Beyond Born Again
Section III– Can Evangelical Theology be Born Again?
Chapter 9: Theological Rhetoric
In the last chapter we saw the ineffectiveness of the Evangelical attempt to disqualify Liberal theology as “unscriptural.” We noted that, contra J. I. Packer and company, it is not self-evident that the only way to take scripture seriously is to construe it as a set of “propositions and logical analyses, factual assertions and deductions, embodying direct teaching from God.” In view of these conclusions, what do the condemnations of other views as “unscriptural” finally amount to? Since the measuring-stick is conformity to Evangelical doctrine, the Evangelical critics wind up merely saying, “Your view is different from our view.” This is no news, but logically it is no real criticism either! What remains to be seen is just why a non-Evangelical theology is for that reason a bad thing.
Evangelical theology criticism usually skirts this crucial criterial question. A second important criticism makes much the same mistake. This is the charge that Liberal theology is to be rejected insofar as it subordinates biblical truth to culturally-determined thought-forms. The Bible is demythologized by Liberals, who then make biblical symbols into a sort of figurehead or set of illustrations for a philosophy derived from contemporary thought. Tillich, Bultmann, Ogden and others are usually cited as examples here. Liberal theology, following modern cultural trends, is said to evacuate salvations of its supernatural biblical meaning by reducing it to existentialist “authentic existence” or Marxist “political liberation.”
Evangelicals will not sit still for this. As we have seen, the Bible is valued for its “propositional revelation,” its “didactic thought-models.” David F. Wells is quick to denounce the enterprise of demythologizing biblical ideas:
To scrap the mythological garb is, in fact, to evacuate Christianity of its saving content. For what is discarded is not, As Bultmann imagines, secondary and peripheral, bu primary and central…. Where the biblical outlook violates the assumptions of modern man it is these assumptions which need to be depicted as mythological.
Clark Pinnock echoes the same indignation. He rejects Liberal theology because it sacrifices scriptural truth to modernity. It exalts the word of man above the word of God. But does any Liberal theologian think he is doing this? Of course not. Liberals believe themselves to be in continuity with the biblical writers who articulated their faith (or God’s revelation) in the available thought-forms of their day. They hold that we must do the same with the categories of our day if we are to make the gospel intelligible and available to our contemporaries.
Evangelicals and Liberals are agreed that revelation appeared in our history in time-bound forms. The difference is this: Evangelicals believe that the revelation is essentially unchanging in its concepts. What changes from culture to culture is the bare words of language. The cross-cultural task is merely one of translation. Liberals believe that the revelation is of a more general character, e.g., of a “divine-” or “depth-dimension” of reality. The concepts
with which this revelation is articulated in the Bible are culturally relative and time-bound, and thus dispensable. Here, the cross-cultural tasks is demythologization. Carl F.H. Henry sees this difference in just these terms. He contends that “the message of the Bible is a call not to the task of demythologization but of translation.”
These are certainly two very different notions, and it would serve no purpose to obscure this fact. But it is not self evident that one is superior to the other. The Evangelical critics of Liberal theology have not shown why their choice is preferable. They seem to have done this when they use loaded rhetoric like this:
Liberal theology seeks to accommodate the classical Christian message to the spirit of the times…. If God’s speaking can be fitted into man’s thinking, it will be fitted; if it can’t, it will be eliminated…I don’t think I’m giving a Fundamentalist reading of Liberal theology. I’m getting it from… what these people say they are doing. (Pinnock)
This criticism seems to assume that Liberals know as well as Evangelicals that biblical thought-forms are “God’s speaking” but reject them anyway! It would be hard to deny the inadequacy of a theology which actually intended to negate what it believed to be God’s revelation! But of course Liberals do not intend this! Pinnock is only able to make it look as if they do by subconsciously projecting his evaluation of biblical “thought-models” (i.e., as divinely normative) onto the Liberal rejection of those thought-models. Obviously Liberals do not believe these thought-forms to be divinely revealed or they would not dispense with them! Pinnock needs to show why the biblical thought forms should be considered divinely normative and indispensable. If he could do this, he would have an effective argument, i.e., “For such-and-such reasons, Liberals turn out actually to be dispensing with God’s word, though they do not intend to.” This would be much superior to mere rhetoric like “Liberals make it their business to negate the revelation of God.”
The insistence of Pinnock and others that biblical thought-models are normative is, ironically, being challenged from elsewhere within their own camp. Missiologists who must come face to face with the question of cross-cultural communication are not quite as sure as Pinnock that biblical thought-forms are irreplaceable. In Christianity in Culture, Charles Kraft says that different worldviews are a stubborn fact of life. And if one wants to communicate divine truth, he had better be willing to reconceptualize that truth according to the worldview and thought-forms of his audience, just as God himself did in his revelations to the writers of the Bible! He calls this “dynamic-equivalence theologizing.”
Often Evangelical critiques of Liberal theology are no critiques at all; they only amount to saying ” we don’t see things the same way.” A real critique would furnish some criteria for deciding which viewpoint is more satisfactory. In his booklet, Keep Yourselves from Idols, J.I. Packer takes John A. T. Robinson to task for the views presented in his famous book Honest to God:
This teaching does not stand [on its own]; it is not meaningful unless it leans on something else…. Dr. Robinson talks glowingly about love being perfectly revealed in Jesus,
but it is not clear what that can mean when the biblical meaning of the cross is denied…. It thus appears that Robinsonianism is a parasite which lives off the very thing it professes to reject– [it is] a theological bankrupt, that can only keep in business by illegitimately transferring orthodox Christian capital to its own account.
This is a cogent argument, pointing out a structural deficiency or internal contradiction within the opposing theological system. A good way to check if a critique is in principle cogent is to ask if it would make sense if applied self-critically by a Liberal theologian to his own system. We find exactly the same kind of argument as Packer used, applied by Dennis Nineham to his fellow-contributors to The Myth of God Incarnate:
So long as the doctrine of the incarnation was taken as a statement of an objective metaphysical fact, that Jesus was literally divine, then the unique perfection of his humanity was a legitimate deduction from the fact of its hypostatic conjunction with divinity…. [but in modern Christological reformulations] the perfection of Jesus is being used… as a starting point for an alternative conceptualization or symbolization…. In that case, it is difficult, at any rate at first sight, to see how the claim for the perfection of Jesus humanity could be supported….
There is a great difference between this argument and that put forth by Pinnock, Wells, and others, that Liberals exalt the word of man over (what Evangelicals believe to be) the word of God, i.e., biblical thought-forms. The latter argument could never be leveled self critically by a Liberal; he would not be inconsistent in dispensing with biblical thought-forms if he didn’t regard them as divinely normative. Now, the Evangelical may in fact be right– perhaps in reality Liberals do turn out to be downplaying God’s normative word. But this is what needs to be proven; the mere assumption that Liberals are downplaying divine truth is no argument that they are doing this.
Here we need to call another bluff. It has to do with a serious confusion between contemporary thought-forms and worldviews on the one hand, and the Zeitgeist, or “spirit of the age”, on the other. Liberals are said to “capitulate” to modernity in disobedience to Paul’s admonition to affirm the “foolishness of the cross” against the “wisdom of this age”. But this is too superficial a reading both of Liberal theology and the relevant Pauline passage, I Corinthians 1:18 25. “Worldly values” are the target of Paul in his attack on the wisdom of this age, not “worldviews” as such. According to the context, the cross is a stumbling block for those Jews who reject faith in favor of stubborn, sign-seeking unbelief (cf. John 4:48; Matthew 16:4). It is foolishness to those Greeks who scorn moral repentance in favor of haughty gnostic intellectualism. Ironically, to demand the acceptance of an alien worldview’s thought-forms as a condition for faith (as Pinnock and company want to do) comes disturbingly close to gnosticism, with its saving cosmological secrets! At any rate, no Liberal theologian intends that Christian theology, to be modern, must accept “the ways of the world”, i.e., hedonism, aggression, pride, avarice, self aggrandizement, etc.
Evangelical apologists are able to score a cheap victory by making this implicit false equation between modernity and worldliness. This confusion obscures an important fact. Liberal theologians do adopt modern thought-forms so as to make faith intelligible. But they proclaim that faith in opposition to the current Zeitgeist which is no more sympathetic to the gospel than that of Paul’s day. Bultmann wanted to clear the false stumbling block of mythology out of the way so modern man would not turn away without facing the real “scandal of the cross”, justification by grace alone. Schleiermacher adopted modern thought-forms (in his case, a Kantian anthropocentrism) only so as to challenge the assumptions of his culture which “despised religion”.
The Liberal theological movement that came closest to the Evangelical stereotype was the short lived and extremist “Death of God”, or secular, theology. Following some of Bonhoeffer’s later writings, these thinkers sought to find a non-religious interpretation of Christian faith. They even went so far as to suggest that man must solve his problems standing on his own two feet, without help from God. Man was thought to have “come of age”; he should live without God, and this according to God’s will! Altizer could even say that “theology is now called to listen fully to the world, even if such a listening demands a turning away from the church’s witness to Christ.” Yet even here, it should be kept in mind, the aim was to answer Bonhoeffer s question, “How can Christ become the Lord even of those with no religion?” So even in this extreme form of Liberal theological “contextualization,” the motive was, so to speak, evangelistic. On the whole, Liberals seem just as sensitive to the danger of cultural accommodation as Evangelicals are. For instance, even radical theologian Fritz Buri can warn that if it is not careful, “theology might assimilate revelation to the world and the world becomes revelation.” In other words, accommodation to the world is what Liberals want to avoid, not what they aim to accomplish! Again, Buri and company may in fact wind up doing what they seek to avoid. This is not unusual among human beings. Most Evangelicals will admit that their theology, too, has sometimes lapsed into cultural accommodation. But it is sheer caricature to charge that Liberal theology actually makes such accommodation its goal. Liberals join Evangelicals in challenging the values and self-sufficient assumptions of modern man. The two camps differ in their choice of ancient or modern thought-forms.
Many Evangelical writers take it as a telltale sign of Liberal theology’s futility that its reconstructions have no staying power. They often quote Dean Inge’s remark that the thinker who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower. In the words of Kenneth Hamilton, “The disadvantage of founding a theology upon relevance is that it may suddenly become irrelevant and die.” Pinnock laments that “increasingly we are being confronted with a theology in motion. A doctrine is ‘true’ for one generation, not for the next. Yesterday’s error becomes today’s truth.” Such critics have little trouble demonstrating that in the history of recent theology, one Liberal reconstruction follows another in rapid fire succession. This very fact once stated is supposed to demonstrate the weakness of the whole approach. But why? Evangelicals seem to see the theological task as that of articulating an ever valid credo
or system. They project this desired goal onto the Liberal endeavor and then, inevitably, pronounce it a failure. If they themselves were in the position of creating a new theology for the modern world, they as Evangelicals would see themselves as providing a creed that could stand across the ages, unlike the old one which must have been flawed, else it would not have needed replacement. They assume the Liberal’s task would be that of providing a better candidate for a timeless theology, one that will not again need replacement.
But Liberals do not see things this way. In the very nature of the case, no theology could be eternally valid. Theology today needs reformulation not so much because modern thought is definitive, superior to all other possible worldviews, but because man’s concepts and ideas must always change with the passage of history. Bultmann admits that “no world-view of yesterday or today or tomorrow is definitive.” In Peter Berger’s terms, the relativizers have relativized themselves as well. H. Richard Niebuhr plainly states: “A critical historical theology cannot, to be sure, prescribe what form religious life must take in all places and all times beyond the limits of its own historical system.” Thus it comes as no surprise to Liberal theologians that their formulations are sooner or later superseded. It is supposed to happen that way. The Liberal theologian wants only to come up with a theology adequate to express faith for people of his time. So why do Evangelicals see the transitoriness of Liberal theology as a disproof of its validity? Simply because they assume everyone should share their agenda, i.e., the construction of a permanent orthodoxy. And they believe that they already have such a theology and that no reconstruction is necessary.
A similar criticism is that Liberal theology can produce no compelling consensus even among its own theorists. Hamilton complains:
It sounds plausible to argue that the Christian Gospel cannot get home to modern man unless it is translated into terms meaningful to him in his cultural situation. But the trouble is that different interpreters of the present day situation advance conflicting reports.
Pinnock agrees that this makes modern theology “disreputable and chaotic.” Evangelical critics do not seem to notice that their own theology is but one more competing option; does the lack of universal acceptance of Evangelical theology make it, too, a false option?
Why is it that Evangelicals see such diversity or disunity as another disconfirmation of Liberal thought? Again, they are assuming the propriety of the Evangelical goal, i.e., to have one universally valid creed, an unequivocal propositional theology. But this is not the way Liberals seek “catholicity” in theology. Rather than demanding that everyone assent to the same formulation of faith, they seek to enable different people to formulate the one faith in ways natural to them. They do not feel that one particular worldview or philosophy, traditional supernaturalism, should be made into a shibboleth for Christian faith. Thus Bultmann proposes a translation of the gospel message that existentialists can accept. Van Buren provides a version for empiricists. The fact that the option of each will not be workable or acceptable for all, does not disqualify if for those who can accept it.
The commitment here is more tentative: one devotes himself sufficiently to a point of view to give perhaps a good many years of his life to determining what is contained or implied in it, while simultaneously recognizing that there are other ways of doing theology, other “experiments” being carried on that are worth observing and learning from…. A theologian with such a pluralistic and experimental orientation will rejoice precisely in the diversity and openness of the current theological scene because of his conviction that it is only through the strife of perspectives and systems that some new truth, beyond all the currently struggling partial insights, may be won. (Gordon D. Kaufman)
What is needed is a pluralistic framework, since honest minds differ; and to tie faith to one conceptual worldview would bar many from faith. One gets the feeling that some conservatives would rather not recognize that non-supernaturalists have sincere and intelligent convictions. If they did, how could they be morally culpable for not accepting supernaturalism? For instance, Kenneth Hamilton’s choice of words betrays such an assumption. He depicts Liberal theologians as “happening” to “favor” particular philosophies because of their “tastes.” The reader is sure to pick up the insinuation. Francis Schaeffer, however, is not content merely to insinuate. He baldly declares that Liberal theologians “did not accept their own form of naturalism because they were forced to do so by the facts. They did so to conform, and liberal theology has been conforming ever since.”
Basically, Evangelicals assume that one mark of a true theology is that its propositions are valid for all men everywhere. Central to the Liberal enterprise, however, is avowed pluralism. People in different cultures, or even in different intellectual subcultures (Berger’s “plausibility structures”) within the same culture, must have the right to conceptualize (theologize) faith in their own terms. Surely this ought to be evident from the current interest in “contextualization”, especially among black, feminist, Latin American, and African theologians.
Liberal theology is being criticized not for failing to meet its own goals (thought certainly it may do this) but for failing to meet Evangelical goals! Liberalism is again being criticized simply for not being Evangelicalism. Cogent criticism would demonstrate just why the Evangelical approach is preferable. And there are critiques which attempt to do this. The interested reader should invest his time with the latter and not draw conclusions too quickly on the basis of the former.
If Miracles are Possible, are Legends Impossible?
One often hears conservative Evangelical New Testament scholars and apologists (it is sometimes difficult to distinguish them) make the claim that the only reason biblical critics consider a miracle story to be a legend is that the critics approach the text with the dogmatic “philosophical presupposition” that miracles simply cannot occur.
Dissatisfaction with the traditional view of revelation was not created by the rise of Biblical criticism. Criticism was
born out of its denial. For in its modern form, criticism is for the most part grounded upon naturalistic presuppositions which reflect scepticism in the supernatural content and preparation of the Bible (Clark H. Pinnock)
By the same token, if the supernatural really occurred in history, criticism cannot disprove it. Its naturalistic presuppositions require that it interpret the supernatural as legend, mythology. (George E. Ladd)
Whether you can accept them (i.e., miracles) depends not primarily on the evidence, but on your view of the limits of possibility. (R. T. France)
In attempting to be objective or “scientific”, many recent scholars have used only naturalistic concepts. The idea that God actively controls the course of nature and history doesn t even enter their minds. They assume, then, that divine interventions cannot be part of legitimate historical interpretations. We cannot say Jesus really rose from the dead; the resurrection traditions must have developed over time as the early believers experienced a dynamic (but only human) new faith. (John Duff)
It is not surprising therefore that the historical evidence for miracles and the supernatural is sometimes held to be inadequate. For unless the mind is at least genuinely willing to accept the possibility that such events occurred, no amount of historical evidence will be sufficient to convince. (Kenneth G. Howkins)
No doubt all these writers have in mind these words from Rudolf Bultmann’s essay “Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?”:
The historical method includes the presupposition that history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect…. This closedness means that the continuum of historical happenings cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural transcendent powers and that therefore there is no miracle in this sense of the word.
From the context it is not quite clear whether Bultmann intends these words to mean that no miracles are possible metaphysically or simply that the historian cannot render accounts of miracles “probable” as apologists would like to do. But whatever Bultmann means to assert, let us grant that some critics do declare all miracle stories legendary because they reject the supernatural a priori.
Having established, at least asserted, this, our scholars/apologists appear to believe they have settled the question of miracles. If this purely a priori consideration of naturalism vs. supernaturalism is the only issue, then all the biblical miracle stories stand or fall together. If we bracket the “naturalistic presupposition”, all the miracles stand, and we need trouble ourselves as to their historicity no more. That someone might still want to pick and choose seems perverse to C. S. Lewis. He marvels at and pities “a theology… which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at
such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes. Again, “I can understand the man who denies the miraculous altogether; but what is one to make of the people who admit some miracles but deny the Virgin Birth?” These words clearly imply that once miracles are deemed possible there is no reason for doubting any of them.
But continued doubts as to particular miracle stories are not really so puzzling; a critic may reject some miracle stories as legendary, and not others, with no inconsistency at all for the simple reason that even if one holds miracles to be possible, one need not hold legends to be impossible! There are other factors, literary and historiographical ones, that might lead a critic to conclude that even though miracles can happen, it does not appear that in this or that case they did. I would like to look briefly at four such factors to make clear how they do not presuppose any across-the-board rejection of the supernatural. When we have done so, the conservative/apologetic charge with which we began may appear in a suprising new light.
The first criterion for identifying possible legends, and the most controversial, is the principle of analogy, classically formulated by Ernst Troeltsch and recently reformulated and championed by Antony Flew and Van A. Harvey. The main point here is that the historian (including the biblical critic) must use the standards of today’s observed and documented experience as his criterion for what may be viewed as “probably” having happened in the past. Without this, there is no safeguard at all against unrelenting credulity. Why not accept Papias’s claim that after the betrayal of Jesus, Judas Iscariot’s head swelled up to such grotesque proportions that Judas could not make it through a pass through which a wagon could easily drive, and that he began to urinate worms?
If on the principle of analogy critics have often discounted biblical nature “miracles” (like Jesus walking on the sea) as having no analogy in present day experience, let it be noted that it works both ways. In the various charismatic movements of our day and of recent history we have seen enough paranormal events paralleling some of the biblical miracles as to render the latter historically “probable,” however one wishes to explain them. It is difficult to deny that faith healings and exorcisms occur today (e.g., in the Pentecostal movement), so why consider the stories of Jesus healings and exorcisms legendary? Even Bultmann does not:
There can be no doubt that Jesus did the kind of deeds which were miracles to his mind and to the minds of his contemporaries, that is, deeds which were attributed to a super natural, divine cause; undoubtedly he healed the sick and cast out demons.
Even details of the exorcism stories are paralleled in modern reports (though these tend to be anecdotal and hearsay in nature). John Nevius, a missionary in China, reports that after an exorcism
an extraordinary commotion occurred among the fowls, which rushed and flew about in great consternation without any apparent cause…. After awhile they cowered up in the corner of the yard in a state of fright. The swine also belonging to the family, more than a dozen in number, occupying a large
Rudolf Otto clearly understood that the principle of analogy worked both ways.
But from the point of view of the history of religion it would be a mistake to pass over the entire class of charismatic phenomena [in the gospel records] in a modern spirit of skepticism… simply because the matters do not appeal to our taste…. Our task is to ask what kinds of actual occurrences are typically found in a charismatic milieu, in order in this way to gain a criterion for what actually happens; …in order then to apply it…to early records.
On this basis Otto recognizes not only Jesus healings and exorcisms as historical, but also his prophecies and direct knowledge of what people were thinking. Surprising as it might sound to some, we may even suggest a biblical basis for the use of analogy in evaluating biblical miracle stories. Surely the teachings of the New Testament is that the same Spirit that energized Jesus of Nazareth remains active in Christians, with the result that “he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (John 14:12). Oral Roberts took this seriously and began his healing ministry this way:
How could I get up and preach about Jesus making the lame to walk, the dumb to talk, the deaf to hear, the blind to see, the leper to be cleansed, and the dead raised to life and then let it all be treated as something in the past, something irrelevant to our life and time? How could I talk about the Bible being in the NOW? I began to be consumed with a passion either to have a ministry like Jesus or to get out of the ministry. What good did it do to tell about events that weren’t happening in this world, in the now?
Roberts, then as all Pentecostals, did not want to be Bultmann’s modern man, but rather wanted to close the gap between New Testament times and our own. We must assume the presence of at least a mustard seed’s weight of faith in those who minister in Christ’s name today expecting miracles, yet what Pentecostal healer has walked on water, cured insanity at a word, raised the dead, or restored visibly maimed limbs? Shall we believe God is capriciously withholding some of the Christ like works of power promised in John 14:12, or ought we not rather to conclude that God worked today as he did then, that no one ever did such miracles as do not occur today, and that instead those stories are legends conveying spiritual truth in their own unique way?
But forget the principle of analogy; to some readers the very phrase reeks so strongly of Hume and Bultmann that they cannot consider it in an unprejudiced way. Let us consider a second factor that has nothing to do with analogy or with the denial of miracles. If when we compare two versions of a story, the second known to be a retelling of the first, and find that the second has more of a miraculous element, we may reasonably conclude we have
legendary (or midrashic or whatever) embellishment. The tale has grown in the telling. This sort of comparison is common in extrabiblical research and no one holds that it cannot properly indicate legend formation there. When biblical scholars apply the same method to the Bible it in no way implies a wholesale rejection of miracles. For instance, let us suppose that Mark’s account of Jesus walking on the sea (6:45-51) is an accurate account of a real event. When we read Matthew’s retelling of the incident (14:22-23) suddenly it seems that Peter, too, walked on the waves. It is hard to imagine that if this really happened Mark could possibly have omitted it. On the other hand, Matthew’s motivation for expanding the story is not far to seek: Peter functions as the prototype of all disciples. When he takes his eyes off Jesus, he begins to sink. Even so, let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). One may well believe Jesus walked on water but doubt that Peter did. The same sort of analysis has been applied to Matthew’s detachment of guards at the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66; 28:4, 11-15) and Luke’s story of Jesus restoring Malchus’s severed ear in the garden (Luke 22:50-51), both unknown in Mark’s earlier version, the source of Matthew and Luke.
Third, though we believe miracles can and do happen, we might find certain conceptual or chronological problems in a particular story that would lead us to classify It as a legend. One example might be the feeding of the four thousand with seven loaves (Mark 8:1-9). Let us assume that the previously told miraculous feeding of the five thousand with five loaves (Mark 6:35-44) actually occurred. This makes it not less difficult but more to believe that it happened again as recorded in chapter 8, because each time the disciples are said to be equally astonished when Jesus announces his intention to feed the vast crowd. One can understand the disciples astonishment the first time, but the second? How dense can they have been? The suggestion is attractive that one of these stories is simply a second version of the other, with a few details and numbers altered.
An Old Testament example of a miracle story whose conceptual difficulties imply its legendary character is that of Samson s killing of the thousand Philistine soldiers with the jawbone of an ass (Judges 15:14-17). Are we to imagine the thousand Philistines lining up to be killed one by one? No one, no matter how supernaturally strong, could resist and overcome the simultaneous onslaught of a thousand men. The same difficulty occurs in the case of the seventy men of Bethshemesh who dared peer inside the Ark of the Covenant and died (I Samuel 6:19-21): how many could have looked inside at once? Did the rest clear away their fellows corpses and then take their turn to look, knowing the same fate must await them? In the case of the Samson story, there is even more reason to believe we have a legend. It concludes with the note “and that place was called Ramath-lehi,” that is “the Hill of the Jawbone,” a name easily understood as originally deriving from the topography of the place, but here reinterpreted with the aid of an exciting etymological legend. No one is saying that God could not miraculously endow someone with superhuman power (or that he could not miraculously destroy those who look at forbidden things) but the difficulties of the stories
as stories properly lead us to doubt that God did these things as reported in Judges and II Samuel.
Fourth, when a biblical miracle story is strikingly similar to extrabiblical stories which no one would deny are legends, we may justly ask if we have found a legend in the Bible. The miraculous birth of Jesus and the attendant phenomena are very similar to the miraculous birth stories of, e.g., Alexander the Great and the Buddha, both of whom were begotten on their mothers by supernatural agencies. Stars and other supernatural signs herald the birth of various ancient heroes, as do attempts by wicked tyrants to destroy the holy newborn. Indeed God could have and my have sent Jesus into human history via the virgin birth, but looking at the evidence of comparative myth and legend, neither would it be strange if we were dealing with a pious and meaningful legend. To suggest that the birth story is legendary is a plausible though admittedly unprovable way of understanding the story; it is not some kind of desperate expedient forced upon a stubborn disbeliever in the miraculous.
Sometimes a biblical story may simply read like a legend. We feel we are no longer on terra firma. Of course this is subjective, but not completely so. In fact those who defend the complete historical veracity of the gospels often appeal to just such a subjective judgment by C. S. Lewis who “pulled rank” as a literary critic.
If he [the biblical critic] tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour… I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths, all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this [i.e., like John 7:53-8:11].
But how about the gospel tale of the coin in the fish’s mouth (Matthew 17:24-27)? Not only may it strike the palate as decidedly legendary in flavor, but one may even compare it to another of the same vintage:
Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbath had in his vicinity a certain Gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers told him, “Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbath will consume all your property.” So he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban. As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water, and a fish swallowed it. [Subsequently] it [the fish] was hauled up and brought [to market] on the Sabbath eve towards sunset. “Who will buy now?” cried they. “Go and take them to Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbath,” they were told, “as he is accustomed to buy.” So they took it to him. He bought it, opened it, found the jewel therein, and sold it for thirteen roomfuls of gold denarii. A certain old man met him and said, “He who lends to the Sabbath, the Sabbath repays him.” (B. Shabbath, 119a)
It appears, then, that even a confirmed believer in the possibility of miracles may conclude that this or that miracle story in the Bible is a legend. None of the factors we surveyed had a thing to do
with any “naturalistic presuppositions.” Rather all stemmed from careful scrutiny of the text itself. And it is hard to imagine that the conservative scholars with whom we began do not have sufficient familiarity with the works of biblical critics to realize that most of their arguments against miracle-historicity are in fact of this kind. How then do we account for the rehearsal of the charge that one will reject any miracles only if one approaches the text with certain dogmatic presuppositions? Do these conservatives/apologists in fact believe that if one grants the possibility of miracles one is thereby committed to believe every recorded miracle story ever told? In other words, if you believe miracles are possible, must you believe too that the formation of legends is impossible? Of course not: these scholars have no trouble recognizing the legendary nature of extra biblical miracle stories. It is only every miracle story in the Bible that is to be believed unless one holds those nefarious presuppositions. Now we might ask: just what a priori principle would make this difference, that to hold it or not dictates whether one will accept the biblical miracle stories in toto? Clearly it would have to be not the blanket denial of the miraculous, but the fundamentalist doctrine of verbal inspiration, whereby every word, every story in the Bible is to be taken as inerrant. What our conservatives are really objecting to is that the standpoint of critical scholars does not require implicit belief in every Bible story. Whether critics hold “naturalistic presuppositions” is not really the issue, as we have seen. The sin of critics is that they do not approach the text with a presupposition, the presupposition that the Bible is inerrant. Only so could one’s rejection of the critics position entitle one to accept all biblical miracle stories with no further problems. As the history of exegesis has shown, to approach the text with a belief that errors (or legends) cannot occur there is just as arbitrary and procrustean a procedure as to approach it with the assumption that miracles cannot happen. God save us from both.
Demythologizing the Supernatural
I have just tried to explain how Bultmann’s description of the nature of historical critical research does not depend on philosophical or theological presuppositions and that the Liberal disinclination to believe in miracles is a separate question. Now I want to explore the Evangelical objection to the theological decision made by Liberals to demythologize, or desupernaturalize, Christian faith.
Clark Pinnock claims that the real watershed between Evangelical theology (or “classical Christianity”) and Liberal theology (“Satan’s lie”!), is the issue of demythologizing. He is much clearer on this issue than is another current Evangelical spokesman, Donald G. Bloesch who between the covers of a single book invites us to recognize the presence of myth in scripture yet warns us not to demythologize! But perhaps the most straightforward of all is elder statesman Carl F. H. Henry. In his magisterial work God, Revelations and Authority, Henry writes:
Christian revelation is nullified unless the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ belong to the same history that
includes the death of Julius Caesar and of Adolf Hitler. The Christian must either believe that the great redemptive events belong to the realm of history or forfeit his faith.
I believe this statement to be typical of Evangelical writing on the subject. Evangelical theologians and apologists believe that the nonoccurrence of the redemptive miracles of the biblical story would prove fatal for faith. And the Neo-Orthodox relegation of these events to a nonfactual realm of meta-history (Geschichte) seems to them merely an unsuccessful cop-out. Why do we find this tenacious connection of theological reality to the historically miraculous?
What we are seeing here is a confusion of two logically quite distinct things– the supernatural on the one hand, and the sacred on the other. By “supernatural,” I mean paranormal, the occurrence of events apparently from without the normal sequences of cause-and-effect. “Miracles” are events that are supernatural. By sacred, I mean that sometimes less than obvious higher dimension of reality to which man appeals for meaning and wholeness. It is the “Holy,” the “Other,” the complementary opposite to our feeling of creatureliness. It is the divine side of things.
Evangelicals seem not to make this distinction; the sacred is practically identified with the supernatural. There would be no meaning without miracle. We find this often-hidden assumption articulated in Francis Schaeffer’s famous “line of despair” theory. According to this schema, man lost the possibility of finding meaning for life when he began to think that the world of history, nature, and reason was thoroughly explainable on its own terms, without recourse to the supernaturally imparted information of the Bible, and without the causal hypothesis of miraculous intervention, e.g., in the creation of life. Huston Smith makes a similar point in his book Forgotten Truth, where he says that the error of “scientism” is the foolish assumption that the mundane level of reality which admittedly can be adequately explained by science, is the only level of reality. The difference between Smith and Schaeffer is that Schaeffer denies that any level of reality is fully accountable with the scientific method. If there were even such a limited realm of adequacy for the scientific method, then “scientism” would be correct! There would be no reason to postulate any other realm, a realm of transcendent meaning. To proceed to postulate such a realm of meaning would then be an irrational “upper-story leap.” All this is tantamount to saying that unless the realm of mundane reality is penetrated on the same level by supernatural events (e.g., biblical miracles or the inspiration of the Bible itself) there is no sacred realm of meaning at all, only despair. The supernatural and the sacred have been practically identified.
We find a close parallel to this thinking in John Warwick Montgomery. He trains the guns of analytic philosophy on Neo-Orthodoxy, with its referral of miracles to the land of “meta-history.”
If for example, the claim is made that Christ rose from the dead, but in the suprahistorical realm of Geschichte, not in the empirical realm of Historie, one has every right to ask: “What precisely do you mean by the realm of Geschichte and how do you know anything– much less a resurrection– goes on there? A supra-experiential realm is ex hypothesi, untestable,
and therefore…irrelevant as a theological concept.
The historicity of the Resurrection [and] the facticity of the Biblical miracles… must be sustained, or the God of Scripture will fade away into a misty transcendence… and eventually disappear.
Again, we find the notion that without the occurrence of paranormal events in history, there is no real realm of meaning, no real God. God “fades away into a misty transcendence.” For Schaeffer, too, the God of Liberal theology is “no more than a mist.” For Kenneth Howkins, he “is not the living God.” Thus the existence of the sacred is practically identified with, or even reduced to, the existence of the supernatural.
Why should the existence or occurrence of the supernatural imply the sacred, or convey meaning? For example, how would the mere fact that a superpowerful “supreme being” caused paranormal events on earth differ in principle form he concept of “Chariots of the Gods”? What is the difference between this and the notion that “God drives a flying saucer”? Where would meaning or sacrality enter the picture? This is quite a relevant question to pose to Evangelical theologians, especially Schaeffer. He claims that modern theology has no real basis outside experience for believing in the reality of love.
On the other hand, the [Evangelical] Christian does have the adequate universal he needs in order to be able to discuss the meaning of love…. [The] Trinity was before the creation of everything else and… love existed between the persons of the Trinity before the foundation of the world.
But one must ask just how the fact that superhuman beings experienced love chronologically before we did provides any kind of ontological grounding for their love? Why do not the persona of the Trinity in turn seek for some ontological grounding for their love? Similarly, Schaeffer holds that in Evangelical theology “Man has true [i.e., ontological] guilt.” Why? “Because man is guilty before the Law giver of the universe….” But why is the will or character of a being, even a supreme one, ontologically determinative of right and wrong?
In short, the mere existence or activity of superhuman entities in itself says nothing about ontological questions of meaning. And though such a being might be feared for its power, why should it be worshipped as sacred? As Tillich put it in his booklet Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, “each of the biblical symbols drives inescapably to an ontological question.” In other words the supernatural itself cannot bear the weight of questions of meaning. The existence and occurrence of the supernatural is only religiously significant when the supernatural mediates the sacred. In itself, it need not do so, but if it does then a “miracle” (literally, “work of power”) becomes a “sign” pointing to the sacred.
The question now becomes, “If the supernatural does not have to imply the sacred, must the sacred imply the supernatural?” Liberals seem to think that one can have the sacred without the supernatural, without the occurrence of miracles in history. Evangelicals disagree. How do Evangelicals imagine miracles to communicate meaning? The
answer to this question becomes apparent when we recall the Evangelical attacks on the “Biblical Theology Movement” led by G. Ernest Wright and others. In this controversy Evangelicals like Carl F. H. Henry, Bernard Ramm, and J. I. Packer maintained that in God’s “mighty acts in history” he revealed himself, not only in the bare events, but also as interpreted in the inspired scriptural commentary on the events. Thus, miraculous acts mediate the sacred by revealing the character of God. And such revelation is always effectual– people are changed, transformed by their knowledge of God (cf. II Peter 2:20a). Such a revelation of God can come through natural as well as supernatural means, as when God demonstrated his justice in allowing Assyria to conquer Israel.
But are not Liberal theologians able to say very nearly the same thing even when they demythologize? As we have just seen, the real issue is that historical events reveal God whether these events are miraculous or not. Demythologizing, or desupernaturalizing, does not stop Liberal theologians from speaking of “acts of God in history” which reveal his character:
…what is meant when we say that God acts in history is primarily that there are certain distinctively human words and deeds in which his characteristic action as Creator and Redeemer is appropriately represented or revealed. We mean that there are some human actions, some specific attempts to express the ultimate truth of our existence through symbolic words and deeds, that are vastly more than merely human actions. Because through them nothing less than the transcendent action of God himself is re presented, they are also acts of God, that is, they are acts of God analogously to the way in which our outer acts are our acts insofar as they re present our own characteristic decisions as selves or persons. (Schubert Ogden)
Talking of God’s activity is, then, to be understood as a way of speaking about those events within the natural order or within human history in which God’s purpose finds clear expression or special opportunity (Maurice Wiles)
I am not trying to deceive the reader into thinking there are no real differences between Evangelical and Liberal positions at this point. I merely mean to point out that to demythologize is not to dehistoricize, as is often supposed. In both kinds of theology, events in history become “discernment situations” (Iam Ramsey) in which is disclosed a transforming knowledge of God. Let me illustrate this with regard to the most controversial item of the demythologizing agenda, namely the resurrection of Jesus. Evangelicals believe that God’s love and power were revealed on Easter Morning in the miracle of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Liberals such as Rudolf Bultmann and Gordon Kaufman believe that God’s love and power were revealed on Easter Morning in the formation of the disciples resurrection-faith, even though Jesus did not rise bodily. These two notions are different, but both agree that Easter was the historical occasion of the act of God in raising Jesus, whether “to the right hand of God,” or “into the kerygma.” In both cases we are talking about what happened in history.
So the sacred could be mediated in history without the supernatural.
This being the case, it is not evident that disbelief in the literally miraculous would spell the end of Christian faith. Conversely, belief in the miraculous in and of itself goes very little distance in helping to answer questions of meaning and the sacred. Evangelical critics might do well to devote some thought to whether, in their zeal for the supernatural, they are doing justice to the reality of the sacred in its own right. While the analysis in this section has by no means militated against a theological belief in the paranormal and miraculous, it has suggested that this question be discussed in a different, less charged, context. The question of God’s transcendence and revelation does not stand or fall with it.
The Failure to Develop a Post-Modern Position
I began Section III with the question of creativity in Evangelical theology. I said I suspected that we should look for mainly new criticisms of other theological positions. And in view of the inadequacy of the arguments reviewed in the last two chapters, some new ones are certainly in order! But it would not be fair to leave it at this. The critical efforts of Evangelical theologians do have a positive goal in mind. They seek to fill a gap created by the perceived bankruptcy of Liberal theology. Wells an Pinnock in the preface to their book Toward a Theology for the Future make their purpose clear. Ever since Liberalism yielded to the “Neo-Orthodox consensus,” and the latter gave way to Process theism, Liberation theology, the “God is Dead” movement, etc., it has been impossible to keep the players straight without a scorecard. Wells and Pinnock see this as an undesirable situation.
Contemporary theology has drifted into a dangerous cul-de-sac. The situation demands that a vigorous restatement of historic belief emerges which will offer a convincing and credible way out. Evangelical scholarship intends to do this, setting as its main goal nothing less than the recapturing of leadership in theological research.
Triumphalism aside, it would certainly be in everyone’s best interests for Evangelicals to make the best possible showing for their theology. Evangelical theologians are acutely aware of having been left behind in current theological debate, and they want a piece of the action. They at least seem to realize that if they are to shed their “backwater” image, they must begin to engage the same issues that occupy mainstream theologians. Yet there is no thought that interaction with the issues might cause some modification of the Evangelical position. What is envisioned is a “postliberal” position. Pinnock predicts that
our evangelical alternative will be clearly seen to be, not pre-liberal (as if we wished to pretend that nothing of importance had happened in theology since Luther and Calvin!) But post liberal, a proposal which self consciously turns away from the deficiencies of liberal thought and aligns itself in a fresh way with the historic faith of the church.
There is a problem of credibility here. Thomas Oden, whose priorities on this question are closely parallel to Pinnock, makes an
important point. He distinguishes
between two types of orthodoxy: pre- and postmodern. Both are schooled in the same scriptural and patristic texts, and both celebrate and embody the same Christ, but one has journeyed through and dwelled in modernity, while the other has not.
Though Pinnock et al. want to be “postliberal” or “postmodern,” they show no evidence of having made this journey. For instance, J. I. Packer warns that unless Evangelicals concern themselves with current issues of hermeneutics, “we shall be forced to remain (where we have long been!) on the edge of the modern Protestant debate about Holy Scripture….” Yet Packer goes on merely to reiterate the old scholastic system of harmonization and inerrancy, the collapse of which gave rise to the whole “modern debate” in the first place! Similarly, some Evangelical writers have tried to “transcend” the “propositional” vs. “personal” revelation debate by suggesting that no one need worry– though the Bible is propositional revelation it also conveys personal encounter with God himself. The point has been completely missed. This “either-or” situation arose only because biblical criticism made the notion of propositional revelation seem untenable (cf. Chapter 8). Before this everyone had agreed that personal encounter with God was included in propositional revelation. Liberals and Neo-Orthodox thinkers did not claim that propositional revelation was logically nonsensical (as Francis Schaeffer seems to assume). Rather it seemed that biblical criticism made it look as if whether or not such revelation were possible, in fact it had not occurred. These theologians then limited the meaning of revelation to personal encounter as a salvage maneuver. The Evangelical “answer” here is simply to ignore the problem and return to the pre-critical understanding.
Another example of such theological sleight of hand occurs in Donald Bloesch’s Essentials of Evangelical Theology. Bloesch pretends to settle the famous “Jesus of history-Christ of faith” debate:
Against both strands of liberalism we contend that the church must begin neither with the Jesus of history [cf. Harnack] nor the Christ of faith [cf. Bultmann] but with the historical Jesus Christ of the Scriptures whose identity can only be perceived by faith. We further maintain that the picture that faith gives is identical with the true perception of the historical reality of Jesus.
Though professing to accept the “solid gains” of historical criticism, Bloesch acts as if the historical Jesus problem doesn t exist. This is not quite the same as solving it! He goes on deftly to camouflage yet another Christological rift: “We reject both a Christology from below [cf. Küng, Sobrino, Schillebeeckx] and one from above [cf. Barth, Kaspar] and affirm instead a Christology of the center.” The context makes it clear that Bloesch in fact advocates an incarnational Christology “from above.” The fact that he won t’simply admit it makes one wonder if he even understands the issue.
What seems to be happening here is not an attempt to encounter modernity and formulate a truly postmodern position. Rather Evan-
gelicals try to leapfrog modernity and repristinate precritical positions. They say they are willing to struggle with modernity as long as they can continue to believe exactly what they already do believe! If the conclusion is drawn before the process starts, it is no wonder that all that results is apologetics for traditional (premodern) Evangelicalism! A genuine postliberal Evangelicalism is going to have to be willing to undergo real changes. We might expect that such a postmodern version will have continuity but not identity with the preliberal ancestor. In the next chapter, I will try to chart the prospects for a genuinely postmodern Evangelicalism.
“Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity” is copyright © 1993 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.