, Whither? What is to be the end, the final destiny, of the individual, of the Church, of the world?
Science and philosophy have their eschatologies and Christianity has its eschatology. The eschatology of science is pessimistic and depressing. The eschatology of Christianity is optimistic and exhilarating.
The eschatology of Christianity springs from its character as a teleological religion. It is the highest type of world view because it seeks to grasp the unity of the world through the conception of end or aim. It is only in reference to an aim or end that man can give to his life a true unity. As giving this purposeful view of life, Christianity is the teleological religion par excellence.
The final test of the quality and value of any existence or possession or institution or course of action is the test of the end. For the individual the science of theology holds out the hope of immortality. Not the immortality of the soul alone, but of soul and body, reunited in the resurrection. Man is to be reconstituted and in the integrity of his being admitted to see and share the glory of God.
As for the kingdoms of this world, they have no future except as they become incorporated with the kingdom of God and of Christ.
As for the world as a whole, eschatology teaches that we may look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness, the heavens that now are and the earth having passed away. For the Christian then, the future is bright with promise. Let him lift up his face towards the East and look for the orient light of a better day a-dawning.
James Benjamin Green served as Professor of Theology in Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia, from 1921–50, where the chair of theology has been endowed in his name. Born in northern Alabama, 1871, he was graduated from University of Nashville and Union Seminary, Richmond, and served the Presbyterian Church, South, in 1936–37 as moderator. Among his books, he has written Studies in the Holy Spirit.
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