Faith in the Midst of Modern Uncertainty


One of the most striking characteristics of our time is that everywhere in the world we see new ideas appearing, which have a tremendous influence upon us all. Of course, one should not exaggerate this as if only our time produces new ideas. In a way you find these in every period of history. Yet it cannot be denied that certain periods stand out in this respect. especially the so-called transitional periods. They often have a revolutionary character. All of a sudden, from all sides, new ideas are being presented and they affect not just a few, but the whole nation, or even the whole world.

Our time undoubtedly is such a period of transition. The first half of this century has witnessed tremendous developments in nearly every field of knowledge. To mention a few things only: there are the developments in modern astronomy, physics, technology and psychology. Take, for instance, the extent of the universe. In his book Religious Faith and Twentieth-Century Man, F. C. Happold describes it as follows: “We are told that the light-waves from the cluster of galaxies in Hydra which reach us have travelled through space for two thousand million light years. This cluster of galaxies is only one of numerous galaxies, each one made up of millions of stars, separated from each other by immeasurable stretches of inter-galactic space. Our own solar system is a minute part of the Milky Way, which is made up of some ten million stars” (p. 24). He rightly points out that all these discoveries have profound intellectual and—even more—psychological effects upon the life and thinking of us all. Besides all this, our century has witnessed two world wars, the likes of which no earlier generations had seen. In particular after World War II the cry was heard everywhere: We must make a new start; we cannot revive the old patterns and frameworks; not only have they failed, but we ourselves have changed.

Desire for Renewal in Theology

This desire for renewal manifested itself also in theology. In the last twenty-five years a host of new ideas has been poured out. The main underlying motive was the conviction that the Gospel itself has to be modernized. Modem man of today, who consciously or subconsciously has been so deeply influenced by the new dimensions discovered by the scientists, can no longer accept the Gospel in its old wrappings. I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough. Unless we keep this in mind, we cannot even begin to understand the new theological trends. Even if we have to reject the solutions offered by the new theologies, we nevertheless have to honor this intention and evaluate the new approaches accordingly.

We must, of course, add immediately that this motive in itself is not at all new. The older liberal theology of the nineteenth century and of the first quarter of this century was to a large extent driven by the same motive. These theologians too saw it as their main task to modernize the Gospel by liberating it from all kinds of antiquated ideas and conceptions, which, in their opinion, were not essential and prevented many people from accepting the Gospel.

But what then is the difference between the old and new schools? Briefly this: the new theologians believe (hat the older liberals have solved the (common) problem in the wrong way. They modernized the Gospel in such a way and to such an extent that no message was left! All new theologians reject the old solution and propose to follow what they regard as a different and better way.

Rudolf Bultmann As our first example we choose Rudolf Bultmann, for he was the one who started the whole modern movement. In 1941 Bultmann lectured to a group of German ministers on “New Testament and Mythology” and launched his new program of “demythologizing.” Bultmann’s starting point is the conviction that the New Testament is full of mythology. All the New Testament writers thought and wrote in terms of the ancient world picture. The universe is seen as a three-storied affair. The top department is the invisible, supernatural world of God, inhabited by angels. The lowest department is the dark underworId with its demons. In between is our human world. There is a constant interaction between these worlds. Our world in particular is constantly influenced by the other two worlds through the intermediary of angelic and demonic powers. Yes, God Himself intervenes continually in the affairs of this world and causes miraculous events to happen. But all this, Bultmann contends, is utterly unacceptable to modern man. In an often quoted sentence he said: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits” (Kerygma and Myth, I, 5). We can no longer accept the message of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament, with a literal incarnation, literal miracles, a literal atonement, a literal resurrection, and a literal ascension. All these things belong to the mythological framework of the message, and the only way of discovering the message itself is to demythologize the New Testament thoroughly and radically.

But did the older liberals not do the same? Again we must ask: What is the difference? Bultmann himself believes that there is a significant, even fundamental difference. In fact, he is very critical of the older liberals. In his opinion they made a serious mistake by using the wrong method of demythologizing. Their method was one of elimination. They simply cut all myths out of the Bible, the result being that Jesus turned into a moral teacher and the New Testament itself was reduced to a small booklet with some ethical precepts. Bultmann’s own method is quite different. It is not elimination but reinterpretation.

Studying the New Testament with its mythological framework our primary task, according to Bultmann, is to find out what religious experience the writers tried to express by means of all these myths. The answer to this question is not difficult. These men had discovered that in the cross of the man Jesus of Nazareth they were delivered from the power of sin. Our natural life is a life-in-the-flesh, i. e., we live for this world and the things of this world only. At first glance this may seem to be perfectly natural, but in actual fact it means our life is “unauthentic”; for, in spite of all our human pride and arrogance, we are not masters of the world, but enslaved by it.

“When a man chooses to live entirely in and for this sphere,” Bultmann says, “or, as St. Paul puts it, when he ‘lives after the flesh,’ it assumes the shape of a ‘power’” (op. cit., 18). And the result of this is that instead of being independent and carefree, our life is weighed down by anxiety. Indeed, we are in an utterly hopeless situation, for we cannot free ourselves. But the New Testament apostles discovered that in the cross of the man Jesus of Nazareth this power was broken and that they had really become free. No longer were they under the yoke of bondage to this world, but a new life had opened itself to them, authentic life, life-in-the-spirit. Paul has described this new freedom in the following words: “Let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and these who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it” (I Cor. 7:29–31). It is obvious that the believer is still in the world—the new life is not a form of unworldly asceticism—but he is no longer in bondage to anything of the world.

Bultmann maintains that this deliverance is a gift of grace. No one can bring it about by his own will or power. We can only receive it and this happens when the message of this deliverance, the kerygma, is being preached and believed. At this point there is a decisive difference between Bultmann and the older liberal theologians. The latter hardly knew of grace any more. The Christian faith had virtually turned into a religion of more or less refined self-redemption. Bultmann, and the other neo-liberals as well, wish to affirm that the Gospel is essentially a message of grace.

The Cross and the History of Salvation

The great question is, of course, whether this really can be maintained, if one accepts Bultmann’s method of interpretation. Can one reinterpret the New Testament facts in this Bultmannian fashion and still retain the essential message? In my opinion the answer must be No. In the New Testament itself these facts are not accidental, nor are they merely a mythological framework, but they belong to the very essence of the Gospel.

When Bultmann says that the real message of the New Testament is the manifestation of God’s grace in the cross of the man Jesus of Nazareth, he is undoubtedly right. But why is this so? Bultmann himself has no answer to this question. He can only say: It happens to be true, as the disciples discovered some time after Jesus’ death. The New Testament expresses this experience by the mythological stories of the resurrection, which, of course, should not be taken literally. A mythical event like the resuscitation of a corpse is simply incredible. What the New Testament really wants to say is that the apostles suddenly discovered that the cross was not the tragic end of a great man, but the great saving event. That is why they called this man the Christ. But why exactly his cross effected this, we do not know. All we can say is that the cross proves itself to be this saving event, first to the apostles and afterwards to others through the preaching of these apostles.

In the New Testament, however, the situation is quite different. The New Testament does have an answer to the question: Why exactly this cross? The answer is: Because it is the cross of Him who is the incarnate Son of God. In the New Testament the cross is never seen as an irrational fact that just happened to happen, but it is part of a history of salvation, from which it never can, nor may, be isolated.

In the first place, the cross presupposes the incarnation. In the first general epistle John writes: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son [incarnation] to be the expiation for our sin [cross] (4:9, 10). We find this also in the Gospel of John. The whole story of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death is based upon the incarnation: “and the Word became flesh” (1:14). This Word is the Word that was in the beginning, that was with God, yes, that was God (1:1).

But not only the incarnation is indispensable, but the resurrection as well. The New Testament always keeps cross and resurrection together as the two saving events, which cannot be separated without losing them both. No one has stated this more clearly and forcefully than Paul in I Corinthians 15: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (vv. 13 ff.). Not only are the apostles liars, but the believers are still in their sins (v. 17). In other words, without the resurrection the cross has no saving efficacy. Without the resurrection it is nothing more than two pieces of wood, upon which an unfortunate, self-deceived visionary died.


The Tillichian-Robinsonian Reinterpretation

Bultmann’s theology is not the end, but only the beginning of the new development. Others have accepted his premises and method, but at the same time have carried them much further. Bultmann restricted his demythologizing to the history of salvation, but left the doctrine of God virtually untouched. Paul Tillich and his popularizer, John A. T. Robinson, took the next step and subjected also the biblical doctrine of God to the process of demythologizing.

According to the whole Bible, God is “supernatural,” i.e., God transcends the world. Although He is also in the universe and penetrates every part of it, upholding it by His almighty power, He is at the same time beyond the universe. Usually the Bible writers express this by speaking of God as “dwelling in heaven.” According to Robinson they meant this literally as “up there.” After the Copernican revolution this was exchanged for “out there,” but it was no real change, for God was still seen as the One who exists above and beyond the world He made (cf. Honest to God, p. 14 ). This whole conception, however, is no longer acceptable. Modern people of the twentieth century no longer believe in a world beyond this world. They know only one world, namely, this world in which we live and of which we are a part. Although we know that the universe has tremendous dimensions, yet there is no place left for a literal heaven, i.e., for a supernatural world. There is but one reality: this universe.

But if this is so, how can we still speak of God? The only possibility left is a complete change of our mental image of God. We should no longer think of Him in supernatural categories, i.e., as a God who is somewhere beyond us and beyond this world we live in, but we must look for Him in this world. We must think of Him in terms of depth rather than height. God is the ground of our being and of all that is—yes, He is being itself.

It is rather hard, if not impossible, to visualize what this new view of God really means. Many people wonder whether it is a new, subtle form of pantheism (everything is a manifestation of the divine). Tillich and Robinson themselves have vigorously denied this. They do not wish to identify God and the world. Robinson in particular has rejected any suggestion that his view would be identical to that of Sir Julian Huxley, who defends a kind of “naturalism.” We have to acknowledge such statements and should always guard against the mistake of charging a man with holding views which he expressly rejects. This new view of God is not pantheism, but rather pan-en-theism, that is, everything is in God, rooted in Him who is the ground of being.

Even so this new conception of God means a complete reorientation in all departments of the Christian faith. Although at first glance the substitution of “depth” for “height” may seem to be a mere change in imagery which does not affect the essence of the Christian faith, a somewhat deeper reflection soon shows that in reality everything changes. In the Bible “height” stands for transcendence. Depicting God as the one who dwells in heaven, the Bible emphasizes that God is primarily the transcendent One, who is beyond the world, who does not need the world but who in a free act of His will created it as the “theatre of his glory” (Calvin). Of course, the Bible also knows of “depth,” i.e., of God’s immanence, but the immanence is always subordinate to the transcendence. The latter is number one and qualifies the former. In Tillich’s and Robinson’s theology all this is reversed. God is primarily the immanent One (the ground of being). Although they do not deny that there is also an element of transcendence (for this reason they reject a simple pantheism or naturalism), yet the immanence is the basic quality. Very consistently Tillich once called himself an “extatic naturalist.”

What the consequences of this view are for the rest of our theology has been made very clear by Robinson in his Honest to God. Everything, literally everything, changes. The vertical dimension is everywhere replaced by the horizontal. Jesus Christ is no longer the incarnate Son of God, but the “man for others” who is “a window through the surface of things into God” (p. 128). The atonement is no longer an act of the Christ who as the Lamb of God dies for the sin of the world, but it indicates the fact that in His own life He overcame the estrangement from the Ground of Being. Worship is no longer a speaking to the divine “He” who rules over the whole universe, but rather a becoming aware of the Ground of Being in our meeting with other people and in our caring for them and their problems. Christian ethics changes too, for there is no longer place for a divine Lawgiver whose commandments come from “outside,” but we have to live by the one great “absolute”: “love for the neighbor,” the fulfillment of which has to be directed completely by the (horizontal) situation.

Process Theology

Another, different, but also strikingly parallel movement is found in the so-called process-theology. Here a new reinterpretation of the biblical doctrine, especially the doctrine of God, is attempted on the basis of the process-philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and his follower Charles Hartshorne. Whitehead called his own philosophy a “philosophy of organism.” By it he meant that all aspects of life (including God!) are interconnected and continually in action, in process. Reality is not static, but dynamic. Its fundamental idea is not substance, but process, and this process includes everything, not only the world as we see it, but also God.

All this means again that we get quite a different picture of God. God must no longer be conceived of in metaphysical, static terms, as we find this in the older classic theology (with its emphasis on such at· tributes as immutability, infinity, omnipresence, etc.), but the starting point of all thinking and speaking about God is his relation to the creation. (At this point the process-theologians agree with the approach of Tillich and Robinson. They too speak of God as “ground of being.” Their main concept too is depth rather than height.) God is not “outside” the universe, but He is the driving force in and behind it. He is involved in the history of this universe in such a way and to such an extent that we must speak of Him as developing with the world.

Again, this view has tremendous consequences for the entire Christian faith. For one thing, it leads to an altogether different view of Christ. Although at times these theologians still speak of “incarnation,” this term has obtained an altogether different meaning. It no longer means that He is the Son of God who became man, but it only points to the fact that His human life is an expression and reflection of the depths of being, of the ground, the divine reality or the divine activity. To quote Pittinger once more: “The ‘incarnation’ of God in Jesus Christ is focally but not exclusively true of him. He is indeed crucial and definitive, but what is seen in him is pervasively true of the whole creation.” In other words, Jesus Christ is no longer the special revelation of God (“no one comes to the Father but by me,” John 14:6), but He is one of the many revelations. Admittedly, He is regarded as the highest or, as Pittinger puts it, the “crucial and definitive” revelation, but this is a difference of degree rather than of kind.

There is fundamentally nothing else than general revelation. L. Charles Birch, professor of science in the University of Sydney, sums it up well in his Nature and God, based on Whitehead’s presuppositions: “If all existence is grounded in God, then all existence is a medium of revelation. If man is a vehicle of revelation, then all men are, and so is history and not just the history of one group of people at one particular time” (p. 106). Concerning Jesus Christ he says: “With the existence of man there is the possibility of the Christ. All restraints are lifted and the fulness of human possibility becomes concretely real in the world. In him ‘there shines more of the unexplored and mysterious goodness of this universe.’ He is the mirror who discloses the character of God” (pp. 102/3).

The God-is-Dead Theology

All the movements mentioned so far are engaged in a far-reaching process of reinterpretation. Yet they all want to maintain the doctrine of God as the starting point for their theology. Others, however, have gone a decisive step further: the so-called God-is-Dead theologians. Actually this is a very strange name, a contradiction in terms. A theologian is, according to the derivation of the word, a man who speaks of God. But the theologian whose only message about God is that He is dead is like an undertaker who is preparing his own funeral.

What do these men really mean? It is rather hard to summarize their view, because there is no unity among them. They do not constitute a “school,” they have no leader, nor do they have a manifesto. It is a mood rather than a fixed theology. At most one can say that it is a group of younger theologians (T. T. Altizer, W. Hamilton, P. Van Buren) who want to take the modern problem of secularization so seriously that they refuse to take a doctrine of God as their starting point. They are not atheists, at least not in the common sense of the word, but rather Christian agnostics (with the possible exception of Altizer who at times seems to take his idea of God’s death in the death of Jesus on the cross as a historical fact).

In rough outlines their view (at least of some of them) amounts to this. We no longer know who Cod really is, if He exists. At any rate we do not know what to do with Him in our theology. The transcendent God of the older classic theology docs not mean anything to us. But neither does the God of Tillich and Robinson, the God of “depth,” the ground of being. We frankly confess to be secular people of this twentieth century and we fully accept the situation of modern man, inclusive of the fact of God’s death. Man is alone in this world. This is hue of both the Christian and non-Christian. In this respect both arc a-theists, people without God. The only and decisive difference is that the Christian a-theist still has an answer to the existential problems of man’s life, for he knows Jesus Christ, and it is the task of the Christian “theologian” to communicate the message of Jesus Christ in and to a secularized and secular world. In other words, he has to present a “theology” without a doctrine of God, even without the presupposition of God.

The most consistent attempt to do this is found in Paul Van Buren’s The Secular Meaning of the Gospel. The word secular in this title clearly reveals Van Buren’s intention. ‘What is the meaning of the Gospel, if we no longer speak of God? Van Buren carefully avoid,~ saying that there is no God. But again and again he says: we can no longer use the word “God,” for it has become completely meaningless. ‘Today we cannot even understand the Nietzschcan cry that ‘God is dead’ for if it were so, how could we know? No, the problem now is that the word ‘God’ is dead” (p. 103).

And yet Van Buren maintains that there is still a Gospel, also for the man who no longer believes in God. This Gospel is found in the biblical message of Jesus Christ. This message, he believes, does not depend on a “theological” framework, it does not stand or fall with the biblical picture of God, or even with the very existence of God. When we read the New Testament, we see that the secret of Jesus’ life (and death) was his freedom. This man was exceptionally free, in two ways. On the one hand, he was free “from,” viz., from self and the world. On the other, he was free “for,” viz., for others. Such was his life and such was his death. But his death was not the end, for shortly after he died on the cross his disciples suddenly discovered that his freedom was contagious.

This, according to Van Buren, is what the New Testament indicates by the story of the resurrection. It should, of course, not be taken literally. It is nothing else than a description of an unusual experience, a “situation of discernment” which occurred for Peter and the other disciples, “in which, against the background of their memory of Jesus, they suddenly saw Jesus in a new and unexpected way. ‘The light dawned.’ The history of Jesus, which seemed to have been a failure, took on a new importance as the key to the meaning of history. Out of this discernment arose a commitment to the way of life which Jesus had followed…On Easter they found that Jesus had a new power which he had not had, or had not exercised, before: the power to awaken freedom also in them…What happened to the disciples on Easter was that they came to share in this freedom to be for others” (p. 132). And everywhere where this message is being preached, the same may happen again: people become free in an entirely new sense, they become free “for others.’”

In my opinion this is the absolute and final consequence of Bultmann’s program of demythologizing. Here the demythologizing has been carried to its logical end. I do not believe that there is an “essential” difference between Bultmann and Van Buren, although there are undoubtedly important differences in detail. In essence it is the same message: a gospel of Jesus as the Christ, but then without any mythology.

(To be continued)

Klaas Runia is professor of Systematic Theology at the Reformed Theological College in Geelong, Australia.