Analytical philosophy is thought by some to threaten only orthodox Christian belief. Indeed, if the new secular Christian were to have his way, he would have us believe that he alone and not the orthodox believer had the support of recent philosophical developments. “The application of the methods of modern philosophy to the problems of modern theology has been barely begun,” writes Professor Paul van Buren. These methods, he believes, will produce an “analysis of the language of the New Testament, the Fathers, and contemporary believers [which] will reveal the secular meaning of the Gospel (The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, Macmillan, 1963, pp. 104 and 19, italics mine).

In his influential book bearing this question-begging title, Van Buren develops his version of “no-God theology” by a use of linguistic philosophy that is neither correctly understood nor correctly applied. In consequence, “the methods of modern philosophy” appropriated by him are now beginning to be applied to his own arguments in a way that “leaves some doubt”—as Professor Hall puts it—“as to how well he understood his bed companion” (Robert Hall, “Theology and Analysis, “The Christian Scholar, Winter, 1965, p. 309).

Certainly it would be a mistake for any Christian to believe that analytical or linguistic philosophy is wholly incompatible with believing Christianity or that Van Buren’s secular theology is a necessary conclusion of philosophical analysis. The fact is that the new secular theology has no fewer difficulties than the views it seeks to replace. Its troubles are now beginning to attract the interest of philosophers.

Philosophical method, as it is generally understood today, is essentially neutral, even though some of its practitioners certainly are not. It need not be captivated by any particular picture of the way things are—such as, for example, the positivist picture of a world in which meaningful language exactly mirrors physical facts and physical facts only. Not all scientists are captivated by this picture. Nor are most philosophers. Yet some theologians have apparently fallen under its spell, and Professor van Buren tries to build a secular theology upon the dogma of meaning by verification alone.

Most philosophical analysts today would want to say that the criterion of empirical verifiability is limited to the identification of meaningful empirical statements. Yet Van Buren insists that “the heart of the method of linguistic analysis lies in the use of the verification principle” (Van Buren, op. cit., p. 104, all succeeding page references are to this book unless otherwise noted). Despite his verbal rejection of the older form of analytical philosophy known as logical positivism, he nonetheless remains a prisoner of its picture of the way language relates to the world. What Van Buren wants is an empirical Christianity that will not offend what he takes to be the contemporary empirical mind. What he gets, however, is neither empirical nor Christian in the usual sense of these terms.

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No Better Mirror

The true claims pictured in New Testament language are no less true than those pictured in the demythologized and empirical language Van Buren wants. The “new” statements that Van Buren claims give “the secular meaning of the Gospel” are no more capable of “mirroring the facts”—that is, of being true on his terms—than are the original statements. Indeed, they are less capable of being true on any terms, if only because they are not in terms “conventionally appointed” (as analyst John L. Austin would put it) “for the situations of the type to which that referred to belongs” (“Truth” in G. Pitcher, Truth, Prentice-Hall, 1964, p. 25).

“The problem of the Gospel in a secular age,” writes Van Buren, “is a problem of the logic of its apparently meaningless language” (p. 84). To make the language of the Gospel meaningful, he proposes—to use Professor Mascall’s description—to “substitute a statement which is [empirically] meaningful for one which is [apparently] meaningless under cover of expressing the true meaning of the [otherwise] meaningless statement” (E. L. Mascall, The Secularization of Christianity, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965, p. 93).

In other words, Van Buren proposes to translate all supernatural or otherwise “meaningless” statements of the Christian into verifiable and therefore meaningful statements. These will give us, he believes, the secular meaning of the Gospel. Thus when the New Testament writers speak of Jesus as the Son of God, they are, according to Van Buren, saying the most that they can say about any man; verification comes in at the point where one can describe behavior or other psychological phenomena. For example, to confess Jesus as the Son of God is to announce an intention to live the way of life exemplified by Jesus. Thus the issue of the meaning of such words as “God,” “Son of God,” and so on, is resolved by their reduction to what Van Buren believes to be their equivalent secular terms.

Summed up, Van Buren is saying—to use his own words—that “unless or until a theological statement can be submitted in some way to verification, it cannot be said to have a meaning in our language game” (p. 105). By “verification,” however, he doesn’t mean what is in fact taken by believers themselves to be verification of their claims in a spiritual sense. He means verification according to the “modified verification principle,” that is, verification as defined by his positivist picture. By “our language game” he means, not the way in which the Christian community does in fact use Christian language, but the way he is going to use it according to his positivist picture.

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Now most linguistic philosophers today hold that language may be used to give empirical information, including information about one’s future behavior, but it need not do so to be meaningful. They believe that one must note exactly what is being done with language in terms of its own logic. The rules of football cannot make sense of basketball even though these games bear some similarity. Nor can the rules of physics and the language appropriate to it make sense of praying. Perhaps only those who play basketball or pray can make sense of what they are doing, but this does not appear to be the case. Some people can do both, and many other things as well. One can learn to do these things.

We need not suppose that we cannot make sense of what the first Christians were doing, for example, since we can learn to do what they were doing by sharing their witness. Whatever the Christian believer is doing when he uses the language of his linguistic community, it is his activity. The philosopher’s explanation of it is something else. The analyst’s question is not, “How can I translate what the believer is doing into terms that will be acceptable to those who are playing my language game?” as Van Buren wants. It is simply, “What is the Christian believer doing?” There is no secular meaning of the Gospel; there is only the Gospel.

If giving information happens to be a part of what is being done, truth becomes an issue. But the question of truth is distinct from the question of meaning. Even if what the Christian were saying were not true—and there is no logical necessity for this—it is meaningful on its own terms if it is doing its job.

Playing A Private Game

The analyst alone cannot settle the question of truth; he can only note formal inconsistencies. Nor can he force-fit language in use into his particular picture of the way things are. He may not, as does Van Buren, reduce statements using the word “God” into statements about behavior or anything else on the ground that the word is meaningless by the rules of his language game. He may “rearrange” language in order to clarify what it is doing or try different pictures in an effort to find the most appropriate one. But he cannot effect a straightforward reduction. Even if the believer were “bewitched”—to use Wittgenstein’s well-known term—by his supernatural picture of things (as Van Buren thinks he is), this would not justify the substitution by Van Buren of his own “bewitchment” by the positivist picture of things for the believer’s supernatural picture of things.

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What counts for the New Testament believer is what the New Testament writers themselves were doing when they used the terms “God” and “Father”—not what Van Buren does in his language game. “I’m trying,” he says, “to understand the Bible on a naturalistic or humanistic level.… Its language about God is one way—a dated way among a number of ways—of saying what it is Christianity wants to say about man and human life and human history” (reported by Ved Mehta in the New Yorker, Nov. 13, 1965, pp. 148, 153). But to use linguistic analysis as Van Buren says he is doing would be to understand the language of the New Testament on its own supernaturalistic level, not on a naturalistic level.

Of course, we could take “meaningful” to denote what Van Buren wants; but that would not make the believer’s use of “God” any less meaningful by his own rules. As a matter of fact, it would not make the non-believer’s use any less meaningful if he used the word “God” in its conventional way. As evidence of the meaninglessness of the term “God,” Van Buren points to the fact that there are those who no longer use the term. But this has always been true. What has not always been true, he thinks, is that believers themselves no longer use the term “God” in a supernaturalistic way. That, however, is an empirical question that is settled, not by philosophical speculation, but by looking at the facts.

The facts are that there are many people who do know how to use the term “God” and for whom it is therefore meaningful. To persist in pointing to those who do not know how to use it and for whom it is meaningless is to persist in mistaking a tautology for an informative truth. That those who no longer know how to use the term “God” find it meaningless is necessarily true in the same sense that it is true that those cats that are no longer black are no longer black; but the substantive question is whether there are any black cats. This is something that Van Buren ought to consider but does not. Instead he makes a logically odd use of the term “believer” to include those who no longer find the term “God” meaningful in a supernatural way. Indeed, one could say that this is the substance of his whole concern: “How can the Christian who is himself a secular man understand his faith in a secular way?” (p. 2).

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For The ‘Insiders’

Unlike Bishop Robinson, who tries to reduce the Gospel to secular terms for the sake of the outsider, Van Buren tries to reduce it to secular terms for the sake of the insiders for whom the supernatural God of the New Testament does not make sense. But clearly when Van Buren refers to these “insiders” as “Christians” and “believers,” he is using language in ways that are persuasive and unconventional if not downright deceptive and misleading.

If the language of the New Testament is dated as Van Buren says, then he must admit that the New Testament writers did use “God” in a dated way to refer to a supernatural being. But if this is true, how can he also say that when they spoke of Jesus as the Son of God, they were only paying him compliments as a man whose way of life they were inspired to emulate? The New Testament writers did not have to put “God” in quotation marks to note an odd or unempirical use of the term. The rules of their language game were such that the term “God” was used among other things to refer to a supernatural being who is real in the same sense—though not in the same way—that anything is real. Moreover, they obviously intended to be informative about what God did, as, for example, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.

Van Buren’s suggestion that the New Testament writers were doctoring up their accounts of Jesus in order to point up his enormous influence on their lives is implausible. “To suggest,” as Mascall argues, “that the primitive church deliberately embroidered the simple human life of Jesus with a mass of mythical and largely miraculous material in order to convince either itself or outsiders of the authenticity of a purely psychological ‘Easter experience’ is to attribute to the first generation of Christians a degree of conscious sophistication for which there is really no evidence” (Mascall, op. cit., p. 74).

Moreover, if the New Testament accounts are as factually suspect as Van Buren and so many claim, it would indeed require a blind leap of faith to justify anything that Van Buren wants to believe about the historicity of Jesus’ life and death and the event of the “Easter experience,” as he calls it. I do not see that what orthodoxy says is any less empirical than what Van Buren says when he writes that “in saying that God raised up Jesus, the disciples indicated that what had happened to them was fundamental to their life and thought” (Van Buren, op. cit., p. 133). Yet this is what he wants to identify as a secular meaning of the Gospel that is at once empirical and Christian.

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Why, we ask, is the term “God” so much of a problem for Van Buren? Why is he obliged to arrive at a no-God conclusion? And why is this conclusion mistaken and unnecessary?

The term “God” is a problem for him because we don’t know, he says, exactly what it is that we are supposed to be talking about when we use the term. In the positivist picture, a term is meaningless unless it can be used to denote something in an empirical way. When statements appear to speak of Jesus’ belief in God, for example, they are really statements about Jesus’ relationship to other persons—his freedom to be a man among men, a man for others (to use the Bonhoeffer phrase), and so on. “Today, we cannot even understand the Nietzschian cry that ‘God is dead!’ ” says Van Buren, “for if it were so, how could we know? No, the problem is that the word ‘God’ is dead” (p. 103). Yet Van Buren does not want to say that the terms “God” and “Father” were meaningless for Jesus, since Jesus certainly did use them. Perhaps a verifiable or secular meaning or use can be identified that will restore their meaningfulness today. This is the task Van Buren adopts.

Van Buren can be read to say that there is literally no God, that is, no supernatural personal God in the conventional biblical and theistic sense of the term. But whether there really is a God in this sense is not his main point. His main point is that the term “God” is meaningless, so that empirically speaking it is pointless to ask whether there is a God. He says:

The empiricist in us finds the heart of the difficulty not in what is said about God, but in the very talking about God at all. We do not know “what” God is, and we cannot understand how the “word” God is being used. It seems to function as a name, yet theologians tell us that we cannot use it as we do other names, to refer to something quite specific (Van Buren, op. cit., p. 84).

Van Buren’s captivity to the positivist picture of things leads him to adopt a theory of meaning which holds that for an expression such as “God” to have a meaning is for it to refer to or name “something quite specific,” like “Fido.” This theory of meaning has been generally abandoned by the very linguistic philosophy which Van Buren says he is using and by most of the linguistic philosophers whose views he says he shares. It is “this view of the meaning of words,” notes Professor Hall, that “seems to underlie Van Buren’s inability to accept the meaningfulness of the term or name ‘God,’ and ultimately to opt for a ‘secular’ Christology (as he understands it) rather than a theology” (Hall, op. cit., p. 311). It underlies Van Buren’s mistaken belief that the “problems of the Gospel in a secular age is the problem of its apparently meaningless language.”

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But Wittgenstein, to whom Van Buren refers as “fundamental to [his] whole study,” perhaps did more than any philosopher to expose the errors of the theory of meaning presupposed by Van Buren. Later, Austin showed that one could make true statements about objective facts without having, as Van Buren thinks, to keep the theory of meaning that makes terms like “God” meaningless. In other words, “Van Buren has based his whole case for the meaninglessness of the term ‘God’ on the conclusions of a movement which, for the most part, has long since been laid to rest” (J. H. Gill, “A Case of Mistaken Identity,” The Christian Scholar, Summer, 1966, p. 149).

The doctrine that Van Buren mistakenly believes to be the current one is that every meaningful expression must have a referent. But there are many meaningful words (that is, words that are capable of being used) that do not “refer to something quite specific,” do not have a referent—words like “if,” “because,” “induction,” and so on. The word “God” would be meaningful even if Van Buren’s atheism were true! Van Buren virtually acknowledges this by trying to identify its naturalistic instead of supernaturalistic meaning. In other words, because he thinks the ordinary and New Testament use of “God” to refer to a supernatural being is empirically meaningless, he tries to reinstate its meaningfulness by finding a secular use or meaning and developing a secular theology.


The wise who came

From very far

On that journey

Lighted by His star

Felt truth in their minds

Like thundering

In a night silent

And wondering.

They brought earth’s

Fabled wealth with them

To the stable cave

Of Bethlehem;

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But by faith’s

Shining sight that sees

Truth beyond truth

There on their knees

The Magi saw

The Gift alone

Worthy to offer

At God’s throne.


But the strategy is unnecessary because it is occasioned by a faulty theory of meaning. Van Buren cannot support his claim for a secular or no-God theology on the grounds that analysis shows such a theology is necessary in order to make sense of the word “God.” The word “God” already makes sense on grounds independent of any “secular” or “empirical” use such as Van Buren wants or thinks he needs. It is simply not necessary to identify the meaning of a word as it is actually used in its context with “the use of the vertification principle,” as Van Buren wants to do. Hence the term “God” need not have a secular meaning or use in order to be meaningful, and Van Buren’s whole effort to save the Gospel by secularizing it is both unnecessary and misconceived.

What is at stake is not the believer’s claims about God and the Gospel but Van Buren’s claim that they must be cast in secular terms. Perhaps Van Buren does use terms like “God” or “Gospel” in a secular way. But is it necessary that they be used in his secular and unconventional way in order for them to be meaningful? According to him, when the Christian follows the example of Jesus by praying, “Our Father which art in heaven …,” it is meaningless to say that he is addressing a supernatural being. We have to say that he is expressing an intention to live the way of life exemplified by Jesus if we are to make “secular” sense. No doubt part of what the Christian does when he prays in this manner is to declare his intention to follow the example of Jesus; but clearly his use of “God” and “Father” is not confined to that.

A New Slant On Paul

Since the term “God” has no referent and events unexplainable by natural laws cannot occur, whatever is said that involves these must be translated into what Van Buren believes the New Testament writers meant in a secular or empirical way. The Apostle Paul, then, did not really mean that God raised up Jesus; he meant that he, Paul, got a new slant on life.

But how does Van Buren know this? By his own positivist criteria, the statement of his about what Paul was doing when he wrote of God raising up Jesus is either empirically informative or analytically necessary. That is, Van Buren’s reduction of God-statements into psychological or behavior descriptions is either true by verification or true by definition. It is hardly true by definition, since it would then only represent Van Buren’s proposal to interpret Paul in this unconventional way. But we are interested in what the Apostle was in fact doing when he wrote of the risen Saviour—not in Van Buren’s proposal to understand it in this unconventional way. Yet it can hardly be empirical either, since there is no conceivable way to settle the claim that the Apostle was in fact doing what Van Buren says he was.

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Now surely, by Van Buren’s own admission concerning the dated character of New Testament language and for other good reasons, the Apostle Paul cannot be taken to be using language as either a positivist or an existentialist might use it. He was using it instead as a forthright supernatural theist. If so, how, then, are we justified in believing that he meant other than what he is ordinarily taken to have meant as a supernatural theist? He would have been misled or “bewitched”—to use Wittgenstein’s expression again—by his supernatural picture of things only if he had puzzled about some philosophical problem, such as the nature of time, as did St. Augustine in Book X of his Confessions. But the Apostle was not caught up in any philosophical puzzle. He was using language to confess Jesus Christ as risen Lord.

It is Van Buren whose bewitchment by his positivist picture obliges him to puzzle over whether there really is a God who is “something quite specific”—or, for that matter, whether there is anything supernatural at all. It is he who is not using the term “God” as were the New Testament writers to do what they were doing. He is puzzling over it and making philosophical proposals concerning it. He is trying to carry out the implications of the positivist picture that holds him captive and that he mistakenly believes to be the only picture that makes sense today. Thus instead of clarifying the matter of the meaning of “God”—which is what the linguistic philosopher is supposed to do—he has only created a philosophical puzzle with his proposal to reduce the Gospel to its secular meaning.

If the casual reader were to take Van Buren’s word for it, he might mistakenly think that Van Buren’s method “clarified the meaning of statements by investigating the way in which they are ordinarily used” (p. 3). And he might be unduly impressed by Van Buren’s claim that he arrived at the conclusions of his book after reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (p. 18 n).

The casual reader might also be misled by Van Buren’s concluding observations that the difference between his method and Bishop Robinson’s is that his “has been characterized by … using the tools of linguistic analysis.” The reader might be interested to note that Van Buren rather confidently concludes that had the Bishop “reflected more on the language involved … our conclusions would have been even more similar than they are” (p. 200). What Van Buren correctly concludes is what he shares with William Hamilton, that is, the conviction that a more rigorous methodology might have led Bishop Robinson past theism” to the conclusion of the God-is-dead group.

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Nothing could be clearer than the fact that any departure from biblical theism is destined eventually to end at some kind of non-theism or, what is the same for the believer, atheism. Either there is really the biblical God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ or there is a God different from the biblical God or there is no God at all. Since any God that is not the God of the Bible is something less than that God, it would be kind of second-rate good news to discover with the Christian atheists that this God is dead. But the good news of the biblical Gospel is that the God of biblical hope and promise is very much alive in the person of the risen Christ.

Secular Christianity ennobles neither Christianity nor the worldly life. Its foundations are confused, its witness spurious. The reach of the secular not only must be beyond itself but also must be joined to that which grasps and transforms it from beyond. It is not enough to be a man among men. To be fully man is to possess the mind of a living Christ.

Van Buren is deeply devoted to the human figure of Jesus of Nazareth, despite his belief that Jesus has not existed for nearly 2,000 years and that the God whom Jesus addressed as Father and to whom he was obedient unto death never existed. How long will this devotion be possible when all vestigial remains of a supernatural Christian Gospel have been thoroughly homogenized with some passing phase of modernity?

If Van Buren got his way, Christianity would be finished. But of course he will not get his way, no more than will any of the rest of us. Only God will get his way; and for that we can be profoundly grateful.

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