In the next section I will formally enter into a discussion of reclaiming the neo-orthodox legacy for our own time. In that I am following the work of contemporary theologian Douglas J. Hall based on his short and incisve book, Remembered Voices: Reclaiming the Legacy of “Neo-Orthodoxy" (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), while taking my discussion in other, but related directions to his.
In this opening section, I am seeking to lay out some of the core issues that I have been grappling with on the importance of placing the Bible in the highest priority on the Bible/culture relationship while giving culture its due. In this I am pointing to what I perceive as a theological necessity if mainline Protestant denominations are ever going to reconnect with the reformed heritage of their founding traditions in a manner that remains fully authentic to 20th-21st century social and cultural experience.
This turn to the "strange new world of the Bible" was one of the most significant contributions that Karl Barth made to 20th century theology outside explicitly evangelical circles. In this project he sought to bring mainline Protestant respectability to this "turn." The result was the spawning of the neo-orthodox movement, a theological project that sought to develop mediating space between Biblical fundamentalism and Christian liberalism through a creative synthesis in opening up the strange new world of the Bible to the mainline churches and seminaries. While Barth was only partially successful his work did inspire the neo-orthodox movement and the work of such theological giants like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolph Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and Rheinhold and Richard Niebuhr whose ideas I draw upon in latter sections of this essay, as well as several significant others who broadly identify themselves with the neo-orthodox perspective.
In this introductory section I seek to draw out something of the stakes involved in reclaiming the stange new world of the Bible and the importance of placing reality--the claim that God, along with God in Christ as world-grounded actual realities and not simply reflections of belief systems. In this I am, thereby placing ontology (the real) over epistemology (what we believe or what we can know) as the ultimate priority, even in the acknowledgement of what this is; a faith statement as the basis for the truth claims. While the gap between what we can know by sight, as faith expresses it and that which we claim as true--the reality of God and God in Christ reconciling the world,what stands as a core article of faith is the truth claim and not simply the belief system I am making this claim in an manner similar to that of a scientist holding firm to a well developed hypothesis and even firmer to core axioms, seeking to draw out everything possible within its paradigmatic framework, which requires a holding of and acting out of it as if it were true as a radical faith commitment until and unless fundamentally persuaded otherwise by the press of better evidence. In this respect in its canonical integration the faith claim is not simply based on a set of beliefs but on a fundamental truth axioms about the reality, goodness, and unfathomable mystery of a God--a God in Christ who became human, who is more personally engagged with the entire created order than the creation is to itself and transcendent of it in a majestic distance which Karl barth has defined as radical other.
It is in coming to terms with something of the radical implications of these fundamental precepts to which I and millions of others are calling the mainline Protestant churches and seminaries to account. In the grappling with the Christ/culture axis, the need is for a critical shifting to a Bible first perspective while drawing on as needed all the resources from contemporary scholarship that provides essential illumination without, however, placing the scholarship in the driver's seat. The reclamation of the neo-orthodox tradition provides one valuable resource in facilitation of this effort--so I argue throughout this essay of which below is the opening salvo.
The issues surrounding this book have a great deal to do with the mediation of the relationship between faith and history in our era, a consuming theme of 20th century theology. The critical matter of the discernment of the kairos, Christ’s indwelling in the contemporary setting, is as important as it is problematic in any coming to it that remotely professes, or at least attempts to move forward to the ever elusive and ultimately impossible standard of sufficiency for which it must necessarily strive (Phil 3:12-14). Notwithstanding this perpetual need for humility in the face of the transcendent majesty of God in light of the all-too-human capacity for grandeur and self-delusion, the effort has been essayed throughout the century as it has throughout the eons. Such discernment even with the pitfalls noted requires grappling with in the current setting even to begin to work through the issues that underlie the state of contemporary Protestantism in its ineradicable relationship to culture within the United States.
To specify, I have sought in this book, to address something of the viability of the core Christian kerygma in the current setting through a critical encounter with key Protestant theologians and biblical scholars whose cumulative work spans a wide spectrum across the 20th century theological divide, as depicted in the American grain, between the various permutations of fundamentalism and theological liberalism. As noted, each of the five protagonists I have written on has taken a broad mediational perspective in bringing together disparate positions within the framework of various given schools of Protestant thought. This has been discussed throughout the book and requires no additional commentary at this point even as the issues pressed throughout this work, particularly the role of the Bible, itself as a theological signpost on the relationship between the transcendent and immanent dimensions of faith, does require further amplification.
There is an inescapable historical dimension to this book situated as it is within a particular cultural location and time, to say nothing of the autobiographical signature that indubitably permeates every page of what I have written. As perhaps implicit throughout this text, my theological focal point is invariably situated within the context of the prevailing intellectual and cultural currents of a largely middle class religious and secular culture which seeks critical points of tangent with the urban sector from the vantage point of the Bible interpreting the world. For the purposes here, I am interpreting urbanism through the signpost of the oppressed, the marginalized, and the poor who habituate the outer boundaries of our suburbanized and urbanized churches. Clearly, the complexity of our urban sectors cannot be defined by such a simplistic oppressor/oppression polarity. Still such a filter provides a way to grapple with a great many currents in contemporary theology as well as keeping more sharply attuned to the diversity of social and political tensions, including the presence of “the other,” my enemy, and my brother and sister, who habituate the border lands of contemporary Protestant congregations and the rhetorical focal points of their mission fields.
Add to these macro cultural trends the autobiographical note of one “born-again” through a sharply delineated conversion experience combined with a historical faith journey of over 30 years across the Protestant landscape extending at the outer polarities from intense Pentecostal pietism to the “death of God” rejection of any semblance of “God talk.” While I have kept autobiographical discourse here to a minimum, some recapitulation of my personal journey may help to place the arguments and focal points made throughout this book into sharper relief. The key story is that of moving from a distinctively born-again evangelical cast of mind and heart to a more marginalized secular sensibility, and then to a re-encounter (journey in progress) of what I am positing as a more centrist Christian identity through a protracted hermeneutical retrieval of the core orthodox kergyma, as discussed, in part, in Chapters One and Five. In the process, I experience a renewal of a hopefully discerning evangelical sensibility that is reasonably attuned to the cultural dynamics of contemporary historical discourse, which represents the narrative voice through which I have sought to write this book.
It is from this vantage point from which I press the importance of dogmatics subsuming apologetics, however much the latter requires critical attending to; noting also that the dogmatic turn ultimately falters, unless the Holy Spirit is speaking through it, a point acknowledged by the vast majority of evangelical theologians of even the most biblicist sort. In terms of theological pinpointing, I locate myself roughly within the mediational space between Bloesch and Fackre in my embrace of the centrality of the kergygma as ultimate grounding point with perhaps a keener appreciation than either of the postmodern turn even as I view myself reflecting from a late modernist vein. With Bloesch and Fackre this includes the need for serious engagement with the prevailing secular and religious cultures of the contemporary era through a sensibility that places dogmatics (Barth) as the foundational grounding point of reality. Dialectics remains critical, a phenomenon grounded thoroughly in Scripture itself as detailed throughout this book and embedded within Barthian dogmatics; a dialectics ultimately subordinate to dogmatics rather than an embrace of the historicist view of context as the grounding point of ultimate concern.
To be sure, context remains both critical and inescapable. Yet unless it is ultimately subsumed within the universality of the kergyma however much viewed through a mirror dimly and historically conditioned, historicist insight is given an absolutist warrant that it does not merit even in the assertion that absolute claims cannot be made with authenticity. For without an ontology that can make faith claims beyond epistemological warrant the very radical particularity of the core contention of the gospel in which it is proclaimed that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believe in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16) becomes relativized on its face. In that it becomes subsumed within a metaphysics foreign to that given in the New Testament in which the result is that the gospel becomes defined through the prism of another metanarrative.
I appreciate much of the intent in Tillich’s boundary sensibility and aspire not to profess a level of certainty I do not possess. Moreover, even though I would press Tillich more in the direction toward dogmatics, I echo his final rejoinder that boundary dialectics itself has its own limits as does “everything [else] finite by that which transcends all human possibilities, the Eternal.” My own grounding point is based on the inescapability of what I posit as the inherent human need to make ultimate and absolute truth claims, even beyond that which can be ascertained through knowledge. In this realization, aided by both Tillich’s linkage to faith as “ultimate concern” and H.R. Niebuhr’s depiction of the inescapability of “ultimate centers of value” I have felt compelled (which I hope is more than merely my own sensibility) to gravitate toward dogmatics richly and generously perceived as the basis for restructuring of my faith walk. It is this that I imaginatively link to the Barthian turn, in which its internalization, and, more to the point, its appropriation is the grounding basis of this book. Notwithstanding the intentionality of my own self willing, I write on the assumption that grace itself has played its own indelible role in the midst of this struggle for self re-definition. History has as well if one accepts the assertion by Dorrien that “[a]s the preeminent theologian of the twentieth-century, Karl Barth was the single figure that all other twentieth-century theologians had to deal with, if not define themselves against.” In this respect, I postulate that the permutations of my own faith journey are at least somewhat of a reflection of broader currents in contemporary Protestant culture.
No doubt that my sense of the kairos is invariably colored by my own perceptual encounter with historical Christian orthodoxy over an extended period of time. This unavoidable historicism always needs to be taken into account in any theological statement. This, however, is not synonymous with turning such inescapable relativism into an absolute. I argue, rather, that the space opened up to me serves as a prism that, however imperfectly so, provides a taproot into the universal faith once for all delivered to the saints. To stipulate, that to which we refer, “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Col 1:2), transcends the vagaries of the particularities of historical relativism even as its revelation invariably takes place through the stream of a selective set of human events, which, from the perspective of historical analysis is always subject to contestability. Notwithstanding the epistemological limitations inherent in the partiality of any human seeing, this kerygmatic claim is made in faith, within the community of a 2000 year witness as an ontological truth assertion, which requires infinite-like exposition through the flawed perspective of human testimony.
It is with these critical caveats noted that I am proposing a discerning embrace of the Barthian dictum of re-encountering “the strange new world within the Bible.” It is this, I believe which represents a critical turning that mainline Protestantism needs to confront if there is to be any sustained hermeneutical retrieval of a theological vision based on the fundamental precepts of the Reformation, without which, I argue, the contemporary church is in danger of losing its soul. Given the various “battles for the Bible” and the great divide between fundamentalism and modernity that has attained iconographic significance as an enduring staple of theological discourse in the United States throughout the 20th century, the very dictum is strewn with a host of problematics.
These are compounded by the difficulties many evangelical and liberal theologians alike have with Barth’s project whether the criticism stems from relying too little or too much on the written biblical word. The issue, in a word, is what Niebuhr refers to as the relationship between Christ and culture on where the axial focal point of signification resides. To speak in the language of Barth’s preoccupation, the issue is whether the culture sets the questions to which the stance of faith must respond if it is to be viable at all (theological liberalism), or whether on the contrary, as Barth posits, Scripture, through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, lays out the boundaries of reality to which culture must respond at threat of utter meaninglessness and ultimate disintegration.
On what absorbs what Volf raises a valid point that the interrelationship between faith and culture is more complex and perpetually interpenetrating than what any such polarity might suggest. Thus, there is more than a grain of merit in his argument that “the religion with which we interpret a given culture is itself always an interpreted religion.” As any Christian dogmatist worthy of his or her mettle would acknowledge, no matter how clear a particular insight may seem, the perception is always clouded in any event, and therefore at least partially flawed, however ultimately revealing. If one gives basic assent to these claims, the relationship between faith and culture, as it was in the very formation of the scriptural canon cannot be other than dynamically dialectical in any event. Still, complexity notwithstanding, one does need to make an ontological claim even if one cannot confirm it epistemologically on the assumption that truth claims are foundational to the human experience and will be made in any event. Thus, there needs to be a grounding point somewhere on the faith/culture axis, even on Volf’s quoted premise. On that there is no free standing space outside the text, metaphorically speaking, even as the content of a particular text (the Bible) points to a reality that is inherently transcendent that demands our most radical commitment in order to realize something of its fuller revelatory potential.
To flesh this out further, the position taken here, in conjunction with a great deal of evangelical and Reformed theology is the core faith assumption that God has spoken and continues to speak in and through the Bible, through fallible, yet inspired human witnesses. That there is an inescapable historical dimension to this in that “the [very] substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” is enshrouded in the testimony of a mighty cloud of witnesses traversing two thousand years and much longer when taking the Old Testament into account, is duly noted. Yet the more important point is that this revelation which, by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit can be accessed afresh as a living word, has the potential of speaking with an utterly convincing ring of inner authority. This Word, in turn, can be publicly shared and thereby its understanding within us refined through dialogue with others via what the New Testament refers to as the body of Christ. This, at least in an imaginative sense, includes communion with the Christian community throughout the eons via the written word. On this, the claims of revelation and the possibility of deception can be very closely intertwined. Yet on faith through grace, in much fear and trembling, there is that ineffable prompting of that small still voice. However elusively manifest, it speaks where it will in its own distinctive cadence however variously revealed in different people both among the living and the dead in the present, throughout the eons, and into the future until the holy city becomes embodied on earth on God’s promised fulfillment (Rev 21: 10).
This mystery of salvation is nothing less than “God…in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:19) in, through, and beyond the historical Jesus. The issue, therefore, is, however culturally interpreted and dialectically processed, whether it is this metanarrative or some other story that shall attain an ultimate claim of truth through and beyond any evidence that can be offered to back it up. The question posited to the contemporary church can be nothing other than that posed to Peter by Jesus, namely, who do you say that I am. What is at stake in the radical nature of this pointed question is nothing short of whether Paul’s assertion holds as an ultimate faith stance beyond which there cannot be any claim to Christian faith; namely, that “for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are [original italics] all things, and through whom we live” (1 Cor 8:6). It is this foundational claim that Barth sought to discover anew for the 20th century, upon which he constructed a magisterial architectural dogmatics that laid the foundation for the neo-orthodox movement in Europe and the United States upon which Hall seeks to build upon in the current era.