Sixth in a Series (Part I)

If one fact is clear from the twentieth century, it is that evangelical Christianity gains nothing from a ‘reaction theology’! Because it falls short of a full biblical emphasis, ‘reaction theology’ is powerless to confront the alternatives and always proves weak in the next generation.”

So comments the Dutch theologian, G. C. Berkouwer. One of the real tasks of evangelical Christianity, he feels, must be to move beyond old boundaries to new frontiers of theological enterprise. “The distinction between theological conservatism and progressivism is no longer serviceable,” Dr. Berkouwer says. “The words are no longer useful because everybody wants to ‘conserve’ and to ‘progress.’ Lack of progress is no characterological feature of our theology. We need to face the future unafraid. Faith need not fear in the face of danger. An openness in confronting modern problems in the wrestling of this century will not destroy or dilute the Word of God, but rather will give it free course.” From another quarter—L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, where Francis Schaeffer works with intellectuals on the agnostic fringes of modern life—comes another warning to evangelical forces. “For many of ‘the doubters’ in our generation the accepted religious vocabulary no longer conveys what the words were intended to mean. So the ‘general evangelicals’ are often articulating slogans rather than communicating ideas. They need therefore to step into the twentieth century.” “Worse yet,” says Schaeffer, “some segments of the evangelical movement have fallen prey to the irrationalistic spirit of the age, and they see no real possibility of intellectual answers. They are losing a battle they do not even realize they ought to be fighting. They give away key chunks in their armor to the existential and dialectical philosophies, and rely on piety and zeal to win the day. Or they combat the new theology on too narrow a strip—not seeing its connection with the line of despair that characterizes modern thought.”

These tendencies—first, a ready reliance on reactionary negation rather than on the counter-thrust of creative biblical theology; and second, a spirit of accommodation that simply erodes elements of Christian belief less rapidly than more radical views—largely account for the present predicament of evangelical theology in Europe. The collapse of rationalistic liberalism in European theological thought was forced not by traditional evangelicalism but by the crisis-theology; it was the lack of a vigorous evangelical theological thrust relevant to the spirit of the times that furnished Barth and Brunner their opportunity to speak in the name of biblical theology. Now that the existential-dialectical framework is increasingly strained and a search for new alternatives is under way, the question arises whether European theological history will again neglect a sound evangelical option—and if so, why.

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There is little doubt that evangelical scholarship on the Continent is less formidable today than in earlier times of struggle against modern critical theories. In German theology there have been traditionally two streams of conservatism in biblical-exegetical scholarship. First, there was the confessionalistic theology centered throughout the nineteenth century in the conservative Erlangen Heilsgeschichte school. (Paul Althaus, who also reflected the influence of Martin Kähler, carried this witness forward into the present generation.) The second trend, the pietistic movement, has taken two directions. Originating in Halle, where leaders like Francke and Tholuck combined Lutheran theology with pietism, one stream claimed Martin Kähler and Julius Schniewind among its significant figures, and in our generation has Otto Michel of Tübingen, one of Europe’s able New Testament scholars, as its outstanding representative. Another stream, which under A. Schlatter combined Reformed theology with pietism, has Karl Rengstorf of Münster and Adolf Köberle of Tübingen as leading present-day exponents—the latter reflecting also the influence of the late Karl Heim, another representative of this movement.

Almost all these lines of thought have been somewhat influenced by historical criticism. Moreover, even in their dissent from dialectical theology, they have in recent years found some reinforcement in the writings of Barth and Brunner, so that some evangelical indebtedness to the crisis-theologians cannot be denied. It is true that former Erlangen giants like Hermann Sasse and the late Werner Elert took the position that what was valuable in Barth could be found in the Bible and what was false—including the dialectical structuring of theology—should not be commended to divinity students. Although Elert once said he wanted “no piece of bread” from Barth, the younger conservative theologians acknowledged a debt to Barth for his bold assault on rationalistic modernism, for his role in the Kirkenkampf against Nazi socialism, and for occasional fresh insights into biblical positions. In fact, in their struggle against modernism the conservative forces had to draw much of their ammunition from Barth, because their own theological leadership in the Protestant faculties had been decimated. Thus it developed, as one evangelical put it, that “Barth injected a dose of quinine into the blood of the theologians, and while this checked much feverish speculation, it also encouraged them to survive by means of dialectical infusion.” This turn of events explains why any checklist of evangelical stalwarts in Europe almost invariably includes the names of scholars whose moderate adjustments to biblical criticism or accommodations to recent theology set them apart from American fundamentalism. It accounts also for the mood of moderation in conservative critiques of dialectical theology, as reflected in the works of Althaus. The list of evangelical spokesmen, therefore, is often enlarged beyond the non-dialectical theologians to include scholars like Peter Brunner and Edmund Schlink of Heidelberg, whose formulations retain a dialectical structure, or Helmut Thielicke of Hamburg, who resists the Barthian theology but whose preaching and popular writing seldom reflect his full critical viewpoint.

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The evangelical critique of dialectical theology has nonetheless been maintained along several lines. There is the continuance of the Erlangen salvation-history tradition by Althaus and now by Walter Künneth. The Tübingen line of Schlatter and Heim is continued by Adolf Köberle. There are the biblical exegetes specializing in Judaistic studies (Gustave Dahlmann, Hermann Strack, Otto Michel, Paul Billerbeck, Joachim Jeremias, Karl Rengstorf), and there are also some younger theologians (among them Hans Schmidt, docent for systematic theology in Hamburg, and Adolf Strobel, privat-docent in New Testament at Bonn) who criticize on biblical grounds the philosophical presuppositions of the new theology.

The difference between the conservative and mediating camps, therefore, tends sometimes to become merely a difference of emphasis. Jeremias warns, for example, against drawing too sharp a line between the traditional conservative scholars and the Heilsgeschichte scholars. In part, this plea springs from the fact that, although they resist extreme critical positions, many conservatives are not averse to accepting moderate critical views. So Jeremias assigns Formgeschichte the role of distinguishing “Palestinian from Hellenic layers” in the New Testament. But the plea is based also on the validity of the fundamental concept of salvation-history, to which the recent Heilsgeschichte movement does less than justice. European conservative scholars have learned not to discard valued terminology just because somebody temporarily cheapens it. “The old way, the Heilsgeschichte approach, was correct,” Jeremias insists. “The method did not put the stress on the anthropological side but on the theological. It regarded the main task of hermeneutics as the understanding of the message of our Lord himself with the help of the biblical-Palestinian environment. It took the message of the Gospel without imposing external philosophical presuppositions.”

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Then too, the Heilsgeschichte school itself includes an exegete as conservative as Oscar Cullmann, whose theologically positive views embarrass some salvation-history scholars. In fact, just this extensive theological diversity within the modern Heilsgeschichte movement is one feature that differentiates it from the conservative camp. The salvation-history scholars are actually less unified in perspective than their mutual interest in historical revelation might indicate. They represent a wide variety of viewpoints and interests, although at this present time in the theological debate they manifest a common concern. Eduard Schweizer of Zürich is really a post-Bultmannian, Ulrich Wilckens of Berlin is numbered in the Pannenberg school, and Eduard Lohse of Berlin reflects much of the position of Jeremias, his former teacher.

Wanted: A New Methodology

Amid the growing recognition of the methodological crisis in European theology, conservatives venture little radical criticism of the presuppositions now dominant. It is doubtless true that, as Emil Brunner remarks, “the methodological alone has never changed the church line; the theological is decisive.” Yet in almost every camp some scholars now recognize that the presently controlling methodological premises are under great strain because of the chaotic condition of Continental theology. The Bultmann devotee Hans Conzelmann aptly describes the present tumult as “a trouble of methodology.” And Werner Kümmel, spokesman for the Heilsgeschichte scholars, unhesitatingly calls for “a new methodology” to replace the Bultmannian misconception of the task of hermeneutics with a renewed interest in what the New Testament actually teaches. Yet even among the more conservative scholars there is little evident disposition to attack Formgeschichte in more than a general way.

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Whatever criticisms are sounded, however, are significant and include a rejection of Bultmann’s premise that the form-critical method immediately elucidates the formation of the contents of the New Testament. Otto Michel of Tübingen has spoken openly of the need for a new and different methodology, and calls for a scriptural rather than a critical norm. While in New Testament criticism Michel confessedly retains much the same methodology as Bultmann, he emphasizes the historical roots of early Christian phenomena and achieves a theological result that is evangelically sturdy. “It is customary to draw certain contents (kerygma) from the Bible,” he notes, “but not to draw categories of thought from the Bible, nor to check our categories of historical criticism from it.” A somewhat similar complaint can be found in the writings of A. Schlatter, whose untranslated criticism of modern philosophy from Descartes to Nietzsche should be better known.

Difficulties Facing Conservatives

One reason for the limited initiative and impact of conservative scholars is that their representation on the university faculties is in meager disproportion to the theological outlook of the generality of Lutheran and Reformed church members. For this reason some mainstream ministers and churches are increasingly disposed to establish centers of theological learning independent of the universities. They complain that conservative forces are not adequately represented. They charge that on retirement conservative scholars are replaced by non-conservatives. Only here and there does an isolated scholar make a mark for the evangelical cause. Among such is the New Testament professor Johannes Schneider, a Baptist, recently retired from Humboldt University in East Berlin.

Time pressures on the conservative scholars are such that their literary output often lags. Moreover, the theological situation often requires their engagement on a more technical level than polemical debate. Yet Barth, Brunner, and Bultmann all knew the value of closely reasoned textbooks supporting their positions. A time of theological transition requires coping with the concerns that engage the influential theologians. If evangelical Christianity is again to acquire mainstream theological power, it cannot perpetuate itself by remaining in ideological isolation from dominant trends of thought. Furthermore, the paucity of conservative theological literature frustrates evangelical students. Because there is little else, the dogmatics of Barth and Brunner, appropriated critically, serve as the main theological supply of many conservative students, while Von Rad’s Old Testament theology fills much the same vacuum in that area. Yet the picture is not wholly dark. A few valuable works have appeared from the conservative side, among them Michel’s commentaries on Romans and Hebrews. Long a publishing house for pietistic literature, Brockhaus Verlag in Wuppertal has now widened its program to include the publication of theological works.

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