One of the Most Important Questions in contemporary theology is that of the finality of the Gospel. Current studies bristle with problems related to this, and anyone reading hard in either exegesis or dogmatics these days encounters such problems almost daily. There are the many questions related to the historico-critical method, to “demythologizing,” to history and historicism, to say nothing of Christian morality.
When one turns from today’s problems to the witness of the New Testament, he finds himself in another world. For here we do not find a discussion about the truth and its finality; we hear words of warning and sounds of alarm against the lie. Here, in the New Testament, truth and falsehood are opposed as clear, decisive, and absolute antagonists. Moved and concerned, Paul speaks out unambiguously against those who “tamper with God’s word” (2 Cor. 4:2, RSV). He is alert to the “god of this world” who has “blinded the minds of the unbelievers” to the light of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). He warns against false apostles and deceitful workers who parade themselves as apostles of Christ (2 Cor. 11:13). They imitate Satan in his masquerade as an angel of light. We are all called, therefore, to test the spirits, “for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Impressive persons can and do pretend to speak the truth. But we are to remember that even an angel from heaven may not be allowed to get away with preaching a false gospel (Gal. 1:8). Among the “prophets” that bring the Church into confusion, some will be most impressive and credible personally. But we must never forfeit our responsibility to test the spirits by saying, “This angel would never deceive us.” Even the most impressive prophet needs testing; the message of the most likely angel needs investigation.
In this connection, Paul uses the awful word “anathema.” This word has played quite a role in church history, most famously in the several decrees of the Council of Trent. The word may also remind us that when believers use it against other people, it is a dangerous tool. There must be room for a radical testing of ideas by those who love the truth. Of course, the ideas, not the persons, are always the object of human testing. And the criterion is not the quality of the “prophet” but the Gospel. The New Testament provides ample justification for the most searching critique of the ideas of those who come as teachers of truth. Where Jesus Christ is denied, there we have the antichrist (1 John 2:22). John does not at this point discuss differences in points of view. He simply sounds the alarm: “No one who denies the Son has the Father” (1 John 2:23a). And this touches all of life, eternal life. Hence, let there be no ambiguity.
In a day when relativity is king, these New Testament perspectives may sound unbearably absolutistic. Perhaps this is because so many things have been surrounded by uncertainty today. Profound problems have been set before us all. And even in theology there is a heap of uncertainty where yesterday’s verities seem buried. Where doubts rise, the alarm against untruth is hard to hear. The modern sciences, especially psychology and sociology, have made the complexity of issues more impressive than their clarity. We have become timid about setting things in terms of either-or. We are less ready to judge heresy than to deal with the psychology of the heretic.
Have we perhaps more understanding of error and its sources than John and Paul had? One senses immediately how pretentious this question is. We are reminded that we may also be estranged from the clear vision of the New Testament. Have we let our views become so complex that we have lapsed into uncertainty? If so, we have fallen into a genuine crisis. Worse, our crisis could be the result of alienation from the apostolic witness. One of the symptoms of our crisis could be our fear of absolutism.
History shows us a long parade of people who appear on stage with the whole truth, people who never took seriously the fact that the best schooled among us know “only in part,” that even those with 20–20 vision see “through a glass darkly.” The same Paul who spoke an anathema against other gospels admitted that he knew only in part. The absolutism that takes the form of fanaticism has always awakened reactions that in turn have tended to relativize truth.
What we must keep in mind is that there is no more false dilemma than the absolutist-relativist dilemma. With it, one finds a plausible excuse for relativism, for he will not accept unqualified absolutism. For the theologian, an understanding of the falsity of this dilemma is imperative. In the first place, we must confess that both Church and theologians have often spoken more absolutely than was warranted. The Church has had to retract what was once proclaimed as absolute truth. Galileo must never be far from our mind. We must admit that some past solutions to problems no longer satisfy, though they once were accepted as unchangeable dogmas. This fact must keep the Church humble. And we must admit that the path of humility has at times been hard for the Church to take.
But whether, in the midst of some uncertainties, the Church is still bound to the untouchable certainties of the apostolic witness is a question of another sort. It is a question of to be or not to be. Over against absolutism, the Church must never flee into relativism. What it must do is constantly seek the responsible way of proclaiming the sure Gospel. The theology of our time makes this responsibility a very existential one. No matter how complex many questions may be, the Church in its proclamation has to do with truth. And this means putting the truth in clear confrontation with falsehood. We have to avoid absolutism even while we fulfill our responsibility to the message of the Gospel, a calling to translate the Gospel in such a way as to leave no one in doubt as to its meaning and demands. We must make it clear why the New Testament speaks its anathema and why it warns against the antichrist. All the complexities of modern life notwithstanding, this must be unambiguous.
If we are content merely to understand error, the Church of Christ is no longer the Church. The Church has a transcendent position above the dilemma of absolutism and relativism. And the Church must know this and live in it. For while admitting the complexities of human thought, it proclaims the absoluteness not of its own but of Christ’s Gospel. We could put it this way: only as the Church knows both the anathema and the fact of our imperfect knowledge as Paul knew them both, only as it admits both, can it, without fear of capitulation, be of blessing to the world.
To know this secret—the relation between the anathema against falsehood and the confession of our own imperfect knowledge—we need each other. We need each other in the sphere of fellowship and reflection. For when we neglect or fail to comprehend this mystery, we shall lose our salt, and our light will be darkness. Neither absolutism nor relativism can give savor or enlightenment to the world.
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