Do conservatives and liberals need each other? If so, in what way, and for which objectives? Two Protestant theologians candidly discuss this issue pro and con. Have conservatives and liberals drawn closer to each other? Do conservatives champion truth at the expense of love? Do liberals champion love at the expense of truth? Read these essays for a spirited theological debate over fundamental concerns.—ED.
Regardless of how much we consider ourselves indebted to the Reformers, there is a tone in their speaking that shocks us. I am not referring primarily to the coarseness of their language, although it may be admitted that a good many of Luther’s descriptions of his opponents are not only colorful but also inexcusably rude, and in their more outspoken versions quite unprintable. But even when we turn to a more gentlemanly polemicist, John Calvin, who usually employed only above-belt metaphors and spoke about opponents who variously railed, barked, spit, and vomited against the truth—even here sincere compassion for the opponent as a sinner was mingled with utter contempt of his theological position. Yet Calvin was not self-righteously insensitive to his own errors and sins. Rather, what to us may look like insensitivity and vindictiveness was instead a devout believer’s holy hatred of the untrue. Convinced as he was that a crime was measured by the status of the person against whom it was committed, Calvin viewed heresy as utterly despicable. No words were too harsh in describing him who had blasphemed God Almighty.
This conviction was not peculiar to Calvin but was shared by most men of that generation. Therefore, it is not surprising that Menno Simons—to mention one more Reformer—who was known to be a kindly man, could nevertheless view his theological opponents as followers of the Antichrist. And he was convinced that he was led to this perspective not by hate but by the Christian love for truth. Like the rest of the Reformers, Menno Simons never thought that there could be such a thing as an honest difference of conviction about the content of faith. With the other Reformers, he fervently believed that no one with genuine good will and sufficient learning could interpret the Scriptures in radical divergence from him. Thus he had the hope, upheld at least in principle, that, by the grace of God and the zealous efforts of men, it might be possible to convert the opponents, if only they would listen.
This hope was never fulfilled. The Reformation remained divided, a tragic fact that underscores the distinct limits of the Reformers’ success. If they are looked at one by one, their faith appears lofty indeed: a fearless and unqualified commitment to the living centrality of the Scriptures as the infallible revelation of God. But when they are viewed as a group, even a favorably prejudiced onlooker must admit that their faith was not equaled by their love. Or, to put it another way, the very intensity of their faith seemed to be in direct proportion to the zeal that inspired the ensuing unbrotherly quarrel. The age that had begun with the clarion call “Scripture alone” seemed to end in strife.
In so far as we view ourselves as children of the Reformation, we by necessity accept the diversity of our heritage, its liabilities as well as its assets. Now, the intent of this discussion is not to deplore the past; rather, it is to suggest that in the unresolved tensions of the Reformation there may be several fruitful suggestions for the continuing dialogue among Christians ranging from conservative to liberal and including both Protestants and Catholics. To say this is not to imply that there are immediate solutions for problems at least four hundred years old. Rather, it is to plead that we dare not view the status quo as insolvable. To do so blinds us to the extent to which conservative and liberal Christians may benefit from one another, and in this process even grow in grace.
The Disappearance Of Hate
In the first place, it should be noted that today conservatives and liberals stand much closer together than they will often admit. At this point a brief contrast with the attitudes of the Reformers is enlightening. Although conservatives do at times show concern about the extent to which their more liberal opponents are still Christian, as a rule they do not use sulphuric language to consign them unqualifiedly to the eternal flames. And although some liberals feel that their more conservative opponents have not always throught consistently enough, and therefore may be said to lack a certain measure of depth, it is generally neither said nor implied that the conservative position can be accepted only by those of weak intellect. This mutual respect does not extend merely to the level of practicing social amenities and avoiding crude name-calling. It runs very deep and rests on the assumption, never held by the Reformers, that there is such a thing as an honest doctrinal disagreement among Christian gentlemen. And while one side may indeed hope to be “more” right and “more” devout, it is unwilling to regard its relative superiority as sufficient for unqualified condemnation of the opponent. The most important fact to be considered here is that such an attitude does not rest on a cooling-off of faith, lack of interest in dogmatic formulation, or weakening love of truth but is the direct result of the disappearance of hate in the propagation of Christian truth. Nor is such a refusal to regard hate as a legitimate means for speaking the truth to be viewed merely as a resolve of the intellect. It may very well have its roots in the experience of coexistence that has taught that they who disagree on one dogmatic formulation may fervently agree on another, and that in the midst of this agreement and disagreement a genuine Christian love may blossom. By the standards of the Reformation, it is bluntly unthinkable that, to use but one example, there can be a working compatibility among theological conservatives (or neo-orthodox, or liberals) who disagree on such crucial doctrines as predestination, sanctification, the Church, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Yet such a compatibility exists. From experiencing it, all of us have cast off the more intolerant perspective of the Reformation and rejoice in having cast it off.
Secondly, it should be noted that in the disagreements still existing among the heirs of the Reformation, there may be seen not only the danger of chaos, as the Reformers feared, but also an occasion for mutual edification, based on the practical insight that the errors of the opponents are more readily perceived than our own. If now the “opponent” may be recognized as not only an outsider but an insider as well, then his so-called error may induce us, not to reject him, but to accept him all the more because he is in need of our constructive and brotherly criticism. There always seem to be some timid souls who in the face of theological disagreement come up with the sincere yet actually destructive counsel of despair; that is, they plead that not even a relatively best theological position can be discerned before the judgment day. And the admission of the relativity of a given doctrinal formulation leads to the destructive assertion of the relativity of all truth. But this is not the only option. Often the willingness to question and reformulate one’s comprehension of a specific dogma leads to a deeper and hence more useful understanding of it. And although such a creative dialogue is always more easily described than conducted, the quest for it still appears better than the return to a sixteenth-century mentality—with the consequences of preferring one segment of the Reformation to another and treating one’s opponents as either stupid or infidel, something which our age is no longer prepared to do. We ought not to be blamed for refusing to be orthodox at the price of proclaiming our brother a heretic!
Currency And Correctness
The truth, then, is that the conservative needs the liberal as much as the liberal needs the conservative, although in a quite different way. Without implying any un-American political convictions, one might say that the liberal’s religious development often appears to proceed in analogous lines to the Kremlin’s political actions. The truly “correct” theology is always the current one. All preceding versions are viewed as inadequate formulations of that truth which now is seen clearly. As the political fortunes of the Kremlin well indicate, what today is “modern” may tomorrow be outdated; a new leader may order the rewriting of the history of the party and thereby bring about a rearrangement of what is viewed as the “party” against the “anti-party” line. Protestant liberalism is, of course, less monolithic than the Kremlin; yet it is just as rapid in its repeated changes of the “really” adequate way of theologizing. The conservative cannot understand how the liberal can proclaim his newly formulated outlook to be the most adequate, since the past record indicates the inevitable: before the proclaimer has retired from his teaching post, his views will first be divided up into early, middle, and late positions, then finally considered as altogether outdated and in need of being replaced by the “new” and significant “breakthrough.”
At the same time, the conservative needs the presence of the liberal to remind him that not all change indicates purposelessness and instability. To the liberal it often appears that the conservative fails to see that change is an intrinsic aspect of life, and that what is really important is not to record the occurrence of the change and to identify the latest phase as the best but to observe the context in which the change has taken place. If this is done, then it may be possible to witness to the conservative that the task of Christian theology is not to build new systems (or to retain the old) for their own sake but to employ them as means for communicating the Gospel. As secular culture changes, as its needs vary from generation to generation, as its very language changes, so also must the speaking of the theologian be forever “incarnate” in the world in which he lives. Thus the liberal is not seeking to be creative for the sake of novelty; rather, he tries to speak to a new situation in a fresh and more adequate way. The conservative, in the perspective of the liberal, often enough appears to be an antiquarian who hugs the past and then scolds the world for passing him by.
Now, the point of this contrast (admittedly oversimplified) between conservatives and liberals has been, first, to underscore their mutual and continuous need for encounter, and, second, to point out that in the theological climate of the twentieth century, in which both sides have abandoned the Reformation’s stance of hate-filled rejection of views other than one’s own, at least an implicit rapprochement has already occurred. To a significant degree the encounter already takes place. To say this is not to deny that the Reformers were well informed about the views of opponents (although, admittedly, not all the opponents knew one another equally well). Yet because the opponents were treated as either stupid or infidel, their theological insights were never taken very seriously. Today, by contrast, with the general acceptance of the possibility of differences of interpretation, the wall of hate and suspicion has been broken down. Those who once were enemies now stand face to face with one another as respected members of the same household of Christ.
The adequacy of the present situation can be judged if the following factors are taken into account. First, there is a very great need to recognize that the prayer of Christ “that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22) expresses, not an ideal, but the holy will of Christ for all Christians. And while the prayer does not explicitly mention organizational unity of all Christians, it does suggest unity so profound that in it there are no divisions at all, no distance between two believers. Instead, according to the prayer of Christ, it is his will “that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26). Thus while a merely organizational unity would not by itself bring about the profound oneness that Christ has prayed for us to have, we must remember that if Christ seeks unity without any inward boundary lines, then all organizational structures that divide us must be overcome. Therefore a divided Christendom, when compared to the standard of John 17, cannot be said to be in accord with the divine will. Our situation may of course be recognized as an improvement upon the self-righteousness and hatred of the age of Reformation; yet since the Gospel is not an ideal but a command, our present situation cannot be viewed complacently.
This, then, is the direct result of our having been blessed with the inability to speak the truth in hate: we are now able to see the need to repent for the dreadful sin of division that afflicts us all. Freed from the delusion that we are obviously right and our opponent completely wrong, we can now seek the forgiveness and healing that Christ can give. In so far as the desire for such a quest has been explicitly nurtured by ecumenism, we can thank God for this movement that has been a means of grace in opening our eyes to the sinfulness of our divided existence, and has remarkably succeeded in arousing within us the longing for a fuller life as one body of believers in the full unity of Christ.
At the same time, it is only realistic to continue the confession by admitting that we have not yet accepted and experienced enough grace to be able to know the answers to our doctrinal and organizational problems. We have discovered the need for a dialogue—and yet we know that the dialogue has not proceeded far enough to erase the ancient lines of division. Therefore, having noted some basic aspects of the mutuality possible even in our divided existence, we must be humble enough to admit that the future course for reaching complete unity is a matter of certain hope rather than of present knowledge. Seen in this way, our situation suggests that, on the one hand, we must sincerely acknowledge the wisdom of the Christian conservative who warns against union merely for union’s sake, and insists that doctrinal differences cannot be brushed aside as unimportant. On the other hand, we must also respect the zeal of the Christian liberal who, unsatisfied with the status quo, challenges us to forsake the complacency of enjoying present achievements, and points to the holy will of Jesus Christ that cannot be forever deferred, if we desire to claim his Name as ours. Such observations may indicate the predicament of our age. By the grace of God we no longer speak the truth in hate; and yet it is our own sin that we are incapable of speaking the truth in unfragmented love and hence do not know what the fullness of truth is.
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