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The Changing Face of Theology

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Archives / 1957 / April

 

 

The Changing Face of Theology

Eric D. Syme

ERIC B. SYME, Instructor, Bible Department, Southwestern Junior College, Keene, Texa

 

The intellectual cli­mate of the later nineteenth century was saturated by the evolutionary conception. It would be a mistake to con­sider that it was the strength of the scientific evidences pro­duced that gained for this phi­losophy its wide acceptance. Its great popu­larity arose from the fact that it suited so well the prevailing thought of the time. In the economic sphere the doctrine of progress through struggle held dominance. The state was to interfere as little as possible since the competition of business would finally produce the best results for all. In the po­litical mood of the time, the doctrine of Realpolitik was coming rapidly to the front. It was felt by many statesmen and leaders that even war was an instrument of na­tional policy, and that the strongest nation must inevitably prevail and reap the fruits of power. The biological doctrine of Dar­win fitted this complex of thought most admirably, and thus it rapidly gained as­cendancy over every alternative viewpoint.

The earlier part of the nineteenth cen­tury had seen the wide use of the new technique of historical criticism. This method had been most fruitful in the searching out of fact and fraud, and no one who sought to discover the genuine and the true could find much criticism for it. Unfortunately it was greatly perverted when used in relation to the Bible. Anti­supernaturalists and deists insisted on treat­ing the Scripture as they would treat any other ancient book. Obviously there is no other book like the Bible. A bare recogni­tion of this fact would indicate that any scientific approach to it must take this fact into consideration. But this period, for all of its worship of the scientific method, was just as prejudiced as any other.

The fusing of the evolutionary concep­tion with the new higher criticism gave force to the most violent attack that the Book of God had yet known. Added weight was given to this attack by a variety of other public issues that strongly influenced the mood of the time. The widespread dis­like of Catholic interference in political affairs, and the feeling that clericalism was the foe of progress, played their part in stimulating the liberal trends, which were already very strong. The dissent from the Biblical doctrine of human depravity, which conflicted with the new cults of hu­man perfectibility and progress, also tended to color the thinking of the period. Finally, the new cultism and worship of science broadened this assault upon the Bible into unprecedented volume.

Defensive Reactions Seen in the Churches

The attitudes toward the attack assumed by the various churches was related to the nature of the authority that they claimed. Naturally, the Protestant churches, which had broken away from the Roman Catholic authority on the basis of the Bible being the sole foundation of the church's faith, were the hardest hit. A movement of Chris­tian Evidences rapidly developed. Such works as Bishop Butler's Analogy, and Paley's Natural Theology enjoyed a new vogue as defenders of the Bible sought to draw the weapons with which they could re­sist this new insidious attack.

It might be expected that the reactions of the Catholic Church to the problem would take a different form from that of the Protestants. For rather obvious reasons the Catholic Church has never insisted upon any literal interpretation of the Bible. She has always rested upon her own in­alienable right to authority in any matter that might touch dogma, faith, and morals, hence her defense took another form alto­gether. Leo XIII fostered a renewed em­phasis on the writings of the great scholastic doctor, Thomas Aquinas, to produce an in­tellectual reconciliation between "science" and Catholic doctrine. The famous ency­clical Rerum Novarum, 1891, laid the basis of a new social approach by the Catholic Church. These adaptations of the church took the Papacy safely over the roughest waters of the period. The Catholic Church used her authority to crush successfully the growing modernist movement within her ranks, but in this the Protestant churches were far less successful.

Liberal Christianity or Modernism

That which grew by leaps and bounds during the later fateful years of the religious struggle was termed "liberal thought." The sensational claim that this "new" movement within the church was a radical reorganiza­tion of Christianity in the light of modern science, or a bringing of religion up to date, influenced considerably the tendencies of the century. But Catholic historians pointed to the essence of the problem when they stated that this change likewise involved a quaint shift of emphasis from "faith" to "good works," "not the old theo­logical ones, to be sure, but those of mod­ern humanitarianism: social uplift, popu­lar education, public health, and crusades against alcoholism, against juvenile delin­quency, against cruelty to animals."' None of these fine ideals could possibly provide a satisfactory substitute for the great doc­trines of the Christian faith. They did not do so when progress did appear to be a feasible proposition, and when, superfici­ally, education seemed to be making a con­siderable impact upon human nature, but the twentieth century brought changes that revealed the whole conception to be com­pletely flimsy.

The Age of Conflict—Rise of Neo-Orthodoxy

The first half of the twentienth century saw two world wars, the fall of nine em­pires, one major revolution, and a depres­sion that locked both the Old and the New world in a profound paralysis that became the seedbed of new movements, which within the short space of nine or ten years were to bring the whole world into another convulsion of war, immeasurably more terrible than the one seen in the years between 1914 and 1918. Not only did the conception of progress seem farcical in the light of these events, but the doctrine of human perfectibility that had gone along with it appeared even more impossible. Through its leadership one of the most cultured nations on earth had attempted to wipe out a whole race in the gas chamber. Doctrines of hate and racial superiority had brought serious doubt as to whether there was any serious desire to achieve good will on earth and peace to all men. Three prominent historians close a nine-hundred­page book concerning these fateful years with the words:

The thought is constantly breaking through that "something" is very wrong with the world over and above the particular conflict of men and people which has been the staple of our narrative. Civiliza­tion—and certainly Western civilization is passing through one of the greatest transformations, if not the greatest, of its history. The core and content of our lives is now in extreme crisis. Perhaps the crisis most forcibly appears to us in the seeming lack of a spiritual revolution to accompany and direct our technological and social revolution.2

This is the issue that has been high­lighted by the swift and dramatic changes of our era. At a time when millions have been rendered homeless, when whole na­tions have lifted up their eyes to "look unto the earth" and have seen "trouble and darkness, dimness of anguish," there has been a bankruptcy of Christianity. Men have been offered husks when they sought for bread, and broken cisterns when they sought for living springs of water.

Europe. has seen some of the worst as­pects of these changes, and it is conse­quently in Europe that a new theological emphasis first developed. Karl Barth was the prophet of the collapse of optimistic hopes in Germany after 1918. In the vig­orous theological renewal that took place in Germany between 1918-1921, Karl Barth, who had been brought to Gottingen Uni­versity, soon became the leading Reformed theologian of modern times. When the Nazi regime came to power, he with Otto Weber became a leading figure in the struggle between the German churches and the new paganism. The impact of two world wars, the worldwide depression, the evident cruelty of man to man, developed a demand for a return to a new Protestant orthodoxy. This demand naturally gained increasing force during the middle decades of the twentieth century. In many respects this neo-orthodoxy was an attempt to form a compromise between the literal ortho­doxies of Fundamentalism, and the lack of reality in a modernism that had been shown to be inadequate for the deep crises that had come upon the world. The strength of neo-orthodoxy came from the disillusionment and the pessimism that the facts of the middle twentieth century laid upon all candid observers. Men and women everywhere felt a need for a greater help than they could gain from the unaided reason and strength of man alone.

Emil Brunner, one of the leading ex­ponents of the movement, insists that re­ligion's philosophy must remain at a sec­ondary level to Protestant theology. The full implications of the movement are difficult to assess accurately at the present time. Its emphasis is always toward the transcendental breaking through of God by Jesus Christ into the consciousness of man. It is so far the product of the time in which it came that it is not easy at this stage to trace all of its significances. It tends to accept the results of critical scholar­ship on matters such as dates, authorship, authenticity, et cetera. Essentially it is a re­discovery of the transcendent God of Cal­vin and His liberating Word—the message of man's importance in the face of God. There is no emphasis of the message of the Bible in the sense of man's dogmatic or critical reading of it, but the emphasis is that God speaks in the Bible as the God of life. Yet the message of Barth does bring the conviction of sin to bear on modern civili­zation. Man cannot hope by his own efforts to bring a better world into being, or to better and perfect himself. European Barth­ianism has not fully suited the more op­timistic American temperament, although such leaders as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich have brought something of the same vision of the absolute and uncon­ditioned God to give to men an absolute perspective whereby the relative facts of history can be better judged.

Adventism and Modern Theology in the  Current World Scene

We would be unfair to the great mes­sage that God has given to us, as well as lacking in the discharge of our responsi­bility to the tragic world in which we live, if we did not fully recognize the fact that the Seventh-day Adventist movement has never been deceived by the roseate dreams of Utopia, which were the fabric of late nineteenth-century thinking. We have found no necessity to reconstruct our the­ology. On the contrary, the vast changes in the world scene have served to re-en­force those things that we have so long taught and believed. Ours is not the the­ology of despair, but of hope. To us as to others comes the cry, "Watchman, what of the night?" In common with others we must look out upon the tragic realities of our day and generation. In a single genera­tion we have looked out over

Blight and famine, plague and earthquake. . . wasted lands, roaring deeps and fiery sands, Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.°

We, like all others, have to say that the night indeed cometh, but we can say it with brighter mien and with a radiant hope, for "the morning cometh, and also the night."

 

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REFERENCES

1 Carlton J. H. Hayes, A Generation of Materialism, p. 140.

2 Chambers, Harris, Bayley, Age of Conflict. Alfred Lord Tennyson, "The Lotos-Eaters."

 

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