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by Carl Henry.



A SUDDEN and significant shift in European theological fortunes marks

our decade as another time of transition in the realm of Protestant thought.

This theological crossroads has come into view almost without warning.

As recently as July, 1963, the Montreal Faith and Order Conference of the

World Council of Churches carried no hint of such a major turn in

contemporary theological destinies. On the continent nobody had spoken

publicly of the beginnings of another significant theological transition.

Translations of recent dogmatic literature reflected considerable turbulence

and mounting theological debate but supplied little if any indication that an

hour of agonizing decision once again confronted continental theologians.

Not even American evangelicals completing doctoral studies abroad had

become aware of the deep dilemma now facing Protestant theology.

All the more remarkably, my European sabbatical in 1963-64 coincided

with the sure signs of a new and significant theological development. The

crisis of continental Protestantism became increasingly apparent in the

course of interviews with some three dozen theologians and New

Testament scholars, most of them prominent and influential on the

theological scene. It was my special fortune to interview these leaders

privately for an hour or so and to probe their personal convictions about

the theological situation today. In a highly privileged “seminar in

contemporary European theology,” I enjoyed the unique opportunity of

asking questions of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, Helmut

Thielicke, Wolfhardt Pannenberg, Adolf Koberle, Edmund Schlink, Ernst

Fuchs, Günther Bornkamm, Gerhard Friedrich, Otto Michel, Ethelbert

Stauffer, and many others.

Something theologically exciting was apparently under way in Europe. Not

only had Bultmann been dethroned as king of the theological scene but,

even more significant, Bultmannian theology itself was now on the

defensive. Although Time magazine (May 22, 1964) reported that

Bultmann’s disciples ruled the theological situation in Europe much as the

Russians dominate chess (the vocal post-Bultmannians on the American

scene would prefer it that way), it was clear that the Bultmannians and the

post-Bultmannians were both in trouble. Contemporary European theology

was in transition and flux; for the third time in the twentieth century

Protestant theology on the continent was passing through deep waters.

The importance of this development for the American scene cannot be

glossed. The history of the recent past shows that when the theology of the

continent veers in a new direction, that of Britain and the United States

soon swerves with it.


For the sake of overall perspective it may be well briefly to recall the main

outlines of the theological trend in the recent past. The rationalistic

liberalism of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Troeltsch was the dominant

religious force in the forepart of our century. Classic modernism, a

theology of intensified divine immanence, so neglected God’s

transcendence in relationship to man and His universe that it left no room

for miracle, special revelation, or special redemption. The Christian religion

was viewed as a variety of religion in general — even if it had certain

unique features, and could in some respects be viewed as “higher” than the

others. Compatible with this basic outlook, Christian religious experience

was viewed as a variety of universal religious experience. Against this

speculative immanentism, Karl Barth reasserted God’s transcendence and

special divine initiative, His wrath against man as sinner, and the reality of

miraculous revelation and miraculous redemption. So contagious was this

“theology of crisis” that by 1930 most German theologians conceded the

death of rationalistic modernism, or classic liberalism, which Barth had

deplored as heresy. They proclaimed the triumph of dialectical theology

over immanental philosophy.

Americans who still read their theology in the context only of the

fundamentalist-modernist controversy little sense what this dialectical

overthrow of classic liberal theology meant for the European seminary

world. When I traveled in Germany and Switzerland with Evangelist Billy

Graham during his 1960 crusades, it was my privilege to address meetings

of ministers in several key cities. The night Dr. Graham’s crusade opened

in Berne, Switzerland, I had as my dinner guest Dr. Waiter Luthie, minister

of that great cathedral where the throngs turn out for Sunday service

twenty minutes early to be sure of a seat. Dr. Luthie related something of

his own theological encounter from the time of his first interest in the

ministry. After his conversion experience and a call, he left his Swiss home

and farm to prepare for the pulpit. In seminary, he said, “my professors

were liberal, and one by one they took from me the beliefs I had prized.

Many times I thought I could not go on. Then in my last year of seminary

study, one of my professors spoke now and then of a minister who had

recently written a book. Every time he referred to this author he described

him as ‘that fool.’ I went out and bought the volume. It was Barth’s

Römerbrief,” he said. “And Barth saved me for the ministry!”

In Europe many ministers in the “regular churches” came to read the

theological climate by the index “B. B.” and “A. B.” — before Barth and

after Barth. Before Barth, no prayer meetings in these churches; after

Barth, prayer meetings. Before Barth, no Bibles open in the churches; after

Barth, young people’s meetings and a searching of the Bible to probe its

“witness” to God’s special revelation in Christ. If one sketches the main

outlines of the modern period, this transition from classic modernism to the

dialectical theology constituted the first major transition in European

theology and its net result was that Barthian theology reigned from 1930 to



What signaled the erosion of Barth’s influence, if one seeks a landmark,

was a book of theological essays now translated as Kerygma and Myth

(edited by Hans Werner Bartsch). This volume contained Rudolf

Bultmann’s essay on the New Testament and mythology, first prepared in

1941, which had comparatively little impact at its first appearance. But this

book attested the momentum of the gathering Bultmannian forces. Barth’s

Römerbrief (1919) had refused to ground Christian faith in objective

history and objective knowledge, and his dialectical theology was then

wholly compatible with existential emphases and in broad early agreement

with Bultmann. Bultmann redirected the dialectical approach and

conformed it to his own interests — to Formgeschichte, to demythology,

to Existenz. Formgeschichte, said Bultmann, establishes the New

Testament as the viewpoint of the primitive Church, rather than of Jesus of

Nazareth. Modern science, said Bultmann, requires a non-miraculous

understanding of the New Testament. And Christian faith demands no

historical foundation other than the mere “thatness” of .Jesus’ existence, so

that the New Testament is to be understood existentially.

Barth broke with Bultmann between 1927 and 1999, and in the 1932

revision of his Church Dogmatics he rejected existentialism. Since that

revision Barth has steadily added “objectifying” elements to his theological

perspective to forestall any existentialist takeover of his position. Yet

Barth’s theology hurried over the relationship of faith and history, the

relationship of faith and science, and important New Testament exegetical

problems. Bultmann concentrated attention on all these areas. He

persuaded many young intellectuals in the seminaries that Barth’s theology

deals only halfheartedly with its underlying dialectical presuppositions,

whereas his own existentialism more consistently applies these very same

premises. If Barth reigned from 1930 to 1950, Bultmann and his disciples

clearly held the theological initiative in Europe between 1950 and 1960. In

1960 when I visited Emil Brunner at his Zurich home, he acknowledged

that “Bultmann is now king! But,” he added, “not for long, because he

thins out the Gospel too much.” In Basel Karl Barth likewise conceded,

“Ja, Bultmann ist jetzt König.” No longer Barth, no longer Brunner, no

longer dialectical theology (in its pre-existentialist form), but, as Bishop

Hanns Lilje of Hanover characterized it, “a revival of the old liberalism in

connection with Existenz” ruled the centers of theological learning.


Today the search is under way for an alternative to Bultmann. That

remarkable development signals the third crisis in twentieth-century

continental theology. From classic liberalism to dialectical theology; from

dialectical pre-existential theology to existentialism; and now, the revolt

against existentialism. We can chart this search for an alternative to

Bultmann in three steps: first, the revolt of Bultmann’s disciples against

Bultmann; second, the sharp disagreement among the post-Bultmannians

themselves; third, the growing vitality of the anti-Bultmannians.

There is some exaggeration in the comment of Ernst Fuchs at Marburg that

Bultmann “no longer has disciples”; but it does indicate that Bultmann has

been deposed from theological leadership: “Karl Barth has his aprioris, he

has vitality, and he has disciples. But Bultmann has only aprioris. His

disciples are at odds with him, and they have the vitality.” In 1954 Ernst

Käsemann read the revolutionary paper which focused attention on the

mere “thatness” of Jesus’ existence — which was all the historical visibility

that Bultmann demanded for Jesus. Käsemann now put the central

difficulty in clear focus: to stress the apostolically proclaimed Christ (the

kerygmatic Christ) and to say no more about the historical Jesus than

“thatness” runs the risk of dissolving Christianity into a Gnostic redeemer

myth, and of falling into Docetism, that is, of diluting the historical reality

of Jesus’ humanity into mere appearance. Since that time the historical

Jesus has become an increasing concern of most of the Bultmannian

school. Most of Bultmann’s disciples now insist, for both theological and

historical reasons, that some knowledge of the historical Jesus is


If that development reflects the revolt, it marks the occasion also of sharp

disagreements in the Bultmannian camp among the professed followers of

Bultmann. Some scholars continue to reject all interest in the historical

Jesus. The so-called Mainz radicals, Herbert Braun and Manfred Mezger,

hold that only interpersonal relationships — that is, relations between

persons, and these alone — are significant for encountering God. To add

to the confusion, Bultmann has divided his followers by apparently

contradictory comments and commendations of certain of their positions.

But most Bultmannians now insist on some necessary connection between

the historical Jesus and the content of the Christian faith, but they differ

widely about the nature and extent of this relationship.

The theological scene is also marked by the emergence of vigorous

alternatives to post-Bultmannian positions. In characterizing the current

outlook in continental theology one must no longer speak of Bultmann as

king, nor even of the aggressive dominance of the post-Bultmannians, for

the post-Bultmannians are now but one of a number of schools struggling

for supremacy in the present open situation. There are the traditional

conservatives, among them such New Testament scholars as Otto Michel

of Tübingen, Joachim Jeremias of Göttingen, Walter Künneth of Erlangen,

Leonhard Goppelt of Hamburg, Karl Rengsdorf of Münster, Gustav

Stählin of Mainz, and others. There are the Heilsgeschichte scholars,

whose views do not coincide in all respects with those of the old Erlangen

Heilsgeschichte school at the turn of the century. Whereas conservative

scholars champion salvation history, Heilsgeschichte scholars are not as

such thoroughly conservative. Oscar Cullmann of Basel illustrates the

transition from the conservative to the Heilsgeschichte school: on the one

hand, he declines to be regarded as a traditional conservative; on the other

hand, he looks more largely in the conservative direction than do most

Heilsgeschichte scholars. Cullmann insists that the decisive event of all

history has already occurred, and that one cannot really be a Christian

without believing that Jesus of Nazareth regarded Himself as Messiah.

Werner Kümmel of Marburg and Cullmann are leading spokesmen for the

Heilsgeschichte movement today in the debate between exponents of

historical and existential revelation; Eduard Schweizer of Zürich belongs

with this group also. Kümmel, Bultmann’s successor at Marburg, has

always been a foe of Bultmannianism. Another group is the Pannenberg

school, named for a former student of Barth’s who is now an influential

scholar at Mainz, Wolfhardt Pannenberg. Around his standard a company

of vigorous younger scholars has gathered. Finally, one must speak also of

independents, who cannot be catalogued under any single label: men like

Helmut Thielicke of Hamburg and Ethelbert Stauffer of Erlangen.

Thielicke combines liberal, neo-orthodox and conservative elements; he is

an ardent critic of Barth, and his modernist tendencies do not fully surface

in his popular preaching and publications.

A remark of Herbert Butterfield may perhaps reflect a certain British

sensitivity about German scholarship, but it makes its mark nonetheless

about the continuing influence of the German scholar on Anglo-Saxon

thought. Butterfield says:

It was often noted in the earlier decades of the present century how greatly it

had become the habit of Protestants to hold some German scholar up their

sleeves, a different one every few years but always preferably the latest one, and

at appropriate moments strike the unwary Philistine on the head with this

secret weapon, the German scholar having decided in a final manner whatever

point might have been at issue in a controversy. From all of which the charge

arose that for the Protestants the unanswerable pope was always some professor

— a system more inconvenient than that of Rome, partly because the seat of

authority might change overnight and be transferred to a new teacher who had

never been heard of before, and partly because if one has to have a pope it is at

least better that he should be subject to certain rules and traditions, and be

appointed by a properly constituted authority. The tendency was not confined to

Protestants, however, for almost a century ago the young Acton was warned not

to play this game of waving German professors at his fellow Catholics; though

he not only failed to take the advice but added the weight of his influence to a

tendency that was making historical scholarship perhaps over-arrogant and

certainly too pontifical. When therefore the other week I happened to hear two

theologians congratulating one another that the very advanced German

professors who had been thrown at our heads in the days of my youth had long

been exploded, I had the feeling that we who study the past must be all alike;

the new school of thought in the 1950s is evidently as sure of itself as the old

one of the 1920s used to be (Christianity and History [New York: Scribner,

1949], p. 9).

We may summarize our broad overview of the theological mainstream in

this century in terms of the rise and fall of classic liberalism; the rise and fall

of neo-orthodoxy; the rise and fall of existentialism. In view of this

succession we do well to examine these unstable theological movements

with special attention to certain of their controlling ideas. For some factors

suggest that we are not really dealing with three eras, but at most only two

— that Barth and Bultmann, for all their differences, may really be part of

one line of theological development. From a still longer perspective

perhaps we should speak not of two lines but only of one line from

Schleiermacher to Bultmann, with a spectacular and unsuccessful effort by

Karl Barth to rise to a higher plane.


In his The New Modernism Cornelius Van Til tried to establish an essential

continuity between Schleiermacher and Barth. But since Barth called

modernism “heresy,” it is a moot question whether this was the happiest

assessment, however valuable its insights. While the application of the label

of modernism to Barth is debatable, Van Til had the merit of emphasizing

the “neo-” rather than the “orthodoxy.” G. C. Berkouwer’s The Triumph

of Grace and Gordon H. Clark’s Karl Barth’s Theological Method took a

somewhat different tack, giving Barth his due without surrendering a sharp

evangelical critique.

Against the old classic liberalism Barth emphasized the transcendence,

initiative, and wrath of God; moreover, he reasserted man’s sinfulness, and

special miraculous redemptive revelation as his only hope of rescue. These

theological ingredients appealed to evangelicals in Europe and in the

Anglo-Saxon world as well on first hearing of the Barthian thrust. Many

evangelicals readily forgave neo-orthodoxy its higher critical and

evolutionary concessions because of its lucid critique of the old liberalism.

The preoccupation of fundamentalism with the errors of modernism, and

neglect of schematic presentations of the evangelical alternative, probably

gave neo-orthodoxy its great opportunity in the Anglo-Saxon world. J.

Gresham Machen had led the way in a powerful statement of evangelical

positions, alongside the exposure of the weaknesses of liberalism, but his

untimely death removed him from the theological scene just as neoorthodoxy

was beginning to be a religious contender on the American

scene. If evangelical Protestants do not overcome their preoccupation with

negative criticism of contemporary theological deviations at the expense of

the construction of preferable alternatives to these, they will not be much

of a doctrinal force in the decade ahead.

The theology of crisis did more than reassert God’s transcendence and

initiative and wrath, and man’s sinfulness, and the reality of special

redemptive revelation and miraculous salvation. Equally significant, it

predicated — integrally to its view of radical divine transcendence and its

extreme disjunction of eternity and time — the premise that divine

revelation is communicated only in personal confrontation and response.

Dialectical theology insisted that divine disclosure is never given

objectively in historical events or human concepts and words. On its view,

God’s revelation is not expressed in intelligible propositions and universally

valid truths.

Barth and Bultmann both reject the objectivity of God as an object of

rational knowledge. Bultmann, on the one hand, makes this premise

decisive, correlating it with Heidegger’s existential philosophy as well as

with anti-miraculous philosophy of science. Since personal confrontation

and internal miracle are the fulcrum of divine revelation, all else can be

demythologized. Barth, on the other hand, with a surer instinct for biblical

theology, insists on objectifying elements. The problem faced by Barth and

his gifted student Emil Brunner was this: having rejected the objectivity of

God as rationally knowable, how can one escape the subjectivity of

Bultmann’s existentialism? For both Barth and Brunner, existentialism

implies a denial of God’s reality, since it accords God no assured existence

outside of one’s own experience.

It will be well at this point to recall some difficulties that ran through the

formulations of the case for Christianity by Brunner and Barth on

dialectical terrain. In the original German version of The Mediator (1926),

Brunner depicted the atonement not as an event in A.D. 30, but as a

present divine revelatory act. By 1942 (well into the post-Bultmann era,

when Bultmann had expropriated dialectical theology in an existential

direction at the expense of its historical elements) Brunner stressed in

Revelation and Reason that the cross, the death of Jesus Christ, is the high

point of God’s revelation. Now, here is the problem. If divine revelation is

not objectively given in historical events, then the death of Jesus Christ

cannot carry revelation. If the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is an event-carrier

of divine revelation, then the dogma that God nowhere reveals Himself in

historical events must be abandoned.

Moreover, if, as saving event, the

cross bears divine revelation, then why does not the whole of salvation

history do so? Brunner never worked these tensions out of his system.

Brunner’s long-standing insistence that liberalism means nihilism — the

end of everything for Christianity — echoes his high confidence in the

uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian heritage. His emphasis on general

revelation, moreover, tends to undergird his stress on special revelation

alongside insistence on the supreme revelation value of the cross. Yet

Brunner’s halting correlation of revelation and reason and his ready

surrender of the historicity of the virgin birth, for example, leave his

theology vulnerable to additional demythologizing and to existential


In his most recent revision of The Divine Human

Encounter, he does indeed stress the need for Christian philosophy over

against Barth, whose view of philosophy is wholly negative. Yet Brunner

does not really revise his doctrine of revelation to effect its closer

correlation with reason, nor does he admit divine revelation of universally

valid truths. Like Barth, Brunner has added objectifying reinforcements

against existential alternatives, but he has not repudiated his underlying

dialectical thesis so highly serviceable to existential theology. But when it

suits his purposes, Brunner is also hospitable to demythology; he views

acceptance or rejection of the virgin birth as a decisive test case as to

whether Christianity stands with myth or with history. “And this is myth,”

he insists.

For the dialectical theologians, who seem to play legerdemain with history,

the unsolved problem remains how to reconcile historical revelation in the

cross-event with the overall dialectical denial of historical revelation? In the

first edition of his Church Dogmatics (I/1, p. 188) Barth describes “the

rabbi of Nazareth” as “One whose activity is a little commonplace

alongside more than one other founder of a religion.” In his earliest

writings, moreover, he locates the atonement and the resurrection of Christ

outside ordinary historical and calendar time. When I visited the late Karl

Heim in Tübingen, he said, “Barth has told us that the resurrection took

place on the rim of history. And ever since that pronouncement, the

European theologians have been trying to find this rim, but nobody has

been able to locate it.”

When Barth came to Washington three years ago he attended a luncheon in

his honor at George Washington University with the understanding that

there would be no address but there would be a question period. When the

question period began, I asked about the factualness, the historicity of the

resurrection. “Over at that table are newspaper reporters,” I noted, “the

religion editor of United Press International, the Religious News Service

correspondent, and religion editors of the Washington papers. If they had

these present responsibilities in the first century, was the event of the

resurrection of Jesus Christ of such a nature that covering it would have

fallen into the area of their reportorial responsibility? That is, was it news

and history in the sense in which the man in the street understands news

and history?” Barth became angry. Since I had identified myself as editor of

Christianity Today, he retorted, “Did you say Christianity Today or

Christianity yesterday?” Rather taken aback, I replied only by quoting the

Scripture text “yesterday, today, and forever,” certainly a hurried

misappropriation. Barth then responded to the question obliquely: “The

resurrection had significance for the disciples of Jesus Christ! It was to the

disciples that He appeared!” But this wasn’t in question at all. On the way

out, the United Press correspondent remarked to me, “We got his answer.

His answer was no.”

Nowhere is the objectivity in Barth’s theology accessible to historical

research. Whenever the dialectical and existential schools run into trouble

with history or science, they shift the emphasis to the confrontation of

God. This dialectical reliance on divine confrontation, unanchored to

objective history and to objective knowledge, was vulnerable to

Bultmann’s existentialism. Try as Barth did to reinforce the objectifying

features of his theology, he did not really transcend or reject the principial

repudiation of historical revelation that inheres in dialectical theology. Even

when the post-Bultmannians defected from Bultmann by reviving interest

in the historical Jesus, Barth deplored this development; in 1960 he wrote

disparagingly of New Testament scholars “who to my amazement have

armed themselves with swords and staves and once again undertaken the

search for the historical .Jesus, a search in which I now as before prefer not

to participate.”

But the disconnection of revelation and history was not the only obstacle

facing dialectical theology; there was also the problem of revelation and

reason. The notion that divine revelation occurs only as a miracle of

personal grace, exclusive of objectively given concepts and words — that

is, of universally valid propositions — clashed head on with the scriptural

representation of divine disclosure. What is one to do with the claim of

biblical writers to communicate the very Word of God, indeed God’s

revealed truths and words? What of the repeated Old Testament use —

some 1200 times — of the formula, “Thus saith the Lord”? In Revelation

and Reason, Brunner swept aside the New Testament doctrine of verbal

inspiration as based on a “post-apostolic” misunderstanding, and he

brushed aside the Old Testament as exhibiting a “lower level of revelation”

than that given in Jesus Christ. But the question in debate, of course, is not

whether Jesus Christ is the supreme manifestation of God; that truth is not

disputed. The issue is whether prophetic concepts and words (call this a

“lower” level if you wish) are genuinely divine revelation. If these

statements truly are divine revelation, as the prophets represent them to be,

then one must repudiate the dialectical premise that revelation is not given

in human concepts and words.

In his exposition of the knowledge of God, Barth’s dialectical dogma that

divine revelation is not conceptually given falls into similar difficulty. His

R6merbrief in 1919 scorned all efforts at knowledge of God-in-Himself.

Barth deplored such claims to knowledge as speculative, and he bluntly

disowned propositions and concepts as media of divine revelation. But

later, over against the one-sided liberal emphasis on faith as trust, he

increasingly stressed that faith is a call to cognitive understanding. In his

work on Anselm in 1931, and his revision of his Church Dogmatics, Barth

reflects this reorientation. So noticeably does he strengthen the historical

and rational elements in his Dogmatics, in fact, that Gerhard Friedrich of

Erlangen, who edited the revision of Kittel’s Wörterbuch, has remarked

facetiously that “Barth has almost become a Protestant scholastic again.”

Barth now holds that the believer’s concepts are adequate to the

knowledge of God. But if concepts and propositions are admitted as

revelatory of God on any basis whatever, must not the dogma be

challenged that divine revelation is never given in concepts, words and

events? Barth, however, insists that the adequacy of concepts exists only

on the basis of internal miracle, thus still stopping short of viewing revealed

knowledge in terms of universally valid propositions.

But truth in the recognized sense — as critics of the dialectical theology

are quick to insist — holds its claim for men universally, independently of

their subjective decision. The denial of the universal validity of the truth of

revelation goes hand in hand with the detachment of revealed truth from

historical, scientific, and philosophical truth. Concerned over this

severance, anti-dialectical scholars increasingly stress that truth requires a

broader base than kerygmatic theology allows. Whether on Barth’s basis or

on Brunner’s, they contend, the dialectical outlook — for all its contrary

intention — cannot avoid losing in subjectivity the faith in revelation.

On the dialectical left remain the vocal champions of the old liberalism now

revived in association with Existenz. Bultmann’s ambivalent comments,

moreover, left some observers unsure who could be considered his real

followers. Ernst Fuchs at Marburg remarks that where Bultmann stands on

some issues God alone knows, and not even Bultmann. In one essay

Bultmann spoke with special appreciation of Herbert Braun who, with

Manfred Mezger, has projected at Mainz a version of existentialism more

radical than that espoused by most of Bultmann’s disciples. Braun and

Mezger together question the possibility of speaking of God as being

independent and distinguishable from the world of man. In asserting God’s

subjectivity, they not only deny the objectivity of God, but seem also to

deny His reality. Because of Bultmann’s commendation of Braun,

uncertainty mounted among some of Bultmann’s disciples as to where

Bultmann now stands. When Bultmann was asked which disciples he

considers “genuine” and which “spurious,” he preferred to speak only of

genuine disciples: “They are all my disciples, although with

disagreements.” When the matter of his approval of Braun was mentioned

alongside the Mainz scholar’s reduction of revelation to inter-personal

relations, Bultmann sought to put the record straight: “I repudiate any

denial of the reality of God. If Braun and Mezger leave the reality of God

in doubt, then I must dissociate myself from this. God always confronts

us,” he said “when there is revelation.” So Bultmann, although rejecting

the objectivity of God, nonetheless insists: “I will not dissolve the faith in

revelation into subjectivism.”

Yet if Bultmann feared that Braun and Mezger, as radical Bultmannians,

are subjectivizing revelation, precisely this same charge is pressed against

Bultmann himself by Emil Brunner. Bultmann wants no part in the

objectifying elements on which Barth and Brunner insist. They in turn

contend that he dissolves the faith in revelation into subjectivism. Brunner

asserts that Bultmann endeavors to “make theology” out of Heidegger’s


To escape the subjectivistic alternative, the dialectical theologians insist on

objectifying elements asserting that the reality of the self-revealing God

does not hang in mid-air as the existentialists would have it, but must be

related to the biblical events, although dialectically. But precisely this

dialectical reinterpretation of revelation in relation to history and reason

makes the crisis theology vulnerable to existentialism.


That is why a “third force” voices “a plague on both your houses” against

the dialectical school and the existential school. New Testament scholars,

particularly in Europe, are drifting away from conversations with the

dialectical theologians, who increasingly are left “to paddle for

themselves,” as the quest for the historical Jesus once again gains

momentum. The liveliest theological discussion in Europe today,

particularly among New Testament scholars, is taking place at the frontier

of revelation-and-history concerns. That development, in turn, establishes a

possible point of conversation and connection with the traditional

conservative scholars. While conservative scholarship on the continent

makes more concessions to higher criticism than Anglo-Saxon evangelicals

characteristically do, the conservatives have always come down firmly on

the side of historical revelation. As a matter of fact, the mounting interest

in historical revelation represents a conjunction of concerns involving the

old-line conservatives, the newer Heilsgeschichte school and the so-called

Pannenberg school.

The kerygmatic theology, whether simply dialectical or existential as well,

emphasizes the Christ of faith to the neglect of the historical .Jesus. It

refuses to find a ground of faith in the life, teaching, and work of the

historical Jesus, and shifts the center of revelation and redemption to

present experiential relationships. As disciples who remain most

representatively loyal to his own point of view, Bultmann singles out Hans

Conzelmann of Göttingen and Erich Dinkler of Heidelberg. They most

consistently veer away from any emphasis on the relevance of the historical

Jesus, and they insist with Bultmann that Christian faith demands only the

“thatness” of Jesus’ historical existence. While most post-Bultmannians

attach somewhat larger significance to the historical Jesus, they are not on

that account “anti-Bultmannian,” since they do not really make the

historical Jesus decisive for faith. They seek to establish some continuity of

the historical Jesus with the preached Christ, but they do not reinstate the

historical Jesus as a center of revelation and as a ground of faith. So the

post-Bultmannians too, influenced by dialectical prejudices they hold in

common with Bultmann and Barth, engage in legerdemain with the

historical hinterlands of revelation.

The Heilsgeschichte school emerges, significantly, as a formidable foe of

this one-sided kerygmatic emphasis. Although it does not coincide in all

respects with positions of the old Heilsgeschichte school of Erlangen at the

turn of the century, it coincides fully in at least one important respect, its

emphasis on historical revelation, on revelation in history. Longstanding

evangelical positions are reasserted, among them the concrete historical

character of divine revelation and the recognition that the saving events of

sacred history supply an essential ground and support of Christian faith. In

brief, Christian faith is-faith not only in the kerygmatic Christ but in the

historical Jesus.

This remarkable development signals the breakdown of three basic

Bultmannian positions. First, whereas Bultmann held that Jesus was only a

Jewish prophet whose life and message were not of fundamental

importance to Paul, the historical Jesus is now regarded as decisively

significant for New Testament studies. The relevance of works such as J.

Gresham Machen’s The Origin of Paul’s Religion again comes into view,

and the efforts to update sections of this monumental work, such as

Longenecker’s recent Paul: Apostle of Liberty, are timely.

Second, whereas Bultmann viewed the Gospel of John and other New

Testament writings as decisively influenced by Gnostic emphases, the Dead

Sea Scrolls are now seen as establishing the Palestinian and Judaic

character of this literature. One recalls William F. Albright’s comment:

“The Dead Sea Scrolls have utterly demolished Bultmann’s critical analysis

of John” (History, Archaeology and Christian Humanism [New York:

McGraw Hill, 1964], p. 27). Influenced by his own aprioris, Bultmann

remains uninfluenced by the Scrolls; he is at work on a commentary on

John’s epistles in which he proposes to show that Gnostic tendencies

decisively color the background of the Johannine epistles as well. But the

tide of New Testament scholarship on the continent is passing him by.

Third, whereas for Bultmann the existential understanding of the New

Testament is the task of exegesis, the Gospels are again being seen as

primarily intending the communication of a new knowledge of God. The

tendency is no longer to view the purpose of the Gospels as a discovery of

what the New Testament tells about me and my spiritual relationships.

One result of this expanding interest in historical revelation is the critical

reassessment of Formgeschichte, and particularly of its biased notion that

the New Testament does not provide a reliable report or reflection of the

historical Jesus, because it presents the theology of the early Church. There

is mounting emphasis now on the continuity of the teaching of the primitive

Church with that of Jesus, and of the apostolic Christ with Jesus of

Nazareth. The work of conservative as well as of liberal critics of

Formgeschichte is winning new attention. C. H. Dodd in Britain had long

registered significant protests from the liberal side. The Swedish New

Testament scholars Harald Riesenfeld and Birger Gerhardsson, respected

conservatives, acknowledge that every Gospel pericope indeed has its life

situation, but they emphasize that this fact reflects a firm historical tradition

rather than the notion of sheer creation of the data. Ethelbert Stauffer of

Erlangen wrestles with the problem of the relationship of Jesus to the

primitive Church along other lines. Since the disciples would be least likely

to invent passages in which they are brought under criticism, he finds the

most significant clue to continuity in those passages in which Jesus

criticizes rather than approves His disciples. But Stauffer is apparently

operating here on the liberal premise of a fundamental misunderstanding of

the historical Jesus by His followers, of an essential discontinuity rather

than continuity of Jesus and the Church. For this reason some conservative

New Testament scholars view Stauffer as a twentieth-century Renan;

although he is interested in the historical Jesus, over against exponents of

the kerygmatic theology, Stauffer nevertheless pursues his quest on

presuppositions akin to nineteenth-century historicism.

The central problem of New Testament studies today is to delineate Jesus

of Nazareth without dissolving Him as the Bultmannians did, without

demeaning Him as many dialectical theologians did, and without

reconstructing Him as nineteenth-century historicism did, so that it

becomes clear why and how He is decisive for Christian faith. In this

theological quest, the Heilsgeschichte school reflects important points of

agreement with evangelical positions. First, divine revelation and

redemption are acknowledged as objective historical realities. Second, the

sacred events are considered as knowable to historians by the methods of

historical research. Third, the Old Testament is interpreted as the history of

God which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and the New Testament is

interpreted as the fulfilment of the Old Testament. Fourth, the meaning of

these events is held to be divinely given, not humanly postulated.

Although Marburg has been known throughout the theological world as a

Bultmannian center, primarily through Bultmann’s influence on that

campus, the successor to Bultmann’s New Testament chair, Werner Georg

Kümmel, resisted Bultmann’s views in the classroom from the first, and has

been a leading spokesman for Heilsgeschichte positions. But although the

tide of New Testament scholarship has been turning in their direction,

carried along by common interest in historical revelation, an important area

of divergence weakens the Heilsgeschichte school. There is agreement that

the meaning of saving events is divinely given, not humanly postulated, but

Heilsgeschichte scholars are divided over how the meaning of sacred

history is given to faith.

Is salvation history a process whose inner meaning can be demonstrated? Is

subjective experience the focal point of the revelation of its meaning? Is

this meaning of sacred history objectively given in an authoritative

Scripture, which the Spirit illumines the minds of men to accept and


No one answer applies to the Heilsgeschichte scholars. Leonhard Goppelt

of Hamburg asserts that “the Word is revealed ‘in, with, and under’ the

history,” a phrasing which seems to accommodate the Lutheran formula to

dialectical patterns of thought. Professor Kümmel holds that the scriptural

meaning is divinely given but, if I understand him aright, that its validity is

grasped only in personal response. He resists the idea of Scripture as

authoritative, propositional information, and maintains the right to criticize

the scriptural formulations. Hence he implies a norm that is inconsistent

with the Scripture and independent of it. But what is that norm? Nowhere

does he tell us. Among many Heilsgeschichte scholars there remains a

tendency to split divine revelation in two, to divide divine disclosure

somehow into deed-revelation in past history and meaning-revelation in

present experience. This tendency was characteristic of some liberal

Protestants toward the end of the nineteenth century in the old classic

liberal tradition, and B. B. Warfield’s criticisms of their views in The

Inspiration and Authority of the Bible retain much value against such

recent expositions.

Among Heilsgeschichte scholars, Cullmann most nearly approaches

traditional conservative terrain. Nobody can possess authentic Christian

faith, Cullmann contends, unless he believes the historical fact that Jesus

regarded Himself as Messiah. This emphasis, of course, is wholly anathema

to the Bultmannians, who associate faith with the kerygmatic Christ and

deprive it of any ground or support in the historical Jesus. In his latest

book, Heil als Geschichte, Cullmann emphasizes numerous points of vital

interest in the current discussion of history and kerygma. He notes the

meshing of historical fact and interpretation in both the Old and New

Testaments, and he recognizes the reality of revelation in both the event as

such and in its interpretation. He stresses, for example, that the New

Testament relates salvation history to eyewitnesses, thus placing it in a

truly historical setting. The New Testament revelation, he notes, not only

carries forward and enlarges but reinterprets the earlier scriptural

interpretation in connection with this new saving history.

In New

Testament times the revelation of new events and meanings is compressed

into a much shorter time span than in the Old Testament era, and these

divine realities now center in one person. The New Testament

reinterpretation is linked, in fact, to a dual history of salvation: on the one

hand, to the Old Testament kerygma; on the other, to the great central

event along with Jesus’ own kerygma about it. Furthermore, the meaning

of events after Jesus’ death was disclosed to the apostles simultaneously

with those events, not subsequently or progressively as when they were

eyewitnesses of His works. As eyewitnesses they saw and heard and yet

lacked full understanding; later, the complete revelation reinterpreted the

kerygma so that they remembered what Jesus had told them. This along

with their eyewitnessing is of greatest importance in designating Jesus

Himself as the originator of the reinterpretation of the kerygma. But critics

of the Heilsgeschichte scholars ask whether the reality of revelation

presented in terms of divine act and interpretation does full justice to the

biblical representation of the God who both speaks and acts, and who

sometimes speaks through chosen prophets and apostles independently of

special external deeds and their subsequent interpretation. Beyond

authentic interpretation of His actions, does not God also reveal reliable

information or ontological propositions about His own nature? Hence the

character of revelation, as well as its setting and scope, emerges as a

frontier issue.


The problem of the character of revelation as truth has therefore become

no less important as a contemporary theological concern than the question

of revelation as history. Is the meaning of revelation carried by the biblical

interpretation or is it determined in spiritual decision? Is the truth of

revelation valid for all men or does it exist only for some persons in and

through a miracle of faith? What heightens the importance of this question

is the current breakdown of the Worttheologie, the so-called theology of

the Word of God. Through the heresy of modernism, continental theology

had lost its grip on the specially revealed Word, and Barth promised a

recovery of the lost Word of God. But the rise of the Bultmannian

theology undermined even Barth’s dialectically dimmed assurances about

the Word of God. In reaction to this breakdown of the recent theology of

the Word of God some contemporary scholars are formulating divine

revelation in non-verbal and non-intellectualistic categories, on the

gratuitous assumption that any classification of revelation as Word is too

narrow. There is larger emphasis today on revelation as divine deed or act.

In accordance with this mood, some theologians and New Testament

scholars quite readily assign a new role to historical revelation, but hesitate

to move again in the direction of a theology of the Word of God in view of

the failure of the dialectical theologians in that area. Barth had stressed that

man must hear the Word of God anew. Then Bultmann came, dissolving

the quasi-objective features that Barth claimed for the Word, and

contended that revelation has no semblance of objective form.

Adolf Köberle of Tübingen has premonitions of a judgment upon German

Protestantism because of its departure from scripturally based theology.

Attacking the dialectical-existential emphasis on revelation, K6berle

stresses that “what God has done and what He has said is fully as

important as what God is doing and is saying and, in fact, is the

presupposition of what He is doing and saying.” Edmund Schlink and Peter

Brunner of Heidelberg think, on the contrary, that the ecumenical dialogue

with Rome and orthodoxy will force Protestantism anew to orient its

theological discussion to the great ecumenical creeds. Others note that

Faith and Order Conferences thus far supply little encouragement for

recovery of a normative biblical theology, since they are predominantly

platforms for diverse points of view. In this next generation, thinks

Gerhard Friedrich, we shall hear less about the Word of God and more

about Jesus as Lord - and revelation, he predicts, will be formulated in

association with this thesis of the Lordship of Christ over human life. But if

one dissolves the intellectualistic aspect in order to emphasize trust or

volitional response as the essential element in revelation, contemporary

theology will drift again to the liberalism of Hermann, from which Barth

tried to extricate it.

Barth is understandably troubled by the growing emphasis on divine deed

in abstraction from divine Word, an emphasis which serves to displace the

word-character of revelation. Barth’s theology was, after all, in intention a

theology of the Word of God, not simply of the deed of God. After his

revolt against existentialism, Barth applied theological additives to bolster

his own emphasis on revelation as truth. “Any disjunction of deed and

word would be nihilistic,” he insists. Although in the early years Barth

refused to speak of revelation as “information,” he now asserts that

“revelation is an informative whose goal is to be universally recognized.”

Here we are not yet dealing with information that meets the standard

criteria of truth as knowledge which is universally accessible and

universally valid. For all his extensive theological revision, Barth still

disowns conceptual revelation; his philosophical limitation of the

competence of human reason in the realm of metaphysics (not wholly

unlike the Kantian restriction) and his suspension of Christian truth upon

private response, jeopardize the truth-status of divine disclosure.

Wolfhardt Pannenberg of Mainz, one of Barth’s former students, has

launched a frontal assault against the vacillation of the dialectical

theologians in regard to the truth of revelation. “Their denial of the

objectivity of revelation is a threat to the very reality of revelation,” says

Pannenberg of the dialectical-existential camp. For Pannenberg revelation

is objective in the form of historical events but he refuses to acknowledge

that it is given in conceptual form. Revelation does take the form of

thought, he holds, but not (as Christian theology has traditionally insisted)

in divinely inspired inscripturated propositions. He insists that revelation

does take the form of truth, and as “the truth of revelation” it must be

universally valid. Pannenberg ridicules Barth’s “objectifying elements”;

what Christian theology really demands is objective revelation, not

existential or dialectical revelation, not even if it is bolstered by

“objectifying elements.” Pannenberg realizes that the specially revealed

God not only requires a theology of historical revelation as the

Heilsgeschichte scholars would have it, but revelation in the form of truth,

and as such, universally accessible and universally valid apart from any

personal decision for or against it.

Pannenberg joins in the widening attack of European scholars upon the

dialectical formulation of transcendence, an exaggerated emphasis inspired

more by Plato or Kierkegaard than by the Bible. Anders Nygren of Lund

emphasizes that the overseparation of eternity and time inevitably involves

difficulty for the whole conception of revelation in relation to nature,

history, and conscience. Helmut Thielicke of Hamburg stresses that Barth’s

notion of the revelation of God as known only in individual response

inevitably deprives the world at large of any knowledge of the divine

criterion by which God will judge it.

Pannenberg’s insistence that the truth of revelation is universally accessible

and valid calls attention by contrast to a remarkable assortment of

compromises and adjustments among the European theologians of the

objectivity of revealed truth.

The dialectical notion is, at bottom, that truth of revelation becomes truth

only for individuals in a miracle of grace. Peter Brunner and Edmund

Schlink at Heidelberg hold that “Christian revelation has a universal truth

claim, wholly apart from subjective decision. But this truth claim is

mediated by divine grace.” Otto Weber of Göttingen says that revelation is

“for all,” but no man can know revelation as truth until he becomes a

Christian. “Revelation is true for me as a Christian and therefore for all

men.” Over against this point of view Nygren insists that “the truth of the

Christian message can be understood without personal faith and it is

universally valid for all men in all times and in all places.”

Whereas for Weber divine revelation is true for me as a Christian and

therefore for all men, for Pannenberg, divine revelation is true for all men

and therefore true for the Christian and the Church. This important

controversy over the relation of revelation and truth attests the fact that

Christian theology has not yet extracted itself from the concessions made

by the modernists to Kant and by the crisis-theologians to Kierkegaard. It

may be well to repeat here what the writer has said elsewhere of this

present conflict: “So dawns the end of an era in which Ritschl held that the

validity of religious judgments can be known only through an act of the

will, in which Troeltsch found himself unable to assert the universality of

the Christian religion, and in which both Barth and Bultmann failed to

vindicate the universal validity of Christian revelation apart from a miracle

of personal grace or an act of subjective decision. But if the deepest truth

of God is found in Jesus Christ, if the contention is to be credited that

Christianity is a religion for all nations, bringing men everywhere under

judgment and offering salvation of import to the whole human race, then it

is imperative that the Christian religion reassert its reasoned claim to

universality” (“Revelation as Truth,” Christianity Today, Vol. 9 [January

1, 1965], p. 337).


Alongside the wistful longing that ecumenical theology will lift

contemporary Protestantism from its subjectivistic theological propensity,

despite the fact that ecumenism recognizes no sure norm beyond

ecclesiastical consensus, the long-neglected evangelical theology emerges

once again as a formidable alternative to recent dogmatic projections. For

evangelical theology gathers up the Heilsgeschichte emphasis that

revelation and salvation are objective historical realities,P annenberg’s

emphasis that the truth of revelation is universally valid irrespective of

personal decision, and Cullmann’s emphasis that the meaning as well as the

event belong to the reality of revelation. And it goes beyond the recent

modern refusal to honor Scripture as an authoritative canon of divine truth.

How far the contemporary discussion of revelation and truth has drifted

from the Christian heritage is apparent from a comment by the Cambridge

theologian, the late J. M. Creed:

Had any Christian of any Church between the end of the second century and

the closing decades of the eighteenth been asked a question as to the content of

the Christian religion, his answer could scarcely have failed to be to the general

effect that the truths of the Christian religion were contained and conveyed in

the inspired books of holy Scripture (The Divinity of Jesus Christ [Cambridge

University Press, 1938], p. 105).

The failure of the Barthian and Bultmannian theology to return to this

evangelical heritage is the primary reason that the much-heralded

“springtime in European theology” soon gave way again to a barren

wintertime. This bleak season swept by tempestuous crosswinds will

emerge into a fruitful theological harvest only if the supernatural resources

of the Christian religion are fully recovered.



THE GOSPEL must be demythologized!” This demand has been raised

incisively and forcefully in our generation and the intense controversy that

has broken out reveals how burning are the issues. What attitude have

members of the serving Church taken to the proposed program of

demythologization (I take the liberty of using a summary term for a

phenomenon that has many facets)? Many have seen in it a pattern of

treachery, retreat and the devastation of the Church’s own terrain, a kind

of spiritual scorched-earth policy. It has been said that never before in the

Church’s history have Christian theologians gone as far as this to meet

doubt and denial. Other churchmen have looked on the program of

demythologization with more favor. They have interpreted the new

theology both as a symptom of the deep spiritual need of our time and as

an honest attempt to find salvation for distressed humanity. In this

connection, however, we may disregard the fact that certain pioneers of

demythologization are themselves ministers of the Church. For it is

scarcely possible to regard them as representative churchmen. No Church,

qua Church, has accepted any of the recent proposals for radical



No one will deny that from the point of view of the traditional church the

demythologizers have courageously faced and tried to find a remedy for a

very gloomy and perplexing ideological situation. “Modern man” (I

recognize that this hackneyed and commonplace yet convenient term does

not actually cover more than Western man and those who live in the

Western fashion, and hence excludes the majority of the peoples of the

modern world) is brought up in an ideological atmosphere which has no

metaphysical perspectives. For him there remain no vivid or specific ideas

of heavenly things and of the realities which in classical Christian belief

exist beyond time and space. A couple of generations ago discussions were

still carried on with concreteness and literal objectivity outside the

framework of interior worldliness: God was a given factor in judging and

planning. But our ideas of such things, once so concrete and vivid, have

now faded. In the modern environment divine things appear unreal, and a

person who is brought up under such conditions does not have a good

foundation for understanding divine intervention or divine revelation.

Political and social developments ever since the Age of Enlightenment,

accelerated and rendered more effective by the breakthrough of

democracy, have brought about considerable change in our conception and

experience of authority. Without casting any aspersions on democratic

ideals, it may be noted that in the modern democratic community the

individual does not get the kind of practical experience of how absolute

authority works which he did in different types of community. The

importance of this fact cannot be exaggerated. The need of authority seems

to be one of the primitive elements of man’s being. Psychological

investigations have shown that submission is a characteristic of the human

psyche: we need and seek to resort to the right authority. One might add

that certain basic authoritative links still operate, at least in an elementary

form — for example, the important link between the child and its parents.

Yet even with these reservations we can still maintain that in the modern

democratic community man does not have the same experience of absolute

authority as he had in centuries past.

The Western European of today sucks in rationalism with his mother’s

milk. A scientific and critical skepsis is a basic constituent of our attitude

towards existence from childhood. Reality presents itself to us as an object

which our exploring and overestimating ratio criticizes and evaluates.

Needless to say, this basic attitude does not have the best influence on such

functions as belief and obedience, but shapes a psychological background

contributory to modern man’s difficulties in relation to the Christian




When many modern theologians try to meet modern man halfway with a

demythologized gospel, we get a strong impression that modern man’s

need is seen from within themselves and is a subjective experience. The

demythologizers themselves represent modern man and are trying to find a

gospel which is really a gospel for him. As we know, their program largely

amounts to a demand that the Church abandon the categories of thought in

which modern man no longer lives or understands or finds acceptable,

meaningful and right. Their abandonment of the Church’s historic positions

is not being undertaken for tactical reasons; it is not a strategic retreat in

order to carry on a more effective struggle for souls. It is a matter of

fighting an honest and courageous battle for spiritual liberation. It is

ultimately the demythologizers’ own struggle for spiritual clarity and

freedom that we are witnessing, a struggle that they are carrying on on

behalf of modern man.

The demythologizers’ feeling of solidarity with modern man causes them to

go a great distance with him and to accept much of his rejection of the

traditional content of the Christian message. This appears most clearly in

the most radical and consistent representatives of the demythologizing

school. Herbert Braun, Bultmann’s pupil, contends that we must now

reject even the idea of the existence of God. Modern man, we are told,

cannot conceive of the existence of God. The Christian message must

therefore also rid itself of this little “mythological remnant,” which even

Bultmann found necessary to retain for practical purposes in religious life.

When the program is thus consistently represented, we clearly see its

anthropocentric foundations. For the sake of modern man the preacher is

to rid his message even of the idea of the existence of God.

If we turn to the new message that these theologians put in place of the

old, it is perhaps not as easy to see a genuine concern for the difficulties of

modern man. The content of this new message discloses an ideological

apparatus that modern man can scarcely understand without extensive

study of both in philosophy and theology. What lies behind all this? Does

the new gospel require as its background a “new kind of Old Testament”

— that is, a certain philosophy? Is the Church to lay an existentialist

foundation for the purpose of going on to re-build the Church with the new


Similar questions arise if we consider how the demythologizers conceive of

the function of the message. In view of their identification with the

perspectives of modern man, we may ask whether it is realistic after all to

expect a radical decision (Entscheidung) from modern man. In biblical

times a man’s decision in relation to the divine Word appeared to be an

absolute and radical decision. This was natural at that time and in that

environment; in the biblical documents indifference or differentiated

attitudes did not play the same part as in modern society, in which

relativism and compromise are important democratic virtues and in which

the most common attitude in religious and other questions is want of zeal,

oscillation between a few degrees of positiveness and a few degrees of

negativeness. If we are now to go as far to meet modern man as the

demythologizers are prepared to go, can we in that case require of him

something so out of date as a radical decision?


No Church, qua Church, has yet acknowledged the new radical signals, for

reasons that are easily understandable. A Church that wishes to speak in

any way on behalf of God to men in all times and in different environments,

and not to the isolated man in a certain temporal situation, cannot make an

individualistic, anthropocentric and markedly time-bound philosophy the

basis of its preaching. The need of the individual man surely holds an

importance that must not be belittled in any way. But this need cannot be

satisfied outside a framework that shows him wider prospects and that has

fairly well settled his relations with his fellow-men, the community,

tradition, creation and God. It is hardly likely that the right way in this case

would begin with the individual and end with God. When in the past the

Church has tried to apply theocentric arguments, man has perhaps been left

out of account sometimes, but in principle this has not been due to lack of

care about man.

How have traditional church quarters — I restrict myself to evangelical

Christian Churches — reacted to the demythologizing program? It seems

important to me to take note of this reaction. We are living through a

phase of human history. The modern demythologized gospel is not being

presented in a vacuum, nor on virgin soil. It is being proclaimed in a

nominally Christian culture and is being proposed as a solution to the

problem of the content and form of the Christian message in the actual

circumstances of the present day. The question of its authenticity is

inescapable. Even if — contrary to expectation — it is viewed as only a

first step towards a more genuine Christian education, we must test its

Christian legitimacy: in this case it will, sooner or later, be correlated with

what the Church preaches, teaches, and maintains in other respects.

The first question we must then put is this: why have champions of

traditional Christianity, on the whole, demurred so much in the presence of

different forms of the demythologizing theology? To this question the

demythologizers will presumably reply that tradition, conservatism, and

habitual thinking play a great part in Church life. This answer implies, more

precisely, that traditional Christianity lacks the support of “modern” men

and is an evidence of backwardness: the sophisticated man, aware of

modern realities, cannot any longer wholeheartedly share this faith.

This notion must be countered with another question: by what right should

we suddenly belittle such important factors in the personal and social life of

man as habit, custom, tradition, and so on? Although it has been said, and

not without reason, that modern man has no traditions, this statement is a

picturesque hyperbole, and not literally true. No man brought up by men

and influenced by human cultural products in any form is quite free of

tradition. This also applies to the Church as a historical phenomenon. All

Churches live by a tradition to which they take slightly different official

attitudes. This tradition is regarded in different ways as authoritative and

binding. The Lutheran Church places a definite part of the tradition,

namely, that which has a place in the Old Testament and the New

Testament, in a class by itself, and regards this as the decisive source of

revelation and also the critical standard for everything that the Church is to

preach. The Church’s creed is regarded as a genuine and authentic

summary of the most essential contents of the biblical revelation.

If, now, a kind of Christian preaching that is new in content and form is to

be presented in a culture that has such criteria (maintained and taught by

the Church, forming a part, as more or less conscious ideology, of the

thinking even of people who are not directly engaged in Church life), the

authenticity and legitimacy of the new message must be shown in some

way. At any rate, the person who is engaged in the Christian life —

whether as layman or minister — must be given acceptable information as

to the authenticity of the new message. A whole series of theoretical and

practical questions presents itself. On what grounds is the new message

described as Christian? What is its relation to the authorized canon and to

the creed? What are we to imagine is the relation between the content of

the traditional message and the new message? How is the transition to be

made? And so on.

In my opinion, the growth of the radical theology of demythologization has

been partly due to obscurity on one element in the viewpoint of the

Reformed Churches, the restrictive view of tradition, which often regards it

as a dubious competitor of the Scriptures. This invites a fateful uncertainty

as to what tradition really is, how it functions, and what positive part it

plays de facto in the Church’s life, even in the life of our own Church. It is

particularly important that the Protestant world now supplement the

intense discussion of the authority and right use of the Bible with some

energetic work on the questions of tradition: its essence, its different

forms, its functions, its significance and its (relative) authority. Few

phenomena have exposed an uncertainty on a definite point in the general

Reformed view so revealingly as the modern Protestant theology of



Thus the question before us is how a message is to be apprehended as

authentic Christian preaching or, in classical terminology, how it is to be

apprehended as authentic revelation. Many evangelical theologians sternly

— indeed, indignantly — reject all attempts, in interpreting revelation, to

speak of identity, authenticity, legitimacy, and so on. In this connection

they are suspicious of attempts by the human spirit to seize upon the divine

revelation by violent means, change its character, and counteract its real

aims. Revelation is to be self-authenticating. It is to be das ganz Andere,

which strikes us senkrecht yon oben her and is as impossible to intercept as

lightning. It is to be respected as something which cannot be fitted into

human functions and phenomena such as doctrine, precept, tradition and so

on, without losing its authenticity. The wind of the Spirit bloweth where it

listeth, the prophets of God act in sovereign independence, and the task of

man is “not to see and yet to believe.”

It is at once clear that arguments of this type are intended to defend

extremely important values. But although these arguments ultimately

originate in mental constraint dictated by a philosophical schema they are

so severely stylized that they permit of very gross abuse. Not every selfauthenticating

message necessarily comes from the source of all truth. The

questions of legitimacy and authenticity are justified questions. They need

not be taken as demands for a sign or a desire to base faith on seeing. They

may originate either in the distressed person’s simple need for the ability to

distinguish God’s voice from man’s or (to speak in another style) in every

man’s duty to distinguish between the spirits.

Using the customary criteria, one has great difficulty classifying the

message presented by the demythologizers as a genuine Christian message.

The reform which they recommend is not of the same type as .Jesus’

institution of a new covenant nor is it like the Reformers’ break with the

Roman Catholic Church. Neither in early Christian times nor during the

Reformation was the reform a matter of denying the realities expressed in

the terms of the traditional message or the elements in the factual content

of the message. On the other hand, this is what we are faced with in the

demythologizing theology of today. God, heaven, life after death, the

resurrection, are rejected as non-existent. They are replaced by a selfauthenticating

message with a quite different factual content than the

biblical one: indeed, the truth of the content of the old message is denied.

Formerly, in the biblical and post-biblical Christian tradition, when new

revelations were judged against the background of the old revelation, there

was a basis for this judgment which was in part psychologically accessible.

The new had broken through against the background of the old and was

dependent on it, as new shoots are dependent on the old stem. Through

this link with the old, the new was identifiable and understandable. The

history of biblical revelation is not like a series of isolated gleams of’ light

in a great darkness: rather, it is like a string of pearls, in which each pearl,

retaining its own individuality and its specific part, is defined by its

connection, deriving its importance from the background of what goes

before and will itself in its turn play its part for that which follows after.

What we are concerned with are two simple, basic data: that the religious

life is not the private experiences of isolated individuals but has a

communal character, and that the individual factor consequently also forms

part of a traditional context. It has definite relations to what was previously

experienced and transmitted and may itself be a fermenting agent in the

tradition, which then goes on to influence what comes later. Thus the

transmitted fund of patterns, forms, categories, ideas, concepts, opinions,

and terms plays a tremendous part in the life of the Church. To place

oneself suddenly outside this is like becoming a branch without a trunk and

without soil.

In his recent, very stimulating book, Has Christianity a Revelation? Gerald

Downing has shown how diffusely Christian theologians use the concept of

revelation, and argues that, if these dealings are to be understood in a

biblical way, this concept is highly inappropriate as a summary of God’s

dealings with humanity. Thus Downing reinforces the criticism made by

many other theologians of a one-sided intellectual concept of revelation.

However, he has gone too far in this respect, due primarily to two factors.

He does not pay sufficient attention to the part that tradition has played as

a substratum for revelation, nor to the fact that the God of the Bible not

only acts but speaks. When the Bible relates from time to time that God

reveals Himself, that He speaks by the mouth of a prophet, and so forth,

this is important partly as a special event and partly as a fermentation of

tradition. When a phenomenon like this has been recorded, related again,

transmitted as a sacred tradition or sacred writing, read, expounded, and

used, it has taken on an importance for the tradition-transmitting people of

the covenant which does not immediately appear if we analyze the

particular passage. It is, for example, quite a fruitful study to examine how

the New Testament regards and uses the Old Testament as God’s Word,

even to a new age. In my opinion particular importance must also be

attached to the part which God’s speech and God’s words play in the

biblical tradition. It is true that in the biblical view the divine Word has the

character of an act, but this view must not be pushed too far, for the Word

has a factual content. An articulated, verbalized revelation is presented in

it. This means that we cannot go as far as we choose, in our desire to avoid

an intellectual conception of revelation. It is significant that the modern

efforts at demythologization are often supported by a denial that the

biblical revelation has an apprehensible factual content.

The question of authenticity takes on its special significance when we

abandon the comprehensive term “revelation” and concentrate on terms

such as “gospel” and “kerygma.” Here we have to do with terms which

have denoted, ever since the early days of the Church, a message that is in

part quite unambiguous and definite in content, an announcement that

communicates, on the one hand, purely concrete facts (a man was

tormented, executed, buried) and, on the other, an interpretation of these

facts that is fixed as regards its essential content. Here our question

becomes critical: how can a message which does not agree even in this

essential factual minimum with the traditional Christian message — indeed,

perhaps simply denies this essential factual content directly — be described

as a gospel and be presented and understood as a Christian message? That

A must be A is not an out-of-date theological fancy that the situation of

modern man can change; it is a requirement of identification, which is both

logically and psychologically inescapable.

As soon as we concentrate on the essential part of the New Testament

message, we also discover another thing: the question of authenticity is

finally connected with the question of truth. I shall not discuss here the

complicated question of the relationship between revelation and history.

But one thing seems to me to be indisputable: the essential part of the

traditional Christian message is connected to a definite part of history

(Jesus, His person, speech, acts, and destiny as a whole) and is dependent

on this historical substratum. The Christian message — in its classical form

— purports to be based on this substratum. It will therefore be not only

unintelligible but also invalid if the essential parts of its historical basis are

shown to be unhistorical (cf. 1 Corinthians 15) or if they are interpreted in

a completely new way. It is symptomatic that most of the demythologizers

reject with a radical aprioristic skepsis both the extraordinary features in

the events of Jesus’ life and the possibility of getting at Jesus’ own view of

Himself and His work with any exactness.

What I have been maintaining here is not that the Christian message must

be capable of verification or of being proved. I have argued only that a

message which is represented as a Christian message must in some way

make a positive appeal to the existing criteria of belief. It must demonstrate

its basic agreement with the essential factual content of the biblical

message. When this demand for authenticity is presented, it discloses the

definitive difference between the modern de-mythologizing message and

the Church’s previous attempts to translate its message into new terms and

lines of thought. In these attempts at translation the Church desired to

preserve the message’s factual identity with the original. Since the new

theologians dispense with this requirement, the result is not an authentic

translation but a radical re-interpretation.


To inquire about the authenticity of the new message is also to inquire

about its authority. “Authority” is also a term that belongs to the

conceptual sphere that many theologians firmly reject. But some profound

theological work is both necessary and urgent in this present situation,

work devoted to elucidating the essence, the different forms, the ways of

functioning, and the legitimacy of authority in an evangelical Church.

In this brief essay I shall only set down a few simple reflections. When the

Christian Church presents its message, which is in accordance with the

Bible and the creed, it claims to speak and act with absolute and divine

authority. This idea — that revelation has divine authority and that a

correct reproduction of it also has this authority — is not a secondary idea

in the Church’s history. We see clearly the authority of the revelation itself

and the authority of its mediator in the Old Testament tradition and against

this background we encounter the same phenomena in the New Testament.

The early Christian sources speak of Jesus’ exousia (a term which

corresponds to the Hebrew reshut, meaning legitimate authority,

competence, powers, might). The apostles also appear with exousia, an

authority which the early Christians were convinced was bestowed by the

risen, divine Lord. The Church has this authority to fall back upon: it calls

itself “the Church of Christ, built upon the foundation of the prophets and

the apostles.” I shall not discuss here the question of the relationship

between formal and factual authority, between the authority of the

messengers and the authority of the message. I shall only call attention to

the fact that the category of authority has been connected with the

Christian message from the beginning. When some demythologizers

dismiss this category with a reference to such catchwords as secondary

legalization, Frühkatholizismus, and the like, they seem to me to be again

removing revelation from the history of the covenant, the history of

salvation, and, indeed, history as a whole. The Church has still to take note

of the authority of the divine revelation: in what way is she herself bound

by this authority? How is she herself to maintain the authority of revelation,

so that her message or, more precisely, the message of her Head retains its

power to create faith and give what it is intended to give?


What has been said above can be summarized as follows. No one should

make light of the Church’s duty to face modern man’s difficulties honestly,

courageously, and clearly. No one should make light of the task of bringing

the Christian message to modern man in such a form that it will be not only

understood but may also be experienced as something living and powerful,

coming with real deliverance, guidance and judgment. But the Christian

Church cannot regard modern man’s problems as the problems of the

existence of an isolated individual. She has to bring to men - not an isolated

man nor a certain type of man in a certain situation — a message that is

partly fixed as regards its content and that cannot today be something

entirely different from what it was yesterday. If this message is to be

presented as Christian, its Christian authenticity and authority must be

preserved. Now as formerly, we can in this connection do nothing more

than demonstrate that the current message agrees with the decisive

revelation in Jesus Christ. This sets definite limits to the attempts to

“demythologize” the Christian message.

Man’s difficulties constitute only one of the poles of the stress-filled world

of Christian theology. The other is the God who speaks and acts in Jesus

Christ. That the Christian message at the present day shall mediate the

given revelation in a genuine way is first and foremost a demand which is

inherent in the revelation itself in its character of authentic and

authoritative divine self-communication. But it is also a demand that is

dictated by the conditions of human existence. Man — traditional Christian

or “modern” — is dependent on community and tradition. From these

sources he derives — consciously or unconsciously — his religious criteria

of identification and categories of interpretation, among other things. One

of the criteria which everyone has and must have in relation to a Christian

message is that it harmonize in an acceptable manner with the essential

passages in the New Testament, as these passages have been mediated to

us by a long tradition, a tradition on which the “Christian” culture of the

present century is in fact dependent.

To say this is to say simultaneously that we cannot take the situation and

conditions of modern secularized man as they are and use them as a

principle of elimination when we go to the Bible and the creed. Now as

formerly, the Church must try to alter undesirable conditions by instruction

and education and by its way of ordering its own existence. Even if a

cultural struggle should be necessary, the Church is bound to accept the

fact. For a Christian Church has no grounds for helping modern man to

manage without God. She must, it is true, seek out the lost sheep, but she

must lead it to a shelter that is more secure than the rocky road with its

haunts of robbers.