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Modern Theology and the Christian Message by R. A. Finlayson

By April 10, 2011April 12th, 2016Doctrine & Theology

As we assemble at the beginning of yet another session in our training to minister the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must be deeply conscious that the gospel we are called upon to minister is radically different from that taught and accepted in most of the theological colleges of our land. In that fact alone lies the justification for our separate existence as a College in Scotland, and for our Church’s existence as a separate denomination of the Scottish Church.

Separation from our fellow-Christians is, however, so serious a matter that we have to examine afresh, again and again, its justification in order that every man may be fully persuaded in his own mind why it is imperative to maintain that separation, and what price we would have to pay if we capitulated to the prevailing ecumenism of the day.

We know that the issue, broadly speaking, is a theological one, and that our theology determines, not the emphasis merely, but the character of our message and the end and purpose of our ministry. In a word we believe that the issue is between the gospel of Jesus Christ, attested by Christ and His Apostles, and inscripturated in the New Testament, and another gospel, which is not another, but a perversion of the truth as it is in Jesus. This other gospel is the product of a theology that is, at every vital point, diametrically opposed to the doctrine we hold and results, not in a diluted gospel merely, but in a negation of all that is distinctive of supernatural Christianity.

In any investigation into the issue we must, as students of the Word of Truth, be scrupulously fair in our handling of sources, and be ready to assess the value of any insights into truth that may be different from our own. This is a case where we must not only be just but we must be seen to be just. We recognize that the so-called Fundamentalism in America has suffered in the court of world opinion from its haste to assert its positions without attempting to justify them, far less to refute calmly and dispassionately those who assailed them. The result is that it has become fashionable in evangelical or semi-evangelical circles, from Billy Graham downwards, to disassociate oneself from modern Fundamentalism and to accept its label as fanatical and obscurantist.

It is undoubtedly true that the Fundamentalism that found expression in America was, in a sense, reactionary, and since it reacted most violently against those positions of Modernism that seemed to it to controvert the Christian Faith, it followed that it conceived its duty to be to lay emphasis – what we might call extreme emphasis – on certain isolated doctrines of the historic Christian Faith, such as the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, and the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement and physical resurrection of our Lord, and was not careful to develop an apologetic that would discuss these doctrines within the analogy of the Faith. The result was, all too often, the production of a seemingly arbitrary and dead abstraction of the Faith.

At the other pole, we find Modernism yielding to the same temptation in its presentation of conservative Christianity in terms which are not far removed from a caricature of the faith of Bible-believing men and women. We cannot escape the rather sinister conclusion that this is resorted to the more easily to demolish the positions assailed. For example, when Modernism presents the doctrine of inspiration as belief in mechanical writing to dictation, or the atonement as a ‘stripe for stripe’ theory to appease a vindictive God, it is but erecting Aunt Sallies that stand exposed to its ridicule and scorn.

This is not dealing with vital issues courageously and honestly, and we may refuse to give battle on that ground. Ours must be the more enlightened and effective way of examining and testing positions with which we disagree in the light of reason and revelation, and so commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. This is all the more imperative at a time when the message of Modernism clothes itself, not only in evangelical terms, but in evangelistic zeal and fervour that would seem to place it in the true line of Apostolic doctrine. This practice of introducing into the theological vocabulary, hallowed by Christian revelation and centuries of Christian usage, meanings that are alien to the historic faith has resulted in the debasing of our theological currency, and in the confusion of thought that is the striking characteristic of present-day Christianity. Amidst such perplexity and confusion, we are called upon to examine our Position afresh that we may regain our confidence, and reassert with conviction and clarity the things most surely believed amongst us.

Definition of the Christian Religion

We assert that the message of Modern Theology is another gospel in its definition of the Faith and its fundamental conception of the Christian religion. This is much more than a mere difference of approach. It is, put very simply, a question of whether true religion is a movement from man to God, or from God to man. Our answer to that question will determine, not only our approach to the doctrines of the Faith, but our entire conception of the Christian way of life.

A Philosophy of Religion

We assert that the Modernist approach is vitiated in its conception of religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular, as essentially a movement of the human spirit in quest of God. The development of religion must, on that account, be traced from the human side, and not from the divine. This eliminates at once the supernatural from our Faith.

It will be argued, of course, that this does not eliminate God, since God is immanent in man, and the divine in man is seeking for and aspiring to its source in God. But this is not the supernaturalism of the Christian revelation. Its effect is to put the study of religion on an entirely naturalistic and evolutionary basis. In order to have a comprehensive view of religion, we must, it is claimed, study the religious consciousness of all men, from which we will discover that Christianity is the expression of an essence common to all religions. While a place of supreme importance must be given to the religious consciousness of the Hebrew race, and particularly the religious consciousness of Jesus in whom the religious instincts of his race flowered, these but mark a stage in the forward evolution of religion, as of all human institutions. Christian experience is a variety of universal religious experience, and Christianity must be fitted into the context of world religions.

In this way the Biblical supernaturalism is dissolved into a philosophy of religion. Even when, as in the Neo-Orthodoxy associated with Karl Earth, an extreme emphasis on the transcendence of God would seem to restore the supernatural into Christianity, the gain to doctrinal Christianity is negligible. This is because of the assertion that truth can be found only in saving events and cannot be expressed in propositional form. This refusal to state belief in terms of doctrine can only mean in the last resort that truth cannot be delivered in final form, and that every generation must arrive at the truth for itself. Such fluidity in the realm of truth can only lead us back into the mysticism and subjectivism that Karl Earth sought to escape from when he emphasized the transcendence of God and ignored His immanence.

Christianity – a Divine Self-Disclosure

It is not difficult to show that the above is a repudiation of what Christianity has claimed for itself, namely that it was a divine revelation, divinely given and supernaturally attested.

In other words, Christianity has asserted a claim to be a movement from God to man, involving on the part of the Eternal a gracious act of self-disclosure in history, and resulting in a divine religion once for all deposited in the Hebrew-Christian revelation.

For that reason we must assert the uniqueness of Christianity among world religions as alone a religion of redemption. While not disowning the reality and validity of natural revelation, we believe it has been so distorted by the ignorance and sinfulness of human personality that it results in a false religion and not a true, and that outside the Christian revelation there is no saving knowledge of God. In short, we believe that Christianity is the final self-disclosure of the True God, and that therefore it alone is true, while, in comparison with it, all other religions are false. It has everything to give, and nothing to receive. It remains God’s sure word to mankind.

Different Objectives

Between these two conceptions of Christianity there is an unbridgeable gulf. The two messages emanating from these are in sharp contradiction. The objectives based on them, whether in the home or the mission field, have nothing in common and cancel each other out. For that reason there can be no co-operation at home or on the mission-field between the representatives of two religions that must remain in sharp conflict as to their credentials, their origin, and their objective. This was sharply brought home to one when, at the height of the Mau Mau crisis in Africa, with its blood-thirsty atrocities, a note of deep penitence appeared in the editorial of the official of the Church of Scotland. The missionary policy of the Church had, it said, to bear some responsibility for what was happening, inasmuch as the Church was not as ready as it ought to absorb what was best in the racial religions it worked among. If that be the declared attitude of the Church of Christ to its own message and to the pagan religions to which it comes, what can we expect as a result but a veneer of Christianity that is at heart more akin to paganism than to the New Testament gospel?

Authority in Religion

The message of Modernism is another gospel in what it puts forward as authority in religion. Since man is ever in quest of authority in matters of belief, it is obvious that the nature and source of that authority must have a determining influence upon his faith and sense of security. Around this doctrine of the seat of authority a battle has raged throughout the ages, and it is not any nearer a solution today than in the past. Indeed, as far as a solution has been found, it is by bypassing the problem altogether.

The issue between Modernism and the evangelical Faith is as sharp and definite as ever. The one claims that authority in matters of faith can be found only in the divine Scriptures, the other that if there be any authority it must be looked for in the higher reaches of man’s spiritual consciousness. Between these two there is very little common ground.

Revelation and Inspiration

The evangelical Faith stands on the absolute and final authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God written. The Scriptures derive their authority from two things: their revelation and their inspiration.

By revelation we mean that God has broken through in supernatural acts of divine self-disclosure, revealing Himself progressively to men chosen for its reception, until the light reached its meridian splendour in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

By inspiration we mean that the God who willed to reveal Himself to men, has also willed to make a record of that revelation that it might become the permanent possession of mankind throughout the ages. We believe that by the divine activity of inspiration we have a completely adequate and trustworthy record of that revelation in the Scriptures, which are to us the Word of God written.

Authority Subjective

Modernism in general tends to the view that authority for belief can never be found outside the subject himself. Of objective authority it knows little. We must be the final judges of what to believe and what to reject. What does not commend itself to our spiritual judgement we are not morally bound to accept, indeed we are morally bound to reject.

For that reason we cannot accept as our own the religious consciousness of the men who wrote the Bible. What was valid for them is not necessarily valid for us. Their world-view was altogether different from ours and coloured their spiritual conception throughout. The Bible is a compost of religious consciousness throughout the several ages in which it was written, and we in this age do not approach it for authority, however valuable its insights may be for us as for all the ages.

New Departures

New departures in the field of theology within recent years have marked a still further retreat from the Scriptures as the seat of authority. Historical Criticism approaches the Scriptures as ‘community documents’, reproducing the religious consciousness of the community from which they sprang. Since this community must be identified with the Church in its corporate witness, it follows that since the Church has given us the Scriptures, the Church in any age can make such use of the Scriptures as by the leading of the Spirit it sees fit. The witness of the Scriptures in every age is, therefore, subject to the interpretation of the Church whom the Spirit guides into all truth.

Barthianism, in its revolt against the subjectivism of a humanistic religion, set out to elaborate a doctrine of the Word and to reinstate the Scriptures to a place of authority. But it is a Scripture that is divinely attested only in human experience, by the mystical flash of a divine encounter, and withal a scripture that is itself fallible, unreliable and unauthentic. This is far removed from the authority which the Reformers claimed for the Word of God, which indeed the Apostles claimed for it when, over against their own experience, they called it ‘the more sure word of prophecy’. For them the Word had objective authority as the repository of revelation and the vehicle of divine power and light.

As for the latest craze in theological extravagance, that which goes by the name of Bultmannism, it has outrivalled its modern predecessors in irreverence, stripping the written record of its supposed mythical elements that were built around a world-view that is outworn and discredited and leaving us with a bare residuum on which the foot of faith can scarcely find a moment’s resting place. His fellow-countrymen have assessed the fruits of Rudolph Bultmann’s work correctly in these words: ‘According to this reading, the objective foundation upon which every statement of belief rests vanishes from the field of vision of man and the truths to which the New Testament bears witness are reduced to a bare minimum. The practical consequence of this interpretation is a message which retains little contact with the basis and contents of the message of our Church’ (Bishop D Haug, at the Fourth Wittenberg Church Congress).

Thus, whether we accept the historical method of Reconstructed Liberalism, the dialectical method of Barthianism, or the demythologising process of Bultmannism, we are left with Scriptures that bear authority merely on the human plane and have little or no validity as ground for faith.

The late William Temple puts this very plainly: ‘There is no such thing as revealed truth,’ he says. ‘There are truths of revelation, but they are not themselves directly revealed.’ What matters it, we ask, that there are truths of revelation, if we have no access to them now in the form of reliable records? We cannot exist on the mere witness of others, nor can we draw upon their experience in the absence of reliable guides.

It is, indeed, of deep concern to us how this heritage of the past is so lightly esteemed in modern thought. Dr. John Baillie, in his most recent book, The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought, finds so little place for the religion of his fathers that he gives quotations from A. A. Hedge and Thomas Chalmers only to hold them up as specimens of what, as he puts it, ‘even as late as 1867 a Calvinist theologian would be writing’. Thus far has he turned his back on the rock from which he was hewn.

This abandonment of Scripture has bereft the Church of a sure word of witness to the souls of men and has diverted its energies into other channels. Dr Carl Henry complains that in the United States its theological colleges provide only ‘a clinical training for the minister who has sacrificed the Word of God to become a social case worker’.

Our experience in this country bears testimony to the same fact: a revived interest in pastoral work in industry and social groups has taken the place of a message of redemption for the individual. This, we believe, is proving an utterly unproductive approach, and if the New Testament faced the grim social situation of its own day with a call to the individual to repentance and regeneration, we do well to pay heed to its precept and example. person of Christ

The most complete divergence between the message of Modern Theology and the Christian gospel concerns, however, the Person of Christ. Here the contrast is complete and ranges from the facts of His birth, to His miracles, His death, and His resurrection. Put briefly, evangelical belief has, throughout the ages, accepted Christ as a divine-human person in whom God became man, while the message of Modernism finds in Him a man who has become God. With a multitude of variations, this is the cardinal issue still: in Jesus Christ God became man, or in Him man became God.

Human and Divine

Evangelical belief holds that in the fact of Christ there was a great divine intervention in history. In the miracle of miracles, God stooped into human relations in His divine Son. His entrance into humanity through a virgin-birth was itself an outstanding miracle, as if nature had stepped aside to let God pass. Our Lord in His Person had both a human and a divine consciousness: He suffered weariness, weakness, pain and death, and in the midst of it all He could assert, ‘I and My Father are one’, ‘whoso has seen Me has seen the Father’, and ‘no man knoweth the Son but the Father’.

The Christ of Modernism

This presentation of Christ Modernism rejects as being, at best, a totally wrong approach. Granting that He was the symbol of the divine, He is not to be regarded as divine in a supernatural and mystical way. The son of Joseph and Mary had religious instincts above the average. Fed on the traditions of His race, He developed the religious conceptions of the Prophets, and had original insights into the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.

Though He has the value of God for us, it is not because of anything in the nature of miracle in His birth or His death. Only this much Historical Criticism allows, that ‘the Christian event had at its centre the human career of Jesus, a career of such kind that God could make Supreme use of it’. Beyond that, however, there is uncertainty and hesitancy

In the chapter on ‘The Meaning of Christ’ in his book, Criticism and Faith, John Knox, a member of the editorial staff of ‘The Interpreter’s Bible’, described as one of America’s foremost New Testament scholars, Professor at Union Theological Seminary since 1942, discusses three affirmations which are the foundations of modernist faith. They are: first, that our knowledge of Christ does not depend upon what can be known of the life of Jesus; second, that our knowledge of the authentic words of Christ does not depend upon what can be established as Jesus’ words; third, that the truth about the meaning of Christ does not depend upon what was present in the self-consciousness of Jesus. Then we are asked to turn our back upon the validity of the Gospel records, upon the authenticity of Christ’s words attributed to Him in the Gospels, and, most tragic of all, upon the self-consciousness of Jesus.

What are we left with, it may be asked, but a discredited Bible, a falsified gospel, and a self-deluded Christ? Yet this is the technique by which it is claimed Christ is restored to the consciousness of the Church as Lord and Saviour.

Baillie takes substantially the same ground in discussing the inerrancy of the Scriptures and especially the words of our Lord. ‘Any attempt,’ he says, ‘so to isolate these utterances as to endow them with an infallibility denied to all else must be chastened by two reflections: first, that our Lord did not claim to be omniscient when found in fashion as a man, and, second, that we know His words only as reported by the fallible men who were His disciples.

Or as Temple puts it, speaking of our Lord: ‘It is of supreme importance that He wrote no book. It is even of greater importance that there is no single deed or saying of which we can be perfectly sure that He said or did precisely this or that.’ Elsewhere he says: ‘No single sentence can be quoted as having the authority of an authentic utterance of the All-holy God.’

So we see, what we might have expected, that the authority of Jesus collapses with the authority of the Scripture, so intimately bound are the living Word and the written Word.

Need we add that in this context the cross can have no redemptive significance, and the resurrection becomes a mere symbol of spiritual forces that continue to live on after the grave has closed for ever on the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Alternatives

If the incarnation stands for nothing more than a divine-human relationship which has its parallel in non-Christian religions; if the earthly pilgrimage of Jesus is so shrouded in obscurity that we cannot separate fact from legend, if His own consciousness as Son of God can be explained away by the application of the solvents of psychoanalysis, if His death has no more significance than a tragic end to a beautiful life; if His resurrection be no more than a figure of speech to denote the survival of His spirit among men, what gospel can emanate from this obscure illusionary figure except that man can by self-culture, rise to the divine, that in fellowship with His spirit we can attain to what He was, and can, as creatures of a progressive evolution, eventually surpass Him. The death on Calvary is no longer an act of God for the redemption of mankind, but it points the way by which man can redeem himself. The cross was once good news, now it is no more than good advice. Once it told us that God was mighty to save, now it proclaims that man is worth saving and that he can do it if he follows the Christ-way.

A Different Christian

Is this not another gospel? Does it not produce something other than the Christian character delineated in the New Testament?

Let us look around and find out what church-going people are taught. It is just this: come to church, enter the Christian community, take your share of the common burden, be neighbourly, decent, upright: that is a full Christian life. Paul’s ideas of regeneration, justification and new birth are superimposed on the simple gospel of Christ; they are not valid for us. Moreover, this introspective Christianity produces neurotics; its other-worldliness is unnatural and disqualifies for the virile, robust, Christianity that is the need of today.

And that is the fruit of another gospel. It is precisely the fruit to be expected. Having started with a totally different message, it ends with a totally different Christian.

As I have striven to show, it is another gospel, utterly irreconcilable with the gospel we learn from the New Testament page. The Bible as inspired revelation of God as against the Bible as a religious document of deep human insights. The Church as a fellowship of religious people who pool their experiences and ideals, as against the Church as the called of God, built upon the foundation of prophets and apostles. Jesus Christ as the Son of God incarnate over against Jesus the religious genius and spiritual guide. Sin as a breach of God’s Law as against Sin as a lingering imperfection in our moral natures. The cross as a divine act of atonement and reconciliation as against the cross as a symbol of martyrdom and self-giving. The Christian life as the application of moral and ethical standards to social and individual life, as against the Christian life as the product of regeneration by which we become partakers of the divine nature.

As against this other gospel, Christianity is engaged in a life and death struggle for its very existence. Everything is at stake, vital Christianity or a veneer that is not far removed from paganism.

We believe that the Reformed Faith is capable of restatement in terms that will disprove the charges of crudity and obscurantism levelled against it by those who grossly caricature it for their own ends. And it is to this task that we address ourselves in the weeks and months ahead of us. We do it in good heart, believing that we are in a better position than were any of our immediate fathers to vindicate the abiding authority and contemporary relevance of the truth as it remains eternally in Jesus.

Our main concern today, however, is not that the world is so bad, but that our own theology means so little in such a bad world. We need, therefore, to remind ourselves that evangelicalism does not consist of mere orthodoxy. Reformed evangelicalism was always understood to be the application of Christian truth to heart and life, and to every sphere of human thought and every department of human activity. It is this applied orthodoxy that demonstrates for ourselves and for the world the relevance of our faith and puts us in the true line of Apostolic and Reformed Succession.