Many months ago the editors of this magazine invited me to contribute a regular (bi-monthly) column of theological comment. Now that the press of classroom duties has momentarily subsided, I am happy to comply with their request. The purpose of this column is to call attention to significant articles and events in the theological world which should be of interest and importance to the readers of this magazine. In the nature of the case, our comments must be brief, and detailed analysis and critique can not be given. Reference will be made to articles from many denominations in which various theological positions are expressed. It will be impossible to indicate the full content of the articles referred to as well as the precise theological standpoint expressed. In other words, the column is meant to be suggestive and not at all exhaustive. In this first column, we shall refer to three related subjects, namely, revelation, religion, and science.
In an article entitled “Changing Emphases in Recent Theology” (Journal of Bible and Religion, April, 1955), a certain L. H. DeWolf* names six characteristics of recent theology. The most significant of these characteristics seems to me to be the last one which he calls the “rediscovery of the existential Significance of the Scriptures” (p. 108). It is certainly true that the term “revelation” has come into new prominence of late as a result, at least in part, of what is sometimes called the “theological renaissance.” Orthodox Christians all too often jump to the conclusion that this is really a return to the Reformers’ belief in an infallible, verbally inspired Scripture. In fact, the renewed study of the writings of the Reformers, especially Calvin and Luther, might seem to make the supposition plausible. At this point it is irresponsible to go simply by the sound of words. Just what do Barth, Brunner and R. Niebuhr, for example, mean when they speak of “revelation” and “Scripture?” Bussell F. Aldwinckle** in a solid article on “Biblical Theology and Philosophy” (Religion in Life, Summer, 1955), immediately after referring to Dr. C. Van Til’s description on Barth’s position as the “new modernism,” points out that “Barth has made a decisive break at this point with the assumptions which governed Calvin’s thinking about Scripture” (p.396). Aldwinckle ably indicates that the emphasis upon “revelation” today and its correlary, the study of “biblical theology,” “is really something new in the history of the church because it is attempting to combine loyalty to a sane criticism with a sincere desire to listen to the Bible as the Word of God” (p. 396). When one seeks to understand what is actually meant by the term revelation, he will find a great deal of variety among the prominent theologians today. But negatively, there is a great deal of agreement, for as Aldwinckle puts it, even the most sober biblical critics today are against the doctrines of plenary and verbal inspiration and an infallible Scripture “for the very cogent reason that it fails to do justice to the content and claims of Scripture itself” (p. 402). And yet it is precisely because of the content and claims of Scripture that the Reformers, and we their spiritual heirs, have adhered to the important doctrine of the infallible Scripture.
It is evident therefore, and the point is certainly being admitted increasingly today from many quarters, that one’s basic presuppositions are all-important. It is this which Aldwinckle suggests by the title “Biblical Theology and Philosophy” and the article itself emphasizes (cf. also, for example, J. C. Bennet, Theology Today, April, 1955: “Are There Tests of Revelation?”).
All of this points up the extreme complexity of the modern theological situation. On the one hand “revelation,” but not the old Reformed view of Scripture. And yet the Bible is receiving more attention in wide circles than it has in many a decade. And so too, in spite of all that is produced under the name of “biblical theology,” we are yet receiving something radically different from what we associate with the name of Gerhardus Vos and his standard work bearing the title Biblical Theology.
The current interest in the Bible as having at least something to do with “revelation,” has occasioned the publication of new journals to give publicity to these ideas. Studies in Biblical Theology has become the primary organ in the Anglo-Saxon world. Four monographs were published in this series in 1954. The international New Testament Society, established in 1938, has also begun the publication of an entirely new periodical called New Testament Studies (first issue September, 1954). Those most closely associated with this magazine are Matthew Black (editor ), C. H. Dodd, T. W. Manson, Bruce M. Metzger, and Rudolf Bultmann, of whom one writer has recently said that by means of what is called “demythologizing, he (Bultmann) has already given up more than Harnack ever did” of the literal contents of the Bible.
Reference has been made above to Karl Barth, who is perhaps the most influential of those speaking of “revelation” today. His dogmatics is already one of the most voluminous in history, and it is not yet complete. Two of the massive volumes of this Dogmatik are scheduled for publication in an English translation this year (volumes 1/2 and IV/1. Volume I/1 was first published in English in 1936). Magazines and journals carry numerous articles related to Barth. but attention is called to an interesting article written with strong appreciation and sympathy for Barth by Thomas F. Torrance of Edinburgh in which the author seeks to give an historical orientation into the development of Barth’s thought (Expository Times, April, 1955).
One reads much today of a “return to religion” as well as a “return to revelation.” Although the one may not be specifically the result of the other, it may well be that both are related to similar causes. Some of the indicators of the revival of religion are the following: Billy Graham’s international appeal; the sale and translation of Bibles at an all time high; church membership breaking all records; national leaders showing religious interest; high ratings of religious radio and TV programs, etc.
This renewed interest in religion has made it profitable to publish religious books, and even popular magazines carry many articles on religion. A striking example of this is seen in Life which can hardly be called a theological or religious magazine. Since February, 1955, Life magazine has published five major pictorial essays on “The World’s Great Religions.” The articles are well worth reading for they are interestingly set up and are also helpful in gaining a concrete understanding of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Mohammedanism and Judaism in the daily life of its adherents. However, the stated purpose of the editors of Life in projecting this series indicates the character of the “religious revival” today, which simply regards all religion as good, disregards the fact of sin, and sets aside the norm of Holy Scripture. The editors state that “truth means different things to different people,” and therefore they describe the world’s great religions so that “Americans can re-examine and enrich their own spiritual life through the insights and intuitions of others” (Feb. 7, 1955, p. 57). In a similarly tolerant and indifferent manner Life’s Easter editorial, entitled “Ways to God,” states that when Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me,” he did not mean that “one faith only, is the way to God. Taken literally, it would damn all those saintly men who have reached God through other religions—the way of the Tao, of Hinduism, of Gautama or Mohammed. A God so parochial as to exclude these alien saints from His kingdom does not sound like the God of mercy whom Christ preached” (Life, April 11, 1955, p. 48). And yet it is precisely this intolerance of error that Christ preached and which the Bible emphasizes, the “sound” of which Life’s editors do not like. One can already imagine what the final article in the series on Christianity (promised for December ) will contain. The Presbyterian Guardian has made pertinent editorial comment on some of these articles (Feb. 15, 1955, p. 9 and April 15, 1955, p. 51).
Such indications of a “return to religion” are disconcerting. At the same time it points up a basic opportunity and challenge to orthodox Christians, who humbly acknowledge the truth of the Christian religion alone and recognize that all other religions are the result of the sinner’s attempt to satisfy a basic need in a false way. Recognizing the normativity of the infallible Word, the orthodox Christian may never allow “tolerance” to become an excuse for error and falsehood. It remains our task to present the true and genuine religion which Calvin has beautifully defined as “confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law” (Institutes, I, ii,3).
The Bible and Science:
The relation between the natural sciences and Scripture is of course an age old problem, but it too is receiving renewed attention today, especially from orthodox Christians. Two of the four articles in the current issue of the Free University Quarterly (March 1955 ) are devoted to this subject. “Science and Religion” is the publication of a speech by R. Hooykaas delivered on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Third Programme, and deals with the Gifford Lectures of Charles Raven. The other article by H. R. Woltjer discusses “The Age of the Earth.” The problems faced in these articles are of interest to our circles too, as was evident in the proceedings of the First Calvinistic Scientific Conference held in Grand Rapids in 1954 and of the recent Christian Reformed Ministers’ Institute of June, 1955. In 1950 the Christian Conference of Scientists and Physicians was held in The Netherlands, and the papers presented at that conference were later published in a booklet of ninety pages (De Ouderdom der Aarde, J. H. Kok, Kampen, 3rd edition, 1953: reportedly out of print again). These questions were also approached at the combined conference of the American Scientific Affiliate and the Evangelical Theological Society in its June meetings at Winona Lake, Indiana.
The nature of the discussions of the age of the earth as an aspect of the wider problem of the relation of science and Scripture is of course unique for those who still believe in the infallibility of the Bible including the first three chapters of Genesis. This is evident from the above references as well as from the fact that such discussions are also taking place in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church (d. Concordia Theological Monthly, May, 1955: A. C. Rehwaldt, “Natural Science with Reference to Genesis 1”).
Even though Reformed theologians are generally agreed today that Ussher’s chronology was erroneous because of an inadequate understanding of the character of the genealogies recorded in Scripture, the millions of years referred to by modern scientists make one rather cautious. This caution is partially caused, no doubt, by the fact that historically, belief in biblical authority has been undermined for many by the new views concerning the origin of the world as presented by evolutionists and some geologists.
Calvinism is not obscurantistic in principle, and historically it has not usually been so in practice either (see, for example, R. T. Handy, “Fundamentalism and Modernism in Perspective” Religion in Life, Summer 1955). The issues involved in the problems we face today are not simple, and yet they may not be avoided. There is need today for Christian scientists and theologians to work carefully and closely together as they face these problems in the light of the unchangeable, infallible Word of God. Just here the Reformed world faces a unique task because it asserts that the Bible is to be put into the hands of all, and everyone must subject himself to the norm of Scripture. That means that the scientist may not simply wait for the pronouncements of the theologians. He too, as scientist, must constantly live out of the Word. Recognizing that nature is God’s handiwork (general revelation), the Reformed believer acknowledges that because of man’s fall into sin, general revelation can be read correctly only through the spectacles of Holy Scripture. There can be no contradiction between the two parts of God’s revelation. But there may be errors in our interpretation of the revelation. Precisely there lies the heart of the problem of the relation of science and Scripture. Although the solution sought by the Lutheran writer mentioned above is not satisfactory, the following statement is worth noting: “If there is a conflict, (that is, between science and Bible, FHK) the exegesis of the theologian or the explanation of the natural scientist is at fault” (A. C. Rehwaldt, p. 355).
Dr. Fred H. Klooster is professor of Bible and Reformed Doctrine at Calvin College, Grand Rapids.