Can Protestantism escape relativism in theology?… If so, how? By accepting agnosticism? By turning to Rome? By revitalizing the Reformers?
By definition a labyrinth is a complex or indecipherable maze. Calvin used the word to describe the confused state of the mind as it stood before the problems of the universe without the light of revelation. And extensive reading in contemporary theology shows that it too is a labyrinth. Degeneration of faith has gone so far that some theologians engage in a kind of self-flagellation for their Christian belief, as if it were a sin against the modern mind to believe anything.
When Protestant theology abandoned the concept of revelation as the disclosure of the infallible truth of God and gave up the corollary that Scripture is this revelation in written form and thus the authoritative norm and controlling canon in theological construction, it inevitably entered the labyrinth. Or, to put it another way, when Protestant theologians destroyed the one principle that makes the knowledge of God scientific, they destroyed the possibility of theology. Into the resultant vacuum came the endless reinterpretations of Christianity that in turn created the labyrinth of contemporary theology.
Many forces caused the destruction of the one possible principle of scientific theology. The Renaissance, the new humanism, the Enlightenment, all turned their backs upon the past and thus rejected the light from the ancient writings of the prophets and apostles in Holy Scripture. Descartes’s principle of radical doubt as the starting point in philosophy eventually infected all of modern philosophy with radical doubt that inevitably extended to the authenticity of Holy Scripture.
In the progress of modern science from Copernicus and Galileo to Einstein and Heisenberg, Christian revelation was replaced by the view of the universe created by modern science as the natural backdrop of philosophy, ethics, value, art, and politics. Radical biblical criticism dissolved the Old Testament into a patchwork of redactions so filled with historical errors, ancient mythology, and sub-Christian ethics that it could not be taken seriously in situ as an authentic part of revealed Scripture. The critics reduced the Gospels to fanciful reconstructions of the uncritical religious community of the early Church and demoted Paul to a Hellenistic synthesizer, with the resulting conclusion being that the New Testament presents us with no materials on which to base a valid Christian theology.
With the destruction of the historic doctrine of Scripture as the authentic Word of God and therefore of the principle of control in the construction of all theology, there no longer exists a single principle of control in modern Protestant theology. The demolition of the unique principle for the construction of Christian theology mean that orthodoxy—i.e., orthos (“correct”) theological statements justified from the canon of Holy Scripture—no longer exists as a vital option in recent theology. The converse of this is that if no single version of Christianity can possibly be the true or orthodox one, then several interpretations are required, for perchance each of them will in some sense reflect a valid aspect of the Christian faith. But to say this is to ask for the labyrinth in Protestant theology.
At this point, a bit of digression is in order. The labyrinth also prevails in philosophy. Philosophers have not agreed on any one principle, except in the most vague and general criterion that philosophy should reflect reality. Because no fundamental principle informs philosophy, we have such utterly diverse works as Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein) or Being and Nothingness (Sartre).
But science is completely different. Scientists know the unitary principle that informs their discipline. Positively it may be called the principle of verification; negatively, the principle of falsification. Thus a Christion American, an atheist Russian, and a Buddhist Chinaman may set off an atomic explosion, because they follow the unitary principle of science. Philosophers endlessly disagree because they have no unitary principle; scientists form a worldwide society—with differences, to be sure—because they have a unitary principle.
At Ease With Young Turks
Returning to theology, we affirm that in its present labyrinth no orthodoxy is possible. The only thing possible is a cafeteria of options. And John Cobb can write on Living Options in Protestant Theology and ignore orthodoxy as an option. The spirit of modern theology is to encourage the production of all sorts of options. Even religious theists who see nothing special in the Bible or in Jesus Christ are honored among our Christian theologians and given important chairs of theology in our seminaries and graduate schools. The situation has degenerated to the point that some young Turk calling for a total and radical reconstruction of Christian theology causes little apprehension within the Church. One can almost hear the sigh: “Well, thank God [sic], his ideas at least show that we are not in a rut.” We may not be in a rut, but we are certainly in a labyrinth!
For modern theology there are many practical consequences of this labyrinth. For example, seminary professors are almost uniformly hired because they are technicians, and because they hold degrees from prestigious universities and have published scholarly books and articles. Great theological convictions, deep loyalty to the historic versions of the Christian faith, authentic sainthood—such things are no longer the coin of the realm. Calvin’s insistence that piety inform all theological learning provokes a smile as a bit of anachronistic pietism. As a result of all this, our important seminaries are noted, not for Christian depth, but for a team of “all-American” theological specialists.
Another practical consequence of the theological labyrinth appears in denominational life, which is conducted on the ground that all expressions of the Christian faith deserve representation. Attempts to call a denomination back to its historical creedal foundation are branded as divisive. Cooperation with denominational structures is the sine qua non of pastoral success. Preachers who march on Selma are in good standing, because they do not disturb denominational structures; preachers who speak in tongues are disciplined because they are like monkey wrenches thrown into the well-oiled machinery of denominationalism. To be outspoken on social issues is to be called prophetic; to be outspoken on the spiritual and theological bankruptcy of a denomination is to be labeled a crank.
What are the alternatives to the labyrinth of modern theology?
1. We may be honest in following through the logic that the labyrinth implies. If Christianity really is compatible with any number of interpretations, then it is obviously not true. If any other science were to break with its fundamental principle of knowledge, it would cease to exist. If Christianity has no fundamental principle of knowledge that controls its statements, then, in keeping with the rugged honesty of the logic involved, we ought to abandon it. Any logician will agree that a proposition compatible with all possible conditions is no proposition at all.
2. We may return to Roman Catholicism, in which the revelation of God still has control over theological utterances. In spite of all the forces and stresses of the past few centuries, the Roman church has remained loyal to its anchorage in divine revelation. Is not this the resolution of the labyrinth? But as confusing theologically as the times are and as inviting as the Roman ark seems to be, we cannot retreat beyond December 10, 1520, when Luther burned the Canon Law and the Papal Bull.
3. We may follow Gerhard Ebeling (Word and Faith, p. 51—one of the most courageous pages in all modern theology) and simply keep up the program of destruction. We must burn and burn, criticize and criticize, until we eventually find that version of Christianity which withstands the most vicious critical attack. Ebeling admits that this is a terrible course to follow and that it will involve many dark and confused hours. But to him this is the only way out of the labyrinth.
4. We may return to the synthesis of the Reformers, which was characterized by four programmatic principles: (a) The Holy Scriptures are the infallible authority of God and therefore the principle of the construction of Christian theology functioning as both the source and norm of theology. Thus an orthodox theology is possible, although many of its details remain open questions. (b) It is the Holy Spirit who establishes the Christian faith in the believer, in the Church, and in the world. (c) Jesus Christ is the norm, substance, and criterion of both scriptural exegesis and the construction of Christian theology. (d) There is to be the fullest use of the best of human scholarship in the interpretation of Scripture, in the criticism of Scripture, and in the construction of Christian theology.
Scripture And Scholarship
Yet in all this the authority of the Word of God must not be compromised. If scholarship is not exercised under the Word of God, then the concept of the Word of God is empty. In the modern debate, Barth is right as against Bultmann, for if the Word of Scripture is capable of the radical criticism Bultmann suggests, this Word is not truly God’s Word. Thus the Reformers were to this writer sounder than religious modernism, Bultmannism, and the new hermeneutic, because for them the criticism of Scripture could never be merely a technical matter.
But this does not mean we ought to have a mere repristination of Luther and Calvin. It does not mean that theology will be simply a rehash of citations of Scripture texts mixed with quotations from Luther and Calvin. Neither does it mean a denial of the vast biblical knowledge gained in recent decades, or a defense on pietistic or obscurantist grounds of the Reformers’ synthesis. The pressures of modern theological learning would crush this kind of theological program. Orthodoxy must critically and creatively come to terms with the forces behind the mentality that abandoned the fundamental principle making theology a science and governing its intellectual construction.
What Biblical Authority Means
The Scriptures as the infallible authority in theology are under constant misrepresentation in contemporary theology. (a) That the Bible is infallibly authoritative does not mean that all the Bible is on the same level, so that a verse in Numbers is as important as a verse in Romans. (b) To affirm the infallible authority of Holy Scripture is not to deny progressive revelation. Certainly the law of love in the New Testament (Rom. 13:8–10) is advanced over the Mosaic rules. To insist that conservatives have no sense of the progress and movement in Scripture is just to reveal that one has not really exposed himself to the best in conservative exegesis. (c) To regard the Bible as infallibly authoritative is not to drain faith of all its existential juice and make it equivalent to assent. The Reformers insisted that faith means trust (fiducia). Therefore, evangelical theology does not reduce itself to the “theological faith” of Roman Catholicism but rather retains in all its force the dynamic character of faith taught in the New Testament. (d) Nor does the full acceptance of biblical authority mean that conservatives are afraid of the existential, the symbolic, the mythological. But we have sturdy respect for truth. We simply do not see how issues of truth can be settled in terms of existential sobs, symbolic pictures, or mythological ambiguities. We want all the life, vitality, existentiality, emotion, and voluntarism there are in religion, but never at the expense of truth. We wait for those who believe otherwise to show us how they can thread their way through these alogical and non-rational materials and show how to differentiate truth from error. (e) We do not believe that we can produce a theology of glory, i.e., a perfect and inerrant theology. We agree with Luther that, in our brokenness of sin and in the partial character of revelation, we must be content with a theology of the Cross. We therefore admit that within the orthodox and conservative camp differences will always exist. But such differences are not the same as the differences created by those who scrap the orthodox calculus—the modernists, the liberals, the Bultmannians, the followers of Bishop Robinson, and the adherents of the new hermeneutic. In principle, differences within orthodoxy can be settled, though our sinfulness and brokenness prevent this; but in principle differences cannot be settled within modernist, liberal, and existentialist versions of Christianity. Therefore the latter perpetuate and complicate the labyrinth, with all the spiritual agony and ecclesiastical confusion it produces.
If there is to be a revitalization of the historic orthodox position in contemporary theology, certain matters of policy must be followed.
1. The optimism of modern man born at the Renaissance and nurtured by the advance in all departments of human knowledge must be seriously challenged by a fresh investigation of the doctrine of original sin. The invasion of sin into reason itself requires the absolute necessity of special revelation. As long as we deny this invasion of reason by sin, we shall be optimistic about man. Modern science, modern education, modern learning have neither challenged nor negated this fact.
The same thing holds for theology. Only that theology which can come to terms with the invasion of reason by original sin, and which shows the possibility of theology in view of this very invasion, is a realistic and biblical theology. Therefore, Christian theologians must point out with great power that, despite all our modern advancements, humanity still exists within the pale of original sin.
2. Christian theologians must show that philosophy without revelation does as a matter of fact wander in a labyrinth. Calvin’s judgment that philosophers exhibit a shameful diversity (Institutes I, 5, 12) is still true. We do not wish to belittle philosophy. It has made great progress in refining logic, in developing rational alternatives in ethics and value theory, in showing the nature of concepts, in working diligently with the problem of perception, in showing what is involved in any metaphysical system, and in tackling such diverse but important subjects as aesthetics and political philosophy.
But philosophy too comes under the judgment of original sin. It cannot be modern man’s secularized substitute for theology. The ultimate answers to the great questions about man, nature, and God can be found only in the pages of revelation. For this confrontation with modern philosophy no pietistic or fundamentalist eschewing of philosophy will do. The criticism must come from those Christian theologians who have fully exposed themselves to the great philosophical options of the past and present.
3. Christian theologians must show that science and Christian faith are not inimical. At present, there is no uniform plan among evangelical theologians as to how this is to be done. One method, essentially Platonic in orientation, is to show that scientific knowledge is useful and pragmatic but is philosophically empty. Or it may be pointed out that the presuppositions of science are outside science and can be supported only by theology—i.e., the ethical basis of all scientific work; the uniformity of nature, which can be grounded only in the doctrine of creation; or the use of logic in science, which can rest only upon man’s being in the image of God. Others may attempt to show that science is but part of man’s mandate to culture as the lord of creation and hence is a biblically sanctioned activity. Still another approach is based upon language analysis. Scientific explanations are of one order, theological explanations of another. They do not conflict; rather, they exhibit the principle of complementarity. The same phenomenon may be described from two different perspectives, each perspective valid in itself, although no principle of harmonizing the two is forthcoming. Thus it can be shown by one of the foregoing methods that the supposed cleavage between science and historic Christian theology is fictional rather than real.
4. The most difficult problem facing the Reformation synthesis in theology is certainly that of biblical criticism. Ebeling, in his famous essay, “The Significance of the Critical Historical Method for Church and Theology in Protestantism” (Word and Faith, pp. 17 ff.) certainly put his finger on a raw nerve.
The Reformers were aware of the critical understanding of the Scriptures and knew that a critical treatment of the Scriptures must accompany their theological use. Luther’s rejection of the Apocrypha and his free attitude towards such books as Esther, James, and Revelation are examples of his openness to criticism. Calvin’s occasional admission in his Commentaries of insoluble difficulties in the text and his thesis that critical problems of Scripture are to be settled by humanistic scholarship and not by church fiat are typical of his hospitality to criticism. But in none of this did the Reformers ever think of challenging the Holy Scriptures as the infallible source and norm of Christian theology. It was only in subsequent developments in theology that the theological norm of the Reformers was broken.
Even the most consistent fundamentalist admits the necessity of textual criticism, because one cannot translate the Bible until he has first determined the text. The same fundamentalist must also engage in the historical study of the canon, because that which he considers the Word of God is a specific list of books settled upon at a specific time by synagogue or church. Again, the same fundamentalist must say something about authorship, dates, and integrity of the books of the Bible, even if he only painfully reproduces the most traditional views.
The Reformers’ synthesis demands that if the Scriptures are the infallible document of revelation, they must be authentic. From the scraps to which radical criticism reduces the Bible no great Christian theology can be built. But neither can evangelical scholarship accept uncritically a whole battery of presuppositions about the nature of authenticity. In this writer’s opinion, the most trying and difficult days immediately ahead for evangelical theology have to do with the necessity for it to come to terms with what the authenticity of Scripture really is. Evangelical scholarship must show how it can intelligently interact with biblical studies, remain free from obscurantism, and yet maintain the theological authority and literary authenticity of Holy Scripture. A major step in this direction has been the publication of The New Bible Commentary and The New International Commentary. And an increasing number of young evangelical scholars give promise of effecting the synthesis between valid criticism and biblical authenticity.
The labyrinth prevails! And it poses these alternatives: agnosticism; a retreat to the absolutes and infallibilities of Roman Catholicism; the endless burning of options as advocated by Ebeling; or the revitalization of the synthesis of the Reformers. To this writer, it is only the latter that can end the labyrinth of contemporary theology. For only the synthesis of the Reformers can truly make Christian theology a science instead of a mere congerie of opinions.
T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.