Protestant theology in the 1960s is characterized above all by the God-is-dead phenomenon. Although this movement, as represented particularly by Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton, has inherent instabilities that will doubtless shorten its ideological life, one must not underestimate its importance. The death-of-God phenomenon reflects the increasing secularization of our time, which will certainly go on whether or not the theothanatologists retain their popularity.
Even more significantly, the God-is-dead movement demonstrates the consequences of the weak view of Holy Scripture that has prevailed in Protestant theology since the advent of rationalistic biblical criticism. By noting the connections between God-is-dead thinking and destructive criticism of Holy Writ, we can see quite plainly how evangelical Christianity’s belief in a totally authoritative Word has maximum relevance in a time of general theological collapse.
Christ and the Bible
In an unpublished paper delivered at a program on radical theology sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Office of Religious Affairs (October 28, 1966), William Hamilton unwittingly provided a laboratory example of how the demise of one’s bibliology results in the demise of one’s God. In answering the question, “Can you really maintain a loyalty to Jesus without a loyalty to God?,” he said:
Professor Altizer solves the problem more readily than I by his apocalyptic definition of Jesus, more Blakean than biblical, as the one who is born out of God’s death. I am not yet ready to give up sola scriptura (!), and thus my answer must be more complex and tentative.… Early in the nineteenth century, we had to face, under the early impact of historical criticism, both that Jesus was firmly committed to demon-possession as the meaning of mental and physical illness, and that we were not so committed and needn’t be. But obedience to Jesus was not destroyed. Later, at the time of Darwinian controversy we had to face another instance of Jesus’ full participation in the thought forms of his day—the three-story, primitive cosmology. But we do not go to the Bible for science, we were rightly told, and obedience to Jesus was not hurt. At the close of the century we had to face an even more disturbing fact—the fact brought before us by Weiss and Schweitzer that Jesus was completely committed to the apocalyptic views of the Judaism of his day.… If Jesus’ demonology and cosmology and-eschatology were taken as first-century views, appropriate then, not so now, needing reinterpretation and understanding but not literal assent, what is inherently different about Jesus’ theology?
The significance of this argument for the current theological situation cannot be overestimated, for it explicitly maps the progressive demise of Christology through the consistent application of rationalistic biblical criticism. For over a century, orthodox Christians have vainly reminded their liberal confreres of the Reformers’ conviction that the “material principle” (the Gospel of Christ) cannot possibly survive apart from the “formal principle” (divinely inspired Scripture). “Fiddlesticks!” has been the reply: “Of course we can distinguish the true theological core of Scripture and the central message of Jesus from the biblical thought-forms of the ancient Near East.” But in point of fact, as Hamilton well shows, stripping the cultural thought-forms from the “true” teaching of Scripture is like peeling an onion: when finished, you have no teaching at all, only tears (unless you happen to be a constitutional optimist like Hamilton, who finds mankind a satisfactory God-substitute).
Either Jesus’ total teachings (including his full trust in Scripture as divine revelation) are taken as God’s word or, as Luther well put it, “everyone makes a hole in it wherever it pleases him to poke his snout, and follows his own opinions, interpreting and twisting Scripture any way he pleases.” The Bible has become, to use Spurgeon’s phrase, a “nose of wax,” so that even a death-of-God theologian claims to follow sola scriptura. This is the inevitable outcome of rationalistic biblical criticism that refuses to distinguish between straightforward grammatical-historical explication of the biblical message and pre-suppositional judgment upon it. Has the time perhaps come for the Church to recognize that aprioristic biblical criticism has brought theology to the bier of Deity?
The way back is the doctrine of total biblical authority as taught by Christ himself, at once the Lord of Scripture and its central figure. Kenneth Kantzer gives us weighty testimony in this regard from the critics themselves:
H. J. Cadbury, Harvard professor and one of the more extreme New Testament critics of the last generation, once declared that he was far more sure as a mere historical fact that Jesus held to the common Jewish view of an infallible Bible than that Jesus believed in his own messiahship. Adolf Harnack, greatest church historian of modern times, insists that Christ was one with his apostles, the Jews, and the entire early church in complete commitment to the infallible authority of the Bible. John Knox, author of what is perhaps the most highly regarded recent life of Christ, states that there can be no question that this view of the Bible was taught by our Lord himself. The liberal critic, F. C. Grant, concludes that in the New Testament, “it is everywhere taken for granted that Scripture is trustworthy, infallible, and inerrant.” Rudolf Bultmann, a radical anti-supernaturalist, but acknowledged by many to be the greatest New Testament scholar of modern times, asserts that Jesus accepted completely the common view of his day regarding the full inspiration and authority of Scripture.
If Christ did in fact “show himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3), thereby validating his claims to Deity as he had predicted he would (Matt. 12:38–42; John 2:18–22), how can the Christian possibly rationalize a view of Scripture inconsistent with that of the Lord Christ? It will not do to argue in terms of modern “kenotic theory” that Jesus was limited or limited himself to the thought-forms of his day, for (as Hamilton has well demonstrated) such hypothetical limitations have no boundaries and are logically capable of reducing everything Jesus said to meaninglessness; moreover, as Eugene R. Fairweather concludes, after examining the whole kenotic question in detail: “It can hardly be claimed that Kenoticism is explicitly contained in the New Testament picture of Christ; rather, it depends on a complicated deduction, involving highly debatable presuppositions.… The Kenotic theory does not in fact vindicate the religious meaning of the Christian Gospel. On the contrary, in the severe words of Pius XII, it ‘turns the integral mystery of the Incarnation and of redemption into bloodless and empty spectres’ ” (see Fairweather’s appendix to F. W. Beare’s Philippians).
Nor does one accomplish anything by trying to maintain that Jesus stamped with approval only the “substance” or “message” of the Bible, not its “form” or “medium” (the former being absolute while the latter is culturally conditioned and therefore lacking in normative character). As contemporary communications specialist Marshall McLuhan has shown in his epochal works (The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media), “the medium is the message”: it is impossible to separate a message from its medium, since the medium makes an integral contribution to the very nature of the message. Orthodox Christianity has always recognized this in respect to Scripture: no “detail” of the Bible is unimportant; the literary form must itself be inspired in order for it not to detract from the message conveyed; every word of Scripture—every “jot and tittle” of the text—has an impact, however slight, on the totality of the Bible, and this impact must, if Christ spoke truly, be for good.
Relevance in a Disenchanted Era
The stir produced by the death-of-God movement is a genuine reflection of the loss of God by vast numbers of people in the twentieth century. In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the leading characters are typical of modern man, waiting in darkness and addressing himself to the unknown god who never appears. At one point Vladimir says:
Elsewhere in the play, Estragon remarks:
Whether whistle, bell, or chime
from marble campanile,
I do not know,
but I shall recognize its signal.
In a lightning-splintered moment
sounds of earth gone … gone…
I shall leap! sing! soar!
trading fleshly inhibition
for eternity’s vast space.
Through the stained-glass eyes of love
draw me softly, chancel Dove.
WILMA W. BURTON
How has such a cultural malaise come about in our time? Someone has sagely noted that in the eighteenth century the Bible died, in the nineteenth century God died, and in the twentieth century mankind has died. This sequence is not accidental. The rationalistic criticism of Scripture during the eighteenth-century deistic “Enlightenment” removed the most solid foundation for belief in God; and after Nietzsche and other nineteenth-century thinkers had proclaimed God’s demise, it was no longer possible to substantiate man’s individual worth. No longer a creature of God, man could only regard himself as a clever, evolving animal, and the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century are the inevitable result of stronger animals’ subjugating the weaker to their own ends. Without an eternal value system, available only in a veracious revelation from God, man is at the mercy of his fellows. Might makes right; to use Lord Acton’s well-known aphorism: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Orwell’s 1984 takes on nightmarish reality.
Among the “secular theologians,” however, an optimistic note is presently being sounded. We are informed that the “secular city” offers revelatory possibilities for acquiring a “new name” for God (see Harvey Cox’s The Secular City and also The Secular City Debate, edited by Daniel Callahan); and one writer (Gibson Winter) goes so far as to speak of “the New Creation as Metropolis.” An axiom of the day, expressed by Cox and Altizer, is that “God is where the action is”: in the dynamic social movements of our day, in the struggles for racial justice and human freedom. We are told that the “fully hidden Jesus” is now to be experienced in such movements, and that “a whole new era in theology” is opening up through stress on the Spirit—“the God of the present” (so wrote President James McCord of Princeton Seminary in Time, August 5, 1966).
But what is the actual situation? The urbanization of life is, as the greatest living phenomenologist of religion, Mircea Eliade, points out, desacralizing life by separating it from the cyclical, God-given patterns of nature. In the city we create our own environment and are therefore easily led not to God but to ourselves. We become convinced that we are the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul, and we quickly reach the point where we try to justify any “action” that we create. Much of the social action of our day is indeed God-honoring, for all races are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) and “there is no respect of persons with God” (Rom. 2:11); but apart from a revelatory, absolute ethic (as we saw earlier), supra-cultural standards of justice cannot be established. This means that without an authoritative Scripture the “secular theologian” can as easily find himself embroiled in the demonic, racistic, fascist activism of a Third Reich as in the contemporary freedom marches in behalf of minorities. Only a firm Word of God, coming from outside the flux of contemporary action, can serve as a map to an honorable and just future. And as the Reformers properly observed, talk about “Christ” or the “Spirit” apart from an objective Word is a waste of breath; for without a stable criterion, each man can build a demonic Christ—an Antichrist—in his own image, and deceive many. The spirits, most definitely including the spirits of the age, must be tested (1 John 4:1); and the only touchstone remains the inscripturated Word.
Reluctantly, perversely braced,
I raised my cross with great distaste;
Beneath it let my spirits sag,
And petulantly felt it drag.
But I exhibited that cross,
Talked much of it, and thought my loss
Was rather gain for Christendom;
Sidling eyes askance at some
Who seemed unseemly light. How blind
And foolish, I, to be resigned
To humbug, when reality
Is borne by Christ, and not by me.
HELEN S. CLARKSON
The instability of current “action” philosophies and theologies is becoming evident as our contemporaries, à la Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary, simultaneously seek answers in Eastern mysticism and reality-avoiding psychedelic drugs (see my article, “The Gospel According to LSD,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, July 8, 1966). Unconsciously, modern man recognizes that, whether in the metropolis or in the wilderness, whether in action or in silence, his heart—to recall Augustine’s great truth—is restless till it rests in God. But to rest there, it must know who God is and what he has done for sinful man, and that can be learned only in the pages of Holy Writ.
Like the little lost creatures in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, we long, each one of us, for “the piper at the Gates of Dawn.” How desperately we need to hear the clear piping of eternity as century twenty-one approaches! Well did a great theologian over a hundred years ago (William Henry Green, The Pentateuch, 1863) point disenchanted modern man to that clear voice of God recorded in the most relevant Book of all:
The question, therefore, is one of life or death. We will not, we can not give up our faith in the Bible. To do so is to surrender ourselves to blank despair. It is to blot out the sun from the heavens and extinguish at once the very source of light and life and holiness. “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth and the flower thereof falleth away; but the Word of the Lord endureth forever.”
He who has ears to hear the piping, let him hear!
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingAfter Nashville, Moral Numbness Is Our EnemyShootings have become normal to the American public. But as Christians, we know better.
- From the MagazineWhy Does Creation Groan?Scripture and science suggest that animal suffering fits into a divine artistic story.
- Editor's PickLiberty Appoints Retired General, Air Force Chaplain as New PresidentAlumnus Dondi E. Costin steps in to lead years after Jerry Falwell Jr.’s scandal.