A Look at Books

THE EVANGELICAL FAITH by Helmut Thielieke. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich., 1974. 420 pages. Price $10.95. Reviewed by Rev. Harry L. Downs, Pastor of Dresden Christian Reformed Church, Dresden, Ontario, Canada.

This book, a Prolegomena of Introduction to Theology, is meant to be the first of a three-volume dogmatics written by the German theologian, Helmut Thielicke.

Although, dealing with “most of the conventional questions of fundamental principle” (p. 12) Thielicke’s Prolegomena to theology is “directed specifically against a theology which is obsessed with analyses of so-called modern man.” (p. 12). His intent is that of “showing his contemporaries, bewildered by the many voices and the confusion of the position, how the unhappy situation has developed and what are the ways out of it” (p. 13).

Thielieke has adopted a kind of “mediating theology” between “conservative” and “modern” theology, not for the purpose of trying to keep these opposing views together or to reconcile their differences, but rather, for the purpose of avoiding the misunderstanding which the terms “modern” and “conservative” have created and continue to create.

Although Thielicke is a Lutheran theologian he llOlds to Calvin’s view, as set forth in the beginning of his Institutes, i.e., that the sum of theology is the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves at the same time. Says Thielicke: “Since God discloses himself to a man and seeks to be his God, any statement about God is also a statement about his relation to man” (p. 14). By this be means “an ontic [Webster: relating to, having real being] rather than a noetic [Webster: of, relating to, or based on the intellect] relation” (p. 15).

In his effort to set forth what he calls The Evangelical Faith, Thielicke is not first of all dealing with faith as a subjective consciousness in man, but rather, “faith to the degree that it stands representative for him who is believed and for what is bound up with his benefits” (p. 15). Says the author, “my primary interest is not in the subject of faith but in that in which faith believes and by which the subject is changed into a ‘new creature’” (p. 15).

Thielicke claims that to use the term “modern” with respect to theology is confusing because it has so many ambiguous and unhelpful meanings —“it says both too much and too little” (p. 34), He claims that the term “conservative” “leads to no less distortion than its counterpart” (p. 35). For this reason Thielicke would rather confront these basic types under the terms “Theology A” or “Cartesian” (after the rationalistic philosophy of Descartes) and “Theology B” or “Non-Cartesian.”

Thiclieke goes on to show how Theology A “is marked by a dominant interest in the one to whom it [the message] is directed and who is to appropriate it” (p. 38). He then gives several examples nf how this Cartesian approach was used in the history of theology. The author sees in the Cartesian approach something which need not be an enemy to theological tradition, but something which “can contribute new insights to it” (p. 39).

According to Thielieke one of the real problems today is whether the new emphasis upon the anthropological in our time injects any “alien element in the Cartesian tradition” (p. 40). This becomes even more significant, according to Theilicke, when one considers the matter of “what points of contact the message finds in our prior understanding, . . . needs, hopes, and existential queries; what concepts, e.g. in contemporary philosophy, are at our disposal in putting the message into another schema; what transpositions have to be made and whether these are possible” (p. 39).

A similar problem to which Thielicke addresses himself is whether the message of the Bible belongs “to the sphere of cosmological truth or to that of existential truth” (p. 39)—an important point because of the fact that we have a different cosmology in our time than that which was in existence when the Scriptures were written. The reader must ask himself the question whether Thielicke answers these questions in away that does justice to the infallibility, inerrancy, historicity, and objective character of the Bible as the Word of God.

Th is much can be said: the author, in dealing with examples of “Theology A” or “Cartesian Theology” (what many would call modern theology or modernism), claims that men like Lessing, Schleiennaeher. Bultmann, and Tillich are all guilty in one way or another of changing the content of doctrines or truths of Scripture “to fit the consciousness” (p. 45); or, to put it in another way. the texts of Scripture are “directed to a ‘pre-understanding’ which I bring with me about every subject” (p. 45). Further, in dealing in greater detail with Bultmann’s view, he gives the render a good idea about his own basic view of Scripture on page 60 where he challenges Bultmann’s denial of the text as “historical,” the dismissal of “the NT miracle stories as theologically irrelevant,” questioning whether “the kerygmatic contents (e.g., the crucifixion and resurrection) are real,” “dehistoricizing,” and “demythologizing.”

Thielicke correctly points ont that, in Theology A (in our time, neo-orthodoxy or neo-modernism), the key problem centers around its hermeneutics, and that the key hermeneutical question centers mound the matter of “form” and “content.” Without necessarily endorsing everything in this volume, I would recommend that all leaders and informed laymen within the Reformed Community struggle Thielicke’s rather heavy, but valuable, analysis and evaluation of this matter. This would be very helpful because the same issue is involved in the new theology or new hermeneutics of men like Kuitert, Wiersinga, and others within the Reformed Community in the Netherlands.

And it is this same hermeneutics that is behind all the major issues within the Reformed Community in North America—especially such issues in the Christian Reformed Church as: Biblical Authority, Homosexuality, Women in Ecclesiastical Office, Liturgical Changes (especially certain phrases within the new forms for baptism and profession of faith), and the view of the Word of God set forth by leaders of the Association for Reformed Scientific Studies. The real issue centers around Bultmann’s problem as to how much of the Bible’s content is historically conditioned by the forms of expression (including cosmology, cultural expressions, etc.) used at the time of the writing of the Seriptures: “What is mere form and what is true content?” (p. 67). “Since the means of expression are historically conditioned in this way, the contents require demythologization” (p. 68). Bultmann and others within this modern Cartesian School would claim that this demythologi:z:ation “denotes little more than the process of interpretation” (p. 68). I hope that these insights alone will stimulate the reader to study this volume.

However, Thielieke also considers the lise of the term “conservative” a misleading one, and therefore opts for the term “Theology B” or “non–Cartesian” as a better and clearer one. He states: “The two movements do not just fight under the slogans of modern and conservative . . . but accuse one another of sinning against the kerygma [message]. The demythologizers say: You attack the kerygma by making it a dead thing. The conservatives reply: You are making a complete break and reducing theology to existential philosophy” (p. 69).

Thielicke describes the real issue thus: “Bultmann [representing Theology A] assesses what is kerygmatically binding by whether and how far it fits the pre-understanding provided by existential analysis, and then assigns the non-digestible remnants to the sphere of a historically conditioned mode of expression or mythological expression or mythological thought-schema” (p. 69). This view starts with “existential analysis” and thus “prejudges what can be accepted as possible kerygmatic content” (p. 69).

Whereas, the conservative side “is ‘too’ conservative in its effort to keep traditional doctrine intact, i.e., without interpretative selection” (p. 69), Thielieke claims that both sides arc unclear “as to what is meant, by mythical ways of speaking or indeed by myth itself (p. 70). He claims that “the NT itself is engaged in selfliberation from myth” (p. 70) and therefore one must distinguish “between different modes of the mythical and . . . not lump them all together under one word” (p. 70 ). He goes on to claim that, if demythologization is legitimate today, “The NT itself will indicate both the manner and also the limit of such operation. They must be done in accordance with the NT and not one-sidedly controlled by existential analysis and its pre-judgment” (p. 70).

One may well question the wisdom of using the word myth to describe what the NT itself uses as modes of expression. In making a cautious preliminary judgment I would hesitate to use the word myth, lest it be misunderstood. However, it is impossible to make a final critique of Thielieke’s use of the term “myth” until one has read this volume and until the next two volumes of his own dogmatics are printed and read carefully and compared with this volume. One thing that can be said is that Thielicke has undertaken a tremendous task.

The reader can get a hint at the direction in which Thielieke is heading, with the use of the term “myth” in connection with the NT, by reducing the following pages: 77, 81, 83, 88, 89, 100, 104, 202, 344. In these pages he indicates that the Bible addressed itself to certain historical, cosmological, and even at times mythical (symbolical) conditions, because the Bible contains human language or existing vocabularly to convey God’s message to men. However, the meaning is changed.

Even though Thielicke prefers not to us: the terms “modern” and “conservative,” as was indicated above, his concern seems to be to maintain the elements which conservatives have been concerned with maintaining, i.e. “a decidedly historical reference” (p. 115), “the concrete” (p. 116), “the specific” (p. 117), and “the concept of reproduction” (p. 119). In connection with the last element he likes the “re” because it concerns itself with “the truth present in revelation and kept by the fathers” (p. 119) and the “production” because it shows that “this truth is not stated in mere repetition and quotation but is formulated and ‘readdressed’ in relation to new questions and challenges” (p. 119). “Real fidelity is achieved when the old truth is related to the questions that agitate modern man” (p. 121).

Thielicke spends most of the last part (pp. 129–218) of Part 1 trying to establish the fact that faith does not begin in the subjective human consciousness, as Cartesian Theology (including such neo-orthodox theologians as Bultmann) teaches, but rather that it is a new creation brought about by the Holy Spirit.

Thus the thesis which Thielieke very effectively establishes is: “While the prior selfunderstanding of man is not ignored in the Spirit‘s work and remains a theological theme, it is not accorded the same rank as in Cartesian theology. It is not the starting-point of theology in the form of existential analysis. It is the object of a retrospective glance and is thus a secondary theme” (p. 139). In all of this he shows the new place of self-understanding as it is created anew by the Holy Spirit and yet at the same time is still linked to the old. He makes it clear that one who takes his starting point in the existential selfunderstanding of man not only dissociates himself from the historical past, especially the Christ-event (cross and resurrection) but he is totally irrelevant in terms of his present existence.

This is true because true relevance comes when one accepts God’s assessment of his present existence. The New Hermeneutic turns it all around (pp. 139, 157, 173).

Haying said al! of this in appreciation for much of Thielieke’s Theology, it is necessary to sound a warning here. As one continues to read through Part 2 of this Prolegomena and the other two volumes (yet to come out), he must ask himself the following questions:

  1. Does Thielicke, despite his many Calvinistic emphases, not still reveal a Lutheran perspective?
  2. Thus, is there not in his view an implicit (and perhaps explicit ) disjunction between Christ as Word and the Bible as Word, the Gospel and Law, the Holy Spirit and the Bible as Word, and the “letter” of the Word and “Spirit” of the Word?
  3. Does Thielieke completely divest himself from Neo-Orthodox Existentialistic Cartesian Rationalism, which despite its opposition to so-called “scholasticism” and “rationalism” of Traditional Reformed Orthodoxy, is itself subjectivistic and rationalistic and scholastic? I only dare to posit these as unanswered questions, at this point, because the second and third volumes dealing with the doctrines of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and Eschatology are not yet out.

These above-mentioned questions arc not meant to detract from the many favorable things that I have said about this first volume. In fact, should the later volumes prove the preliminary misgivings which are implied in these questions, I would still commend this work to the reader. Read with care and discretion, this volume can give us tremendous insights into neo-orthodoxy, existentialism, the “new” hermeneutics, and the “new” theology which is encroaching also upon the Reformed Community—if indeed one can really call them new. Part 2 of this volume indicates that there is nothing really new or modern—they are all an “illusion” (pp.227–228).

Rightly understood and read with discretion, this volume should sound a real warning to the “neo-pentecostals,” those of the modern “charismatic movement,” and those within the Reformed Community who hold to a subjectivistic view of a Word of God manifested in the creation. Of course, if some of my hunches implicit in the above questions are true, advocates of these movements could also find certain emphases within this volume to support their views. However, then they would be using of Thielicke’s inconsistencies to support their own views.

The following relevant quotation taken from the last two paragraphs of Part I (p. 218) shows why every theologian, minister, and informed layman should read this volume and take it very seriously:

So long as our gaze is fixed on the hum:m self and no changes in the understanding of the self and the world, there will be self-development and hence there will always be new things which crowd out the old. The old creature is desirous of new things.

It is no surprise, then, that Calvin as well as Luther is critical of novelty, or, as we should say, modernity . . . . Have we then set up a new church? asks Luther . . . . The answer is: No, we stand by the true and old church . . , whereas they—the Papists—are “the new and false church”—“the whore and school of the devil”. . . The Reformation is are—establishment of what is old, not an addition to it. The one who makes additions in the sense of modern improvements is the devil: the name of the devil is “in Hebrew Leviathan, one who adds, who makes a thing more than it should be . . .”