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by Carl Henry



BASIC to the Christian view of sin are the truths of God’s absolute

holiness, and of His plan of redemption through Christ as revealed in the

Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Lacking these two

considerations, non-biblical thought, despite its extensive literature in the

field of ethics, finds the Christian doctrine of sin quite puzzling.

In answer to the question “What is sin?” the Westminster Shorter

Catechism teaches our children to say, “Sin is any want of conformity unto,

or transgression of the law of God.”

This definition is specifically based on <620304>1 John 3:4. Literally translated,

the passage reads, “Everyone who does that which misses the mark, also

does that which violates the law; and missing the mark is violating the

law.” “Want of conformity,” is just another way of saying, “missing the

mark,” and “violating the law” is another way of saying “transgression of

the law of God.”


Sometimes the denial of sin stems from naive ignorance. How well I

remember a little completely extrovert barber with a foreign accent, who,

after much obscenity and much boasting of dishonesty and so on, asked me

abruptly, “What’s your business?”

“I preach the Gospel,” I replied. “Jesus Christ will save you from your sin

if you accept Him.”

The word “sin” seemed to lodge in his mind, and he asked quite naively,

“What is sin?”

I thought of the scriptural and catechetical definition, remembered the

man’s limited horizon, and made the best explanation I could, giving him

the substance of the definition, “any want of conformity unto, or

transgression of the law of God.”

“Oh,” he mused, “Sin. I don’t do no sin.”

And he seemed quite simply sincere and well pleased with himself!

I did what I could to present the holiness of God and the Cross of Jesus

Christ but the poor man seemed completely “dead in sin.” His sensibilities

to the problem of sin seemed wholly atrophied, and I never saw him again.

Christian ethics has always had to contend with contradictory non-

Christian views. This was no less true in respect to ancient systems of

philosophy such as those of the Epicureans and Stoics whom Paul

confronted in Athens, than in the case of contemporary thought. In the

recent past evolutionary liberalism weakened the doctrine of sin and spread

a kind of escalator optimism. It was often said, “If man ever fell, he fell

upward.” Even after the First World War, M. Coue struck a popular note

with his

Tousles jours en tousles lieux

Je deviens de mieux en mieux.

But two world wars, interspersed with periods of extreme economic

inflation and depression, dimmed this evolutionary optimism. The notion

that “Every day in every way the world gets better and better” has lost its

popular appeal.

More frank than evolutionary ethics was naturalistic ethics whose

manifesto was Naturalism and the Human Spirit, published in 1944 (Y. H.

Krikorian, ed., New York, Columbia University Press). The fifteen

contributors, prominent American teachers of philosophy, agreed “There is

no ‘supernatural.’ God and immortality are myths” (p. 295, cf. p. 358).

Further, according to Herbert Schneider’s chapter, the terms good and evil,

right and wrong have no cosmic significance.

In our day the “analysis” philosophies, chiefly logical positivism, have

asserted that ethical statements are meaningless nonsense. Ethical

questions, they have argued, are not only unanswerable, they are

unaskable. This extreme position was not long maintained, however. In his

Ethics and Language (New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 1944).

Charles L. Stevenson endeavored to give ethics a meaning. His later

writings make further concessions. To his bold assertions in the first edition

of Language, Truth and Logic (New York, Oxford University Press, 1936)

A. J. Ayer, probably the best known of the logical positivists, made some

modifications in the second edition (1946). The symposium Logical

Positivism edited by Ayer in 1959 (Chicago, Free Press) shows

considerable mellowing. One finds Fredrick Waismann conceding “To say

that metaphysics is nonsense is nonsense” (p. 380). The book contains not

one but three chapters on ethics: Moritz Schlick’s “What is the Aim of

Ethics?”; C. L. Stevenson’s “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms”; and

Otto Neuwrath’s “Sociology and Physicalism.”

Although in his inaugural address entitled “Can a Christian be a Logical

Positive?” (September, 196o), Professor W. F. Zuurdeeg of McCormick

Theological Seminary answers the question in the affirmative, I can as yet

discover in the logical positivist movement no theism and no

approximation to the biblical doctrine of sin.


In modern theology it is more difficult to pinpoint the opposition to the

biblical doctrine of sin than the opposition to other basic Christian

doctrines. This difficulty arises because many non-biblical contemporary

theological movements borrow one aspect or another from the biblical

doctrine of sin. Such borrowings in the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr and

other neo-orthodox scholars Carl F. H. Henry discerningly appraises in his

chapter, “Man’s Dilemma: Sin,” in The Word for This Century (Merrill C.

Tenney, ed., New York, Oxford University Press, 1960), the Wheaton

College Centennial volume.

In his main section on sin (Theology of the New Testament, Vol. I, tr. by

Kendrick Grobel, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951, pp. 227-269),

Rudolf Bultmann makes many statements to which a Bible-believing

theologian may heartily assent: “[Since for Paul it is] taken for granted that

evil is in any case ‘sin’ — rebellion against God, guilt toward God-[Paul’s]

idea of God… must first be presented.… God, for Paul, is not the

mythological designation for an ontological state of affairs but the personal

God, man’s Creator who demands obedience of him” (p. 228).

But what Paul teaches is not what Bultmann believes about God and sin.

For Bultmann the ultimate nature of sin is self-assertion of any kind,

“failure to acknowledge one’s own creatureliness” (p. 232). Paul’s idea of

sin does not stop here at the Creator-creature relationship. The Tenth

Commandment which Paul quoted (<450707>Romans 7:7, 8) convicted him not

merely of creaturely “desire,” but of all kinds of sinful desire. This larger

view of sin is the only one consistent with the Tenth Commandment in its

entirety (<022017>Exodus 20:17; <050521>Deuteronomy 5:21; cf. <590114>James 1:14, 15).

Bultmann completely forgets the context of the Tenth Commandment and

describes sin as creaturely desire of any kind, that is, desire as such (p.


In Paul’s delineation God is more than simply the Creator; He is also the

Self-Revealer in the literal historical sense. He has revealed His holy law in

the Ten Commandments; yes; but even before that, from the very beginning

of human history, God has revealed His absolutely holy nature and His

character as the Redeemer of His people. Moreover, for Paul these matters

of revelation have been recorded and conveyed in the documents of

historiography; these documents Paul regarded as the Word of God. For

the Apostle Paul, Jesus Christ is God manifest in the flesh, but as such He

is still a part of horizontal history. He is “of the seed of David according to

the flesh.”

Bultmann is right in saying that sin is “guilt toward God”; Bultmann’s God,

however, never gave the moral law from Mount Sinai in a historical event,

nor did He smite Ananias and Sapphira with sudden death because they

lied to the Holy Ghost. According to Bultmann all such scripturally

recorded acts of God are “myth,” and should be eliminated. There is in

Bultmann’s view no intelligible, definable content to the law of God, nor

even to His own moral character. The kerygma brings us a message “from”

(von) God, but we know nothing “about” (über) God. We have nothing to

say “about” Him, not even that He has given us the Decalogue. Paul Tillich

is another existentialist scholar whose statements often sound very much

like the biblical view. “Sin expresses most sharply the personal character of

estrangement over against its tragic side .... The word ‘sin’ can and must

be saved.., because the word has a sharpness which accusingly points to

the element of personal responsibility in one’s estrangement” (Systematic

Theology, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951, Vol. II, p. 46). In a

meeting of the American Philosophical Association at New Haven,

however, Tillich did not hesitate to say, “When I use the word ‘sin’ I do

not mean anything like the violation of the ten commandments.”

It his Systematic Theology, Tillich says, “The very heart of what classical

Christianity has called ‘sin’ is the unreconciled duality of ultimate and

preliminary concerns, of the finite and that which transcends finitude, of the

secular and the holy” (Vol. I, p. 218). He had just said, “All finite relations

are in themselves secular. None of them is holy.” In Volume 2 the thought

is expanded but not essentially changed. While Tillich is emotionally

stirring when he writes of “concern” (Angst und Sorge) trembling on the

brink of “non-being” (me on, which he distinguishes from literally “being

nothing,” ouk on), his doctrine of sin is not biblical. For Tillich the fall of

man was not a literal act of sin. “The notion of moment in time in which

man and nature were changed from good to evil is absurd, and has no

foundation in experience or revelation (ibid., Vol. 11, p. 41).

We must remember, of course, that if the fall of man did not take place at a

particular “moment in time,” then the biblical doctrine of sin the correlative

doctrine of the atonement (see <450519>Romans 5:19-21) are both destroyed.

Karl Barth excels Tillich in emotive powers. Barth’s realm of “non-being

(das Nichtige) is not identical with Tillich’s “non-being” (me on). See, for

example, Barth’s statement, “Chaos is what God did not will It is,

therefore, that which is not (das Nichtige)” (Church Dogmatics,

Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1958, Vol. IV/2, p. 469. Barth’s view involves a

more radical paradox of contradictory orders of time. In his Dogmatics in

Outline (New York, Philosophical Library, 1947) he states that “Man… as

a sinner… puts himself where God cannot see him” (p. 117). God’s time is

“another time than the one we know.… Death is timeless. Nothing is

timeless. So we men are timeless when we are without God and without

Christ. Then we have no time” (p. 130). When I called on Barth near

Zurich in 1950, I asked him, “If, as you say in your Dogmatics in Outline,

the sinner does not exist in God’s time, how can the Word of God reach

me, the sinner?” His answer was a laugh and a shrug.

The notion of contradictory orders of time is the warp and woof of Barth’s

theology. See, for example, his discussion of “the differentiation of the

time” in Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV/l, p. 322 f. (op.cit., 1956). In Part 2

of the same volume, p. 110, he says we must regard Christ’s “humiliation”

and “exaltation” as taking place “at the same time,” and not as successive

“states,” as orthodox theology holds.

Fred H. Klooster says, “… there is… a significant difference between

Barth and evangelical theologians.., he denies that humiliation and

exaltation are states that follow each other in time.… Barth speaks of the

resurrection as the revelation of Christ’s exaltation, but… this exaltation is

already present in the Incarnation… ” (Christianity Today, July 3, 1961, p.


Christ’s “time” for Barth is at the boundary or end of our time. “As the

Crucified, He lives at the very point where our frontier is reached and our

time runs out.… All evil begins with the fact that we will not… accept the

limitation of our existence… and be certain… of the fulfilment of our life in

the expectation of its end. The root of all evil is simply, and powerfully,

our human care” (Barth, op. cit., p. 468).

For Barth, in other words, the source and root of sin is our unwillingness

to agree that in our human, historical time order there is nothing but “that

which is not” (das Nichtige), and that salvation in Christ is in a radically

different time order. (In addressing a meeting of the N.Y.U. Philosophy

Circle, Tillich expressed himself very similarly: “There is no hope in human

history. It is blasphemy to say that there is. Hope must be sought in some

non-historical dimension.” The quotation is not word for word, but

accurate in substance.)

On the other hand, the biblical view places both sin and redemption in

Christ in the same time order. The sinner is not, as Barth alleges, “behind

the back of God’s grace” (Dogmatics in Outline, p. 117). The sinner does

indeed exist in God’s time, and that in dreadful reality. He is the object of

the offer of grace. The missionary program of the Church, in obedience to

the Great Commission, is not something which goes on behind God’s back,

nor something which God contemplates paradoxically and obliquely out of

the corner of His eye, as it were. From the biblical viewpoint the reality of

the sinner, and the missionary program of reaching that sinner constitute

the central theme of God’s time.


Modern theology shows a deplorable tendency to deny or to weaken the

idea of the horizontal, historical transmission of the Gospel. “… we may

say that the theology of Kierkegaard, Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Tillich,

and Niebuhr is largely the existentialist reaction to the liberalism of

Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Harnack” (Robert Paul Roth, Christianity

Today, March 27, 1961, p. 3). The existentialist label is not the important

point in Roth’s statement, however. Barth has repudiated existentialism,

and so has Heidegger. Despite their common concern over man’s

predicament, these theologians do not believe that the predicament can be

met on a horizontal dimension by redemptive history and a divine message

conveyed by a Book, or by what one may simply and factually say to one’s


Certainly we would not minimize the vertical dimension, for the Holy Spirit

convicts even while we are preaching (<431608>John 16:8). But if the horizontal

dimension is excluded we have no “good news” to preach. The vertical

experience, the leap of faith (Kierkegaard), the kerygma (Bultmann), or

Krisis, unter das Urteil (Barth), or existential concern (Tillich), or

whatever it may be called, is not the Christian experience at all if it is

coupled with a denial of the historical, biblical message.

If no definite, revealed content can be attached to the idea of God or to the

idea of God’s moral law, then sin becomes a merely subjective matter.

Herman Ridderbos states the question: “Is sin really described in the

biblical sense when it is qualified in Bultmann’s terms… ? Does not sin

become in this way a purely anthropological concept, that is, merely sin

against man’s own destination?” (Christianity Today, May 22, 1961, p. 8.)


To clarify one’s doctrine means also to clarify one’s ontology and

epistemology. Generally speaking, active Gospel-spreading Christianity has

been characterized by ontological and epistemological realism. God is; God

has created the world; God has revealed Himself in world history; God has

made my mind capable of receiving His Word, and of knowing something

about His world (cf. <581106>Hebrews 11:6). Reality (God and His creation) is

somehow communicated to man and man therefore has some measure of

genuine knowledge of this reality.

The biblical view of sin, I feel, must be conceived in the following simple,

realistic terms: in the real world I have sinned against the real God, and in

that same real world He offers me salvation through Christ. At the

opposite extreme from realism as here defined we have egocentric

solipsism, to which, interestingly enough, no one admits adhering. The

“egocentric predicament” is a philosophical term; it means that all that I

know immediately is what I know immediately. By focusing on the ego,

objective reality tends to fade. Just short of egocentric solipsism begin the

various grades and degrees of metaphysical idealism, phenomenalism,

process philosophy (Whitehead), positivism and neo-Kantianism, which

more or less approach the realistic position. In my opinion, however, all

these systems depart from biblical realism and in greater or less degree

capitulate to the egocentric predicament.

The observation is rather common in philosophical circles that for two

hundred years idealism has dominated the philosophy departments in

religious schools. I believe this condition has been generally true since

Leibnitz (1646-1716) and Berkeley (1685-1753). Hegel (1770-1831), of

course, gave tremendous impetus to the idealistic drift of theology and

philosophy. Even among evangelical philosophy teachers today it is

difficult to find those who adhere to simple biblical realism, or those who

do not make some concessions to subjectivism and egocentricity. In my

opinion where subjectivism and egocentricity crowd out biblical realism the

awful reality of sin soon fades away.

To those who sense the relationship between metaphysics and theology I

suggest that the general weakening of the biblical doctrine of sin in modern

theology is in large part due to the drift from realism toward egocentricity.

Likewise, I believe, biblical criticism has hastened the drift from realism.

Machen and Warfield were biblical realists who met criticism with facts.

Many others, however, chose the easier course of retreat into the

subjectivity of existential experience instead of the laborious task of

meeting one kind of critical scholarship with a better critical scholarship, as

did Machen and Warfield.


As a young man I knew my father to be a great-hearted and godly

personality who communicated with me both personally and by letter.

When I was a child he had carried me on his shoulders. During my youth

he had chastened, admonished, and comforted me. Later he participated in

the beginning of my ministry. I both knew him, and knew much about

(über) him. I had scarcely any greater sorrow than when I had grieved my


As a Christian my sense of sin is just like this experience of grief. “I have

sinned against my Heavenly Father.” “Against Thee, and Thee only have I

sinned.” With this confession goes the act of faith by which the sinner casts

himself wholly upon the grace of God in Christ. “Purge me with hyssop

and I shall be clean.”

It was when Isaiah saw the Lord “high and lifted up” (<230601>Isaiah 6:1-8) that

he was made conscious of his sin and cried out, “I am a man of unclean

lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for mine eyes have

seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” It was after Saul of Tarsus had become

intensely aware of the holy law of God that he came under conviction. “I

know that in me, that is my fallen nature, the good does not dwell.…

Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me… ” (<450718>Romans 7:18, 24).

But Isaiah’s vision would have been meaningless apart from his mission to

his people as a step in the historical unfolding of God’s redemptive

program. Similarly Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus would be

regarded as mere hallucination, had he not received the historical nexus in

the words “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.” He had been “kicking

against the goads,” that is, resisting the implications of factual evidence.

The entire experience is intimately interlaced with the continuity of

historical events, a fact which illustrates the principle I have been affirming.

I do not believe that Isaiah or Paul or anyone else is ever convicted of sin

in the biblical sense without some realistic consciousness of horizontal

historical revelation.


In the following section let us turn away from the more controversial

questions and focus our attention more constructively upon biblical

doctrine as such. A detailed examination of the biblical picture of sin makes

its simple realism perfectly apparent. Man has corrupted himself in God’s

created temporal order, and has thus brought corruption into God’s

creation. Moreover, everything is done in God’s holy presence. “Nor is

there any creature out of sight before him, but all is naked and laid open to

the eyes of him with whom we have our account” (<580413>Hebrews 4:13).

Paul describes sin in two vivid passages, <450118>Romans 1:18-2:13 and

<450310>Romans 3:10-18. In the former passage he begins by describing the

original status of man, to whom the knowledge of God was revealed. Paul

then associates this state with the fact that nature itself gives sufficient

evidence of God’s “eternal power and divine character,” thus leaving men

“without excuse.”

Paul’s argument is not that every individual human being is guilty of every

particular sin enumerated, but rather that these acts of crime and depravity

characterize fallen humanity as a whole. Three times we read that “God

gave them up.” Man, says Paul, preferred to worship and adore the

creature rather than the Creator, “wherefore God gave them up in the evil

desire of their hearts unto uncleanness, so that they mutually dishonor their

own bodies” (v. 24). “God gave them up to the penalties of dishonor” (v.

26). After specifying horrible crimes of corruption and perversion, Paul

summarizes by saying, “and just as they did not see fit to retain God in

their knowledge, God gave them up to an unfit mentality, to do things

which are shameful” (v. 28).

The word which I have translated “shameful,” me kathekonta, is a Greek

philosophical term which Paul appropriately adopts to describe the moral

corruption of humanity. This word in itself is proof that both pagan and

Christian ethical thought observe evidences in human conduct of the fact

that man is not what he ought to be.

Paul then proceeds (vv. 29 ff.) to a generalized description of human

depravity in two highly eloquent prose poems. These passages in the

original Greek show a balanced structure and an awesome use of

resounding onomatopoeia whose impact on the emotions to produce a

sense of horror is difficult to convey in translation. While the following

presents the cognitive meaning, it quite fails to convey the emotional, and

thus the full ethical impact of Paul’s words.

“[They are] filled with every injustice, malignity, rapacity, spite; diseased with

envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil mindedness. They are whisperers, slanderers,

hateful to God, impudent, arrogant, boastful, plotters of evil, unfaithful to

parents, unintelligent, treacherous, devoid of affection, pitiless.”

After taking up related questions, especially that of the Jews to the moral

law, Paul summarizes once again (<450309>Romans 3:9-18). This time he

fashions a mosaic of Old Testament passages to pronounce a terrifying

indictment against man.

“We have previously charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,

just as it is written, —

There is not a righteous man,

Not even one,

There is no man who understands,

There is no man who seeks for God.

All have turned aside.

Together they have been made worthless.

There is not one who does good things.

There is not even one.

Their throat is an open tomb.

With their tongues they have deceived.

The poison of cobras is under their lips

Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.

Swift are their feet to shed blood.

Destruction and wretchedness are in their ways.

The way of peace they have not known.

The fear of God is not before their eyes.”

A reader of these words might say, “But that is entirely too severe! Not all

human beings are like this!” True, not every person is characterized by

each of these attributes of corruption. Nor is that what Paul is arguing. But

humanity as a whole demonstrates all these attributes of corruption, and all

too often. In a fallen temple not every block is broken or marred in exactly

the same way; similarly not all individual persons are guilty of all or of the

same forms of corruption. But because every block in a fallen temple is a

part of the ruin, the whole structure is characterized thereby.

Countless thoughtful men have had the experience, when they are

confronted with what Scripture teaches about fallen humanity, although

they are not guilty of many of the individual crimes mentioned, of having to

confess, “That is the race to which I belong; I am of that kind. I belong to

that ruin.”


The original sin which involved the whole human race is presented in the

third chapter of Genesis. Concerning this account, H. N. Gardiner in a

conversation years ago spoke rather contemptuously. He called it “the

myth of the snake in the garden of Eden.”

“Every philosophy has to meet the problem of evil in some form,” I said,

“and I have never found a better presentation of the problem of moral evil

than I find in the third chapter of Genesis.”

“But you make it an allegory, do you not?” said he. “You don’t believe

there ever was such an incident, do you?”

“As an allegory,” said I, “the story would mean very little to me, since I am

never tempted to sin in the abstract. But as a record of an historical

incident, an incident which has affected the entire human race, yet a

particular temptation and a particular act of self-corruption, the record is

supremely important for me.”


The most extensive commentary in the entire Bible on the sin of Adam is

<450512>Romans 5:12-21. Here we read that through the representative act of

the progenitor of the human race, all his descendants are constituted

sinners and are consequently liable to death.

That Adam’s sin is regarded in the Scriptures as a representative act, one

that involves all natural descendants is attested to by plain and direct

statements to that effect: “It is for the following reason that, just as

through one man sin came into the world and death through sin, thus also

death came in unto all men, — it is for the reason that all sinned [that this

is so]” (<450512>Romans 5:12). The words “all sinned” in this verse do not

mean merely that all men have sinned at some time or other, but that all

sinned representatively when Adam sinned. The context makes this

perfectly clear; it makes the sin of Adam just as truly a representative act,

and just as historically valid, as the atonement of Christ in which we

through Him our representative have died for our sins. Compare Paul’s

comment given earlier, namely, “One died for all, therefore all died.


died for all in order that those who live no longer should live to

themselves, but to him who died for them and rose again” (<470514>2

Corinthians 5:14, 15). Nothing could be clearer than Paul’s statement

(<450512>Romans 5:12 ff.) that sin came into the world through the sin of

Adam, and that death thus came into the world because sin thus came into

the world.

The implications of Adam’s sin Paul summarizes in this triumphant manner:

“Law then came along, in order that the trespass might increase; but where

sin increased, grace was super-abundant. The result is that just as sin

reigned as king in death, so also grace reigns as king through justification

unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (vv. 20, 21). This climax

introduces his fervent appeal for holy living in chapters 6, 7, and 8 of the

Epistle to the Romans. We who have accepted the atonement of Christ

must continuously appropriate His cleansing and sanctifying power through

the Holy Spirit.

The climax of Paul’s discussion concerning the implications of Adam’s sin

leads also to an appropriate evangelistic appeal. The doctrine of original sin

indicates that the Holy Spirit convicts and makes every human being

conscious of sin. Since this is the diagnosis of man’s condition, the lost

may be persuaded by this very fact to accept the remedy offered in Christ.


It is of the very essence of Christianity that we accept Christ’s atonement

as accomplishing that which is necessary to pardon all our sins. According

to Scripture, especially as presented in the fifth chapter of Romans, we

must acknowledge our involvement in the original sin of man, if we are to

participate, or at least if we are to understand our participation in the

redemption purchased by Christ. Scripture makes an analogy between the

original sin of Adam and the atonement of Christ. Once accepted, this

analogy carries with it certain doctrinal implications.

To accept the analogy between original sin and the atonement provided by

Christ necessarily excludes certain doctrinal theories which are more or less

prevalent among students of theology. In answer to this kind of theology

we must indicate that such an attitude toward the doctrine of original sin

undermines the doctrine of the atonement as an historic, literal fact, a

transaction accomplished once for all on the Cross of Calvary.


Independent of the neo-orthodox and existential theologies, or any other

explicit theological system, for that matter, I find among our

contemporaries a tendency to reject the historicity of Genesis without any

awareness whatever that such rejection involves the doctrine of the

atonement. When we study the creation of man and his antiquity on the

earth, we encounter this very problem. I would merely point out here that

any theory of pre-Adamic man, any theory of the gradual evolution of man

from a non-human form, any theory which in any way sets aside or

weakens the individuality of Adam and the particular historicity of the

event recorded in the third chapter of Genesis, very definitely undermines

and, if consistently carried out, completely destroys the Christian doctrine

of the atonement. If Adam is not to be regarded as the progenitor of the

human race, and the representative of us all in the original act of human

sin, then it follows scripturally, Christ cannot be regarded as the One Who

has made atonement sufficient for all, as the One Who is the “Only

Redeemer of God’s elect.”


Scripture teaches that Christ as our substitute bore our penalty in our

place. On the cross He became our representative. He died in my place as

my representative and substitute when it was I who should have died. His

death therefore is to be considered as my death for my sins. It follows from

the analogy developed in <450512>Romans 5:12-21 that when Adam sinned he

sinned as my representative. I became a wicked, guilty sinner in the Garden

of Eden. While I was not personally present, my representative was there;

on the representative principle what he did I therefore did. This, it has been

shown, is the meaning of the words “all sinned” in <450512>Romans 5:12.

Indeed, this principle of representation runs through the entire range of

human life. Representative action is a sociological fact everywhere, and is

recognized in all orderly legal systems.

I became a wicked guilty sinner in the Garden of Eden. I turned my back

upon fellowship with my holy God. I deliberately corrupted the character

of godly holiness which God imparted to His creation. I willfully began to

spread corruption through the creation over which God had intended my

kind to rule. I was not there. No, but my representative was there, and he

acted as such in my place. I was driven out from the garden, and excluded

from the tree of life.

Such procedure is not fair or equitable, it is objected. In human affairs I

can repudiate the actions of my representatives. Exactly. While I cannot

protest the act of my representative in the Garden of Eden, and although I

know I might have done just as he did, yet, through the Holy Spirit, I have

repudiated the first Adam by going to the One Who died for me “without

the camp.” That day outside the walls of Jerusalem I died for my sins. I

was not there, but my representative was there. Because He died in my

place, I died.

If the doctrine of original sin seems hard and unreasonable, and the

unconvicted heart of the natural man may reject it, yet the fact that I am

offered the privilege of choosing another representative, and thereby

repudiating the former, makes it less difficult for me to accept the plain

teaching of <450512>Romans 5:12-21.

What took place at the Cross of Calvary is to me the most vivid and

clearest illustration of the representative principle than any other

presentation of the doctrine. As I contemplate that scene I can only

acknowledge in my inmost being that I was one of those who despised the

Son of God. What happened there, just as truly as what happened in Eden,

and perhaps more vividly, represented the human race to which I belong. I

mocked and buffeted Him. I made the crown of thorns and pressed it upon

His head. I spat in His face. I drove the spikes into His hands and feet. I

derided and challenged Him, “If thou be the Son of God come down from

the cross!”

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, “God manifest in the flesh,” was a

representative act which implicates the entire human race. Not only are the

Jews guilty. It was a Gentile judge who sought to wash his hands of

personal responsibility. It was Gentile soldiers who put on Him the purple

robe and the crown of thorns. Gentile soldiers drove the nails into His

hands and feet. A Gentile spear pierced His side. Gentiles cast lots over His

garments. Jew and Gentile together, the entire human race is guilty.

The crucifixion of the Son of God is the most obvious, comprehensive,

representative act of human sin. Even if he should find it difficult to accept

his own involvement in the sin of Adam, no thinking person convicted in

the least by the Holy Spirit can honestly fail to acknowledge, “It was my

sin, representatively, that put Jesus on the Cross.”



THE LAST few decades have witnessed a renewal of interest in the nature

and ultimate meaning of history which is almost unprecedented in modern

historical scholarship. Not only historians and philosophers, but people in

general, are applying themselves with a dedicated seriousness to the

interpretation of history. Born of an optimistic liberalism, former

assumptions have been called into question and found wanting by an

impressive number of scholars, for the cultural pattern has not unfolded as

the prophets of the first decades of the present century authoritatively

predicted. The present crisis, which grips not only the West but the whole

world, has played a vital part in pushing many contemporary scholars and

thinkers to re-examine the meaning of the historical process. However, it

would be misleading to suggest that the present crisis alone has brought

this interest into sharp focus. Already in the nineteenth century process

philosophers, under the leadership of Hegel, had revived the philosophical

approach to the study of history and had incorporated his views into their

respective systems of thought to varying degrees. Their successors in the

twentieth century have been Spengler, Toynbee, Sorokin and, to a certain

extent, Reinhold Niebuhr and Rudolf Bultmann.

In the attempt to go beyond the factual data of history to seek their deeper

meaning Augustine is actually the forerunner of all such philosophers of

history, even though they may have wandered far afield from his

theological perspective. Their neglect of his scriptural frame of reference

has been disastrous for, without a biblical foundation, all attempts along

these lines were doomed to failure. Unfortunately, however, Christian

scholarship has failed to give adequate attention to the pressing problem of

properly interpreting history from its own theological perspective. All too

often it has virtually surrendered this important and strategic area of

apologetics to secular scholarship. Such surrender is totally unnecessary

for not only Augustine in his De Civitate Dei, but also Calvin and other

Reformation leaders in their great formulations of Christian truth furnished

the Church with a world and life view which made possible, and invited,

the enunciation of a biblical concept of history. In his Institutes of the

Christian Religion and other writings, Calvin gave the Church a theology

which is unsurpassed for the proper study of history. As the final triumph

of the Reformation, Calvinism gave to the Church a theology which

provides a Christian frame of reference for a truly biblical view of history.

At the outset we should note the inaccuracy of applying the designation of

“a Christian philosophy of history” to any speculative effort that uses only

rational means to discover the meaning of history. For such efforts convey

the erroneous suggestion that history is to be interpreted by some

rationalistic frame of reference alone without any recourse to theism. A

purely philosophical conception of history, furthermore, carries with it the

idea that it is man and not God who gives significance and meaning to life

in all its facets.

For the Christian, history has perspective only in the light of revealed

theology. For him there is no man-made philosophy of history; he

interprets his entire earthly life sub specie aeternitatis. So indelibly has this

theological approach impressed itself on the history of thought that even

those philosophers who have been most determined to escape its influences

have been unable to do so; their humanistic interpretations of history still

bear the imprint of Augustine or of Calvin. Secularize history as he would,

even Karl Marx could not escape the demands which the Bishop of Hippo

laid on anyone who sought to interpret history for future generations.


is likewise the case for Spengler and for Toynbee. The proper

understanding of history can come only from a biblical frame of reference.

This biblical frame must rest upon a theology that fully incorporates every

aspect of biblical truth perceived by the enlightened mind through the

power of the Holy Spirit. Only such a theology provides the necessary

ingredients for a view of history which can adequately meet the challenge

and dilemmas of history. Only such a view of human events can adequately

meet the challenge of cataclysms like the fall of Rome, the rise of modern

totalitarianism, or the frightening possibility of annihilative nuclear warfare

in the historical process.


Foundational to the Christian view of history is the doctrine of Scripture

itself. If man cannot know God with some degree of assurance, cannot

have knowledge of Him, of His actions and of His will for man in the form

of propositional truths, then man can know neither himself as an individual

nor the meaning of his own experience in its historical form. The

Westminster Confession of Faith states that the Scriptures principally teach

what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of

man. This concept of Scripture is no less necessary for a meaningful view

of history than it is for the knowledge of redemption. God reveals Himself

redemptively to man in the Bible, in the sense that only here does man learn

about the person and work of Christ. From the Scriptures man also

receives the necessary insights concerning God’s own evaluation and

interpretation of human life. God, therefore, addresses man in terms of

propositional truth which is therefore infallible and binding upon him.

A meaningful view of history, therefore, depends completely on the

assurance that the Scriptures are God’s trustworthy revelation to man. If

he cannot know God with certainty, then man can never really penetrate

the mystery of his own existence here on earth; life must, and will remain

for him an unfathomable enigma, forever beyond his apprehension. The

true meaning both of individual events and of the composite stream of

human history is found only in God’s interpretation thereof; clues to this

meaning are found primarily in the Scriptures.

Man is not free to contradict or to challenge God’s interpretation of what

has gone before. If he does so, he is guilty of sin. Man’s persistent refusal

to see in the Bible the clue to the meaning of his own experience is merely

another evidence of the total depravity of human nature. But this does not

mean that we are to regard the Bible as a kind of textbook which gives

some explicit interpretation for every event which comes under its scrutiny.

Rather it means that the theistic presuppositions necessary for man’s

insight into the proper meaning of history are found in the Scriptures alone

and not in human reason or experience. Man is no less responsible for

thinking God’s thoughts after Him in the interpretation of human life than

he is in any other area of his activity. Any theology which denies the

infallibility of the Scriptures is hard pressed, therefore, to present a

meaningful and consistent explanation of the historical process.

Equally necessary for the Christian view of history is the biblical doctrine

of the sovereignty of God. The Scriptures insist that God is sovereign over

all His creatures and all their actions; they are equally clear in maintaining

that God exercises this sovereignty to fulfill His own purposes and to

manifest His own glory. This doctrine is not confined to a few isolated

references, but functions as a continuous and coordinating theme from

Genesis through the Revelation. Moreover, no event or person is exempt

from obedience to the divine decrees. God is the Lord of all, not only of

some, history. He does not break into the stream of events merely at

certain moments to accomplish certain limited purposes, nor is His

effective will confined to one major current such as so-called “holy history”

in the swirling tides of secular and seemingly uncontrolled events. The

biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty in human affairs is asserted with

unsurpassed clarity in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “God from all

eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and

unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is

God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures,

nor is the liberty or contingency of second (secondary) causes taken away,

but rather, established” (Chapter III, paragraph 1). This great biblical truth

is not to be confused with any kind of philosophical determinism which

subjects man to the blind control of fate as does much Greek and Roman

thought, or to the equally blind direction of Marxian dialectical

materialism. The biblical pronouncement of God’s sovereignty in all human

affairs and activities stands in sharp contrast to any form of determinism.

Moreover, this sovereign Deity, who sees the end from the beginning, is a

personal God. He is just and righteous in all His ways and doeth all things

well; His sovereignty is exercised in accordance with His wisdom, holiness,

righteousness, and goodness. Quite obviously this biblical concept of divine

sovereignty differs from philosophical determinism at every conceivable

point; those who insist there is but little difference between the two

systems understand neither of them. Their supposed similarities all

disappear in view of the great differences between the impersonalism of

these speculative systems and the personal God revealed in the Scriptures.

The sovereign God confers meaning and purpose on history, not only by

creating man for His own glory, but also by ordaining that man should

realize and fulfill the purpose of his existence on earth in organized political

communities, whatever their geographic extent or temporal duration might


Inextricably linked to the biblical insistence on the total sovereignty of God

is the doctrine of creation. The nature of this intimate relationship between

creation and the exercise of divine sovereignty appears in the statement and

answer of question number eight in the Shorter Catechism: “How does

God execute His decrees?” And the answer to this question is: “God

executeth His decrees in the works of creation and providence.” God is the

author of history only because He is the creator of man and of the world in

which man was to live, and to fulfill His divinely assigned purposes. In the

act of creation, therefore, God brought both man and history into being.

This fact is of tremendous importance for any view of history which seeks

to be truly Christian; the doctrine of creation is no peripheral adjunct to the

scriptural concept of history, but rather its very center. The God of

Christianity does not deal with a world that evolved by chance nor does He

assume sovereignty over creatures who came into being by some

mysterious process over which He had no control. Without this divine

authorship of man in the stream of events, no truly biblical theology of

history is possible. In His exercise of the decrees of providence the divine

Author expresses and accomplishes the purposes inherent in the act of


The climax of the biblical account of creation is not achieved, however,

until the appearance of man who was created in the image of God. Thus

history is defined and understood properly only when the biblical doctrine

of man is kept in focus. Man cannot truly study himself nor find anything of

historical value unless he views himself and his past in the light of this

doctrine. History is primarily concerned with man as man and the

development of those institutions through which he fulfills the God-given

purposes of his existence on earth. The view of man created in the image of

God is, therefore, absolutely essential for a biblical understanding of

history. Any other view not only does irreparable harm to the scriptural

position, but also makes human history unintelligible. To posit man as the

product of evolutionary forces may seem, at first glance, to make him a

noble creature and possessed of endless possibilities for a glorious future.

Actually, however, it destroys his true role in the historical process and

reduces him to a passive recipient of the effects of natural and

environmental forces. Over these he has no control although they

themselves are utterly impersonal and blind in their effects on human life.

The outcome of such a view, namely, this evolutionary degradation of

human personality, must inescapably render history meaningless and hardly

worthy of study. If the human past is simply the product of the influence of

blind and impersonal forces at work in humanity, then the past has little to

say to the present. Even this debacle could have meaning in the sight of

God, of course, for it is He who still controls the process of degradation.

Such a perverted view of human personality would mean, however, that in

exalting himself above God, man has lost the key to the riddle of even the

purported evolutionary process. It is well known that the dominant force of

the evolutionary philosophy in the political and social sciences has

engendered increasing uncertainty among historians and the social

scientists about the meaning of the human past and the promise of the

future. In fact, some of these men question whether the study of history

can any longer be justified as a meaningful intellectual activity. The denial

of propositional revelation in the Scriptures has resulted in a growing

disposition to doubt the possibility of achieving truth in secular history.

The Marxists frequently appeal to history to support the contention of their

ultimate domination of all peoples. Despite this appeal, the very nature of

dialectical materialism undermines belief in that very rational character of

the historical process which alone can justify and sustain even their

attempts to interpret history. In essence, the determinism of Marxism

destroys those foundations of rationality which appeal to history as their

witness. History thus becomes a witness without meaning.

The biblical view, on the other hand, affirms the meaningfulness of history.

This meaning stems from the fact that man is under an intellectual mandate

from God, in the stewardship of his mind, to discover the meaning of his

own existence on earth, to whatever extent he can as a sinner, and in the

light afforded him in the Scriptures. When Adam sinned and thus involved

the whole human race in both the physical and spiritual effects of that first

transgression against the revealed will of God, history did not, therefore,

lose either its meaning or its divinely assigned purposes. A sinful humanity

could in no way thwart the realization of the decrees of a sovereign God

who makes even the wrath of man to praise Him and the processes of

history to glorify Him. His glory was to be realized both in the redemption

of elect sinners and in the righteous judgment and condemnation of those

who refuse His gracious offer of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Thus from the fall of Adam to the last great judgment, man’s history was

to experience an increasing and ever-present cleavage between believers,

those who are citizens of the City of God on earth, and unbelievers, those

who are citizens of the earthly city. Yet through both of these groups the

purposes of God will be fully realized. Common grace became the means

whereby the Lord of history governs and sustains His creation and the

earthly activities of both the regenerate and the unregenerate. Common

grace makes civil life possible in a sinful and rebellious society; this grace

by the beneficent bestowal of gifts even enables the unregenerate to make

brilliant discoveries in medicine and in the other sciences, to erect and

maintain human governments, to produce great masterpieces in the arts and

letters, and to enrich culture generally. The blessings of common grace

make civilization possible, and it is common grace that sustains the

historical process.

By the operations of common grace evil rulers and nations, even in the heat

of their own sinful rebellion, actually carry out the will of God in regard to

the elect and His visible Church. Empires and kingdoms rise and fall

according to God’s plan; through them He brings judgment upon nations

who have forsaken righteousness and through them He brings judgment to

bear even on the Church. History is replete with examples of this truth. The

Lord used Babylon to execute judgment upon the Children of Israel; Rome

was used to judge those ancient empires which had trampled under foot the

law of a sovereign God. Later the Teutonic invaders brought Rome to

justice. In our own day, in a very real sense, Hitler was God’s instrument

of warning to the West as a whole of impending doom, and to a German

Church which had cradled modern rationalism and higher criticism. In

short, common grace so governs historical events that God’s special or

redemptive grace may be fulfilled as well. By the very benevolence of God

which it bestows upon the unregenerate, common grace may justify the

condemnation of the unbeliever; similarly, special grace outworks God’s

purpose for the elect, that He may be glorified in their redemption. Thus

the plan of redemption is of transcendent importance for the proper

understanding of human history.

The Scriptures abundantly suggest that Christ’s coming into the world was

a decisive event in human affairs. His Incarnation was the great

demarcation, the great watershed between what we call ancient history and

all that has since transpired. This event occurred in the divinely evaluated

and interpreted fullness of time and history. No other event compares with

it, for it is truly unique. Only in connection with the birth of Christ do the

Scriptures use the phrase, “in the fullness of time.” So unique is the

Incarnation that even unbelievers incorporate it into their chronological

reckonings. Thus the Christian view of history places supreme emphasis on

the birth of Christ and recognizes it as a focal point to which all other

historical dates must be referred for chronological ordering.

All of ancient history, therefore, must be interpreted in the light of the

Incarnation. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, the Alexandrian Empire and Rome

are viewed historically as instruments of a sovereign God to bring about

the “fullness of time” into which Jesus Christ was born. Unknowingly and

unwillingly, and yet freely, they accomplished His purpose both of

judgment and of redemption.

Like the birth of Christ, so the Church, that great company of the elect,

that institution at the very heart of the historical process in all ages, is the

great divide of history to which all other events relate. Scripture also

indicates clearly that all events in both ancient and modern history, refer in

some way, known to God alone for the most part, to the life and work of

the Church. These events are not only related with the birth of Christ, but

have a more immediate bearing on the Church in their own day. They all

serve God’s purposes as regards His will for the elect, for it is through this

divinely ordained institution, the Church, that the events of history derive

meaning and purpose.

This means that contemporary historical events can be understood only in

the light of their divinely assigned role. They are entities in and of

themselves. Sometimes their purposes may be clearly discernible to

believers; at other times, they may be only dimly perceived, if at all. The

Church at all times can and must be alert to warnings of judgment that

come in the rise of Hitlers and other totalitarian despots of our day, else

these divine warnings would be given in vain. But beyond this awareness

the Christian dare not go. It is not given to man to read history as God sees

it. By faith therefore we know Him to be the sovereign Lord of history and

we know that nothing occurs either by grim fate or capricious chance. In

this assurance we must be content.

The assurance that history is meaningful and that its meaning is directly

related to God’s purposes makes it possible to discuss the whole matter of

progress, a concept that has been uppermost in secular interpretations of

history since the days of the Enlightenment. The Scriptures say a great deal

about progress and affirm a very real progress reveals itself within history.

But the biblical conception is far different from that of the evolutionists,

and the other secularists, who define progress as an advance toward some

kind of humanly achieved millennium where wars, famines, poverty,

diseases, crime, illiteracy, ignorance, and fear will be no more. Nor is the

biblical view the least like that of the Marxists who anticipate the triumph

of the proletariat, and the establishment of a communist regime. These

views not only ignore the sovereignty of God and the problem of human

sin, but also describe progress in terms of material and physical

advancement to the exclusion of the spiritual.

The biblical concept, on the other hand, depicts progress in terms of man’s

growth in grace, of his increasing conformity to the will of God, and of the

renewal of the divine image in the believer. Although the Bible insists that

the whole stream of history moves steadily toward a divinely ordained

goal, it does not interpret progress merely as a progression of time. The

ongoing of time in the Hegelian sense can never be equated with progress.

Never is the Christian free to regard either the Hegelian, the Marxist, or the

evolutionary concept as those of the Scriptures. Time in itself has no

redemptive power, nor does its passage bring moral or spiritual

improvement. Moral and spiritual superiority, whether of nations or of

men, is not simply a matter of age or maturity.

Scripture emphasizes that true progress comes from growth in grace in this

life. Although believers never achieve God’s will totally in this life, they

pursue it increasingly throughout life, therefore they are being restored into

the image of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this sense, and in this

alone, progress is thus an ever-present factor in human history wherever

the elect are found. But this progress takes place within individual lives and

is not a phenomenon in society at large, except to the extent that a

community may be predominantly Christian and reflect in its corporate life

this growth in grace. Progress in its spiritual sense can never be

characteristic of a total society, because the mixture of believers and

unbelievers is always present. This is true despite the fact that the Church

has, at times, among certain groups and nations, had a sufficiently strong

witness and impact to penetrate civic life and unregenerate society to an

amazing degree.

The Scriptures offer no support for those concepts of society which

espouse the working of some process in history similar to that which

allegedly functions in the biological history of the race. Ever since the

Enlightenment, liberals have insisted that society, in all its aspects, is

gradually evolving from a lower to a higher stage of existence. Through

this process they expect a day to come when humanity will usher in its own

kingdom of righteousness and peace. This hope is the central core of all

liberalism, and many liberals, therefore, have appraised the League of

Nations, the United Nations Organization, socialism, centralized

government, and even communism (without its Russian accretions) as

important aids towards their utopian goals. Since they consider man

essentially good, education and similar agencies may achieve his perfection;

and progress, therefore, is almost inevitable.

Liberals of the later nineteenth century expected to realize their hopes in

the twentieth. Although some were willing to make room for the sovereign

Lord of history to cooperate in this great democratic experiment, most of

them seem to regard Him as something of an alien intruder whose claims

must be vigorously resisted by an enlightened humanity.

We also learn from the Scriptures that history is moving toward one final

climax, namely the return of Jesus Christ in triumph and judgment. This

biblical interpretation alone allows no place for the cyclical views of the

Greek historians, nor for the later Hegelian concepts of history as an

unending process. When Jesus Christ returns, this span of history will

cease. Perhaps at this point the cleavage between the biblical position and

the views of Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Toynbee, and other contemporaries,

becomes most obvious. The modern mind simply cannot accept the idea

that humanity does not control its own destiny. It refuses to believe that

the ultimate manifestation of the glory of Jesus Christ is beyond all human

manipulation, whether they be statesmen or educators. It denies that the

sovereign Ruler of the universe will bring all sinful humanity to judgment in

a final accounting for its long history of willful rebellion against His

righteousness, goodness, and mercy.


The biblical view of history which received its classic treatment by

Augustinian and Reformed scholars has undergone much attack both from

within and without the Church. In the early modern era severe criticism

came from the philosophers of the Enlightenment, especially from the

French; German and English Deists, and even their American counterparts,

also vented their hostility. Their belief in man’s inherent goodness and

perfectibility led to a philosophy of history which was essentially

evolutionary in character. This, in turn, resulted in a secularization of the

whole biblical concept of the ultimate triumph of the Kingdom of God.

German idealism produced a new outburst of attacks, and Hegel set forth a

philosophy of history that consciously repudiated the biblical view at

almost every turn. The sovereign God was replaced by a dialectic process;

history had neither a real beginning nor ending, its only goal being the

progressive (but never fully achieved) realization of spirit as that spirit

(Geist) found acceptance among particular nations or peoples in

successively unfolding eras of history.

Whatever remnants of Christianity some theologians and philosophers

professed to see in Hegel’s idealistic approach disappeared entirely in the

adaptation of Hegelianism to the demands of Marxist materialism. Marx

not only banished the sovereign God, but rewrote the whole concept of

history far more drastically than Hegel. Because matter is eternal in

dialectical materialism, and there is no God and man has no soul, it requires

no author for the historical process. Neither is there any progress in terms

of man’s conformity to the will or image of God. Progress became

identified, rather, with the triumph of the proletariat and with the

realization of a classless society, at least in theory. In such a system it is

quite impossible to salvage anything Christian, and it becomes quite

apparent that this Marxist interpretation is the most completely secularized

version of the biblical position that has yet appeared. Perhaps this explains

communism’s tremendous appeal for contemporary scholarship, for it must

certainly be recognized that either in its original form, or in its several

modifications, Marxist philosophy dominated much of historical writing

and the social sciences. This does not mean, or even suggest, that most of

the social scientists of our country are convinced, or dedicated, to the

Marxist philosophy in the sense that they openly belong to the Communist

party or accept its program of action. Rather do we mean that to a greater

or lesser degree many of these individuals have accepted numerous axioms

of Marxism and have incorporated them into their own personal

philosophies of history and society.

The penetration of Marxist

presuppositions is easily seen, for example, in the Turner thesis concerning

the influence of the frontier in American history; it likewise appears in the

works of Charles A. Beard which try to interpret the formation of the

Federal Constitution and the emergence of the Federalist and Jeffersonian

parties almost entirely in terms of economic determinism. Indeed, it is

probably not too much to say that the theory of economic determinism is

probably the most widely held philosophy of history among American

historians today. Many of them have sought to blend this modified Marxian

approach with democratic idealism for, in a large measure, American

history has been characterized by an optimism concerning America’s

future. These men have felt the need to weld the democratic philosophy of

the Declaration of Independence and economic determinism into such a

frame of reference that would fit the demands of their optimistic views.

These attempts failed to bring a conviction as to their adequacy, however,

and Carl Becker, in his later career, lost the early optimism toward

democracy that pervaded his earlier writings. Beard also greatly modified

his attitude toward economic determinism. Despite the inadequacy of these

more recent interpretations of history, many historians have remained

unwilling to turn once again to the Christian view. Instead they have made

repeated efforts to examine history itself for fresh clues as to its meaning.

Spengler and Toynbee both represent such efforts, but neither writer has

successfully escaped the subtleties of economic determinism. Many

historians turned to positivism as the only satisfactory approach to the

problem of meaning in history. But the only conclusions to which they

seem to be driven is that history has no ultimate meaning, because each

historian supplies just another interpretation.

The question still remains, if history has no meaning, how can we justify its

study and how can we claim that a proper knowledge of the past can help

the present age guide its affairs toward a better future? This query

constitutes a formidable dilemma for positivism; it is equally embarrassing

for Marxism as well, for if blind impersonal matter controls humanity, if

human personality is completely dominated by matter dialectically in

motion, how can the historical process have any meaning, and how can we

speak with authority in the present to shed light on the future?

Such questions present seemingly insoluble dilemmas to much of historical

scholarship; some historians are visibly disturbed by the increasing

uncertainty and aimlessness of their colleagues. While deeply aware of that

intellectual disaster that awaits any discipline which loses faith in the

meaning and value of its own area of knowledge, and while equally

dissatisfied with contemporary philosophies of history, they have not

wished, however, to return to the Augustinian or Calvinist interpretations,

although they might regard them with a kind of nostalgic yearning and

hope. For historians of this bent, neo-orthodoxy in its various forms

appears a ready haven and welcome answer to their dilemmas. Neoorthodoxy

becomes a kind of escape whereby they can return to a biblical

view of history without accepting the Augustinian-Calvinistic concept of

the Scriptures, a view which they feel that modern critical scholarship has

made untenable.


To what extent has neo-orthodoxy really solved their problems? Indeed, it

should be asked: can neo-orthodoxy provide an interpretation of history

which is essentially Christian on the one hand, but which, on the other

hand, pays attention to the claims of higher critical scholarship in order to

escape the charges of “fundamentalism” or “obscurantism” where the

historic view of inspiration is concerned? In short, does neo-orthodoxy

offer a true haven for those historians who sincerely seek to find in

Christianity the right means of restoring meaning and purpose to their

scholarly endeavors? These questions are vital not only to the historians

themselves, but to the entire evangelical world. To a great extent,

evangelicals are dependent on these same scholars for accurate knowledge

and interpretation of the human past and of contemporary events as well.

Can neo-orthodoxy rescue the social sciences from the snare of Marxism

on the one side and the allurement of existentialism on the other? What

does neo-orthodoxy have to offer the disillusioned liberal of our day? To

what extent does it support a truly biblical view of history?

We have already indicated that a view of history which is true to the

Scriptures must rest upon a doctrine of Scripture that supports its claims of

inspiration and infallibility. It is here that the initial weakness of neoorthodoxy

as a movement becomes apparent. While the present chapter

cannot deal with this particular problem at great length, it should at least

emphasize that neo-orthodoxy’s inadequate view of Scripture makes the

system unsuitable for sustaining a biblical view of history adequate to the

needs of the twentieth century. Although not all neo-orthodox scholars

agree on the meaning of biblical inspiration, they seem unanimous in

rejecting the historic doctrine of Scripture. The extent to which neoorthodoxy

denies that Scripture contains revealed propositional truth, to

that same degree it violates the proper interpretation of all history. Only on

the basis of the historical concept of the Scriptures, which stresses the

propositional truth associated with God’s revelation of Himself to man, can

the true meaning of any and all historical events be ascertained. Barth’s

rejection of the doctrine of common grace seems to follow logically from

his basic view of revelation and without this doctrine, history must remain

essentially meaningless and an insoluble dilemma. To deny propositional

truth in the Scriptures is to deny it in history at large.

Not all neo-orthodox theologians deny common grace as does Barth. It

remains true, however, that their inadequate views of Scripture have farreaching

effects on their approach to the problem of the meaning of

history. There is much of value in Otto Piper’s God in History (New York,

The Macmillan Company, 1939), a volume which can be read with genuine

profit by discerning evangelicals. But the looseness of his attitude toward

the authority of Scripture in general and the historicity of Genesis in

particular seriously weakens his entire concept of history. Piper’s attempt

to distinguish between original history (Urgeschichte) and prehistory has

profoundly important implications for his interpretation of history as a

whole; it fails to solve those problems which he professes to find in the

older orthodox theologians and creates new problems as well. Piper takes

the position that Adam’s fall occurred in the spiritual realm rather than in

the earthly world of time and space; yet he insists that this interpretation in

no way undermines the reality of this event (ibid., p. 39). Piper follows this

course in order to free Protestant theology from what he considers the

baneful influences that nominalism exercised on the Reformers and from

their “necessary, but one-sided insistence on justification by faith” (p. 53).

But the result of this approach is far from satisfactory and Piper himself

ultimately concludes that “it is not possible.., to establish harmony between

the record of Genesis III-XI on the one hand, and prehistorical discoveries

on the other, unless it is fully recognized that history, as recorded in the

Bible, because of its connection with the spiritual world differs

fundamentally from that kind of history related by secular historians” (p.


However much Reinhold Niebuhr may differ from his neo-orthodox

colleagues in his own particular view of the authority of the Scriptures, his

conclusions in the matter are just as far-reaching in regard to the question

of propositional truth. In Beyond Tragedy he writes: “The message of the

Son of God who dies upon the Cross, of a God who transcends history and

is yet in history, who condemns and judges sin and yet suffers with and for

the sinner, this message is the truth about life. It cannot be stated without

deceptions; but the truths which seek to avoid the deceptions are

immeasurably less profound. Compared with the Christ who died for man’s

sin upon the Cross, Jesus, the good man who tells all men to be good, is

more solidly historical. But He is the bearer of no more than a pale truism”

(New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937, p. 20-21).

Only one or two comments are pertinent here. In the first place, if it is true

that the words of Christ upon the Cross cannot be stated without

deception, then no sound judgment of any kind may be made one way or

another concerning His ethical teachings. To be “deceivers yet true” on the

historicity of the biblical account of redemption is to render any sound

conception or interpretation of history impossible. If the scriptural account

of the redemptive work of Christ is not propositionally true, then our

knowledge of history in general must suffer accordingly. In vain are

Reinhold Niebuhr’s efforts to escape the destructive tendencies of his own

position on Scripture by grappling with the various aspects of the biblical

view of history. The devastating effects of this primary denial of the

trustworthiness of the Bible frustrate every effort to present a Christian

philosophy of history that is free from the liberalism which he opposes. The

denial of propositional truth in sacred history brings with it a logical

necessity to deny it in the secular realm. But even if this logical necessity is

avoided, the historian still has denied himself a necessary key for the

interpretation of the secular realm.

As Otto Piper shows in God in History, the biblical doctrine of sin fares no

better at the hands of neo-orthodoxy than do the other doctrines essential

to a consistent Christian view of history. Piper rejects the biblical doctrine

of sin in order to restate it in terms of his own position. He places the Fall

of Adam in the spiritual order hoping thereby to properly accommodate it

to New Testament eschatology (op. cit., p. 58). He insists that this is

necessary in order to avoid limiting man’s redemption to merely mental or

physical change and to insure instead a deliverance of his metaphysical

nature (ibid., pp. 58-59). Piper’s denial of the historicity of the biblical

account of the Fall is obviously related to his desire to revise the doctrine

of original sin in keeping with the neo-orthodox concepts of eschatology

and of redemption, views which are to be found nowhere in Scripture.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s approach to the doctrine of sin is no more satisfactory

despite “his preoccupation with sin and grace.” He rejects the biblical

account of Adam’s Fall in the Garden of Eden as myth. “It does not take

place in any concrete human act. It is the presupposition of such acts”

(Beyond Tragedy, p. 11). Nevertheless, in spite of placing its origin in

myth, Niebuhr considers sin to be very real and defines it as that capacity

of man “to throw the harmonies of nature out of joint.” He denies that the

act of sin destroyed man’s previous state of perfection by creation; at the

same time, however, Niebuhr is careful to point out that sin is not the

result of an original defect in man by creation. Sin for Niebuhr is man’s

misuse of his radical freedom, a misuse that takes place in history and

brings man to the need for redemption. Niebuhr’s failure to see sin in its

biblical setting as rebellion against the will of a righteous and holy God has

profound implications for his whole view of history.

Even further from the biblical position of sin is Rudolf Bultmann’s view.

He interprets sin as man’s inability and unwillingness to be free from

decisions he has made in the past. This radical departure from the historic

doctrine of sin undercuts the rest of his theology and leaves very little

Christianity. His doctrine of redemption is eschatological in nature, but not

in the scriptural meaning. In short, his teaching has no truly biblical system

of doctrine sufficient for supporting a theology of history. Although like

Niebuhr and other contemporary theologians he delights in using biblical

terminology, Bultmann supplies a whole new meaning of his own which is

quite foreign to the Scriptures and is so impregnated with existentialist

meaning that history ceases to have any real significance.

Departure from biblical form and meaning is quite evident in contemporary

treatments of the atonement, and the neo-orthodox defection from this

basic doctrine, so pivotal for a truly biblical perspective of history, reveals

how far short their interpretation of history falls of the scriptural yardstick.

Since redemption from sin is procured only by Christ’s atoning death, a

doctrine which lies at the very heart of the Christian life, then this truth

must also lie at the very heart of the Christian view of history.

Piper’s position here is far from satisfactory. He declares that through

Christ the history of His chosen people became an act of divine salvation;

by making the misery of the human race His own, Christ became the Lord

of history (op. cit., p. 112). If Christ is eternally and truly God, we would

ask, how could such an act, as wonderful as it undoubtedly was, make Him

what the Scriptures already declare Him to be? Indeed, one must ask how

His birth could be in the fullness of time and how the Son of Man could

effectively bring salvation, if He were not already the Lord of history and

therefore able to bring those events to pass in a manner which transcends

human reason. The very idea of the fullness of time must remain

inexplicable unless Jesus Christ were already the Lord of history and of His

chosen people.

As a consequence of his conception of the death of Christ, Niebuhr has no

Church at the heart of history to which all events in history have reference.

There is no doctrine of election to bring it into existence or to give it life.

For Niebuhr, the Church is composed of God’s people only in the sense

that its members are those who have seen in Christ the original essence of

human nature and who desire to bring an end to their estrangement from

God. Thus, in Niebuhr as in Piper, eschatology is shorn of its biblical

content. Their views of sin, the atonement, and the nature of the Church

make no provision for an eschatology which is biblically oriented; there is

neither a final judgment nor a glorious triumph of Jesus Christ in terms of

Christian orthodoxy. Progress in history would seem to consist of

abolishing in believers that original defection and estrangement which came

as a result of the entrance of sin into human life.

In summary, the presuppositions of neo-orthodoxy are clearly incapable of

supporting a biblical doctrine of history. Not only does the denial of

propositional truth in Scripture destroy the real meaning of salvation, it

also undermines the entire Christian position in regard to the meaning of

history. Failure to appropriate the biblical view of the Church, a necessary

consequence of their denial of the orthodox view of the inspiration and

authority of the Scriptures, and of sin and redemption, has deprived neoorthodoxy

of the key which it must have if it is to discover the meaning of

the flow of historical events. The forced separation between Heilgeschichte

and secular history in which some of this school have indulged has had the

effect of denying the sovereignty of God over the latter and removes the

focal point from which they derive their ultimate meaning.

In view of its doctrinal inadequacies, it should be expected that neoorthodoxy

should be uncertain as to the course of history; it is no accident

that Reinhold Niebuhr, despite his great dislike for what he calls an

outmoded liberalism, accepted many of its presuppositions and goals in his

own political, social, and economic philosophy. These same inadequacies

have made it possible for other members of this school to adapt to various

factors of totalitarianism. Neo-orthodoxy has been unable to provide them

with a theistic frame of reference by which these historical developments

may be properly evaluated. Almost inevitably their eschatology is bound to

be fuzzy at best, and foreign to the biblical perspective, and their

statements are full of paradox. For Niebuhr the resurrection of the body is

a myth which must not be pressed too far (Beyond Tragedy, p. 304).


says further that at best this doctrine is “a more sophisticated expression of

the hope of the ultimate fulfillment of human personality than all of its

modern substitutes” (ibid; p. 306). This is a far cry from the great

Scripture promises given to believers concerning their own bodily

resurrection and the end time of history. Bultmann is perhaps farthest from

the biblical position for he practically banishes any truly biblical

eschatological view of history by confining it to the present. “But now we

can say — the meaning in history lies always in the present — and when

the present is conceived as the eschatological present by Christian faith the

meaning of history is realized” (History and Eschatology, Edinburgh,

University Press, 1957, p. 155). And again he writes: “Always in your

present lies the meaning in history, and you cannot see it as a spectator, but

only in your responsible decisions. In every moment slumbers the

possibility of being the eschatological moment. You must awaken it” (ibid.,

p. 155). Whatever else this may mean, it is quite obvious that Bultmann

removes any eschatological control of history from the hands of the

sovereign God and places it in man. Existentialism has replaced Christian

orthodoxy and history has lost its last vestige of God-given meaning. At

every point in time man interprets history to suit himself.

Neither in Niebuhr nor Bultmann is there any place for the glorious return

of Jesus Christ in triumph and judgment, an event which will bring history

to a close. For these men, history has no goal in the biblical sense. Nor

does Karl Barth in his position offer much relief from this subtle form of


Our evaluation of neo-orthodoxy’s views of history suggests at least two

conclusions. In the first place, this view is at no point truly biblical, despite

the system’s apparently sincere deference to the Bible and frequent appeals

to biblical material. Neo-orthodoxy simply fails to do justice to those great

doctrines of Scripture which are essential to the Christian view of history.

In the second place, this neo-orthodox revision of the older liberal position

is, at many points, not too different from that which it seeks to correct. For

this reason, neo-orthodoxy offers no real alternative to the liberalism of the

latter nineteenth and early twentieth century on the one hand, nor to the

Marxist and democratic philosophies of history on the other. The neoorthodox

approach to the problem of the meaning of history must be

adjudged quite as unsatisfactory, therefore, as that of previous liberal

versions, and there is no real reason to suppose therefore, that it will have

any more than a passing attraction for historians. The only authentic key

for understanding history with all its complexities, tortuous paths and

vicissitudes, is found in historic Christianity which anchors in the

sovereignty of God and in the infallibility of the Scriptures.

Any attempted

theology of history which casts itself adrift from these two basic tenets

must renounce all hope of ever achieving true insight into the nature and

meaning of history.