Reviews by two theologians.

Bernard Ramm, professor of Christian theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West, has written a significant book, which has stirred considerable interest. Two prominent theologians review After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology (Harper & Row, 1983, 225 pp.).
Review by Robert K. Johnston, dean, North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois.

How can we reconcile ancient (“scriptural”) and modern (“scientific”) understandings of truth? Beginning with a basic text in biblical hermeneutics, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (1950), and continuing with his ground-breaking work, Christian Faith and Modern Science (1954), Bernard Ramm has been at the forefront of the evangelical community in raising this question. After Fundamentalism (1983) continues Ramm’s discussion, focusing this time on the issue of theological methodology.

Traditional theological approaches to the questions raised by modern thinkers have proven inadequate for Ramm, whether they be liberal or conservative. Liberalism has too often ended up distorting the truth of Christianity by uncritically accepting the ideas of the Enlightenment. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, has obscured the truth of science, inconsistently denying the fact that even it is an heir of Enlightenment thinking. Ramm argues that a new approach to theology is needed, one that will permit a contemporary orthodoxy to flourish.

In what will come as a surprise to many CHRISTIANITY TODAY readers, Ramm finds in the theological method of Karl Barth his model. Although Barth’s conclusions might not always be beyond criticism, states Ramm, his approach to the theological task is correct.

Evangelicals and liberals alike have tended to write Barth off. But, states Ramm, this has been “the Barth of the theological clichés, of the superficial generalizations, of the evangelical caricatures, and of the sanitary summaries.” Ramm seeks instead to lead his readers to a new appreciation of Barth. Whether one be a Calvinist or an Arminian, a fundamentalist or a dispensationalist, Ramm is convinced that Barth can be instructive to one writing a Christian theology in the twentieth century.

Ramm raises two central issues in theology: the relationship of modern thought to orthodox Christianity, and the significance of Barth for evangelicalism. For these reasons, his book is a major publishing event. It should be read by evangelical pastors, scholars, and thoughtful lay people alike.

Ramm is to be commended for raising anew the issue of science and theology. There is a growing recognition in evangelical circles that the issue of theological hermeneutics can no longer be ignored. It is not enough merely to exegete a text or repeat what Luther taught. How do we think Christianly in our age? How do we confront the challenge of modern thought in a way that is both honest and orthodox? Ramm forces us to reconsider such questions.

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Ramm is also to be commended for risking an interpretation of the massive work of Karl Barth. We can appreciate the breadth and depth of Barth’s writings, even though we do not always agree with him, and Ramm helps us here.

Having said this, however, there is also the need to express several reservations concerning After Fundamentalism.

First, Ramm has hurt his argument by being too undialectic in both his derision of fundamentalism (e.g., p. 86) and his praise of Barth (e.g., p. 74). Things are too black and white.

Second, Ramm equates orthodoxy with fundamentalism (e.g., After Fundamentalism). This is to overlook the 35 years of developing evangelical tradition (a tradition that Ramm himself has helped to shape). There is a much wider spectrum to evangelical scholarship than Ramm suggests in this book.

Third, while evangelicals can learn much from Barth, is he the only theologian who has dealt adequately with the impact of the Enlightenment on theological thought? I personally have found both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis more stimulating in this regard.

Fourth, although Ramm’s purpose was to present a new methodology, a new paradigm for the doing of theology, the precise contours of his Barthian model are never clearly delineated.

Last, this book has a basic unresolved tension within it. Is its focus the significance of the Enlightenment on evangelical thought today? Or is it the relevance of Barth’s theology? I suspect Ramm would say the question need not be either/or, for the second question concerning Barth provides a means of understanding and responding to the first regarding modernity. Nevertheless, I felt the two agendas were not fully reconciled.

There have been a limited number of books by evangelical writers that have helped the church beyond its fundamentalist-modernist split: Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carnell’s The Case for Orthodox Theology, Bloesch’s Essentials of Evangelical Theology. Ramm’s book belongs in the same category, although its polemical tone will cause it to have less impact. Evangelicals must interact more creatively with both the fact of the Enlightenment and the theology of Barth. Ramm helpfully calls us to this dual task.

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Reivew by Donald G. Bloesch, professor of theology, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.

In this book, bernard ramm offers Karl Barth’s dogmatics as a paradigm for evangelical theology in our time. While not uncritical in his appraisal, Ramm applauds Barth’s effort to recover Anselm’s method of “faith seeking understanding.” Reason can be a legitimate tool in clarifying the data of revelation, but we must also be poignantly aware of its limits, especially in regard to the mysteries of faith.

Barth, as Ramm points out, is both a child and a critic of the Enlightenment. He appreciates what is valid in modern humanistic learning, but he is not beguiled by the myths that this learning has spawned. Barth makes a real place for the historical investigation of the Scriptures without confusing historical knowledge with the theological significance of the text, its revelatory meaning. To ignore the Enlightenment is to end in obscurantism. To accept this movement uncritically (as do many liberals) is to compromise the integrity of the faith.

I believe that Ramm is right in holding up Barth’s way of doing theology as a useful model for evangelicals. This does not mean that Barth should be treated uncritically. There is a real question in my mind as to whether his doctrine of inspiration is adequate and whether he successfully avoids universalism, toward which the logic of his position tends. Ramm fails to take note of the shift in Barth’s later theology away from what might be termed a new-Calvinist sacramentalism in which the Bible, the church, and the sacraments are seen as means of grace, instruments whereby the work of salvation finds concrete fulfillment in the lives of men and women. Barth reverts to a much earlier position that Jesus Christ in his incarnation is the one Word of God and the one means of grace (and ipso facto the only sacrament). The Bible, the church, and what are now considered the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are signs of revelation, pointers to grace but not channels of grace (as in Calvin and Luther).

The author’s case would have been strengthened had he given more attention to where philosophical presuppositions color some of Barth’s arguments. I am thinking especially of Kierkegaard’s principle of the infinite qualitative difference between time and eternity. I agree that Barth cannot be placed in any philosophical category and that he is remarkably free from a servile dependence on any philosophical system.

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Bernard Ramm has furnished us with an enlightening and provocative analysis of Karl Barth’s theology from an evangelical perspective. He reveals his own pilgrimage from a rigid fundamentalism to a postfundamentalist evangelical theology that is willing to learn from modernity without succumbing to its spell. Ramm shows how Barth has helped him to broaden his perspective and thereby become more authentically biblical. He convincingly demonstrates the abiding relevance of Barth’s thought for the church at large and for conservative Protestantism in particular. We are indebted to Ramm for this in-depth scholarly study, even though we should not hesitate to take exception to some of his conclusions.

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