Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Law and Gospel: What do they teach? -- Part 3.2, What Happened to the Events of the Gospel? (The Church Responds to the Enlightenment: Liberalism...)

Continued from What Happened to the History of the Gospels? (The Church Responds to the Enlightenment: Pietism)...

An Interlude: What Happened to History, Anyway? (cont’d)

The Struggles of Post-Enlightenment Christianity to Keep the Scriptures

Despite the evaporation of Lutheran influence following the ruinous debacle of Pietism, battles against attacks from Enlightenment sources upon Christianity, upon the historicity of the Gospels in particular, raged. Many great minds applied themselves to the challenges issued by the Enlightenment, often contemporaneous with the challenges themselves. Descartes, for as brilliant and insightful as he was thought to be, was parried effectively by the doubly brilliant mathematician and Jansenist, Blaise Pascal. The deism which descended from Enlightenment Natural Theology was combated very effectively by apologist William Paley who provided a vigorous defense of the historicity of the events of the Gospels. Butler, Whately, Newman and a great many other Christian apologists actively opposed the broad and grandiose claims of Enlightenment philosophy. These defenses failed to persuade detractors of Christianity, not because the arguments of the Christians were weak (in fact, they were very strong), and not because the arguments of Enlightenment were particularly strong (most of them were rather childish). The fact is, Enlightenment opposition to the Church and Christianity did not provide sound reasons for rejecting Christianity at all, but merely provided rationalizations for what many had already decided to do, but lacked sound basis for doing so61. As discussed in Part Two of this series on Law and Gospel, the natural man is at war with God; and the carnal mind is the enmity of Christ (Ro. 8:5-8). The flesh – one of the Christian’s three great enemies – is predisposed to reject Christ; and through the Enlightenment, the World – another of the Christian’s three great enemies – gave man the rational tool he required to satisfy his flesh.

The middle of the 18th Century marked the beginning of a dramatic decline in the influence of robust orthodox Christianity in the West. No longer enjoying majority opinion in society, Christians retreated in the face of criticism from the World, instead of facing it. Those who did face some of the more severe and enduring challenges of the World, did so having already largely absorbed worldly thinking. Examples follow...

Kierkegaard fights hyper-objectivity with subjectivity
The Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)62 essentially made it his life’s endeavor to oppose the hyper-objectivist philosophies of Hegel and Kant and the inroads they had made into the Church through culture. Hegel’s “progressivism,” by which the universe was continually and objectively improving, was considered by Kierkegaard to be utter nonsense, since, if it were true, no one could make such an observation while existing as part of it. Consequently, Kierkegaard reasoned, man is limited by his own existence, everything outside of which is essence – the domain of God, in which He existed as a singular transcendent being. This is in contrast to Hegel’s “Absolute Mind,” which, if one could call it deity, bordered on pantheism.

Kierkegaard also rejected the absolute moralism of Kant’s categorical imperative, and the moralism which had invaded the Church as a result. Since humans demonstrably aren’t actually moral and can’t live moral lives, the so-called “categorical imperative,” including its basis in Kant’s observation of an "absolute moral force present and operating in every person," is untenable. Man, insisted Kierkegaard, must realize his condition according to his actual existence – according to his sinful existence and depraved nature. It is also from within man’s existence that God reveals Himself to us. As His essence touches our existence, Kierkegaard taught, man experiences relationship with God. Hence, knowledge of what man ought to become does not come from within him, but from outside of him: it is transcendent. It is of God’s essence, not ours. God reveals it to him, personally, not, according to Kierkegaard, objectively in history (which he considered to be the basis of “dead orthodoxy”), but personally and immediately. Moreover, there is no evidence for this revelation, no verification of it. It requires a “leap of faith.”

Kierkegaard was clearly a heterodox teacher, and, no-doubt, was deeply influenced by the free-church activists (Scandinavian Pietism) with whom he was associated in Denmark; but one can still appreciate why he was trying to do what he was doing, given the severity of the challenges facing the Church in his time. Through its impact on culture, objectivist philosophy was devastating the vitality of the Church as more and more it “became the culture,” absorbed its false ideas and was carried further and further away from a tangible God. Kierkegaard’s was a subjectivist reaction, later earning him the title father of existentialism, and he associated his subjectivism with Christian teaching. While his writings did not see wide circulation in his own time, they became widely known and very influential in the 20th Century.

Schleiermacher attempts to correct Kant’s ethic
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is considered the father of modern liberal theology, “an optimistic theology which stressed human ability to bring about ‘God’s kingdom on earth’ through social action and cultural improvement”63. Schleiermacher attempted to merge Christian tradition with Enlightenment scientific empiricism and transcendental idealism. Agreeing with Enlightenment critics of the miraculous, but devoted with a sort of cultural sentimentality to Christian religious observance, Schleiermacher developed a method of modern theological investigation which sought to “[arrive] at religious truth by empirically investigating subjective religious experience”64. That is, it employed a systematic method of collecting subjective psychological data, not for the purpose of a descriptive study of religious experience, but “as the stable and basic working material for theological investigation,”65 from which universal conclusions regarding the validity of religion, and the reality of a relationship with God could be made.

The method was not entirely honest, however. Accepting Enlightenment philosophies which argued to a universal God, and assuming the syncretistic implications which followed from them, a priori endearment to Christian tradition allowed for investigation of “religious experience” which was limited only to Christian religious experience, and extended the conclusions of such investigation to all religious experience66. As a result,
    the modern theologian is in a dilemma. Caught between the pull of traditional wisdom on the one hand and the pull of experimental science on the other, he is apt to steer a somewhat devious course. If he could believe in the infallible authority of the Church or Scripture, he might ignore science. If he could believe in the all-sufficiency of science as a guide to life, he might ignore the garnered wisdom of the past. As it is, he can choose neither horn of the dilemma, and appears to halt indecisively between two contrary points of view... He himself will wonder if he is not trying to carry water on both shoulders, and his arguments will sometimes seem to start out for one objective and arrive at the reverse. Perpetually losing his intellectual balance in the effort to reach out for larger comprehension, and perpetually regaining it by hasty qualifications and recantations, he is not always a dignified figure.67
Regardless, the impact was to overthrow an ethical standard created by Immanuel Kant, which, as a consequence of the “categorical imperative” essentially boiled down to “the end justifies the means.” Modern liberal theologians recognized that their theology,
    deviated radically from Reformation Christianity, which had always stressed personal redemption from sin through Christ’s death on the Cross as a necessary grounding for social action, and which had viewed “God’s kingdom” not as the sphere of human social action, but as the sphere of God’s sovereignty and ultimate triumph through the Second Coming of Christ. But the liberals argued that ...a new era of human progress and cultural renewal [had been ushered in], that the Bible must be read in the light of evolutionary modern science, and that the essence of Christianity was not doctrine but ethics.68
Albert Schweitzer tries to show that Jesus wasn’t a madman after all
Regardless of religious perspectives in the West, one of the unanimously agreed-upon facts of Christianity has been this: the moral teachings of Jesus are the most excellent social teachings in the history of the world. Humanitarian in their other-centered altruism, the living out of the Christian faith – a denial of culturally poisonous self-centeredness, in the interest of others – was monumentally world-changing and continues to be the basis of social order in the West. No one could ever argue with integrity that the influence of Jesus in the history of the world has not been singularly positive.

At the same time, it is universally agreed upon that people who actually consider themselves to be a deity are insane. Why? Because they are not deities. In the case of Jesus, this has presented a serious dilemma for those who reject His divinity. No one can argue that He was anything but perfectly sane – no one who is insane could have produced with such coherence a system of moral teaching having the lasting and beneficial impact that His has had. Except that He also claimed to be God. Moreover, His moral teaching is inseparable, not only from His claims to be God, but from His saving message and the miraculous events which establish it. If Jesus were merely a man, and yet so clearly and fully thought of Himself as God, then regardless of what he taught, He clearly did not know who He Himself was – a sure sign of insanity. If this were the case, then his entire teaching, including his moral teaching, is overthrown, and the West is caught following the social direction of a madman. The result for liberal theologians, who reject the deity of Jesus and emphasized Scripture as little more than a system of ethics, has been no small amount of embarrassment with the “historical Jesus,” and a highly selective reading of Scripture which acknowledges the Christian ethic while denying the specific history in and through which it was taught. For example, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), whose lifetime coincided with Schleiermacher’s, and like Schleiermacher reasoned that the question of deity is already answered by enlightened reason, wrote a harmony of the Gospels which eliminated all supernatural content and contained only the moral teaching of Jesus.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) – liberal-theologian, medical doctor, world-renowned musician and lifelong humanitarian – responding to a growing disposition within liberal Christianity that the man, Jesus, actually suffered from some sort of psychosis, addressed this particular issue directly in the M.D dissertation (University of Strasbourg): The Psychiatric Study of Jesus: Exposition and Criticism. In his dissertation, Schweitzer attempted to show on the basis Scriptural evidence regarding Jesus’ psychological health, and on the basis of contemporary psychoanalytic theory, that if Jesus were a mere man, He was sane despite His claims to be God. The significance of this attempt isn’t in the force with which Schweitzer argued, but is in the fact that his attempt wasn’t entirely successful69, as evidenced in the 1948 Foreword to the English edition of Schweitzer’s dissertation, written by the APA president Dr. Winfred Overholser:
    One may disagree with Schweitzer on one or two minor points. He takes for granted that the failure of Jesus to develop ideas of injury and persecution rules out the possibility of a paranoid psychosis. This is not necessarily true; some paranoids manifest ideas of grandeur almost entirely, and we find patients whose grandeur is very largely of a religious nature, such as their belief that they are directly instructed by God to convert the world or perform miracles. Again, he offers as evidence of freedom from paranoia the fact that Jesus modifies his views as to his missions. Some paranoids substantially modify their delusions in accordance with their view of environmental factors, and may indeed appear to reason logically concerning events of interest to them – logically, that is, if one grants their premises.

    These are, however, far from fundamental points of disagreement. Dr. Schweitzer's presentation exhibits a profundity of scholarship, theological, historical, and medical, and at the same time the deepest possible reverence for the meaning and the message of the Man of Nazareth.70,71
The result is this: one cannot reasonably hold to the sanity of Jesus apart from also holding to His divinity.

Rudolph Bultmann “gets behind the Biblical myths”
The theological-existentialist, Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976), of the University of Marbourg in Germany, taught that “the Christian faith is a matter of personal existential experience, not a matter of objective evidence”72. As we learned from Kierkegaard, the term “existential” comes from one’s own existence. Bultmann (following the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), a contemporary of Bultmann’s who was influenced by Kierkegaard) taught that the reason modern man has difficulty appreciating the message of the Gospel is that the supernatural and miraculous events of the Gospel are outside his existential reality. In this is heard echoes of Sir David Hume, who insisted, “it is the universal experience of mankind that miracles do not happen,” with one critical difference: Bultmann insisted that such events, whether or not they actually happened, were indeed part of the existential reality of apostolic times, in which superstition of various sorts abounded and it was not uncommon for people to think in terms of the miraculous. So to express events in terms of the miraculous was reasonable... for them. Our times, however, are different. The modern man is not at home in the world myth and superstition, but in the world of science. “To make the Christian message relevant to modern times, however, we must penetrate through the myths, and get to the heart of the Christian faith. We must de-mythologize the Biblical accounts...”

Bultmann also taught that it is impossible to arrive at an objective interpretation of any event, given that the interpreter is part of the event being interpreted. That is, his own subjective existence is part of any conclusion he would ever reach. Thus, no objective evidence can be presented for anything, since the interpreter and presenter of that evidence, by virtue of his existential contact with it, is part of the interpretation and presentation itself. He cannot remove himself from it. Bultmann called this “the hermeneutical circle.” Accordingly, there are no objective reasons, there is only one’s own experience. Consequently, the message of Scripture is likewise received from the perspective of personal experience. Once one has gotten behind the myths of Scripture, and to the kernel of the Bible’s message, there he has a personal encounter with the true Christ, and on the basis of this encounter the truth of His message is experientially affirmed. Thus, for Bultmann, “the meaning of history lies always in the present”73.

Much of “liberal” theology in the second half of the 20th Century follows from Bultmann-ian theological existentialism (although there is not much “liberty” to be found in a reality bounded by self). As in the case of Kierkegaard, it was a reaction against the difficulties introduced by 18th and 19th Century objective philosophies, and a reflection of contemporary 20th Century existential and phenomenological trends, which created a Christ whose testimony concerning Himself (His own bodily Resurrection) was error, and who was ultimately “mistaken about the central tenet and premise of His message”74.

Karl Barth “fixes” the problems of sin and miracles
The neo-orthodox theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), was of highly significant influence upon 20th Century Evangelical Christianity75. His influence entered mainstream American Evangelicalism through Fuller Seminary, through the influence of Daniel Fuller, the son of radio evangelist and seminary founder Charles Fuller, who having studying under Barth in Europe for three years, joined the faculty of Fuller Seminary in 1953, and served as Dean of Fuller’s School of Theology beginning 1963.

As an ardent proponent of the Gospel, the deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, His life, His miracles, His death and Resurrection, Barth earnestly desired that Christianity would return to its historic message. And yet, he was unable to extract himself from objectivist and critical theories emanating from the Enlightenment. Facing the “problem” of Scripture’s absolute claims regarding God and His righteous disposition toward mankind’s sin – especially the necessity of His entrance into human history in order to resolve that problem and be reconciled with His creation – he sought to avoid this problem, while retaining the message of Scripture, by blunting the reality of sin. He taught that sin is “not the presence of something, but an absence of something,” making a positive declaration of man’s sinfulness an impossibility, and blurring the distinction between believer and unbeliever. He thus called sin “a hornet without a sting.” Barth taught that man’s real problem is not that he lacks faith, but only that he thinks he lacks faith – raising questions whether he was actually teaching Universalism. In fact, Montgomery relates Barth’s public response to direct questions on this very line, in a 1963 appearance of Karl Barth at the University of Chicago. The moderator of that event was Jaroslav Pelikan, who, answering for Barth, and receiving Barth’s approval of his answer afterward, said, “There is a hell, but we’re not sure if anybody is in it.”

Although a blurring of distinctions on the one hand assisted Barth in retaining Scripture’s promises of salvation in the face of textual critics, a making of distinctions on the other hand was also necessary. In order to retain Scripture intact, including its historical claims, he taught that there were two kinds of events in God’s Word:
  1. events which can be verified (i.e., the clothes people wore, local and differing customs of various times and places, the time it took to travel between locations, their mode of travel, the value of things and the currency used to purchase them, the relative geographical locations and their names at various times and locales, the broader political circumstances of the times, etc), and
  2. events which cannot be verified (i.e., the fulfillment of prophecy, the miracles, or any such event which is directly connected with man’s salvation).
According to Barth, both kinds of events are absolutely true, both kinds of events absolutely happened; only... while verifiable events occurred in human history, the unverifiable events occurred in a different kind of history – “supra-” or “hyper-history.” He taught that one can check out the verifiable events, and determine according to accepted methods whether they are true. But how is it that we can have any reasonable assurance that the unverifiable events are also true? According to Barth, they become true only after the believer has made a “leap of faith,” through which man is illumined and the saving events of supra-history are affirmed. Prior to this, and other than this, there is no basis for asserting that these events true – particularly to unbelievers.

More to come...


  1. Montgomery, J (Lecturer). (2004). Butler’s Apologetic (CD recording). In A History of Christian Apologetics: Defending the Gospel Through the Centuries Vol. 12. Calgary, AB: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy. CD 12.
  2. Montgomery, J (Lecturer). (2004). Apologetics in Modern Times (CD recording). In A History of Christian Apologetics: Defending the Gospel Through the Centuries Vol. 13. Calgary, AB: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy. CD 13. Note: This entire section on Kierkegaard is summarized from Montgomery’s lecture.
  3. Montgomery, J. (1975). The Shape of the Past. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. pg. 117.
  4. Ibid. pg. 258.
  5. Ibid. pg. 262.
  6. Ibid. pg. 282-283.
  7. Ibid. pg. 284.
  8. Ibid. pg. 117.
  9. Montgomery, J. (2005). Tractatus Logico-Theologicus (3rd ed.). Bonn: Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft. pg. 96 (pt. 3.56ff)
  10. The Psychiatric Study of Jesus: Exposition and Criticism, pg. 15.
  11. Montgomery, J. (1975). The Shape of the Past. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. pp. 103-104
  12. Montgomery, J (Lecturer). (2004). The Apologetic Task 2 (CD recording). In A History of Christian Apologetics: Defending the Gospel Through the Centuries Vol. 2. Calgary, AB: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy. CD 2. Note: Unless noted otherwise, this entire section on Bultmann is summarized, with selected quotes, from Montgomery’s lecture.
  13. Montgomery, J. (1975). The Shape of the Past. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. pg. 120.
  14. Ibid. pg. 121.
  15. Montgomery, J (Lecturer). (2004). The Apologetic Task 2 (CD recording). In A History of Christian Apologetics: Defending the Gospel Through the Centuries Vol. 2. Calgary, AB: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy. CD 2. Note: This entire section on Barth is summarized, with selective quotes, from Montgomery’s lecture.

1 comment:

Benjamin Rusch said...

Very cool, I hope you also delve a bit into Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason." Some of my work colleagues love to talk philosophy about my Lutheranism. One thing I keep correcting him on is that he wants me to eliminate all my "irrational thinking." Eliminate all irrational thinking? Irrationality makes us ethical, and perhaps is what makes us human!

I still like Kierkegaard (While he's no Orthodox Lutheran, most people would rather accept Kierkegaard over Orthodox Lutherans), but I heartily agree with Kant when he says that not all knowledge is based on learning, we also base it on experience, even though it might go against logic. Apply it to the Christian faith. And consider that an omnipotent God might just do some things for reasons beyond puny human minds.

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