We may distort the faith while thinking that we preach a supposedly Christian gospel. Emphasis on the legal aspect, a continual tarrying on the less essential, is risky. Why not become conscious of the enormous risk of distortion (if it has not already become fact) of a wrongly emphasized theology where, for example, law in one or more subtle forms becomes more important than gospel; where prophecy becomes more important than fulfillment; where a thin rationale to promote a pragmatic activism becomes more important than the preaching of Christ or the appeal for a quiet, consistent devotion; where, instead of pointing to the challenge of the religious life, one is more concerned to promote the illusions of the mid-twentieth century—the search for security, contentment with our religious lot, hedonism, competitive isolationism. I suggest that a seriously planned and prolonged study of the meaning of the Christian faith will make us risk throwing some of these attitudes and approaches overboard. Perhaps we should be conscious of the value to the spiritual state of the church of taking such a risk. But to do so means mental and spiritual effort. Let us not raise the cry of fire when someone who is alive and awake arouses us from our dogmatic slumber. Let us go to our studies and see if even yet there may be some smoldering ashes that can be fanned into flame. Our efforts could make a difference to our underfed congregations.
To make doubly clear the relevance of theology to the preacher's work, let us consider some of the tasks that properly belong to the preacher's calling:
1. Basic is the exposition of the meaning of the Scriptures; that is, to get the coal on the fire. But the coal must first of all be mined. So it is necessary for him who preaches first to dig. If he has no tools he cannot dig even though he has the best will in the world. If he has the tools but no will to dig, the coal will remain unmined, the fire without glow, perhaps unkindled. How can the toolless preacher, for example, give an exposition on the topic of regeneration if he has never distinguished between forgiveness, conversion, and regeneration? Or again, will he really know how to make justification by faith the center of his preaching if he does not bring in every other theme in relation to this one, for example, the doctrine of the Lord's Supper or of original sin or of the holiness of God?
Let me answer some objections that will continue to be made against the relevance of the theological task to the life of the church. In introducing this, let me point out that there can be no knowledge of Christian fact without Christian interpretation. Since Christianity is a historical faith, there is interpretation for the sake of transmission of the facts upon which it is based. In the nature of the case it is bound to be this way. No historian can give us the facts as bare facts; they are always set in a frame of reference by means of which he interprets them. The apostles, while transmitting the fact of the cross, set it in a framework of meaning—they related it to the disposition of guilt and sin, a subject that is anything but simple. There can be no faith without theological interpretation. There can be no communication of the faith without theology. One recalls the words of P. T. Forsyth:
Christianity as a religion stands upon salvation... And it is religion before it is theology. All our theology in this matter rests upon the certain experience of the fact of God's salvation. . . It is bound, of course, to be theological in its very nature. Its statement is a theology. The moment you begin to talk about the holiness of God you are theologians. And you cannot talk about Christ and His death . . . without talking about the holiness of God. . . . The only Cross you can preach to the whole world is a theological one. It is not the fact of the Cross, it is the interpretation of the Cross, the prime theology of the Cross, what God meant by the Cross, that is everything. That is what the New Testament came to give. That is the only kind of Cross that can make or keep a church.'
I am convinced as a teacher of theology that the objection to studying theology at any depth is not an objection against studying theology as such. It is not a prejudice against study as such but rather against the study of certain subjects. It is usually when we get into the deep waters that a voice is heard, usually at some distance, decrying the study of theology. While many theological students would be willing to study for hours on end the themes that are simply treated and easily understood, when it comes to real mental discipline that calls for real effort at understanding, some begin to question the value of theology. One must understand this as a phenomenon of human nature, not as an objection to theology as such. "Tell me what I can easily understand. Streamline it so that it calls for the least intellectual effort. Let us study, but not too much and not too deeply. To master Greek requires considerable mental effort, so to one not willing to expend the effort, the natural attitude is to question its value. One meets the same situation in historical theology, in philosophy of religion, in systematic theology, or for that matter, in anything. This is not particularly the theologian's problem. It is. the problem that any teacher who is really doing his job has to face from a certain type of student. But it is the preacher's problem when it comes to failure to dedicate the mind to God in the pursuance of one's vocation. And this is a most serious matter. The problem is not solved by rationalizing it. We never solve the problem of fulfilling a need by denying that a need exists.
Often the call to the ministry is made into a sentimental affair. The getting down to brass tacks in theology is certainly not sentimental. What is the relation between the study of theology and the call to the ministry? Suffice it to say that this call has (1) to be tested and (2) to be demonstrated. It is tested in various ways, one of which is in a willingness and a certain aptitude to understand at some depth the meaning of the Christian faith prior to fulfilling the commission to communicate it. It is then demonstrated in various ways, one of which is the actual strengthening of the Christian character of the congregations the minister serves and a second, the success at communicating the meaning of the forgiveness available in Jesus to non-Christians at all levels.
Would it not be more honest to examine his call to the ministry if one is not really interested in understanding the faith at any depth? Let us not vociferously call for an understanding of the New Testament, or of trends in contemporary religious thought, and then, when it comes to the point, draw back from the effort required to master the materials necessary—Greek in the one case and modern patterns of theological thought on the other. The first requisite must be the desire to understand. The preacher must assume this on the part of his congregation. May they not legitimately assume that the same is true, at much greater depth, of course, on the part of their preacher?
Another objection is in terms of the fear of doubt. "If I go into the question I might not come out so strong a Christian as I went in. I might doubt!" Such an attitude is a shaky foundation upon which to base a faith upon which rests the orientation of a whole life. If our faith cannot stand examination, how can we be Christian preachers, Christian ministers? If we have never had doubts and questions, and come through with them settled, and emerged the stronger, what guarantee do we have that the naiveté of our theology can stand with its face to the foe? If we have never had doubts and come through them the stronger, what right have we to assure our people that the Christian faith answers all questions? And what resources do we have to assure those whose doubt is leading them in the wrong direction? One cannot go far in the study of theology without discovering what Fromm has called the "capacity for being genuinely bewildered."
One who has never been bewildered, who has never looked upon life and his own existence as phenomena which require answers and yet, paradoxically, for which the only answers are new questions, can hardly understand what religious experience is.2
Sometimes the objection is in the form of a hidden syllogism. It appeals to the fact that the uncultured preacher may be used by God. This is, of course, very true. Let us not deny the element of truth that gives the objection its plausibility. God does use the uncultured preacher. God can use anybody. God is able to use as much of those who give themselves to Him as they possess and dedicate. The syllogism runs as follows:
The uncultured preacher may be used by God; I intend, desire, shall be satisfied (for various reasons and on various pretexts, some even concealed to myself) to be an uncultured preacher; therefore, God can use me as such.
Such an identification of the prospective minister with the uncultured preacher is, to say the least, unbalanced. Why should the prospective minister want to be so identified? If he lacks ability or desire, then let him not think of the exalted office of the ministry. If he is not willing to pay the price in the fulfilling of his vocation or if he does not have the aptitudes required this does not mean that he cannot serve God. One does not have to enter the gospel ministry to serve God and one's fellow men. Let our service be suited to our capacities, but do not let us use such arguments as this as an excuse for laziness. The uncultured preacher may bring a blessing in one talk, but most preachers have to face the same congregation month after month. What then? The uncultured preacher may be able to dispense milk. But "every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe." There is meat as well as milk and the wise spiritual dietitian is capable of dispensing both in the same sermon, so that all are fed.
The lazy preacher borrows other men's thoughts without understanding them; compiles quotations from here and there, the Bible included, without interpreting them, neither knowing nor caring how to do so. If he is adjusted to his lack, he will defend it in terms of "I produce." What, my friend, do you produce or want to produce? Sturdy Christians who know what they believe and can stand for it, knowing where the real issues are, Christians who have developed a strength of character that will enable them to second their convictions with decisive action when necessary, and with patience and endurance where no action other than these is possible? Or merely strokes of ink upon a record book, to be looked at by the eyes of men?
A further objection is the appeal to orthodoxy. At all costs I must appear orthodox. If I get interested in theological questions I might appear unorthodox to those who have never had to face similar problems, and this I cannot afford to do. The important word here in this objection is the word appear. While I think it most unfortunate that one who is orthodox in his beliefs appears not to be, I also remember that those who have made an impression on the life of the church have appeared to their less ambitious colleagues to be unorthodox. This is a risk that must be taken. Three things can be said, I believe, to such a line of objection: First, that if the appearance of orthodoxy has to be bought at the cost of intellectual dishonesty, it is not worth the name. It is in fact unethical. Second, that one has a mission to these very people. If God has given you a questing mind and blessed you with satisfaction in answers to your questions, and these answers are consonant with the norms by which theology must be judged—Scripture, the voice of the church, the inner witness of the Spirit—then pass on the depths that have become yours, as you are able and as others are able to receive. This is the preacher's task: to raise the spiritual level of his congregation and to reach the unbeliever. So far as the New Testament is concerned, this is his only task. He cannot do it unless he stands above them, to direct and to guide them into paths of truth. Third, I would like to say that Paul was considered an unorthodox person by the leaders of the early church. He was probably the most misunderstood man in the Christian church of the first century. His interpreters have often shared his predicament. He wrote as a man redeemed by Christ and he drove this experience into areas of thought that had never occurred to his fellow apostles. Consequently, to them his approaches seemed strange and often strained.
The final objection I wish to consider is that which appeals to simplicity. Let us be simple. Sometimes this is identified with the previous objection, and orthodoxy is equated with simplicity. But what is there to guarantee that what is simple is orthodox? Who is to say that everything must be in black and white? Surely the subject matter determines whether it is necessary to understand it at depth or whether a superficial observation will put us in touch with the reality concerned. Let us distinguish between a profound simplicity and a surface simplicity. By the former I mean that simplicity which is the product of our seeing an issue at depth, struggling with the questions involved, and then, after the consideration of all that is involved, becoming clear in the mind as to what is central and what is peripheral. For this kind of simplicity let us labor and pray. The latter is simplicity at any cost, whether appropriate or not. Make it simple enough to write upon a post card. What is the "it" that is to be made simple? For us as ministers of the Word of God, it is the message of Jesus Christ, the message of the Scriptures.
To make the New Testament good news simply means, first of all, to understand it, and this means complicated problems—the meaning of God the Son, of the atonement, of sin, and the nature of man, et cetera. Such theological questions we cannot understand except as our theology is drawn from our experience. But we must constantly judge our experience in the light of something more ultimate, as far as we are able, as God judges it. Thus theology rises from experience as touched by the revelation of God. Only as such is there any guarantee that what simplicity we are able to achieve will be worthy of the mystery it portrays.
Pseudosimplifications will be forthcoming if the real issues involved are not adequately understood. Distortion and misunderstanding are then bound to follow. For example, were we to identify the protest of Arminianism only with the five points of Calvinism, and judge it by considering these alone, we would be bound to misinterpret. The questions are more complex than that manifesto seems to suggest.
In fact, the desire for simplicity can actually lead to heresy. The Arian explanation of the relation of the Son to the Father is much simpler than the "orthodox" view. The common-sense theology of the ancient Arians could make a clear-cut distinction between Father and Son. "It was much more difficult for profounder thinkers to state their doctrine of the relation of the Persons."
The simpler answers to the Christological problem are in fact distortions that remove the mystery. While theology is not meant to mystify but to clarify, it should not be presented so that the mystery is removed. It is then pseudotheology and the church has had to pass judgment on it as heresy. We will never in our theological task get to the place where the mystery is dispelled, where all is clear and there is no paradox. For it is God, the transcendent One, the Ground of all, who is the object of theology. There will always be new work to be done, new ways of presenting the basic truths of the faith to meet the challenge of new situations. But over all our efforts stands the judgment of the ReVelation, reminding us that even as theologians and preachers we are still sinners. We are to take this fact seriously. Our light is broken and fragmentary, but nonetheless illuminating. Our task is to understand Him who is the Light of the world, and to so present the light that those who sit in darkness may see it and rejoice with us in the knowledge of Him, whom to know is life eternal.
1 P. T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ, London: Independent Press, 1958, pp. 45, 48.
2 Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959, p. 94.
3D. M. & Elie, God Was in Christ, London: Faber and Faber, 1954, P. 143.