One can’t play the bishop’s tune on Gabriel’s horn

Bishop John A. T. Robinson has been visiting American campuses trying, with limited success, to tell the academic community precisely what he disowns in biblical Christianity, and precisely what he would put in its place. The longer the dialogue continues, the more it appears that precision is not one of the bishop’s gifts. Those who take hold of his position are reminded of the man who, according to Stephen Leacock, mounted his horse and rode off in all directions. In his latest appearances, the bishop has said that he is not bound to Tillich’s ontology (see News, p. 43) and that he is a supernaturalist after all, and yet he continues to spell out his view in essentially non-supernaturalistic Tillichean terms.

An Indiana clergyman put the issue neatly when he asked Robinson, who objects to a God “up there” and “out there” as mythological and prescientific, whether the man in the pew can be expected to have any less difficulty with the philosophical niceties of the theology of the immanent ground of being than with a theology of celestial navigation and divine postal zones. We can hardly think of a more comprehensible view of God than the biblical representation, nor one subject to so much misunderstanding—as Bishop Robinson has already conceded regarding the ground of being—as the ambiguous alternative he proposes in Honest to God.

We remain wholly unconvinced that Robinson’s new medium for communicating the Christian faith can achieve this objective as clearly and surely as the Scriptures do. We do not regard his view as a revised version of biblical theology in the modern idiom. If one prefers a modern house with biblical landscaping, that is his privilege; but he should not so readily assume that Moses and Jesus are eager to move into this theological suburbia. One cannot play the bishop’s tune on Gabriel’s horn.

We are troubled by Dr. Robinson’s oversensitivity to public opinion polls. What the world thinks is always of Christian concern and is a proper stimulus to evangelistic passion and apologetic engagement; but it ought not to dictate the content of theology. If the prophets and apostles had bent to these winds, multitudes in the past would not have turned from polytheism or turned to Christ. In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that sinful man has a natural antagonism to the Gospel of the Living God; all the more imperative it is, therefore, that the Christian vanguard proclaim the supernatural God who has revealed himself, the living God supremely manifested in Jesus Christ. If the bishop’s alternative is especially acceptable to modern man (not the Communist man, certainly; nor the Asian or African man either; but the Western secular man, presumably)—and in our generation this sales pitch has already been made for the widely varying formulas of Barth and Bultmann and death-of-God deviants—we must not forget that any view mainly distinguished by attachment to, rather than transcendence of, the mentality of a particular period is a sure candidate for early obsolescence. Theologians indeed ought to not add incredulity to revealed religion; but neither ought they to diminish the truth of God addessed to all ages, our own included.

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As a result of his statistical orientation of theology, Bishop Robinson’s views reflect an ambiguous approach to the nature of truth. We can well share his stated positive concern, that of “removing that which removes God, at any rate for a lot of people.” But the merely functional reality of God is repeatedly stressed above and to the exclusion of his ontological reality. We have searched Bishop Robinson’s writings in vain for any sure indication of what genuine cognitive or conceptual knowledge of God man has or can have on the basis of God’s self-revelation. In the bishop’s view, do we have any universally valid knowledge of God, and revealed truths about God that bind men in all ages and places? In Honest to God one finds statements in which Bishop Robinson seems, with Tillich, to view all affirmations about God as symbolic rather than literal, and this sword is wielded with great vigor against the biblical revelation of God as supernatural, personal, and independent of the universe. But this sword is double-edged. If Bishop Robinson wields it, we shall require its use against any statement he himself makes about the Unconditioned, whose reality and immanence are no less a matter of faith than that of the supernatural, personal God of the Bible; we shall require its use even when he says “God is Love,” and when he speaks of the function of God no less than when he speaks against his existence. If our affirmations about God are not universally valid cognitive truths, if they are merely symbolic, we see no reason for taking Bishop Robinson literally whenever he speaks about God, and particularly not when he seems to want us to understand him literally.

In short, we should value a clear statement of the epistemological ground on which the bishop proposes that all of us base our affirmations about God. What reason controls his rejection of the reality of a supernatural, personal God, other than its unacceptability to modern unbelief? Over and above appeals to modern consensus, or apart from God’s intelligible self-disclosure and an authoritative Bible, which Bishop Robinson disallows, is he saying that sensory verification is the arbiter of all knowledge, or that modern science excludes the reality of the supernatural, or that experience is the final test of truth, or that whatever coincides with his emotive preferences is theologically admissible? Or just what?

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In the Bible, God is self-revealed as literally the Living God, whose transcendence as the supreme personal Spirit means that, however closely related to the universe, he is free of all external limitations and distinct from man and the world, and in some ways even opposes his fallen creation. The biblical view contains no trace or taint of pantheism; none of the forces of nature or of man is assigned a divine function or power. But the notion of a non-supernatural deity, of a wholly immanent deity, has specially attracted speculative philosophers who doubt whether God made the universe. In the biblical understanding, it is an abuse of the name of God to refer this to the abstract idea of the Unconditioned, to the idea of our own limits; this postulation has no sure connection with the Living God who reveals himself personally and intelligibly. This mythological humanism or naturalism is a time-bound, twentieth-century speculation about God that substitutes systematic mythology for systematic theology, and postulation for revelation.

We are greatly relieved, therefore, that Bishop Robinson now avoids speaking of the “ground of being” because it too is subject to misunderstanding. But our question, then, is whether, in abandoning the notion of this ground of being, he now returns to the supernatural, personal, self-revealed God of the Bible or has some other alternative to offer as the object of Christian worship. Many of us think that, despite all talk about the Unconditioned, anti-supernatural theology trapped God in nature and put him on a leash, and that he has been so long coming of age—until the day of Tillich as the new Moses, Bonhoeffer perhaps as John the Baptist, and Bishop Robinson as the apostle to the Anglicans—that we are very eager to learn what the modern secular mind is right now demanding by way of theological substitution. Who are the theological troubadors now energetically blowing God’s trumpet?

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Assuming that the bishop still rejects the supernatural personal God of the Bible, it will be well to recall the New Testament strategic situation. Stoic philosophy, which was in existence more than three centuries before the ministry of Jesus, denied that God is personal and supernatural (or independent of the universe). Now, Jesus in his prayers almost invariably addresses God as Father; in the Gospels the title is on his lips 170 times. Jesus’ life is centered in God as a supernatural personal reality; and we affirm that the person and work of Christ are the supreme revelation of God. Matthew 11:25 f. and Luke 10:21 f. indicate that Jesus’ knowledge of the Father was grounded in a special divine relationship transcending that of all other men. If the philosophy of the non-supernatural, impersonal unconditioned had been propounded to Jesus, would he have indebted himself to it, or would he have repudiated it as pagan idolatry? In brief, was Jesus mistaken about the nature of God, despite his unique relation and communication with him? And when the Apostle Paul encountered the Stoic philosophers, and on Mars Hill propounded a supernatural creator distinct from the world and man, ought Paul instead to have followed them to the Stoa (the colonnaded porch from which the Stoics taught in ancient Athens) and struck a theological compromise with them?

Clouded Judgment

There was a strange paradox in one of Dr. Eugene Carson Blake’s first major addresses in America after his election to leadership of the World Council of Churches. In the first James J. Reeb Memorial Lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary last month, Dr. Blake described the “militant Christian faith” and said “conservatives among us” are properly and legitimately worried about the drift from the historic Christian faith. Although he contended that these fears had more ground fifty years ago than today, which is debatable, he affirmed a theology that undergirds all Christians—Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic—including “a transcendent God, who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.” But in a curious inconsistency, Blake, when he got to the topic of the day, said that James J. Reeb, a Unitarian, “was a martyr of the Church of Jesus Christ.”

The question whether Unitarian humanism has a place in the Church of Jesus Christ and in the ecumenical movement has been raised from time to time. At the local level, many councils of churches have admitted Unitarian churches into membership; this has led to the formation of evangelical councils of churches, since conscientious convictions kept some evangelicals from becoming part of ecclesiastical organizations that included Unitarians. Those who had been concerned about the theology of the World Council of Churches and who thought the Unitarian issue had been settled by its trinitarian doctrinal commitment were astonished at Blake’s remark.

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James Reeb was martyred in Selma, Alabama, little more than a year ago. He died for a constitutional issue in which he believed. We honor him for the courageous expression of his deepest convictions. No one can justify or excuse his brutal murder, from which there are lessons still to be learned. But Blake’s address raises important questions that pertain, not to civil rights, but to the heart of present-day theological dialogue and to the posture of one of the leading ecumenical spokesmen.

Blake said that Reeb, who left the Presbyterian Church to become a Unitarian minister, entered a ministry “that at a critical point of Christian theology is at sharp variance from the system of theology taught here [Princeton Seminary].” The difference in theology between the Unitarians and the historic denominations is indeed “sharp”—so sharp that Unitarians are not members of the National or the World Council of Churches. The trinitarian standards of the WCC exclude them from membership. Yet Blake called Reeb “a martyr of the Church of Jesus Christ.” That he was a martyr no one will deny. That he was in the Church of Jesus Christ is another matter.

In his biography of Reeb, No Greater Love, Duncan Howlett examines his subject’s theological pilgrimage. He describes Reeb’s visit to a denominational official who told him: “Well, if you don’t believe in God, I don’t see how you can be a minister, and I think you had better get out” (p. 89). Reeb said, “I discovered my integrity was being undermined by the very confessional nature of the [Presbyterian] Church” (p. 98). And “I have clearly progressed in my views until I am much more of a humanist than a deist or theist” (p. 87). “He was,” says Howlett, “no longer troubled by the fact that he did not believe the doctrines set forth in the Westminster Confession” (p. 86). A Presbyterian minister friend told him: “Stay in the church. There are many who believe as you do. I myself am one. You are not expected to take the Confession literally. Few of us do. The winds of change are sweeping through the church today. Stay and help us change it. The church will be bogged down in its ancient theology if all who outgrow it abandon it” (p. 87). But Reeb chose the course of honesty by becoming a Unitarian.

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The church’s answer to Reeb’s action was given by the Philadelphia Presbytery when in June, 1960, it “deposed him because he ‘had renounced the jurisdiction of the United Presbyterian Church and joined an heretical body’ ” (p. 131).

By placing James Reeb in the category of a “martyr of the Church of Jesus Christ,” Blake may have opened a Pandora’s box. By recognizing as within the Church one who unequivocally denied the Christian faith and who would not be admissible to any historic denomination holding to its confessional standards, including the United Presbyterian Church, Blake is at variance with action of a presbytery of his own church, of which he is still the stated clerk, and with the trinitarian formula of the World Council of Churches, of which he is shortly to become secretary general.

In recent years, the World Council has sought dialogue and fellowship with “conservative evangelicals” outside its membership. Again and again the “conservative evangelicals” have expressed their reservations about the doctrinal fidelity of the WCC. It was a cause for rejoicing when the WCC enlarged its doctrinal commitment with respect both to the Trinity and to the Scriptures. Now it is regrettable that the new secretary general has cast a shadow over the basic doctrinal commitment of the ecumenical movement.

Dr. Blake has let his admiration of Reeb’s devotion cloud his judgment. But let him speak for himself: “Yet this seminary … honors one of her sons by establishing this lectureship in his memory. Some would say that this is an embarrassment both to the seminary and to the Presbyterian Church. And so it is.”

A Bursting Bubble?

There are rumblings that the “death of God” camp is fragmenting, despite the fact that Thomas J. J. Altizer of Emory University and William Hamilton of Colgate Rochester Divinity School have collaborated on a new book, Radical Theology and the Death of God, scheduled for publication April 18 by Bobbs-Merrill. In it they contend that the new theology strives for both “a whole new way of theological understanding” and “a pastoral response hoping to give support to those who have chosen to live as Christian atheists.”

Some of the radical theologians have been seeking to isolate Altizer as a liability. Even the controversial Anglican Bishop John A. T. Robinson, who recently visited Hamilton, Harvey Cox, and other theological extremists, told Indiana Episcopalians last week that he considers Altizer’s notion that God died in A.D. 29—in its emphasis that God ceased to be transcendent and through death became immanent and secular—“heresy,” and that he had urged Hamilton to move away from close identification with Altizer.

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Robinson predicted that the death-of-God theology is “a bubble that will soon burst. It is unstable; it does not have a future.”

At Temple University, Paul van Buren is reportedly already taking a somewhat more cautious line. He increasingly disowns the phrase “the death of God” and instead emphasizes that “the word of God has died; the God of Christian tradition is not subject to death.”

He May Also Kiss The Bride

The easement of Roman Catholic mixed marriages issued recently by Pope Paul will do much to resolve a great pastoral problem within the Roman Catholic Church. Few people realize how many Catholics involve themselves in mixed marriages. In 1964, according to the Official Catholic Directory, nearly one-fourth (24.9 per cent) of the marriages performed in the Catholic churches of twenty-seven archdioceses were mixed—40,000 out of 161,000. The recent declaration that those who engage in such marriages are no longer under threat of excommunication will ease a serious situation.

Pope Paul’s Matrimoni Sacramentum will do little, however, to ease Roman Catholic—Protestant ecclesiastical tensions. It allows the Protestant minister at the mixed wedding ceremony to be there, like the bridesmaid. After the marriage has been celebrated by the priest, the minister is permitted to make some appropriate remarks and join in common prayer. As long as the Roman church regards marriage as a sacrament and the priest as its only valid celebrant, and the Protestant clergyman is little more than a member of the wedding party with the right to make some remarks just before kissing time, the public image of “getting together” is little more than a facade.

Nor will the Pope’s new declaration do much to ease the conscience of the serious Protestant considering marriage with a Roman Catholic. He must still “openly and sincerely” promise to place no obstacle in the way of the Roman Catholic education of his future children. If he cannot do this in good conscience—and how can he?—the case must be referred to the Holy See.

Thus the Vatican has issued easements for the solutions of its own internal pastoral problems but has made no concession of any substance to non-Catholic Christians or non-Catholic churches.

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Lift The Standards

The Tuesday morning quarterbacks are reviewing the recent Supreme Court decision that sent Ralph Ginzburg and Edward Mishkin, purveyors of pornography, to jail. News media have both cheered and jeered.

Having left its intentions unclear by its earlier Roth decision, the court apparently sought to provide some curbs. It did—even though nine justices, in three decisions, wrote fourteen opinions and decided against Ginzburg by a 5–4 vote.

The court has given the community a standard by which to take action against salesmen of filth. For this we should be grateful. It has ruled that the manner of peddling and advertising, and the intention of the seller, can be grounds for conviction. Although manner and intention cannot be defined without risks, cities and towns can move vigorously to clean up newsstands and bookstores.

Behind the divisions of the Supreme Court, and the acuteness and complexity of the judicial decisions, lies the fact of which Christians should be aware—a major cultural change has taken place in America and much lower moral standards prevail.

Ultimately the solution of the obscenity problem will not come from court decisions, for wherever there is liberty there will be license. It is license that tests liberty. However, just as freedom of speech does not include the right to cry “fire” in a crowded theater, neither does it include the right to poison men’s minds with unbridled obscenity. We need not change the test set forth in the 1957 Roth decision, whether “to the average person, applying contemporary standards, the dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.” What we need to do is lift prevailing standards to higher levels that censure the anything-for-profit vultures and prevent decadent and immoral people from publishing their filth.

It has been done before. The Evangelical Awakening of the eighteenth century profoundly changed the moral and spiritual climate of England. Today also the Gospel accompanied by the Christian ethic, vigorously applied to a decadent society, can bring renewal.

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