Subjective and Objective Religion

Subjective and Objective Religion (Concluded)

The conclusion this two-part series.


It is not the purpose of this discussion to trace the history of any one religious movement, but rather to examine vari­ous types of religious thinking as they have swung from objectivity to subjectivity, and the reverse, without main­taining a true balance. Since the Reformation period there has been a general trend toward subjectivity in one form or another. Whether it be rationalism or pietism, and their modern counterparts, the tendency has been toward a humanistic interpreta­tion of right rather than a divine. As Friedmann has so aptly stated regarding the spiritual fanatics: "The fanatics really be­lieve in an immediate revelation through visions and ecstasies, which make them independent of the biblical bases."

Unfortunately, this experience seldom led to the practice of ethical living. It was rather a passive type of religious experi­ence waiting on the Lord. But no church can exist without some standard around which its members may rally. So with the death of Spener and Francke, pietism passed from the practical into the theo­sophical, from a healthy view of the reli­gious life, from a close study of the Scrip­tures, to a totally subjective experience. This paved the way for the development of rationalism as stated by Newman:

So pietism led the current orthodoxy, by this time still less evangelical, into statements so rash as to promote the rise and spread of rationalism. The intense religious enthusiasm and the high moral requirements of pietism, and the stress that is laid on the supernatural as not merely a thing of the past but as a present-day reality, may have directly promoted the spread of rationalism among those who held aloof from its religious influence?

Hurst confirms this when he speaks of the reactions to excessive pietism and stag­nant orthodoxy and their controversies: "The result was a religious indifference—the ready soil for a skeptical sowing."

RationalismRenaissance's Second Edition

Although rationalism was an attempt by reason and science to explain the universe and man's place in it and his relation to divine things, it too, like pietism, depended not on a divine revelation from God, tested by the ages, but on the human mind, which is always subject to error. It was merely subjectivity of another type. It was a sec­ond edition of the Renaissance, repudiat­ing everything traditional and insisting on freedom of thought in getting at the essence and ground of things. This developed into a rationalistic treatment of the Bible and discredit of the Canon, denying that the Scriptures were intended as a standard of faith and life for all men everywhere. Semler (born 1725) was especially prom­inent in this and laid the foundation of the later subjective criticism of the Tubin­gen school commonly called "higher crit­icism." This departure from the objective standard by way of spiritual subjectivity led the way into secular subjectivity, leaving both on the sea of human speculation and reasoning to answer questions that can only be answered by divine revelation.

Science and the Bible

Since that time rationalism has exhibited itself in many forms. In view of the rapid advance of science, attempts have been made to harmonize the Bible with "sci­ence." But care should always be exercised that we do not confuse facts of science with interpretation of science. Some have felt the gap was too wide to harmonize, while others have attempted compromise by stripping religion of miracle and thus lim­iting God. All have attributed freedom to man but not to God, while attempting to retain a semblance of worship to God. Perhaps a re-examination of what is meant by God might be essential to clear thinking.

Rauschenbusch and Kant

Rauschenbusch sought to bring his social thinking and his religious thinking to­gether, and he developed the social gospel that influenced the popular churches for several decades in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. The philosophy of Kant forms a background for much modern religious thought. Sheldon has well analyzed in a few words this system: "The deficit of the Kantian system of thought on the side of religion has already been intimated. It applies to this domain an inadequate meas­ure. While it magnifies worthily the gran­deur of the moral law, it makes scanty room for the sense of dependence upon God and for the thought of inner enrich­ment through communion with him."

ExistentialismSecular Pietism

Let us now briefly note in this trend some of the more modern philosophies of religious thought. Kierkegaard, in the early nineteenth century, who came to be one of the major influences on Protestant theol­ogy,' was not trying to reject orthodoxy but to create a new approach to it. His emphasis was on relationship to Christ and not on what He teaches. We must approach Him in utter faith, not through doctrine, nor through correct thinking, but through a sort of passive subjectivity, or by a sub­jective understanding. This is the act of being, independent being, which came to be known as existentialism. Rationalism was dependent on the human mind, whereas existentialism was dependent on the human spirit, a sort of irrationalism. One could almost call it secular pietism. Man stands before God in despair and faith, and this is to exist. This idea that existence is the individual subjectivity of the free man has had a tremendous influ­ence on all later phases of existentialism, whether atheistic under Sartre or extreme individualism under Heidegger. It is sub­jective, and hence each writer has put his own concept into it. Spier, in analyzing Lavelle, has analyzed existentialists. "As all existentialists, Lavelle does not recog­nize divine law. Existentialists do not have any room for divine law, because in their thought man alone is his own sovereign law-giver." No matter how much they may differ among themselves, all existentialists have one thing in common, namely, that man is absolutely autonomous.


More recently there has developed a new approach known as neo-orthodoxy, of which Karl Barth is a representative. It includes such men as Emil Brunner, Reinhold Nie­buhr, the late Paul Tillich, and Rudolph Bultmann with his emphasis on demytholo­gizing the Scriptures. It has superseded mod­ernism as the dominant theology of the liberal school of the mid-twentieth century. These men are united in their opposition to modernism and also to fundamentalism. From the term neo-orthodoxy one would expect a revival of the Reformation ideal with a balance of subjectivity and the ob­jective standards of the Word. However, as to the writing of Scripture they teach

that their witness can never be the basis and object of faith, but only the means of faith. We do not believe in Christ Jesus because we first of all believe in the story and the teaching of the apostles, but by means of the testimony of the narrative and their teaching we believe, as they do, and are in a similar state of freedom. Faith in Jesus Christ is not based upon a previous faith in the Bible, but it is based solely upon the witness of the Spirit? (Italics supplied.)

Revelation or Record of Revelation?

To them the Bible itself is not a revela­tion but rather a record of revelation. The Scripture is not authoritative in itself, but in neo-orthodoxy, authority is attributed to the experience of the interpreter (a strictly subjective experience); that is, the truth is revealed to the individual through the means of the written Word. Thus it is al­most, if not altogether, completely subjec­tive.

Pietism and Pentecostalism

On the opposite end of the pole, and yet very near in its concept of the Bible and the Spirit, is the modern movement known in general as Pentecostalism. This is a further confirmation of the paradox previ­ously mentioned—that rationalism grew out of pietism. The two streams seem to have the same source, cause, and back­ground. Both developed as a result of stagnant orthodoxy. The Reformation had died and orthodoxy had developed into mere formalism. A reaction by the spiritual element brought on pietism with its ecstatic emotionalism, of which Pentecostalism is its modern counterpart, whose followers are entirely dependent on direct revelation for their philosophy of life, with the Bible as secondhand. In this situation, as John Wesley said, a man cannot tell whether his inward feelings are divine. This has been demonstrated by the variety of Pentecostal churches, none agreeing with the others. Truth can only be known when tested by an objective standard.

What Is Freedom?

As the reaction of the spiritual element of society brought on pietism and Pente­costalism, so a reaction by the more secular element brought on rationalism, then higher criticism, Kantian philosophy, existential­ism, neo-orthodoxy, and other modern reli­gious philosophies of a subjective nature. But all had one thing in common—namely, a desire for human freedom, freedom from an objective divine authority outside of themselves. In one group it is manifested by freedom of the spirit; in the other by freedom of the mind.

Having reviewed the religious trends, we see clearly that true religion, which involves man's relation to a Supreme Being, must be guided by this Supreme Being, and this guidance must be tested by some standard outside of his emotional experience. In other words, if there is a God whom we worship and whom we serve, He must be above and beyond ourselves, and to prevent each one from thinking his own analytical mind or ecstatic emotion to be supreme. man must be given an objective standard outside of himself by which he may test his subjective spiritual emotions or his philosophies of life and thus protect him from erroneous concepts. If man must be allowed freedom to think, then a God who is supreme and over us and all-wise must have the freedom and authority to give guidance to that thinking in harmony with His superior knowledge. There must be divine inspiration tested by time and expe­rience. Otherwise man would be cast on a sea of despair, and he could only cry out, "Where am I? What is truth?" And only his own echo would answer. If we worship God we must expect this; yea, we must demand this of Him, or man becomes his own god, with himself the supreme being.


1 Robert Friedmann, Mennonite Piety Through the Cen­turies, p. 79.

2 Albert Henry Newman, A Manual of Church History, vol. 2. p. 532.

3 John F. Hurst, Short History of the Modern Church in Europe, p. 59.

4 Henry C. Sheldon, Unbelief in the Nineteenth Century, p. 15.

5 George L. Hunt, Ten Makers of Modern Protestant Thought, p. 51,

6 J. M. Spier, Christianity and Existentialism, p. 54. '

7 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 33, 34.

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