Contending for the Faith:
Heresy and Apologetics

by Theodore Plantinga

Jordan Station, Ontario, Canada
Paideia Press

Table of Contents


Chapter 1:
Defining the Faith Inductively

Chapter 2:
Defining the Faith in History

Chapter 3:
Revelation and Reason

Chapter 4:
Revelation and Experience

Chapter 5:
Scripture as Revelation

Chapter 6:
History and Tradition

Chapter 7:
Pluralism and Diversity

Chapter 8:
Theory and Disgreement

Chapter 9:
Heresy and Apostasy

Chapter 10:
Confessional Unity

Chapter 11:
The Challenge of Ecumenism

Chapter 12:
Institutional Identity

Chapter 13:
Doctrinal and Academic Freedom

Chapter 14:
The Place of Apologetics

Do Ideas Make a Difference?

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Some words are suitable for use in polite society, and others are not. Profane and obscene words fall into the latter category, and so do certain terms used to refer to uncomfortable subjects. One such subject is heresy. Although the belief that there is such a thing as "heresy" has played an important role in Westem history, many people today are convinced that this term is outmoded and archaic.

Others aren't so sure. One theologian, who has recently drawn up an "agenda for theology," identifies heresy as the issue that is most avoided in contemporary theology: "The leading candidate for 'most ugly issue in theology today' is doubtless heresy. We avoid it like bubonic plague. " [NOTE 1] What we avoid so resolutely, to put the point more precisely, is not heretical teaching as such but the notion that there is such a thing as heresy.

One of the reasons for avoiding this subject is that ours is an age of anxiety. The nuclear sword has been hanging over our heads for decades, and the threat has not diminished. The thought of what might happen if a political conflict ever gets out of hand adds a tension even to lesser conflicts -- including conflicts in the realm of ideas. We have learned that we must seek peaceful resolutions to our disputes. Even when we disagree with someone, we often preface our statement of criticism with words of solidarity: ''I'm very much in sympathy with what you said, but ..."

Although such tendencies are also taking hold in evangelical Christian circles, Christians have not forgotten that their faith has been the occasion for much dispute and strife in history. James I. Packer, an evangelical Anglican theologian, reminds us that "... it is the nature of the gospel to create controversy; and the

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vigour with which the gospel is spoken against is an index of the faithfulness and power with which it is being preached." [NOTE 2]


If ever there was a preacher who refused to compromise to avoid controversy and who preached the gospel with vigor, it was Martin Luther (1483-1546). But Luther and his time have become something of an embarrassment to us. We still celebrate certain Reformation themes and observe Reformation Day on October 31, but we tend to regard Luther with a mixture of fear and fascination. A leading church historian has characterized Luther's time by saying: "Men cared enough for the faith to die for it and to kill for it." [NOTE 3]

Are there still Christians today willing to kill and be killed for the faith? There seem to be a few, but we hardly feel inclined to commend them for it. Most Christians are ashamed of the hostility and violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. And few Christians praise Islam for the militant spirit demonstrated by many Near Eastern Arabs in their hostility to the Jews in Israel and to the "Christians" in Europe and North America.

The religiously inspired battles of our time bring back memories we would prefer to see buried, memories of a time when much of Europe was involved in wars of religion, a time when Catholics and Protestants seemed eager to outdo each other in ferocity. In his book Battle for the Mind William Sargant observes:

Neither Catholics nor Protestants can claim to have a cleaner record than their opponents. There was little to choose, for savagery, between the Protestants and Catholics in the German religious wars; Catholic massacres of the Jansenists and Huguenots in France were no less fanatic than the massacre of Irish Catholics by Cromwell's Protestants. Moreover, both Catholics and Protestants have carried the sword of God with equal vigor against the heathen overseas; and against members of the pre-Christian witch cult of Europe; always acting in the firm conviction that they were inspired by the highest and noblest motives. [NOTE 4]

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Against the background of two world wars, we have learned to look back at the wars of religion with new eyes. What sorts of people were those religious leaders of earlier ages who freely wielded the sword in the name of Christ's Kingdom? German scholars, especially, have been interested in possible connections between religious motivation and neurotic personalities. The historians and psychologists who try to figure out what made Hitler go so far astray also have their doubts about Luther, who, like Hitler, was the most influential German of his time. Could there be an "authoritarian personality" underlying the fanaticism of these two historical giants? Did Luther help pave the way for Hitler?

Embarrassed by Luther's aggressiveness in promoting the faith, theologians today are beginning to interpret the gospel in ways that leave conflict and divisiveness out of the picture. The United Presbyterian Church, in drawing up its "Confession of 1967," made "reconciliation" central. In a commentary on this confession we read that this term "... can epitomize the whole gospel in one word." [NOTE 5]

What about all the language in Scripture that has to do with conflict and warfare? Christians used to love the hymn that begins: "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war ..." And the church on earth was referred to as the "church militant" (to be distinguished from the "church triumphant" in heaven). It is. now suggested that such military language should not be taken seriously, that it represents an accommodation to the time in which the Bible was written. Roland Bainton explains: "The use of milItary metaphors was a part of the Romanizing of the gospel. The Oriental understood what it was to bear the cross. The Roman responded better if told 'to fight the good fight.'" [NOTE 6]

Another factor in the deep desire to avoid conflict is the commitment to "pluralism." Many people use this term today without knowing quite what they mean to say, for the term has many meanings, not all of which are compatible with one another or with the Christian faith. For most people who use the word, it stands for a gentle form of relativism that was simply unthinkable in Luther's time. The popularity of pluralism is regarded as a sign that modem man has "arrived." John Macquarrie observes: "Pluralism is taken to be the mark of a modern society as distinct

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from a primitive one. It could even be said that the index of a society's maturity is its pluralism, its capacity not only to tolerate but to maintain and even to encourage the existence within its bosom of diverse groups of people." Does this mean that the traditional Christian claim to absoluteness or exclusive truth is to be given up? Macquarrie apparently thinks so: "The nineteenth-century ideal of the conversion of all nations to the Christian religion, preferably in its Western and Protestant form, is a thing of the past. As far as we can see, there will be religious pluralism on this planet and that is probably a good and healthy state of affairs ..." [NOTE 7]


Contemporary Christians who think along these lines and then look back to the Reformation era like to observe that the Anabaptists were "right." What they mean is that the Anabaptist refusal to use the sword to advance the cause of the church and the Kingdom of Christ is a position that has won out almost completely in Protestant circles today. We are sometimes left with the impression that Menno Simons (1492-1559) and his followers in the "left wing" of the Reformation were early adherents of today's sophisticated tolerance and gentle relativism. Weren't the Anabaptists the ones who maintained that service comes first while doctrinal differences are of little importance?

Not quite. When it comes to excommunication (another one of those ugly terms that theologians today are often ashamed to discuss), the Anabaptists had a highly developed view, and also a long history of putting their view into practice. Menno Simons left no doubt about the necessity of excommunication in certain circumstances:

... it is evident that the congregation or church cannot continue in the saving doctrine, in an unblamable and pious life, without the proper use of excommunication. For as a city without walls and gates, or a field without trenches and fences, and a house without walls and doors, so is also a church which has not the true apostolic exclusion or ban. For it stands wide open to every seductive spirit, to all abominations and for proud despisers, to all idolatrous and willfully wicked sinners, yes, to all lewd, unchaste wretches, sodomites, harlots, and knaves, as may be seen in all the large sects of the world (which however pose improperly as the church of Christ). [NOTE 8]

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And he did not mean to exclude doctrinal offenses: false doctrine or "heretical, unclean doctrine" was a ground for excommunication. [NOTE 9]

In the time of the Reformation, then, the Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists were all on guard against heresy and regularly took steps to combat it. There was certainly disagreement on the nature of the weapons that could be used in contending for the faith, but that strong measures against heresy were called for was recognized by nearly all. The mentality of Erasmus (ca. 1466-1536), the great apostle of tolerance in the days of Luther, had not yet won much acceptance.


From my subtitle it is apparent that I mean to deal with both heresy and apologetics. I do not regard these as two completely separate topics. J. Gresham Machen asks: "... if we are to have Christian apologetics, if we are to have a defence of the faith, what kind of defence of the faith should it be?" He answers his own question as follows: "In the first place, it should be directed not only against the opponents outside the Church but also against the opponents within." [NOTE 10]

Machen distinguishes here between enemies outside and inside the church. But as the church and the world live on side by side generation after generation, this distinction becomes harder and harder to draw. After all, where do the heretics get their mistaken notions? Very often those notions come from without, from non-Christian or anti-Christian sources and traditions. Thus the apologist's effort to defend the faith in the face of intellectual objections from non-Christian circles cannot be entirely separated from the systematic theologian's task of spelling out exactly what Scripture and the church teach in opposition to the deviations that arise within Christian ranks. Sometimes the defense of the gospel in the face of unbelief as it manifests itself within the church is a much more urgent concern than the continuing debate with thinkers outside the church who take an interest in the question of God.

It is not just in our century that the heretics within the church have drawn sustenance and support from philosophical and religious conceptions alien to the Judeo-Christian matrix within

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which the Bible arose. Hence we read in a history of apologetics that "... the infant Church carried out its apologetical encounter with Judaism, with paganism, and with deviant tendencies that arose within the Christian community. " [NOTE 11]

In our secular world, the battle for the gospel is essentially one battle. Western Europe and North America have been exposed to the gospel for so many centuries now that we can no longer distinguish clearly between unbelief outside the church on the part of people who have never heard the gospel, and apostasy within the church on the part of people who are forsaking the Word of God and giving their hearts and minds to other "gospels." The spiritual enemies outside the church have long ago infiltrated the Christian camp; in some places they have even taken over. We must recognize that a Humanist annexation of Christianity is underway in our time.


The spiritual struggle in which Christians today are involved, then, is not just a battle for the Bible but also a battle for the church -- indeed, a battle for the very soul of the Christian faith. If we are to discuss this battle, however, we must know what Christianity is and is not. In other words, we must deal with the question of definition (Part I). If the faith is to be defined, it must be by reference to some standard or ultimate authority. Christians have not always agreed on what that authority is (Part II). Once we have a final authority to appeal to, we can seek to determine what heresy and orthodoxy are and relate them to the diversity that will always exist, and also to the inevitable disagreements on matters of secondary importance (Part III). Finally, there are some neglected questions to take up. In our individualistic age we pay little attention to the nature and rights of institutions and organizations. We will see that Christian integrity in doctrine and conduct is not just a norm for individuals but also has implications for institutions and for the Christian community in general (Part IV).

Click here for the notes to the Introduction.

Click here to return to the Table of Contents.

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The presupposition of this book is that the faith is worth fighting for. Those who love the Christian faith will also defend it when the need arises. But if we are to defend the faith, we must know what it is. How is the true faith to be distinguished from counterfeit versions? One might attempt to determine what the essence of Christianity is inductively by surveying its manifestations, but this procedure involves certain difficulties (Chapter 1). The other way to find out just what the faith to be defended is -- and is not -- is to trace its growth and development in history. As believers over the ages defended the faith against attack from within and without, Christianity defined itself in history (Chapter 2).

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For the past generation or so, many Christians have been uneasy about the church's identity. All around them they saw changes. Little reassurance was available as they sought to interpret events: the changes were greeted with enthusiasm by both Christian and secular journalists, and this added to their anxiety. Is the church stIll the church? Is the Pope still Catholic? Such were the questions that began to arise.

Arthur Herzog gave expression to what was running through many minds when he wrote:

Already the Episcopal Church has abandoned the notion of heresy, which would seem to indicate that there is little to be heretical about. If it comes to pass that the Pope is not infallible, even in matters of faith and morals, if bishops are elected by popular vote, if priests can marry and nuns serve only a few years before departing to raise families, how will one define the Roman Catholic Church? How will a Catholic be different from a Protestant? How will the Protestant Church, having jettisoned the supernatural, prayer, authority in moral matters, and so on, having committed itself to liberal social causes, differ, say, from Americans for Democratic Action? Why should the individual join one rather than the other? And what would a Jew be? [NOTE 1]

It seemed that the historical forms of Christianity were collapsing, perhaps to be replaced by a general religiosity or some sort of cilvil religion tailored to uphold the political order. Will Herberg, who has traced the convergence between Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religiosity in the United States, quotes the late President Dwight D. Eisenhower as saying: "Our government makes no

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sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith -- and I don't care what it is." [NOTE 2] The civil religion to which many Americans look as the source of consensus in American life has been described by Herberg as follows:

I want to make it clear that when I designate the American Way of life as America's civil religion, I am not thinking of it as a so-called common-denominator religion; it is not a synthetic system composed of beliefs to be found in all or in a group of religions. It is an organic structure of ideas, values, and beliefs that constitutes a faith common to Americans as Americans, and is genuinely operative in their lives; a faith that markedly influences, and is influenced by, the professed religions of Americans. Sociologically, anthropologically, it is the American religion, undergirding American national life and overarching American society, despite all indubitable differences of ethnicity, religion, section, culture, and class. And it is a civil religion in the strictest sense of the term, for, in it, the national life is apotheosized, national values are religionized, national heroes are divinized, national history is experienced as a Heilsgeschichte, as a redemptive history. [NOTE 3]

The notion of a connection between Christianity and political order goes back many centuries. A social and political religiosity in which the church champions and gives its blessing to the existing order is certainly one of the forms which Christianity has assumed in history. This type of religiosity is sometimes called the Christianity of the churches, which is then to be distinguished from the Christianity of the sects. The churches represent a Christianity that is at peace with its environment, a Christianity that has come to power, while the sects represent a Christianity that is alienated from the world and from the political order. Which of these two lines, which have coexisted throughout much of Western history, represents genuine Christianity? This question does not admit of a simple answer. And the situation is complicated by the fact that various groups which started out as sects gradually developed into churches at peace with the world around them.

The ability of institutional Christianity to develop and to maintain some sort of identity through change is one of the marvels of history. The discovery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that much more change had in fact taken place than anyone realized is one of the reasons for the various cynical interpretations of Christian history, many of which are still with us

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today. But it also gives rise to the quest for "original Christianity." Louis Auguste Sabatier, writing in the nineteenth century, observed:

Now, during the eighteen centuries of its history, Christianity has taken so many and such various forms, it has received so many developments in every sense, it has become a thing so rich and luxuriant, that it is far from easy to discover beneath this thick growth of institutions, dogmas, ceremonies, and devotions the tap-root of the tree from which it all has sprung, and from which it still derives its nutrient. [NOTE 4]


The problem one encounters in defining Christianity and in tracing its source is paralleled in the investigation of other cultural phenomena. One might ask, for example, just what philosophy is. There is much disagreement on this score. One of the most influential answers is Whitehead's suggestion that it is a series of footnotes to Plato, or commentary on Plato's thought, taking the form of both criticism and further development. If this view is correct, we could regard philosophy as a long discussion that began among the ancient Greeks and has been going on ever since. The Academy founded by Plato continued to operate for more than 900 years, and many other philosophers and schools joined in the discussion as well.

The weakness of this thesis becomes apparent when one asks where this leaves the great thinkers of the Orient, for it seems to define them right out of the philosophical arena. Since their discussion of the great questions does not have its roots in Plato and the Greeks, it is not philosophy and therefore would not have to be studied in our colleges and universities. This is indeed the treatment generally accorded the thinkers of the Orient.

What the problem of the Oriental thinkers demonstrates is that there is often something arbitrary about our definitions. If we had begun by surveying the great thinkers of the East and the West to see what they have in common, we would not have come up with Whitehead's notion of philosophy as commentary on Plato. And when we turn to the question of the relation between philosophy and religion, we see again how arbitrary definition can be.

The problem might be posed by asking whether there can be a

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Christian philosophy. For many thinkers a Christian philosophy would be a contradiction in terms: philosophy, we are told, accepts the authority of reason alone. We might grant that the Greeks indeed moved in such a direction and wished to regard man as the measure of all things, but we could still go on to ask whether a Christian philosophy in which God's revelation is the ultimate authority would not be an improvement upon -- and development beyond -- Greek philosophy.

Again, the definition is all-important. There is nothing contradictory about the notion of a Christian philosophy -- unless we define philosophy as recognizing only reason as authoritative. If we do settle on such a definition, many great thinkers of the Middle Ages, as well as various philosophers of our time, will have to be expelled from the ranks of the philosophers.

Philosophers are not averse to expelling or excommunicating one another. Although we live in a pluralistic age, there are still philosophers who are quick to say of certain opponents that they are not "real philosophers." They call them historians or theologians or perhaps journalists. Not surprisingly, the philosophers who get the roughest treatment are the ones who call the philosophical tradition into question in the most radical manner. Here I think especially of Martin Heidegger, who is surely the most controversial philosopher of the twentieth century. Many philosophers of our time respect Heidegger deeply, but some dismiss him as a quack who hides his lack of genuine insight behind obscure, incomprehensible language. So fundamental is his proposed reorientation in philosophy that a great many philosophers find themselves unable to understand what he is talking about. (It must be admitted that some of them have not really tried either.) Should philosophy be defined in a manner broad enough to include Heidegger?


There is no standard answer to the problem of how philosophy is to be defined. Generally speaking, we recognize as philosophers people who regard themselves as such, who identify themselves with the philosophical tradition and write scholarly works which they brand philosophy.

We tend to do the same thing when it comes to defining the

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term Jew. When Hitler was in power, the definition of this term was no academic question: whether or not one was classed a Jew was a matter of life or death. Today a Jewish person can claim certain rights in relation to the state of Israel which are not available to non-Jews. But what is a Jew? Again, an inductive approach would do little good. George W. Forell observes:

The question, "Who is a Jew?" has never been answered to the satisfaction of Jews or non-Jews. At present, most Jews would be willing to grant that a Jew is a person who accepts himself as a Jew. The situation among Christians has become very similar. A Christian is a person who accepts himself as a member of this communion. All other human criteria have become ever more difficult to apply. And the same holds true for the confessional groups within Christianity. [NOTE 5]

Forell's suggestion that a Christian is simply someone who regards himself as such is not a new one. It became important earlier in our century in the controversy between the fundamentalists and the modernists. The fundamentalists claimed that the modernists were not Christians and should therefore leave the church voluntarily. The modernists refused to leave, insisting that they, too, were Christians. But what did they mean by the term? Shailer Mathews, who participated in the controversy on the side of the modernists, explained simply that "... Christianity is only the abstract term for the beliefs and practices of Christians." [NOTE 6] It is "the religion of people who call themselves Christians." [NOTE 7] John Hick, who takes essentially the same approach, informs us: "Christian belief consists in the beliefs of Christians ..." [NOTE 8]

Such statements should not surprise us, for Christians of the liberal variety have long insisted on their right to define -- if only for themselves -- what the Christian faith means. In fact, the notion that each individual has the right to do his own defining is central to the modern outlook. James Hitchcock writes: "Modern culture is at its very root hostile to the act of definition and prefers an endlessly fluid reality, capable to being endlessly manipulated to serve the purposes of history." [NOTE 9]

Some centuries ago, any suggestion that individuals may decide for themselves what Christianity is and may define the faith as they see fit would have sounded arbitrary and anarchical, but more recently we have been under the growing influence of nominalism, a philosophy that in effect denies essences and regards the process of definition as flexible, as tied to practical

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concerns. A classic expression of the nominalist approach to definition is the statement made by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose It to mean -- neither more nor less." [NOTE 10] If Humpty Dumpty were a modemist, he would surely have no qualms about calling himself a Christian! And he would probably agree that Calvinism is the way of thinking of people who choose to call themselves Calvinists.


As we continue to search for a definition of Christianity, we see that the line between what is Christian and what is not Christian is growing ever vaguer. We are accustomed to thinking of Christianity as one of the religions of the world -- indeed, as the true religion -- but various thinkers, especially because of the influence of Karl Barth, deny that Christianity is a religion. They tell us rather that it is the enemy of all religion. We are warned that religion can all too easily tum into spiritual self-sufficiency: "Religion and church membership may thus well become a kind of defense that the conventionally religious man throws up to protect himself against the absolute demand of faith." [NOTE 11]

There are other such puzzles. The New Testament warns strongly against schismatics and false teachers, but many Christians, especially those who claim to be engaged in "mission work," are busy erasing the line between the church, which is charged with the task of proclaiming the gospel, and the world, which is to be called to repentance and conversion. In a critique of current approaches to mission Peter Beyerhaus observes:

... world history as such is understood as the result of God's mission, and in the transformation of the social structures we are told to realize the features of the coming kingdom of God. From here the conclusion is not far off that historical engagement as such is already mission, i.e. the participation in the missio Dei in world history . . . Church and mission are leveled down to the dimension of the world. In such a concept the eschatological kingdom of Christ is swallowed up by the immanent achievements of historical evolution. Even if such evolution is ascribed to the work of the anonymous Christ, we are nearer to the monistic philosophy of history of Hegel and Karl Marx than to the prophecies of the Bible. [NOTE 12]

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The notion of the "anonymous Christ" and of "anonymous Christians" is central to much of the confusion about how Christianity is to be defined in our time. If Christ is active in a hidden way in the world, working among people who do not know His name or seek the fellowship of His people, Christianity could conceivably embrace the entire human race.

The notion that all men will ultimately be saved, which theologians call universalism, has been with us for centuries as a minority position. It is in our time that certain consequences -- or perhaps presuppositions -- of this position are being worked out. If many are saved without acknowledging Christ, what are we to make of their role in history? Are they hindering the establishment of Christ's Kingdom, or are they working in their own unknowing way for the realization of divine purposes? Here we are reminded of what Hegel called the "cunning of reason": he maintained that despite the opposition and conflict we seem to see in history, there is steady progress (a "historical evolution") toward the goal set by history (or "reason"). The actors on the historical stage serve reason's purposes without knowing it.

Such an outlook has interesting implications for how Christian unity is to be understood. If Christ is present even in secular people and forces and institutions, our ecumenical efforts should not be limited to Christian circles. John Macquarrie therefore calls for "secular ecumenism."

... the basis for this ecumenism is not a nicely worked out ecclesiology or even a doctrine of redemption but simply that natural morality which is common to all men by virtue of their humanity. The Christian members of the group do not even forcibly baptize the others by calling them "anonymous Christians" or anything of the sort. It is enough that they are human beings ... This type of ecumenism therefore comes as a timely reminder that the end of history, according to Christian belief, is not the church but the kingdom of heaven, and this is a more inclusive concept, gathering up both church and world in an eschatological unity. Our primary aim should not be the unity of the church. We look beyond that to the unity of mankind. [NOTE 13]

There was a time when Christians spoke of the "visible" church and the "invisible" church. By the visible church they meant God's people on earth as organized in institutional form, while the invisible church was made up of all the true believers, both on earth and in heaven. Today, because of the new way of thinking,

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theologians are beginning to speak of a different kind of "hidden" or invisible church, a church made up of people who do the work of Christ without knowing His name. Dorothee Sölle explains:

In Christ God has made us free, broken down the boundaries so that the official Church is no longer the only place to seek and believe in Christ. Isn't the "Church outside the Church" simply a consequence of secularization, a hidden Church, in which Christ is present unrecognized as on the road to Emmaus?
Wherever people have to do with Christ, there is the hidden Church. They may not be ecclesiastically or even consciously having to do with him, but he is present anonymously.
It is through the preaching of this very Gospel that the world has been transformed and become secular, and this means that Christ is also preached and believed where his name is never mentioned. [NOTE 14]

What is going on in this line of thinking is that Christianity ceases to oppose secularization but embraces it instead, even taking credit for it! Hans Küung writes: "Surprisingly enough, Church and theology have not only -- in the end -- come to terms with the secularization process, but -- particularly in the years since the Second Vatican Council -- have even entered vigorously into the swing of it. " [NOTE 15] If the church, in the eyes of some, has ceased to be anything, it may be because it has become virtually everything -- all things to all men!


It would appear from a survey of the contemporary Christian world, then, that little is to be established through an inductive procedure. To distil the essence or common denominator of all that now calls itself Christian or is called Christian seems well-nigh impossible. In short, an inductive method will not do. But the problem with an inductive approach does not arise solely from the confusion in which we now live. Herman Bavinck, writing early in our century, already wamed against an inductive approach to the question of the essence of Christianity, arguing that it would not succeed in settling this issue any more than it had. managed to distil for us the essence of religion when used by the proponents of comparative religion. [NOTE 16]

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The problem with an inductive approach is that it presupposes a criterion by which it is determined what is included in the survey and what is not. If we take an inductive approach to the problem of philosophy's essence and include Christian philosophers among the thinkers surveyed, it will turn out that philosophy is compatible with religion. But if we use a narrower sample in our survey, a sample that does not include Christian philosophers, we will get the opposite result.

If we are to establish the essence of Christianity by way of a survey, some weighty questions will have to be settled first. Do we recognize "anonymous Christians"? Do we recognize sects and cults that have sprung up on the fringes of Christianity and have incorporated certain elements of Biblical revelation into their scriptures and teachings? The decisions made on such questions will determine whether we come up with a broad or inclusive definition of Christianity, as opposed to a narrow or exclusive definition.


We would also have to face squarely the painful question of false teaching. It is significant that the New Testament tells us that false teachers come in the name of Christ. [NOTE 17] Hence we are not simply to take every prophet or theologian at his word when he claims to be a Christian.

In effect, the issue of nominalism comes up here again. In other words, can I make words mean exactly what I want them to mean? Do I have the right to call myself whatever I please? Is it the right of every citizen to declare himself a spokesman for Christianity?

Perhaps an example can help us here. Suppose an economist who claimed to be a Keynesian proceeded to contradict every one of Keynes's major economic theories. When challenged he might present long, complicated arguments about the proper interpretation of Keynes's views in today's economic circumstances. Keynes himself is no longer with us to protest, but wouldn't the time come when economists dismissed such a person as an imposter -- in effect, a false teacher? And if so, isn't it conceivable that some theologians today are also false teachers, that is to say, interpreters who have twisted and distorted the Christian gospel beyond recognition? Are we obliged to construct a definition of

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Christianity broad enough to cover even their peculiar version of the faith? I don't believe so.

To get at the question of the proper definition of the faith, we must look at history and the church. Christianity has not manifested itself first and foremost in history by means of individual human beings but rather by means of the church, of which Christ's disciples were the first leaders. And the church defined the faith in history, carefully setting it off from various false teachings that arose to challenge it. This process took centuries; it was not a matter of hasty decisions. Thus, even though Scripture remains the final authority for Christian doctrine, the church with its creeds has formulated Scripture's message. We will now investigate how central Christian doctrines were clarified and refined in history.

Click here for the notes to Chapter 1.

Click here to return to the Table of Contents.

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If a definition is to be effective and useful, it must be specific. And if it is specific, it will necessarily be exclusive. If we define the word Canadian, for example, in a manner that allows human beings of all nationalities, regardless of where they live or whether they have ever set foot in Canada, to qualify as Canadians, our definition will not be of much use, for it will exclude no one from citizenship and the voting list.

This point does not apply solely to the work of scientists, government officials, and people who make dictionaries. Institutions must also be able to define themselves by way of exclusion; otherwise they will eventually stand for nothing whatsoever. The Christian church today, as we have seen, must decide whether it wishes to be regarded as part of the process of secularization that has given us twentieth-century Humanism. The church, in brief, must define itself.

If the church does so, it may have to exclude from its fellowship some people who wish to participate and belong. The issue is then on whose terms they are to participate -- their own, or the church's. Painful and unpopular measures sometimes have to be taken.

The early church found itself in a situation that parallels today's situation in many respects. Although there was plenty of confusion and disagreement, the church pursued a cautious policy that eventually had the effect of excluding certain groups. Marcion, a major thinker of the second century and a man of considerable influence, was among those who were excluded. It seems that there was an "anti-ecumenical" spirit abroad in the early church, and it began with the apostles, who issued strong warnings against false teachings and those who promoted them.

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The period in which the early church spread beyond Palestine throughout the Mediterranean world was an age of syncretism or synthesis. There was much interest in religion, but the religious thinkers of the time were distinctly ecumenical or broad-minded. With Greek and Latin available as international languages, nations which had long lived in isolation from one another were beginning to discover each other. The Greek mind was being combined with the spirituality of the Near East. There was room for Judaism in the new synthesis, and also for the followers of Jesus Christ.

In short, the early church quickly found itself confronted with rival faiths which sought to swallow it up, just as today certain elements of Humanism seem interested in absorbing or annexing Christian movements and institutions. The church could not long delay its response to this situation -- hence the warnings against false teachers issued by the apostles.

The greatest threat to the church came from the philosophical and religious thinkers known as the Gnostics. Paul Tillich characterizes them as follows:

The Gnostics were not a sect; if anything, they were many sects. Actually, however, gnosticism was a widespread religious movement in the late ancient world. This movement is usually called syncretism. It was a mixture of all the religious traditions of that time. It spread all over the world, and was strong enough to penetrate Greek philosophy and the Jewish religion ... Hence, gnosticism was an attempt to combine all the religious traditions which had lost their genuine roots, and to unite them in a system of a half-philosophical, half-religious character. [NOTE 1]

It was not a foregone conclusion that Christianity would resist the lure of the Gnostic synthesis and try to keep itself pure. For many students of church history, it is far from clear what pure and original Christianity is -- and whether it includes the spirituality of the Old Testament as exemplified in the psalms. (There is the problem of the psalms of imprecation, for example.) Adolf Harnack, who has spoken of Christianity as "the syncretistic religion par excellence," [NOTE 2] views the development of Christian doctrine as a mixture involving a simple, pure gospel and alien influences. Gnosticism, he explains, was a movement in the direction of a

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"world-religion"; the notion of the unity of mankind was much in the air. Christianity did not seem to be universalistic in the same sense as Gnosticism, but of course the gospel could be reinterpreted. Harnack explains the proposed synthesis as follows:

The Gospel was recognized as a world-religion only in so far as it could be severed from the Old Testament religion and the Old Testament, and be moulded by the religious philosophy of the Greeks and grafted upon the existing cultus-wisdom and practice of occult mysteries. The means by which this artificial union was to be brought about was the allegorical method as used long since by the Greek religious philosophers. The possibility of the rise of a Christian gnosticism lay in this, that the Christian communities had everywhere fallen heir to the heritage of the Jewish propaganda, where there was already an exuberant tendency to spiritualize the Old Testament religion, and where the intellectual interest in religion had long been unbridled. [NOTE 3]

The Christians did not all agree on how to respond to the Gnostic challenge and the issues it raised. In the first couple of centuries, thinkers associated with the Egyptian city of Alexandria (e.g. Origen, Clement) favored a synthesis with the Greek mind, especially the philosophy of Plato, which paralleled Gnosticism in some significant respects. But in the end the Gnostic forces did not win out, even though it must be admitted that their influence has never been entirely outgrown in the church's history. It was gradually recognized that what Gnosticism stood for simply is not identical -- or even compatible -- with the Christian gospel. James Orr observes: "That the triumph of Gnosticism, notwithstanding the germs of truth in some of the higher systems, would have meant the dissolution of historical Christianity and certain ruin of the Church, is granted by writers of nearly every school." [NOTE 4]


It is significant that the church responded to these challenges comparatively slowly and was careful not to issue arbitrary statements in an effort to get disagreements settled in a hurry. We see this deliberate caution reflected in the long-standing disagreement on the New Testament canon: it was not until the fourth century that it was agreed which books make up the New Testament scriptures. On this point, and on others, the church learned to live with a measure of uncertainty and confusion.

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The early church was famous for its doctrinal disputes. People sometimes wonder whether so much theological hair-splitting was necessary, but such an attitude results mainly from ignorance. The fact of the matter is that the church was well aware what the central question is; the debate was not over the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Herman Bavinck writes: " 'What think ye of the Christ?' is and remains the main question in religion and theology." [NOTE 5] He even identifies it as the "question of the ages." [NOTE 6] It was around this question that the doctrinal disputes revolved.

Bavinck also observes that"... Jesus was not the first Christian; He was and is the Christ. He was not the subject, but the object, of religion." [NOTE 7] Hence the church did not seek to probe the "self-understanding" of Jesus, as various modern scholars have tried to do. Since Jesus was being incorporated into rival religions (just as today He is given a place in Mormonism and in Islam), the church tried to spell out what it means that He was God incarnate -- the Son of God, but born of a woman.

Many of the early doctrinal controversies, then, concerned Christology. Arising out of Gnosticism with its disdain for the flesh and the realm of matter was the Docetic heresy, which was a denial that Jesus was truly human, Taking its name from the Greek word for appear or seem (dokeo), this conception of Christ in effect made a charade of His ministry among us and His atoning sacrifice: it was argued that Jesus only appeared to suffer on the cross, or sometimes that the man who was crucified was someone other than Jesus.

The early Christians rejected the Docetic interpretation of the Christ event as undermining the very basis of the Christian understanding of redemption. Some of the affirmations in the creeds should be read with the Docetic heresy in mind: the Apostles' Creed, for example, assures us that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate" and that He really did die, for it mentions explicitly that He was buried. The first verse of I John may also have been written against the background of the Docetic heresy: 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands ..."

A similar heresy confronted by the early church was Apollinarianism. Once again the divine nature of Christ was emphasized

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so strongly that insufficient place was left for His human nature, as though Jesus was a divine mind in a human body. This position was strongly criticized by the church fathers, who perceived that a redeemer who was not fully man would not be an adequate savior. The Apollinarian position, too, was clearly excluded in the creeds that were eventually formulated.

The most famous of the Christological heresies was Arianism, which was named after the fourth-century theologian Arius, who went too far in the opposite direction. Arius maintained that Christ or the Word was created. He did not claim that the Son of God was only a man, for he made Him the first of all created things and instrumental in the creation of the world. But the Father alone was eternal and unbegotten, according to Arius.

The great opponent of this position was Athanasius, whose thinking eventually won out and was declared orthodox. The issue was formulated in terms of the question whether the Son is of "one substance" or the same essence (Greek: homoousios) with the Father. The Arians said no to this formulation and maintained that the Son is of a "similar substance" (Greek: homoiousios) with the Father. This was a weaker position, but, as has often been noted, there was only an iota (the Greek letter "i") of difference between the two formulations. The Athanasian position triumphed at the Council of Nicea in 325. In the Nicene Creed, which is officially endorsed by many churches today, we read that the Son is "begotten not created, of the same essence (homoousion) as the Father." [NOTE 8]


These great battles, I fear, are little understood today. Church history is not a popular subject. Few Christians have any idea what was really at stake. G.K. Chesterton, who speaks of the "thrilling romance of Orthodoxy," sheds some light on what he calls those "monstrous wars about small points of theology." Balance and precision were needed to avoid the pitfalls in the church's path: "To have fallen into anyone of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure ..." Chesterton was keenly aware that ideas have consequences. Therefore firmness was called for:

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The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. [NOTE 9]

Somewhere in the midst of all this controversy scholars locate the birth of dogma, the officially proclaimed teaching of the church. Dogmas are not opinions or mere theories or intellectual fads, and they should not be proclaimed when there is no need for them. They are formulated in response to a situation, a specific need. Dorothy Sayers explains: "... dogmas are not a set of arbitrary regulations invented a priori by a committee of theologians enjoying a bout of all-in dialectical wrestling. Most of them were hammered out under pressure of urgent practical necessity to provide an answer to heresy." [NOTE 10]

Some theologians, however, view the development of dogma in darker terms, as a series of false additions. John Hick, for example, speaks of the "deification of Jesus" and argues: "... it is extremely unlikely that Jesus thought of himself, or that his first disciples thought of him, as God incarnate." We do not know very much about "Jesus' self-understanding," according to Hick. [NOTE 11]

The important question is whether there is support in Scripture for the Christological decisions and definitions of the early church. However one might choose to answer this question, it is clear that the New Testament writings for the most part present Jesus against the background of the Old Testament promises and prophecies. What is implicit and not clearly spelled out in the Old Testament becomes manifest in the New. The same relation of implicit to explicit is often used to defend the development of Christological dogmas in the early church. Such a defence is certainly in order, but it does not wholly account for the development of dogmas and doctrines. Heresy and the threat of syncretism also playa role here.


The concept of orthodoxy, then, cannot simply be equated with the explicit teachings of the New Testament. It was the church

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that determined what orthodoxy is as she defined the faith in history. What should amaze us is not that so much strife was required to achieve these results but that the faith as defined has stood for so long. Robert A. Kraft sums up the grand development as follows: "By the year 400 of the common era, there had developed what can be called 'classical Christian orthodoxy.' This type of Christianity became mainstream Christianity in both the eastern and western world prior to the time of the Protestant Reformation." [NOTE 12]

It is important to note that these main doctrinal lines defining orthodoxy do not rule on every conceivable theological issue. The church spoke officially when necessary and excluded certain views as incompatible with the gospel, but it did not seek to be theologically comprehensive or exhaustive. The dogmatic decisions concemed the very heart of the faith. Jaroslav Pelikan observes: "... the only dogmas in the most precise sense of the word are the dogmas of the Trinity and of the person of Christ, as these were defined in the first four (or seven) ecumenical councils." [NOTE 13]

The central question for religion and theology, as we have seen, is: "What think ye of the Christ?" It is this question that is addressed in the formulation of dogma. Many of the early controversies involved the two natures of Christ. Settling this question required discussing the relation of the Son to the Father, and also to the "Spirit" of whom we read so much in the New Testament. Thus the Christological issue led naturally to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

This dogma as developed by the early church does not correspond directly to any one passage of Scripture. It has sometimes been argued that the doctrine of the Trinity simply is not taught in Scripture, and in at least one sense this seems to be the case. Yet the church found it necessary to formulate such a doctrine so that believers could be protected against false and misleading conceptions of Christ.

That the church took these matters with the utmost seriousness is apparent especially from the Athanasian Creed (which, despite the name, was not formulated by Athanasius). In this creed we read: "Now this is the Catholic faith, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance." The bulk of the Creed is made up of

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complicated trinitarian formulations that are not suitable for use in worship services. The Creed is more theological than liturgical, but it is surely not theological in the sense that the points it makes are "merely academic." The Creed opens with these words: "Whoever desires to be saved must above all things hold the Catholic faith. Unless a man keeps it in its entirety inviolate, he will assuredly perish eternally." The closing words reinforce this point: "This is the Catholic faith. Unless a man believes it faithfully and steadfastly, he will not be able to be saved." [NOTE 14]

When we read such strong words, we might wonder about the believers in Bible times. Did Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul hold "the Catholic faith"? Clearly not in this explicit form. But this need not concem us, for they did not confront the choices faced by the Christians who lived during the days of the Athanasian Creed, when there were so many different conceptions of Christ between which one had to choose. The same point could be made with regard to children who are believers: children face fewer choices. In short, the challenge of heresy made doctrinal definition and self-consciousness a necessity. Here we see in part what it means that the faith is defined in history.


If Christian orthodoxy has taken shape and been defined in history, we must seek to understand it historically. But what does this mean? Thomas Oden gives us part of the answer when he argues that "... Christianity has a right to be understood historically, as it has understood itself, even as every individual person has a right to some degree to be judged not merely in terms of his present momentary transgressions, but in terms of his larger lifelong intentionality and long-standing behavior pattems." [NOTE 15] In other words, the Christian faith must never be identified or equated with specific persons, episodes, errors, and so forth, which is what some people are inclined to do in rejecting Christianity as the oppressive religion of their youth. Christianity has a 2000-year history and must be understood in terms of that history: not in terms of an infinitesimal portion of it.

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But historical understanding also involves a willingness to examine Christian affirmations and decisions in context. The British philosopher R.G. Collingwood can help us here with his "logic of question and answer." Collingwood argues:

... you cannot find out what a man means by simply studying his spoken or written statements, even though he has spoken or written with perfect command of language and perfectly truthful intention. In order to find out his meaning you must also know what the question was (a question in his own mind, and presumed by him to be in yours) to which the thing he has said or written was meant as an answer. [NOTE 16]

To get at the meaning of the dogmatic formulae regarding the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, we must find out what questions were in the minds of the church's leaders and thinkers when they were drawn up. This requires a commitment to serious historical scholarship.

But this historical emphasis can easily lead to historicism, that is, an absolutizing of the historical process in which no norms are applied to what history produces. We see a manifestation of historicism in the widespread complaint that traditional Christian theology is irrelevant because it offers answers to questions that modem man is no longer asking. The implication, of course, is that Christian theology should get better acquainted with modern man and seek to answer the questions he does have on his mind.

To argue along this line is to make history one's ultimate authority. It may indeed be true that modern man -- unlike Martin Luther in the sixteenth century -- is not greatly concerned with sin and guilt and being made right with God; he seems more concemed with liberation and autonomy. But does this mean, as some Christians seem to think, that Christianity should be reshaped in such a way as to maximize the "emancipatory possibilities" contained in its heritage? Must Christianity ask modern man what his needs and aspirations are and then define itself in such a way as to be able to meet them? Or must Christianity contradict modern man and tell him that he does not understand his own needs and that he must look to the Bible to find out who he is and what his true needs are? To do the latter would be to elevate the Bible above history as an authority for man and thereby to reject historicism.

The upshot of the matter is that we must distinguish between the notion that the faith is defined in history and the notion that it

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is history and its needs (i.e. the perceived needs of the hour) that must define the faith. When the faith is defined, it must always be by reference to some authority or authorities. We will see in Part II that there is disagreement on which authorities are to be used.

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There is a good deal of disagreement about the meaning and proper interpretation of the Christian faith. If the disputes that arise are to be settled amicably, some sort of common ground must be found so that the various sides will have something to appeal to as they contend for their version of the faith. But is there such common ground? And if there is, is it common to Christians only, or is it shared with those who do not believe in Christ?

Throughout history a number of sources of religious authority have been proposed as the common ground for settling disputes. Some thinkers have interpreted the doctrine of general revelation to mean that reason is part of -- or perhaps central to -- God's revelation to man (Chapter 3). Others, also working with the notion of a general revelation, have emphasized our experience, especially of nature, as common and authoritative (Chapter 4). Virtually all Christian thinkers recognize Scripture as a court of appeal common to all who take the trouble to study it diligently and submissively (Chapter 5). But if Scripture is accepted as a central authority, the role of tradition, which is significant not just for Roman Catholics but also for Protestants, remains to be considered (Chapter 6).

Click here for the notes to Chapter 2.

Click here to return to the Table of Contents.

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God's revelation is not limited to the written Word. Virtually all major Christian thinkers have recognized that in addition to His special revelation or word-revelation God has given us what is usually called "general revelation." There is some dispute about the appropriateness of this contrast between "general" and "special" revelation, but the idea behind the notion of a revelation in nature or in creation is widely accepted.

What is the medium of God's general revelation? Various media have been suggested, and it is conceivable that general revelation might use more than one of them. In the next chapter we will consider the notion that general revelation comes to us through experience (broadly conceived); in this chapter we will look at the relation of "reason" to general revelation. As we shall see, it is a topic with a long history.


In order to say something about the relation of reason to general revelation, we must first try to determine what reason itself is. And this is far from easy. Julian Marias observes: "It would be hard to find a word with more divergent meanings than reason." [NOTE 1] Nonetheless, some distinctions can be made.

For many thinkers, reason is a set of mental contents-perhaps a body of ideas or principles which all men have in common, given to them, presumably, by God. If so, reason might well serve as common ground in disputes about religious and theological matters.

Another conception is that reason is one of our faculties, to be

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distinguished from such faculties as will, desire, emotion, sensation, feeling, and imagination. (There are various different classifications of the faculties to be distinguished from reason.) A commitment to reason would then be a determination to allow reason, which is to be trusted, to guide one's conduct, and not to allow oneself to be swayed by other, less reliable faculties. This would open up the prospect of a rational approach to religion. The assumption, again, is that reason is universal, while other elements or aspects of man's make-up are individual or particular -- and therefore potentially divisive.

A third conception is that reason is a tool or a criterion by means of which we evaluate whatever is proposed to us for our acceptance or belief, regardless of where it comes from. In such a view, other faculties (e.g. imagination) might generate Ideas, but only reason would be competent to judge them. Here, too, reason could be conceived of as universal and therefore as representmg common ground.

A fourth, less elevated conception of reason is that it is the power of logical thought and discrimination. This view does not presuppose that reason is the universal element able to bind men together, for it recognizes the possibility of different and conflicting principles of thought. Some philosophers insist on thinking along dialectical lines, for example, but many others reject dIalectic.

The first three views of reason have been formulated somewhat abstractly: two of them are sometimes found together in a single thinker's conception of reason. We must remember that reason is one of the grand themes in the history of Western philosophy and that a great deal has been made to depend on it. It is precisely its centrality to so much of the philosophical tradition that makes it hard to define. The most important ideas (e.g. goodness, truth, justice, beauty) seem to escape definition in the ordinary sense. It might be argued that they are the elemental building blocks that make it possible for us to define other words of secondary Importance. If so, we cannot define them in terms of those other words.


Reason is a central notion in the history of philosophy. Thus we find it emerging in Greek thought. The growth of the concept of

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reason among the Greeks is bound up with changes in their conception of the divine. Werner Jaeger observes: "In the western world, universalism began neither with the Christians nor with the prophets of Israel, but with the Greek philosophers." Thus universalism was in part the result of distrust in the traditional conception of the gods. "Since Homer's time," writes Jaeger, "the Greeks had come to recognize how various the ideals of the gods were among individual nations; and this realization could only lead them to deduce, from the very fact of this particularism, the vanity of all such distinctions between gods, however naturally they may have come about." [NOTE 2]

As the Greek concept of reason grew and developed it became part of the concept of divinity. Anaxagoras, one of the early Greek philosophers, came to think of the mind as "the very essence of the Divine." Jaeger explains: "To Anaxagoras the Divine is pure reason -- the activity of the Mind as taskmaster. Man has direct access to the Divine by similar powers that he bears within himself." [NOTE 3] This notion was carried forward into the mainstream of Greek philosophy. E.R. Dodds tells us that for Plato, reason was "an active manifestation of deity in man." [NOTE 4]

A commitment to the centrality of reason is usually combined with a distrust of other aspects of man's make-up. So it was with the Greeks. Dodds explains: "The Greek had always felt the experience of passion as something mysterious and frightening, the experience of a force that was in him, possessing him, rather than possessed by him." [NOTE 5] In a study of the emergence of philosophy among the Greeks we read: "... throughout early Greek philosophy reason is acknowledged as the highest arbiter, even though the Logos is not mentioned before Heraclitus and Parmenides." [NOTE 6]

The very significant role for reason in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle was foreshadowed, then, in the lesser-known earlier philosophers. The full-blown conception of reason among the Greeks is summarized as follows by John F. Hayward:

... if Reason is viewed in the honored station to which Plato and Aristotle assigned it, as capable of penetrating to Being Itself, and discovering the Essence of all things, then man takes on a godlike and ultimately secure status above the usual tides of human affairs by the mere exercise of his rational powers. Plato represents Socrates as believing that his life of Reason had prepared him for a blessed

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immortality. Aristotle was bold enough to suggest that the fulfillment of "Theoretical Reason" put man into direct relationship with the reasonableness of Being itself, a reasonableness which he called "Thinking about Thinking," and which he attributed to God and man as a common power.

This powerful drive in Greek culture toward rational transcendence over the accidents of fate and fortune reached its climax in Plato and Aristotle and subtly wrought a major change in basic conceptions of reality. Under the triumph of classical Hellenic rationalism, the universe came to be regarded as essentially knowable and rationally ordered. The old fear of spirits and fate, of the uncontrollable and inscrutable, gave way to what was considered an enlightened conception of reality and of human existence. [NOTE 7]

The implications for the history of philosophy and religious thought are not hard to discern. Reason is the divine in man, It is that which God and man have in common. Therefore human rationality can be regarded as inherently revelatory. John Baillie rightly observes: "Rationalism and the Speculative Method in theology are in no sense creations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but represent a well-established tradition which goes back through the Middle Ages to the attitude assumed towards religion by the Greek philosophers." [NOTE 8]

Given the conception of rationality as the link with the divine, It should come as no surprise that various Christian thinkers who were influenced by Greek philosophy had trouble conceiving of reason or rationality as subject to the corrupting effect of man's fall into sin. And if reason was essentially untainted by sin, it could serve as common ground. This way of thinking came under attack during the Reformation and again in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


The Greek conception of reason laid the foundation for a "natural theology" based on general revelation alone. We see this way of thinking emerge clearly in Thomas Aquinas, who has exercised more influence on Roman Catholicism than any other thinker. Bernard Ramm writes: "The Roman Catholic position is that the general revelation of nature may be so read by man apart from Christ and apart from grace that he can prove that God is, and

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know some of his attributes." [NOTE 9] Today there are many Catholics who feel uncomfortable with such a position. Yet for Aquinas, the notion of natural reason operating on its own was of great importance: It provided common ground in the debate between the Christian and the unbeliever. Ramm explains: "The philosophy of Aristotle as Thomas incorporates it into Christian thought becomes the basis of common ground for argumentation with the heathen. Natural reason is common to pagan and Christian alike and forms the court of appeal in religious debate." [NOTE 10 It appears that Aquinas enjoyed doing battle with his opponents on their territory.

The outlook of Aquinas has remained the mainline position within Roman Catholicism. The Vatican Council of 1870 declared that the "Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God ... may certainly be known by the natural light of human reason, by means of created things." [NOTE 11] Natural reason has been recognized as functioning especially in the domain of morality. John. L. Thomas writes: "... Catholic thought has consistently vindicated man's natural ability to discover moral order and the norms for right moral conduct." Supernatural or special revelation is required in order to grasp certain central truths such as the Trinity and the incarnation, but "... unaided human reason is capable of discovering sufficient knowledge of general ethical principles to make judgments of value." [NOTE 12]


The next step in the elevation of reason as the central religious authority took place In the context of the Renaissance. The Platonist tradition, which various Christian thinkers embraced and interpreted to mean that reason is the divine in man, was influential especially in the Academy at Florence. The philosophers of Florence, of whom Marsilio Ficino and Pico delIa Mirandola were the most prominent, advocated a syncretistic approach. Their goal, according to N.A. Robb, was "to establish rational bases for religion by showing how the witness of all philosophies pointed to the truth of the Christian revelation." [NOTE 13]

The Platonist strand continues into subsequent centuries. Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) maintained that God provided all men with a common set of religious notions. Benjamin

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Whichcote (1609-83), who was one of England's "Cambridge Platonists," identified reason as a direct revelation of God to the soul, arguing: "To go against reason is to be against God ... Reason is the Divine governor of man's life. It is the very voice of God." [NOTE 14]

The rational emphasis in religion also manifested itself in non-Platonist circles. A notable example is the English philosopher John Locke (16321704), whose deep aversion to what was then called "enthusiasm" was rooted in his conviction (shared with the Cambridge Platonists) that reason is the "candle of the Lord" [NOTE 15] and ought to be our guide in our conduct.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this confidence in reason led to a "natural" or rational religion (often called deism) that went well beyond Aquinas's natural theology. For Aquinas, supernatural revelation disclosed truths not available to natural reason, but for the adherents of rational religion, the Christian faith as based on special revelation was essentially a "republication" of what was already contained in natural religion. Matthew Tindal, one of the deists who held this position, summed it up nicely in the title of his major book: "Christianity as Old as Creation; or the Gospel, a Re-publication of the Law of Nature" (1730). It was Aquinas who had unwittingly and unintentionally paved the way for such a development. Hector Hawton observes: "To Aquinas, as to many of the Greeks, the Order of Nature seemed the expression of the divine reason ... Thus we get the foundations on which Christian Rationalism was later built." [NOTE 16]

The classic thinker in this mold is John Toland, the author of Christianity Not Mysterious (1696). The purpose of this book was to thoroughly harmonize the Christian faith with what reason allowed and demanded. Toland argued: "... Reason is not less from God than Revelation; 'tis the Candle, the Guide, the Judge he has lodg'd within every Man that cometh into this World." [NOTE 17] God has "... endu'd us with the Power of suspending our Judgments about whatever is uncertain, and of never assenting but to clear Perceptions." [NOTE 18] Since reason and Scripture both come from God they cannot clash, although they may on occasion appear to contradict one another. Are we then to suspend belief in what reason seems to be telling us? Toland writes:

A seeming Contradiction is to us as good as a real one; and our Respect for the Scripture does not require us to grant any such in it. but rather

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to conclude, that we are ignorant of the right Meaning when a Difficulty occurs; and to suspend our Judgments concerning it, till with suitable Helps and Industry we discover the Truth. As for acquiescing in what a Man understands not, or cannot reconcile to his Reason, they know best the fruits of it that practise it. For my part, I'm a Stranger to it, and cannot reconcile my self to such a Principle. [NOTE 19]

The upshot, then, is that reason must take precedence over Scripture. Joseph Butler, an Anglican bishop and the author of a highly influential apologetic work entitled The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736), argued along similar lines and made reason the standard by which to test and judge revelation. [NOTE 20] Such was the "Christian rationalism" which had grown out of the Greek understanding of the divine by way of Aquinas's notion of a natural theology. The rational religion of Immanuel Kant had many forbears.


Since the time of Toland and Butler there has been further movement in this direction. As we saw earlier (p. 23 above), some contemporary theologians conceive of Christian theology as part of the secularizing trend in our society. Hans Küng writes: "... Christians can be humanists and humanists can be Christians ... Christianity cannot properly be understood except as a radical humanism." [NOTE 21] José Porfirio Miranda, in a book on the "Christian humanism of Karl Marx," assures us that "... authentic Christianity means solid, unequivocal humanism. " [NOTE 22]

Humanism, in turn, must be viewed as a continuation of the Greek outlook with which we began this chapter. In a book on Humanism understood as "the Greek ideal," we read:

The specifically Greek outlook proceeds from Homer onward like a broad highway, along an area covered also by secondary roads, and with tributaries debouching from or merging with the main road. Somewhere in the Roman period, to retain the image, secondary roads combined to cause a marked detour, which eventually, with Renaissance and humanism, gradually rejoined and merged with the main highway. Its character was inevitably altered, but in its outlines and direction it was unmistakably a continuation of the Greek way. [NOTE 23]
Explicit Humanists like Hector Hawton speak language

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reminiscent of the Greeks. As he describes what held the various types of Humanists of our century together,. he observes: "They were rationalist, in the sense that they put their trust in reason as a means of discovering truth and of settling disputes. They accept the discipline of using reason to explore the world ..." [NOTE 24]

In our century, of course, this Greek Humanism is to be encountered in a fully secular form. For the secular Humanist, reason is no longer what God and man have in common, for God is out of the picture. Yet it is still the highest in man and his guide in life's perplexities. Thus Humanism is not simply to be equated with atheism, for it is to be found among both Christians (I.e. Christian rationalists) and atheists.


Christian rationalism has come in for a good deal of criticism over the years. Both Calvin and Luther protested against the excessive reliance on reason on the part of many Christians. Luther used strong language: "... Reason corrupted by the devil is harmful, and the cleverer and more richly endowed it is, the more harm it does, as we see in wise men who are led by their reason to reject the Word ..." [NOTE 25] Menno Simons differed with Luther and Calvin on a number of points, but he agreed on the danger posed by reason: "... human reason is in Adam so depraved through the bite of the old crooked serpent that it has kept but little which is conducive to godliness. Yet, it has become so perverse, haughty, ignorant, and blind that it dares to alter, bend, break, gainsay, judge, and lord it over the Word of the Lord God" [NOTE 26]

James I. Packer clearly stands in the Reformation tradition when he warns against the assumption that "... the human mind, working by its own light, is the final arbiter of truth ..." He points to the danger of pride and "intellectual impenitence. When the gospel calls us to repentance, the mind is not to be excluded. Packer writes: "Repentance means a change of mind; part of which, as we saw, is the abandoning of the sinful quest for intellectual autonomy and the recognition that true Wisdom begins with a willingness to treat God's Word as possessing final authority. Repentance means renouncing the pride whIch would hail man as the measure of all things ..." [NOTE 27]

Various theologians of the twentieth century have attacked the

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infatuation with reason on the part of many Christian thinkers. The names of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner come to mind. One of the most thoroughgoing critiques of the rationalism inspired by the Greeks is Lev Shestov's book Athens and Jerusalem. Shestov claims that the warning to Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents "the only true critique of pure reason that has ever been formulated here on earth." [NOTE 28] Man, inspired by false rationalistic ideals, sought a knowledge that was not attainable:

... man, seduced by the serpent, was not content with this knowledge: the "that" (hoti) did not suffice for him; he desired the "why" (diotl); the "that" irritated him just as it irritated Kant. His reason aspired avidly to universal and necessary judgments; he could not feel satisfied as long as he had not succeeded in transforming the truth that was "revealed" and situated above both the universal and the necessary into a self-evident truth ... [NOTE 29]

In his hunger for knowledge conceived of in rational terms, man refuses to believe, that is, to assent to givens of revelation whose truth is not self-evident for him. The first man "... also wished 'to know,' not 'to believe'; he saw in faith a kind of diminution, an injury to his human dignity, and he was certain of this when the serpent told him that after he had eaten of the fruits of the forbidden tree he would become like God -- knowing." [NOTE 30]

What Shestov calls for, then, is radical reconstruction in philosophy and theology. He does not propose to renovate the edifice of philosophy: he wants to begin with demolition. And the foundation, as we have seen, was laid by the Greeks. Shestov therefore argues: "We must, before everything else, reject the basic categories of Greek thought, tear out from our being all the postulates of our 'natural knowledge' and our 'natural morality.'" [NOTE 31]


What Shestov advocates is not a total repudiation of reason in every form. He observes that "... those who have fought against reason have basically always fought against its immoderate pretensions." [NOTE 32] The challenge, then, is to properly integrate reason into human life, without assigning it an undue role. What we call reason is indeed a marvelous gift of God, but it is not

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all-sufficient, as Remy Kwant notes: "Critical reason cannot explain in a purely rational way why a well-prepared meal is tasty, why the tender green of spring revitalizes man, why a certain angle of light improves the vista, why the beautiful pleases, why man and woman are attracted to each other ..." [NOTE 33]

Borrowing an analogy from the world of drama, we might say that reason is to play an important supporting role, but not the leading role. The philosopher David Hume (1711-76) surely was not an enemy of reason as such, but he recognized this point and therefore wrote: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." [NOTE 34] Although Hume's philosophy has been analyzed extensively, the full implications of his limitation of reason have not yet become widely apparent.

There is a definite place for reason in Christian life and thought, but not as the final court of appeal or as the screen through which everything must be filtered. Toland was wrong: the Christian faith is mysterious at heart. It is not only a stumbling-block to the Pharisees in their self-righteousness, it is also foolishness to the Greeks and to the proud Western intellectual tradition. Calvin, who is often called a relentless logician, was keenly sensitive to the foolishness of the gospel:

Paul says that "the gospel is foolishness to the wise of this world" (I Cor. 1:18-20). And that is true, not only because its simplicity, which is popular and devoid of ostentation, is a laughing-stock to them, but also because it contains many things which, according to human standards, are irrational in the extreme -- and ridiculous into the bargain! For the fact that the Son of God, who is life eternal, is declared to have put on our flesh and to have been a mortal man, the fact that we are said to have procured life by his death, righteousness by his condemnation, salvation by the curse he bore -- all that is so greatly out of step with the common outlook of men that the more intelligent a man is the quicker he will be in repudiating it. [NOTE 35]

Paul spoke from experience. When he addressed the philosophers in Athens, he found that Christ's resurrection from the dead is an offense to proud reason. Luke reports: Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, 'We will hear you again about this'" (Acts 17:32). Then, as now, intellectual pride stood in the way of repentance and conversion.

Click here for the notes to Chapter 3.

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The notion of general revelation as common ground in the debate about religious and theological questions takes on various forms. Some thinkers who repudiate natural theology in the sense of the Christian rationalism of Toland, Tindal and Butler look to another faculty by means of which all men may receive divine revelation -- feeling or personal experience.

The most important proponent of such an approach is the German theologian F.D.E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834). In an important apologetical work entitled On Religion: Addresses in Response to Its Cultured Despisers, Schleiermacher tried to present Christianity in a new light. He asked his hearers to disregard the dogmas and practices which most people had come to associate with Christianity. He then redefined and reworked the key concepts of Christianity in experiential terms in an effort to convince his hearers that religion is not distant and foreign but is part of modern consciousness rightly understood. There is a place for miracles in modern experience, he argued, and also for revelation:

For me ... everything is miraculous. For you what is inexplicable and strange is miraculous, but that is not what is meant by a miracle in my sense at all.

The more religious you become the more of the miraculous you are likely to see all around you ...

What is "revelation"? Every new and original communication of the universe and its inmost life to men is a revelation. Thus every moment such as I have pointed out above can be seen to be revelatory. if you are properly conscious of its special character. But, in fact, every combination of perspective and feeling that has originally developed out of such a moment emerges as a revelation. [NOTE 1]

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Felix Flückiger has summed up the key insight in this approach to experience and revelation. What characterizes Schleiermacher's theology, he writes, is that he

... equates the pious self-consciousness of the Christian with revelation. The elevated vitality of the spirit which we can encounter in the Christian church and which unites all Christians in a common elevated feeling of bliss is understood as divine being in us. The Spirit that worked powerfully in Christ is also working powerfully in us. Just as the self-consciousness of Christ was a revelation of God within him, so the pious self-consciousness of Christians is a revelation of God in us. [NOTE 2]

Rudolf Otto, an admirer of Schleiermacher's approach to religion, speaks of the faculty of "divination," which renders us capable of "genuinely cognizing and recognizing the holy in its appearances." Schleiermacher in effect made use of this notion, Otto informs us. Thus there is a revelation of the holy in our experience. Otto writes:

Religion is convinced not only that the holy and sacred reality is attested by the inward voice of conscience and the religious consciousness, the "still, small voice" of the Spirit in the heart, by feeling, presentiment, and longing, but also that it may be directly encountered in particular occurrences and events, self-revealed in persons and displayed in actions, in a word, that beside the inner revelation from the Spirit there is an outward revelation of the divine nature. Religious language gives the name of "sign" to such demonstrative actions and manifestations, in which holiness stands palpably self-revealed. [NOTE 3]


For Schleiermacher and Otto there seems to be an affinity between art on the one hand and religious experience and feeling on the other. The Romantic notion of the sublime, as we find it in William Wordsworth, for example, comes to mind. Other theologians have pointed to moral awareness as an aspect of experience in which revelation seems to shine through. Abraham Kuyper writes: "Even without the Bible or nature you are already carrying a revelation of God around within you. This fact becomes apparent to you whenever your conscience accuses you after you have sinned ..." [NOTE 4]

The same point is made in a more picturesque manner by Benjamin B. Warfield, another Calvinist theologian:

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Conscience must be conceived, therefore, as a mirror hung in the human breast, upon which man may read the reflection of the divine judgment upon himself. When frowns of a just anger conceal his face, the clouds gather upon its polished surface: and surely when those shades pass away and the unclouded sun gleams once more from its surface, it cannot be other than the reflection of God's smile. [NOTE 5]


Another way to develop the doctrine of general revelation without falling prey to Christian rationalism is through an emphasis on nature. The words rational and natural both function as normative terms: when a course of action is judged rational or natural, we mean that it meets with our approval. Thus, if we reject the notion that the "rational" is always to be interpreted as in accordance with God's will, we might still wish to say that what is "natural" meets with God's approval. This was the route followed by Tertullian, who is well known for his opposition to Greek philosophy and to any synthesis of Christianity with the Greek mind. Tertullian asked: "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic?" [NOTE 6] What is not as widely known is that he eventually left the church and founded a sect of his own.

Tertullian rejected "reason," but he put "nature" in its place. Nature can be known universally and without special revelation; it is itself a revelation. Arthur Lovejoy therefore observes:

The anti-intellectualism of Tertullian and his hostility to the Greek philosophic systems have become so notorious as to overshadow the fact that, in a whole series of passages ... he appears less as an Early Father of the Latin Church than an Early Father of the deism of the 17th-18th centuries, a precursor of Herbert of Cherbury, Toland, Tindal and Voltaire; certainly these could have found in him a rich store of texts suitable to be prefixed to their own writings. [NOTE 7]


The question that arises from such uses of the doctrine of general revelation is whether there is room for a knowledge of God apart from so-called special revelation. Many Christian thinkers have resisted this suggestion, while others have embraced it openly,

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arguing on the basis of Romans 1: 19- 20 that certain attributes of God are clearly apparent from an examination of the world around us.

Both sides point to passages in Calvin in support of their position. Although he stays away from the term general revelation, Calvin does talk about the issue behind the term in Book I of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. But his comments must be read carefully, for he does not endorse the view that the natural man can derive true knowledge of God from his experience of nature around him. He does write that there is "... no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God." What does he mean here when he speaks of "a God"? Does he mean a true knowledge of God; however faint? Clearly not, for a few lines later he assures us that "... even idolatry is ample proof of this conception." [NOTE 8] A little farther on he writes that God

... daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him. Indeed, his essence is incomprehensible; hence, his divineness far escapes all human perception. But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance. [NOTE 9]

Man is "compelled" to see, but God's "divineness" still escapes him. Calvin seems to give with the one hand and take away with the other. Does this mean that there can be revelation without the message getting across? This might sound strange, but a little reflection shows that it is quite well possible. Let us suppose that my son is undergoing a dangerous operation, and I am anxiously awaiting word of the outcome. Let us suppose further that the surgery is being performed in China by a doctor who speaks only Chinese. When the doctor comes to me to reveal what happened in the operating room, he may deliver his message in flawless Chinese, but it will mean nothing to me because I don't understand a word of Chinese. In such a case we could say that the message was clearly stated but that the person to whom it was addressed simply failed to comprehend it. In the example the barrier is purely linguistic, of course, but a spiritual barrier can also have the effect of blocking out what is communicated or revealed.

The point of Calvin's caution in relation to general revelation is

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that no room must be left for the construction of a natural theology, a theology based solely on givens other than special revelation, givens that can be properly interpreted by the natural man apart from faith and Christ. There is no such common ground between belief and unbelief.

We must be careful, however, not to discuss this issue too much on an intellectual plane, as though the unbeliever responds to general revelation solely and exclusively by failing to get the point. In a deeper sense he does get the point -- and then stoutly resists it. Hendrikus Berkhof clarifies what is at issue here when he observes that "misunderstanding is not the same as not understanding." We read in Romans 1 that "... God's eternal power and divine nature are clearly revealed to men, but they suppress the truth by worshipping and serving created things rather than the creator." Berkhof takes this to mean that "... one cannot simply say that God did indeed reveal himself, but that somehow it did not get through to man. On the contrary, man becomes guilty because something essential does reach him, something which he, however, cannot endure ..." [NOTE 10]

If general revelation is truly revelation, it cannot simply be ignored. Natural man cannot help but respond -- and respond he does, by distorting and perverting its content. And this is precisely what makes the battle against the false faiths so painful and difficult: they contain glimmerings of the truth. The Canons of Dort, which function as one of the doctrinal standards of various Reformed churches, therefore speak of "glimmerings of natural light" or a "certain light of nature." [NOTE 11]


This line of argument should not be understood as a complete dismissal of the notion of general revelation. It is not being suggested that what is called general revelation has no value as revelation. The question is whether it can function effectively as revelation on its own. Herman Bavinck observes soberly that "mankind has not found God by its light." [NOTE 12] General revelation, if it is to function in the life of the believer, must be understood in the light of special revelation. Bavinck argues: "General revelation leads to special, special revelation points back to general. The one calls for the other, and without it remains imperfect and unintelligible." [NOTE 13]

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We should not regard this dependence of general and special revelation on one another as a result of the fall into sin, as though man would have been able to find God by means of general revelation alone if sin had not clouded the picture. Geerhardus Vos maintains that we must think in terms of a "preredemptive special revelation." [NOTE 14] The integrating guidance of a word-revelation was already available to man in Paradise, helping him gain clarity about his place in the cosmos. And the covenant relationship between man and God called for specific word-revelation, such as the probationary command not to eat of the fruit of a certain tree.

General and special revelation are to be read in the light of one another, but it is special revelation, the revelation of Christ not just as our Redeemer but also as the second person of the Trinity through whom "all things were made" (John 1), that integrates the various dimensions and aspects of revelation and makes them truly comprehensible. Hendrikus Berkhof observes: "That Christ is the truth does not mean that there are no truths to be found anywhere outside of him, but it does mean that all such truths are fragmentary and broken unless they have become integrated in him as the center." [NOTE 15]


It could well be asked whether it even makes sense to separate these two aspects of revelation, for they appear to be intertwined in many ways. Elements of nature become signs in God's dealings with His people. The rainbow, which is a beautiful natural phenomenon, has a special meaning for us because it is a revelation symbolizing a promise of God made to Noah. Calvin, using the term sacrament to cover certain signs, asks: "And cannot God mark with his Word the things he has created, that what were previously bare elements may become sacraments?" [NOTE 16]

Given such considerations, it should come as no surprise that various theologians object to the term general revelation. Hendrik Kraemer, for example, writes: "... 'General Revelation' is a confusing term, because the content with which it is usually filled is a radical misrepresentation of what the Bible wants to convey." He complains that it "... is one of the most misleading and confusing terms possible and ought to be abolished." [NOTE 17]

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The exact nature of the contrast between general and special revelation is not easy to state. Theologians have sometimes spoken of a revelation in things (revelatio realis) as opposed to a revelation in words (revelatio verbalis), but this is too abstract an opposition, for God's special revelation to Israel involves a series of deeds or acts, such as the deliverance from Egypt.

Hendrikus Berkhof takes a firm position on this issue and suggests that revelation is too strong a term to use for the manner in which God might be known "in his works of creation." Berkhof writes: "We live by the revelation of God to Israel and in Christ." As for the other revelations, we should not speak of them as "general." Berkhof suggests: "... we might perhaps use words like 'partial,' 'groping,' 'dim,' unfulfilled,' etc. But all these terms: too, have their drawbacks, and they say very little." [NOTE 18] Thus general revelation, like reason, ought to play a supporting role rather than the leading role.


Many twentieth-century theologians are deeply suspicious of any attempt to construct a theology on the basis of a reading of the natural order apart from Scripture or special revelation. One of the reasons for this concern is the misuse of the notion of a general revelation by certain thinkers and church leaders within Hitler's Third Reich. The Barmen Declaration, which was formulated in opposition to the "German Christians" (i.e. the Christians who had compromised the gospel to accommodate the Nazis), therefore included a pointed rejection of any notion of a revelation outside the Word of God: "We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and must recognize yet other happenings and powers, images and truths as divine revelation alongside this one Word of God, as a source of her preaching." [NOTE 19]

To disregard God's revelation in Christ is to stray from the path altogether, according to Herman Hoeksema: "A theology that ignores the revelation that has now come through Christ Jesus can never be any more than mere philosophy of man, always creating his own God and worshipping an idol." [NOTE 20] And this observation in turn suggests a link between general revelation and heresy: one way to look at heresy is to regard it as an elevation of general revelation at the expense of special revelation, an elevation that

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leads to a grave distortion of the truth. The heretic makes his appeal to some authority other than Scripture (although he is usually willing to work certain elements of Scripture into his message). Benjamin B. Warfield writes: "The very essence of 'heresy' is that modes of thought and tenets originating elsewhere than in the Scriptures of God are given decisive weight when they clash with the teachings of God's Word, and those are followed to the neglect or modification or rejection of these." [NOTE 21]

God's revelation in our experience or moral consciousness or in nature around us must not, then, be taken as common ground upon which unbelief and Christian faith can resolve their differences. Neither is it a court of appeal for Christians to use when they disagree about the meaning and import of Christianity. The court of appeal is rather the Word of God as we now possess it in written form. Hence we turn next to Scripture as revelation.

Click here for the notes to Chapter 4.

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The conclusion to be drawn from the previous two chapters is that if God's general revelation by itself cannot serve as common ground for settling disputes about the meaning of the Christian faith, we will have to turn to His special revelation, that is, to the Word of God written -- the Bible. Yet, although such a conclusion appears to answer an important question, it also gives rise to some new ones. Just what is the Bible? Theologians are by no means agreed on this matter.

Shailer Mathews, who participated in the fundamentalist/modernist controversy on the side of the modernists, argues that "... the Bible is the product and record of the first stages of the Christian religion ..." In other words: "The Bible sprang from our religion, not our religion from the Bible." [NOTE 1]

J. Gresham Machen, who was one of Mathews' opponents in the debate, criticizes such a view. In the conception of Christianity represented by Mathews and other such thinkers, he observes, "... all doctrines spring from life." Since Christianity is essentially a way of life for Mathews, life comes first and is then reflected in doctrine. Machen's own position is diametrically opposed to this: he maintains that Christianity "... founds morality upon truth, and life upon doctrine." [NOTE 2] If Machen is correct the Bible cannot be simply a reflection of the church's way of life; in other words, it cannot be a product of the early church.


The issue behind the disagreement between Mathews and Machen can be further clarified by considering the familiar dictum that

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we ought to read the Bible in the same way that we read any other book. Mathews would of course agree with this statement, but Machen would not. The Bible, in Machen's view, is an unusual book in that as we study it we must distinguish between the primary author (God) and the various secondary authors (Moses, Luke, David, Paul, John, and so forth). In other words, the Bible was indeed written by human beings but was at the same time inspired by God and therefore serves as divine revelation to man. This confers upon the Bible an authority enjoyed by no other writing. The Bible is to be accepted as true and need not be proven true.

The liberal or rationalistic tradition has difficulty accepting this principle, for it requires that we agree to submit to the Bible' as God's Word even before we have determined for ourselves just what it means to say. James I. Packer writes that theologians who think along rationalistic lines maintain that "... we must study the Bible as unbelievers before we are entitled to study it, or what is left of it, in a way consistent with faith." [NOTE 3] In other words, the theologian must maintain a scientific neutrality and detachment; he may not bow to the Bible as the life-giving Word of God.

For such theologians, the Bible clearly does not function as ultimately authoritative: reason or scientific method does instead. If the Bible's claims are to be believed, they will first have to be verified by scientists and scholars. Hence Packer speaks of the "rationalistic passion to prove Scripture true." [NOTE 4] The desire to see Scripture vindicated may be commendable, but the "rationalistic passion" underlying it is far removed from submission to the Bible as God's Word.

From the title of a controversial book that has sold widely, we know that there is a "battle for the Bible" underway. [NOTE 5] In all the excitement the real issue is sometimes lost from view. According to Packer, the main concern in the "battle for the Bible" is "the detecting and rejecting of all principles which would undermine evangelicalism by making it impossible for the Bible to rule the church." [NOTE 6]


The liberal or rationalistic undermining of the Bible involves a distinction that cuts right through the material making up the

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Bible. We are asked to distinguish that which is central to the Bible and worthy of acceptance from that which is peripheral and timebound and not binding for us today. In other words, a distinction is made between kernel and husk, the central message and the package in which it comes to us. Rudolf Bultmann's program of demythologizing the Biblical message is an apt illustration of this tendency. In the words of Shailer Mathews, when the modernist approaches the Bible, he "... knows how to separate between the permanent and the temporary in its pages." [NOTE 7] The "permanent" element is sometimes identified as the "substance," and the "temporary" as the "form." [NOTE 8] In short, the Bible's content is permanent, while the form in which the content is presented may vary from age to age in the church's proclamation of the message.

The prospect of being able to distinguish between kernel and husk in the Bible has proven attractive to many theologians, including some in the orthodox camp. If Biblical authority were limited to the "kernel," the heart of the Biblical message, it might not be so difficult after all to defend the doctrine of the Bible's infallibility and/or inerrancy. (These two terms do not have the very same meaning, although the difference between them is hard to spell out; the latter term seems to stand for a more specific position than the former.)

When orthodox theologians approach Scripture in this way, they usually distinguish between what the Bible somehow implies or suggests or presupposes, on the one hand (e.g. that the earth has four corners), and what it intends to teach (i.e. how man is to be made right with God). The Bible's authority is then limited to the latter; in other words, it is to be believed and trusted in which it teaches, but not in everything on which it touches.

Another way to make such a distinction is to say that only the Bible's central saving message is authoritative -- not all the historical details and injunctions about life in Bible times. Jack Rogers argues that Christ must always be kept in mind as the central interpretive principle of the Bible: "Scripture is not about everything. It is about Jesus Christ and the salvation he came to offer and effect." [NOTE 9] Adherents of such an approach to Scripture like to emphasize that the Bible is not a history book [NOTE 10] or a science textbook.

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In the case of certain theologians, at least, there are commendable motives behind such talk about Scripture, such as a healthy emphasis on the redemptive-historical character of the main line in the narrative. Still, there are definite dangers in this way of thinking. Machen therefore argues that it is "highly misleading" to say that "the Bible is not intended to teach science." [NOTE 11]

Rogers, as we saw, claims that the Bible is not "about everything." This assertion requires careful examination. Since the Bible tells us about the origin of all things in God's activity as Creator and about the ultimate consummation of the historical process in the full establishment of the Kingdom of God, and also characterizes the time in between (i.e. the fall into sin, the old dispensation, Christ's atoning work and ascension to be seated at the right hand of the Father, and the nature of the new dispensation as the "day of salvation"), it is, in a very significant sense, "about everything," even though it is short on detail. But the relative lack of detail need not concern us. When we read a biography of Abraham Lincoln, we don't reject the author's claim that he has dealt with Lincoln's entire life simply because he has not accounted for each day!

We should be wary of any claim that the Bible is partial or incomplete. The Bible is complete in that it tells us about the creation, man's fall into sin, his redemption through the work of Jesus Christ, and the end of human history. Neither is the Bible partial in its inspiration or authority. The "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" adopted by a group of evangelical Christians in 1978 warns against any attempt to dismember the Bible or break it up into parts, some of which may be more acceptable than others: "We deny that the inspiration of Scripture can rightly be affirmed of the whole without the parts, or of some parts but not the whole." [NOTE 12] Scripture must not be played off against Scripture.


Among various theologians there is a fear that there may be

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"errors" in the Bible. Earlier generations of theologians seemed to take this issue more lightly. Charles Hodge, whose thinking is often dealt with as exemplifying an inerrantist position, [NOTE 13] made the following memorable comment about the issue of errors in the Bible:

The errors in matters of fact which skeptics search out bear no proportion to the whole. No sane man would deny that the Parthenon was built of marble, even if here and there a speck of sandstone should be detected in its structure. Not less unreasonable is it to deny the inspiration of such a book as the Bible, because one sacred writer says that on a given occasion twenty-four thousand, and another says that twenty-three thousand, men were slain. Surely a Christian may be allowed to tread such objections under his feet. [NOTE 14]

For various reasons, including the heightened consciousness of language and meaning in twentieth-century philosophy, Christian theologians today are not quite so casual about the question of errors in the Bible. After all, it would be hard to maintain both that the Bible is true and that it contains errors. That there seem to be discrepancies like the one Hodge pointed to cannot be denied. But what conclusions are we to draw from the existence of apparent discrepancies?

It seems to me that the proper thing to do is to draw virtually no conclusions. We should remember that there have also been blemishes of another sort in the Bible, i.e. mistaken readings. Our best contemporary translations yield a different reading here and there than the King James Bible with which many generations of English-speaking Christians lived and died. If we are correct in assuming that our contemporary translations are based on older and purer Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, we must take it that our forefathers misread certain texts. This raises an interesting question: Was God able to speak to His people and bless them through His Word if that Word came to them by means of texts that were imperfect or "corrupt" (to use the theological term) in certain respects? The answer is clearly yes. We should then go on to ask whether God can also speak to His people by means of a Bible in which they seem to see discrepancies. Again the answer is yes. God's people can indeed be blessed through the reading of such a Bible -- provided they do not jump to conclusions where no conclusions are warranted. One need not understand every passage in the Bible in order to be blessed and edified through Bible reading.

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We should be especially careful not to read into the Bible meanings that simply are not there. This mistake has often been made with regard to the first chapters of Genesis: much of what theologians have asserted by way of exegesis or explanation of these chapters simply is not required by the text. We must learn to be more sober in our reading of Scripture and be willing to say that some disagreements about the meaning of specific passages do not now seem capable of resolution.


To take such a sober and submissive attitude toward the Bible is to accept Scripture as the final authority in any dispute about the meaning of the Christian faith. The Westminster Confession (1646) affirms: "The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture." [NOTE 15]

These words sound direct, final, almost harsh -- and surely out of tune with our times. Any such submission to Scripture strikes modern man as a manifestation of an outdated authoritarian mentality. Hans Küng informs us that the Enlightenment "demythologized authority" and comments: "... no truth is accepted without being submitted to the judgment of reason, merely on the authority of the Bible or tradition or the Church, but only after a careful scrutiny." [NOTE 16] We are reminded here of a famous accusation that Dietrich Bonhoeffer made against Karl Barth, namely, that Barth's theology of revelation is in effect a "positivism of revelation," a "like it or lump it" approach. Apparently a more critical attitude is called for. [NOTE 17] We are also reminded of Lessing's complaint that the Protestant Bible is a "paper pope" claiming the same sort of arbitrary authority beyond appeal as the pope in Rome. [NOTE 18]


Such complaints, of course, are a far cry from the reverence and deep love for the Bible which we encounter in the Reformation

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era. The dictum sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) was not meant as burdensome but as a liberation from false authorities, traditions and doctrines that had long held Christian spirituality back. The attitude of submission to Scripture provided common ground for Christians to stand on -- whether collectively or singly -- in the face of false claims to their allegiance. The Enlightenment had not yet "demythologized authority."

The sola scriptura principle thus brought a measure of clarity to the theological debates that raged in the early sixteenth century, for it required a continual return to the source. Peter Beyerhaus observes:

The decisive question in Martin Luther's controversy with the papists was this. What must Christians in general, and more specifically teachers of the Church, regard as the source and measuring stick for their doctrinal statements? His opponents endeavored to refute him by arguments taken from the tradition of the fathers and councils. Luther held fast to the principle that Scripture alone was the normative foundation of all preaching and teaching within the Church. Thus the slogan "sola scnptura" became the bed rock of evangelical faith and action. [NOTE 19]

To this statement should be added an emphasis we find especially in Calvin, namely, that the Holy Spirit's testimony in the heart of the believer means that there is divine guidance in Bible reading. For Calvin, the Word and the Spirit are linked. This is not to say that the believer may equate his own interpretation (especially when it differs from that of other believers) with the Word of God. A failure to be properly submissive may well lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Human pride can twist the Bible's meaning.

In our pride we so often want to see the rationale, the justification or explanation, for what is believed. Calvin warns against speculating about what might lie behind God's will, for when we speculate we are forgetting that

... it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God's will. For his will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are ... For God's will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God's will, which cannot be found. [NOTE 20]

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What Calvin is telling us here is that when God reveals something to us, we must be satisfied to know that it is the case and must not insist on knowing why it is the case. which is also the point Lev Shestov makes in his attack on reason, (see p. 46 above). Certain things remain mysterious for us. The presence of evil in this world is a mystery, but so is God's unfathomable saving grace!

Bible reading calls for a certain attitude, then. The phrase "faith seeking understanding," which stems from Anselm and serves nicely to sum up the attitude toward faith and reason taken by Augustine, can help us there. The Bible's message is grasped first of all in faith -- a childlike faith and trust. It can also be understood to some extent, although some believers make more progress in this regard than others do. Still, understanding often comes slowly, and certain passages remain dark and obscure to us even today, despite the thousands of books that have been written to clarify the Bible's message. Sometimes God's people have to wait a long, long time before this or that aspect of His message to them becomes clear. This lesson is all too easily forgotten in our busy, impatient world.

Click here for the notes to Chapter 5.

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Christians like to distinguish between "living" truth and "dead" truth, and they often warn that orthodoxy can become dead and cold if it is not animated by a warm faith and piety. Truth is not an inanimate object; it is like a living organism that needs to be nourished daily. The English poet John Milton had an organic notion of truth in mind when he declared that a man's truth can become his heresy:

Truth is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition. A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believes things only because his Pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy. [NOTE 1]

The Enlightenment, in its own way, also worried about such dangers, and therefore proclaimed that each person must think and judge for himself. In his essay "What Is Enlightenment?" Immanuel Kant writes:

Through laziness and cowardice a large part of mankind, even after nature has freed them from alien guidance, gladly remain immature. It is because of laziness and cowardice that it is so easy for others to usurp the role of guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor! If I have a book which provides meaning for me, a pastor who has conscience for me, a doctor who will judge my diet for me and so on, then I do not need to exert myself. I do not have any need to think; if I can pay, others will take over the tedious job for me. [NOTE 2]

We are not to rely on tradition or external authority; rather, we are to use our rational faculties and decide matters on our own. If we fail to do so, we "remain immature." Thus Kant informs us

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that "the motto of the enlightenment" is "Have the courage to use your own intelligenc!" [NOTE 3]

The Reformation parallels the Enlightenment in its distrust of tradition and its rejection of the notion that the common man needs someone above him to do his thinking for him. Yet the Reformation does not glorify reason or "intelligence" and make each individual his own supreme authority. The Reformation emphasis is rather that the Bible belongs to the people -- to each and every believer. The individual has access to the source of truth and is able to keep his beliefs fresh and alive by constantly subjecting them to the judgment of God's Word, which is the supreme standard.

Some thinkers believe that Protestantism went too far in its reverence for the Bible. Hans Küng writes: "Just as some Catholics believe less in God and his Christ than in the Church . . . so do many Protestants believe in the Bible." [NOTE 4] Donald Wells complains about the "Protestant thesis of bibliocracy," by which he means the belief that "the scriptures contained all that man needed to know." [NOTE 5] Such a charge, if taken literally, is hardly just: the Reformation is well known for its emphasis on learning broadly conceived. It recognized that there is much more to be studied than just the Bible. What really lies behind such criticism of the Protestant mind is uneasiness about the thesis that Scripture enjoys an exclusive authority. Shouldn't its authority be tempered by history or tradition?

In a book entitled The Spirit of Protestantism, Robert McAfee Brown describes the question of authority as the "Achilles' heel of Protestantism." [NOTE 6] All too often, the Protestant rejection of the church's authority to interpret the Bible has led to subjectivism: each believer decided for himself what God's message meant. This may not have been the intention of the Reformers, but various scholars view it as the actual outcome of their work. Richard Popkin writes: "The Pandora's box that Luther opened at Leipzig [by questioning the church's authority] was to have the most far-reaching consequences, not just in theology but throughout man's entire intellectual realm." [NOTE 7]


In their search for common ground to settle disputes about the

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meaning of the Christian faith and its doctrines, the Reformers turned to the Bible. But can such disputes always be settled by appealing to the Bible? It is far from obvious that they can. F.F. Bruce therefore observes: "The possession of a common Bible does not guarantee religious unity: very much depends on the way in which this common Bible is read and understood." [NOTE 8] The Reformation wanted to shake off certain patterns that had developed in Bible reading, but it was not able to obliterate the past altogether. Because we are historical beings, we cannot help but be influenced by the past in one way or another in our Bible reading, nor should we even make this our aim. James Orr writes:

We are more dependent on the past than we think even in our interpretation of Scripture; and it would be as futile for any man to attempt to draw his system of doctrine at first hand from Scripture, as it would be for a man of science to draw his scientific knowledge direct from nature, unaided by text-books, or the laborious researches of the myriad workers in the same field. [NOTE 9]

What Orr is getting at is nicely illustrated by the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch who was reading a passage in the prophecy of Isaiah as he traveled home from Jerusalem. This man came to Scripture with virtually no background to help him understand, and so Philip had to ask him: "Do you understand what you are reading?" When the answer was no, Philip gave him background knowledge to make the passage comprehensible: "... beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus" (see Acts 8:26ff).

Scripture as a whole is comprehensible, but to gain a knowledge of Scripture as a whole takes time. In other words, we need experience in Bible reading. Moreover, the acts in which God reveals Himself call for commentary and explanation, for their meaning is sometimes far from obvious. James I. Packer tells us that "... the biblical position is that the mighty acts of God are not revelation to man at all, except in so far as they are accompanied by words of God to explain them. Leave man to guess God's mind and purpose, and he will guess wrong; he can know it only by being told it." [NOTE 10]


Protestantism has left itself open to criticism in that some

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Protestants have seemed to work with Scripture in an arbitrary, subjective manner. Naturally, this has elicited comments from Catholic quarters. Luther was asked repeatedly how he could be so sure he was right if this meant that a great many popes and bishops and learned men of the church were wrong. Wouldn't it be wiser to take numbers and consensus and the views of earlier generations into account a bit more? Shouldn't Protestantism stay away from any a-historical "fundamentalism" that does not allow history to play a major role in Biblical interpretation?

The Catholic apologist G. K. Chesterton presents a defense of tradition in which he asks us to respect the opinions of our forbears. Cleverly he points out that there is something democratic about this: tradition is "... democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record." Many of the great men are no longer with us, but this does not mean that we should disregard their opinions, according to Chesterton:

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. [NOTE 11]


In contemporary theology there is a keen awareness of the need for an interpretive context in Bible reading. History, in the sense of the collective experience of a society or a well-defined group, is often appealed to as the context. The Bible is then read not in a social-historical vacuum but with an eye to a particular situation and particular needs.

Under the influence of the sociology of knowledge, theologians have begun to propose "theologies" that arise from the situations of the various identifiable groups that make up the world's population. "Black theology," for example, is then the product of the interaction between the Bible and the historical experience of

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blacks. In the process, black self-awareness and needs become normative. In a book on "black theology," James Cone claims that the common experience of black people is "the supreme test of truth." He explains:

Concretely, this means that Black Theology is not prepared to accept any doctrine of God, man, Christ, or Scripture which contradicts the black demand for freedom now. It believes that any religious idea which exalts black dignity and creates a restless drive for freedom must be affirmed.
When the question is asked, "On what authority, in the last resort, do we base our claim that this or that doctrine is part of the Gospel and therefore true?" Black Theology must say: "If the doctrine is compatible with or enhances the drive for black freedom, then it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the doctrine is against or indifferent to the essence of blackness as expressed in Black Power, then it is the work of the Antichrist." It is as simple as that. [NOTE 12]

Albert J. Cleage, Jr. expresses the same point emphatically: "For the black man everything must be judged in terms of Black liberation. There is but one authority, and that is the Black experience." [NOTE 13]

Feminist theology takes a similar approach in its commitment to the liberation theme. Margaret Maxey calls for an "instrumental theology" which would "have the task of liberating women from past models." Theology can contribute to liberation by "authorizing models for self-expression through more plausible life-styles and social institutions." Once again historical experience becomes normative. Maxey writes: "Once we recognize that the process of liberation is an authorizing process -- one displacing the 'authority' of past dominant models-for-self-understanding and behavior by constructing more meaningful or authoritative models -- then theology might once again perform its central humanizing task." [NOTE 14]


These examples show us that the notion of a historical context for reading Scripture can be misused. But they should not lead us to disregard history as we read Scripture. It simply is not possible for us to look at the Bible as though all the centuries that separate us from the Bible writers contained no history. We should not even wish for such a reading of Scripture.

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The interaction between history and the Bible can be fruitful. God's special revelation was not meant to be self-contained: it was intended to light up history and the world for us. God's Word is a "lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105). When we use a lamp, we do not stare into its glare but use the light it gives us to get a better look at the world around us. And so it is with the Bible. We use it best and learn to fathom its meaning when we bear in mind that it is our guide for life in this world. It should never be our aim to isolate the Bible from history and the world we live in.

Because mainline Protestantism has always realized this (even though there have indeed been Protestants who tried to read the Bible "in isolation"), it has promoted genuine Christian scholarship, that is, not just scholarship undertaken by people who happen to be Christians but scholarship in the light of the Bible. The guidance of God's Word is essential for gaining a proper understanding of history and nature, and a knowledge of history and nature in turn enriches our comprehension of the Bible. Great gains in Biblical scholarship have been made in our century because of what archeologists, for example, have discovered. Thus we should reject any suggestion that the Protestant emphasis on the Bible as the supreme authority is intended to draw the Christian's attention away from history, nature and the world we live in.


The interpretive context that seems to be needed for the reading of Scripture can also be called tradition. Many Protestants are hesitant to use the word tradition because they associate it with a Roman Catholic tendency to diminish Scripture's authority by subordinating it to the church as the authorized interpreter. Gradually this reluctance is being overcome, and there is now talk to the effect that Catholics and Protestants may be closer together on the relation between Scripture and tradition than many people have realized.

If there is indeed a rapprochement possible, the key to it is the recognition that Scripture itself is in some significant sense tradition. Various parts of the Bible seem to have existed in oral form before they were written down, and thus they were handed on

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from generation to generation as tradition or "Überlieferung." Included in such tradition was not just what God had done but also the meaning of His saving acts as He Himself had revealed it.

The apostolic teaching is also tradition in such a sense. Tradition is a Latin term, and behind it is the idea of "handing over." Think here of the Letter of Jude, in which we find an appeal "to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (vs. 3). The legacy or tradition that has been given us must be defended and passed on to the next generation! It was in this spirit that Paul wrote about the institution of the Lord's supper: "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread ..." (I Corinthians 11 :23).

Scripture can also function as tradition in the sense that it is a large book whose many parts and passages shed light on one another. Therefore the Reformers emphasized that Scripture is its own interpreter (sacra scriptura sui ipsius interpres). The darker, more obscure passages are to be read in the light of the clearer passages. This is not to say that archeological findings may not also be used to shed light on Scripture's meaning; the point is simply that Scripture itself enjoys the primacy or priority in this regard, and that its resources as its own interpreter are greater than is often realized.

This should be borne in mind especially when we interpret what the Bible says about Jesus. The New Testament narratives about Him need to be read in the light of the Old Testament promises and prophecies. Jesus Himself illustrated this when He walked with the two men of Emmaus and interpreted for them the meaning of the crucifixion, which had dashed their hopes: "And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself' (Luke 24:27).

It needs to be emphasized especially that the Old Testament is indispensable as tradition and interpretive context for understanding the New. Much theological harm has resulted from the neglect of the Old Testament: alien interpretive contexts and schemes have been introduced to bring out the meaning of the New Testament. [NOTE 15] Rudolf Bultmann, for example, looked to contemporary philosophy to unlock the meaning of the New Testament, whose message, he argued, had to be "demythologized." And it is significant that when efforts were made to absorb

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Christianity into the Gnostic movement, the Old Testament was perceived as a barrier. The Old Testament tradition serves to keep New Testament interpretation on track.


This conception of Scripture as a type of tradition should be borne in mind when the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) is discussed. Robert McAfee Brown observes that ". . . Protestants do not rely on sola Scriptura in quite the pure way that Reformation Sunday sermons would suggest." [NOTE 16] The sola scriptura emphasis has been both a strength and a weakness, according to Brown. It has sometimes led to efforts to read the Bible "in isolation," ignoring history and nature. A "faulty assumption" was made, namely, that "... it is possible to 'leapfrog,' as it were, over 1900 years of Christian history, and read the Bible as though nothing had happened since the documents themselves were composed." [NOTE 17]

Undoubtedly various Protestants have been guilty of "leapfrogging," but the Reformers themselves certainly did not mean to suggest that the Bible could be read in such a manner. Bernard Ramm argues: "The sola scriptura of the Reformers did not mean a total rejection of tradition. It meant only that Scripture had the final word on a subject. The use by the Reformers of the writings of the Fathers shows how deeply they were nourished by Christian tradition." [NOTE 18]


The line between Catholicism and Protestantism was clear in the Reformation era, especially when the Council of Trent (1545-63) definitively repudiated the Protestant conception of Scripture by declaring tradition and Scripture equal sources of the faith. In our time there seems to be some convergence underway between the two sides, but one great barrier remains -- papal infallibility. According to this doctrine, when the pope speaks ex cathedra (i.e. in a strictly defined official capacity), he is infallible. It should be noted that infallibility is not claimed for the papal encyclicals, some of which have proven rather controversial.

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The doctrine of papal infallibility, which was not proclaimed until 1870, can be viewed as a magnification of certain elements in the Catholic understanding of tradition, elements which Protestants find objectionable. Since many Protestant churches have adopted creeds, the notion of the church as possessing some sort of teaching authority is not altogether foreign. But the suggestion that the church or its leader possesses infallibility will not win acceptance among Protestants. Papal infallibility remains a barrier to closer fellowship between Protestants and Catholics, even though the popes have been very sparing in the use of this power.

Papal infallibility has also been a vexation to some contemporary Catholic theologians, e.g. Hans Küng, who wishes to ascribe infallibility (in the sense of "indeceivability" or "indefectibility" in the truth) to the church instead. [NOTE 19] Küng's position, however, has not won official endorsement but has rather been condemned.

The doctrine of papal infallibility raises the interesting question whether a pope could be a heretic. Various popes were seriously delinquent in morals; could a pope also stray in doctrine? One of the teachings of Honorius I, who was pope from 625 to 638, was repudiated forty-two years after his death at the Council of Constantinople, and Honorius himself was condemned as a "favorer of heretics." In the Middle Ages it was generally assumed that a pope could indeed become a heretic, which would have the effect of disqualifying him as head of the church. But in the Middle Ages the doctrine of papal infallibility was not yet in effect. It is hard to see how any pope in our time, now officially infallible, could be a heretic if he chose to invoke his power of infallibility to justify his deviant doctrine.


The doctrine of papal infallibility can serve as a reminder that a proper respect for tradition as helpful for reading Scripture should not lead us to forget that we must distinguish between good and bad tradition. In other words, tradition can be mistaken. But if we are ever to pronounce it mistaken, we must have some yardstick or criterion.

That yardstick, of course, is Scripture. H.J. McSorley writes: ". . . Scripture can be regarded as a 'norma normans, non

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normata' for the faith of the church and for the official dogmatic norms articulated by the church. This means that dogmas 'always have to be measured against Scripture.'" [NOTE 20] Scripture, in other words, is the unnormed norm; it is the norm for the development of tradition in a healthy sense, for it is itself subject to no norm.

One way to express what it means that Scripture is the norm is to think of it as our interpretive anchor. Tradition operating on its own represents a series of interpretations, which in turn need to be interpreted, until we wind up with interpretations of interpretations of interpretations. The result of all this interpretation is that we drift ever farther away from our moorings, just as a story retold by person after person tends to change. But if Scripture is the ultimate norm for tradition, it can serve as an anchor. We do not escape the necessity of interpretation, but we keep interpreting the same source, i.e. the purest text of Scripture. This insistence on retaining the source is part of what is meant by the sola scriptura principle.

In this notion of Scripture as interpretive anchor or unnormed norm we have the basis for a positive attitude toward experience and history (i.e. tradition) as a secondary authority for Christians. To simply take human history and experience as such to be normative would be to fall prey to historicism (see p. 34 above). However, to recognize that the development of Christian life in obedience to God's Word represents "normed history" is to allow that there can be tradition or a body of shared experience and insights and understanding that can serve to hold Christians together, can help settle disputes about the meaning of the faith, and can give us a great deal of guidance in daily life. The wisdom and insight that comes to expression in the Bible's "wisdom literature" (e.g. the book of Proverbs) represents tradition in this healthy sense: "Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and reject not your mother's teaching" (Proverbs 1 :8). The verse before gives us the key to such "traditional" wisdom: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge."

We see, then, that the appeal to history and past experience ("We have always believed that" or "We have always done it this way") should not be ruled out altogether as illegitimate. The point to remember is that Scripture comes first; history or tradition or experience is subordinate to it, not coordinate with it. Tradition may help believers grasp the meaning of Scripture, but it can

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never be allowed to contradict Scripture. If it does clash with Scripture, we have tradition in the unhealthy, harmful sense, the kind of tradition against which the Reformers rebelled.


This conception of tradition can also help clarify the place and function of theology and of Christian thought generally. Theologizing is an ongoing process; that is to say, it is historical in character. A few theologians may prize innovativeness and uniqueness as the supreme value, but most freely admit that they stand in a tradition. Thus there is a Calvinist theological tradition, a Lutheran tradition, and so forth.

Theology -- or the work of our best theologians -- deserves respect and consideration when differences are discussed among Christians. Theology does not represent common ground in the sense that all Christians can or should take it as their starting point, but the best theology is potentially helpful and should be regarded as part of tradition in the healthy sense. Anthony Thiselton suggests that "... systematic theology might be said to represent the end-process, to date, of the process of tradition in which the Christian community seeks to arrive at an understanding of the biblical text." [NOTE 21]

But the possibility of bad or unhealthy tradition also arises here. Just as Jesus condemned the thoroughly mistaken tradition of the Pharisees (see Mark 7:1-13), it might prove necessary to reject a theological tradition as contrary to the central thrust of the gospel and therefore an obstacle to the understanding of the Biblical message. This is essentially what the Reformers did. We must be historically aware also in that we realize that theological work undertaken on the wrong foundation will not be of value for the interpretation of Scripture. A bad tree does not bear good fruit, Jesus reminds us (Luke 6:43). If we want good fruit, we must pluck it from a good tree, and if we want theological guidance that will enable us to deepen our understanding of Scripture, we must read theologians who build on the proper foundation.

Click here for the notes to Chapter 6.

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It is the task of the church -- not of Christians acting on their own -- to define the Christian faith. The church has undertaken this assignment from time to time in history when the purity of the faith was threatened by ways of thinking incompatible with the gospel. The ultimate criterion or standard is Scripture as God's special revelation, but Scripture is to be read against the background of history, experience and nature. Interpretation is inevitable, and therefore tradition can play a positive role, provided it is not elevated above Scripture.

To admit these points is to allow the concepts of heresy and orthodoxy a place in contemporary Christian thinking. Yet there are people today who regard the widespread commitment to "pluralism" as leaving no room for these two related concepts (Chapter 7). Another problem that should be faced is that the concept of orthodoxy might be understood as requiring near-total agreement on the theological level (Chapter 8). If heresy is to be defined in a manner that still allows for legitimate disagreement between Christian theologians, it will have to be in a way that stresses spiritual motives and factors (Chapter 9). Finally, certain implications with regard to confessional unity remain to be drawn, especially in relation to the question of orthodoxy and "orthopraxis" (Chapter 10).

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The term pluralism is widely embraced today as a way to resolve potentially nasty disputes. When there are differences between people, we are told that this need not cause a problem, for we live in a pluralistic society. We rejoice in our diversity. Yet a nagging question remains: Are there limits? At what point does pluralism become fragmentation, chaos, sheer relativism, or even nihilism?

Many theologians are enthusiastic about pluralism, but there are also concerns raised. George Lindbeck suggests that pluralism may prove to be "unmanageable." In the "dangerous pluralism of contemporary theology," it turns out that "... the practitioners of different methods are often not able even meaningfully to disagree." [NOTE 1] A breakdown in communication is possible.

Pluralism in theology is hard to separate from subjectivism and relativism. James I. Packer warns against "theological agnosticism," by which he means a renunciation of truth as traditionally understood: "... we are not entitled to infer from the fact that a group of people are drawing nearer to each other that any of them is drawing nearer to the truth." [NOTE 2]

We saw earlier that our tension-filled world is made uneasy by the thought of conflict. People today want to see conflicts de-fused (which is not the same as resolved) and therefore quickly turn to the rhetoric of tolerance. Tolerance, of course, can be justified in various different ways; the justification we tend to offer today, however, is in effect a gentle relativism which is often expressed in the language of pluralism. Such a relativism leaves no room for the concepts of heresy and orthodoxy but instead takes an eclectic approach to truth. In a study of the Enlightenment, a formative

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period of Western history to which our contemporary conception of tolerance owes a great deal, Peter Gay writes:

Relativism, Eclecticism, and toleration are so intimately related that they cannot be strictly separated even in thought. Relativism is a way of looking at the world, the recognition that no single set of convictions has absolute validity; Eclecticism is the philosophical method consequent on relativism -- since no system has the whole truth, and most systems have some truth, discriminating selection among systems is the only valid procedure. Toleration, finally, is the political counterpart of this world view and this method: it is a policy for a large and varied society. [NOTE 3]


This is not to say, however, that pluralism simply means relativism. The term actually has a variety of meanings -- in fact, too many. It is one of the overworked words of our time. Some years ago Philip Wogaman warned: "The term 'pluralism' has, in fact, been invoked so routinely in current discussion as to risk becoming a mere cliché." [NOTE 4]

For various writers the term does have a central core of meaning, which is aptly summarized by George Forell as "the existence of various and contradictory approaches to life simultaneously, which can neither be uprooted nor overcome, absorbed or ignored." [NOTE 5] Forell confesses that he regards such pluralism as threatening. For many people today, on the other hand, it is a part of the modern outlook to be cherished, and a great improvement on the closed-mindedness of earlier ages. Will Herberg observes:

In America religious pluralism is thus not merely a historical and political fact; it is, in the mind of the American, the primordial condition of things, an essential aspect of the American Way of Life, and therefore in itself an aspect of religious belief. Americans, in other words, believe that the plurality of religious groups is a proper and legitimate condition. However much he may be attached to his own church, however dimly he may regard the beliefs and practices of other churches, the American tends to feel rather strongly that total religious uniformity, even with his own church benefiting thereby, would be something undesirable and wrong, indeed scarcely conceivable. Pluralism of religions and churches is something quite axiomatic to the American. [NOTE 6]

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Is pluralism compatible with monotheistic religion? It would appear that it is, for many adherents of such monotheistic faiths as Christianity and Judaism have embraced it. But there are thinkers who sense a tension between pluralism and the commitment to abide by the word and authority of a single god. Thus the pluralist trend (which, taken literally, is a celebration of "manyness") is leading to talk of a revival of polytheism (belief in many gods). David L.Miller, in a book entitled The New Polytheism: Rebirth of the Gods and Goddesses, writes: "Our culture is apparently pluralistic; actually it is polytheistic." In monotheistic thinking there lurks the danger of "social and psychological fascism." Miller urges us to reflect on the theological implications and presuppositions of our pluralistic society: "There is an implicit polytheism always lurking in democracy." His book calls us to a recognition: "... insofar as our diverse pluralistic ways of thought are grounded in some deep concern (which is what the Gods name), the thinking is not only pluralistic but is also polytheistic." [NOTE 7]


The term pluralism has a significant meaning in relation to society and politics: it represents an alternative to collectivism and individualism as major social philosophies. [NOTE 8] Collectivism tends to absorb the various institutions and organizations that make up society into some dominant institution, such as the totalitarian state in the twentieth century or the church in the Middle Ages. Individualism, on the other hand, recognizes mainly separate human beings as components of society and awards them various rights vis-à-vis the state, but it does not take proper account of the status and rights of other entities such as families and free associations.

Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd, two Calvinist thinkers, have developed a conception of society as made up of various sovereign "spheres" that are not to interfere with one another or attempt to exercise jurisdiction over each other, e.g. family, school, church, business enterprise. This vision of society, which is often referred to as the "sphere sovereignty" view, has also come to be called pluralism since it rejects both individualism and the collectivist, implicitly totalitarian notion that all such

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"spheres" are parts or branches of one organization -- the all-powerful state. Because this conception of pluralism is not the same as the one identified earlier by Forell, it should be further qualified with an adjective: perhaps it could be called structural or societal pluralism. [NOTE 9]

This societal pluralism is rooted -- in Dooyeweerd's case, at least -- in an ontological pluralism, that is, a conception of reality that distinguishes a plurality of irreducibly different types of being and functioning. Materialism would be an example of a monistic ontology: everything is matter. There are also ontologies that we would call dualistic since they proclaim that whatever exists is either matter or mind. In a pluralistic ontology more categories are distinguished. Thus Dooyeweerd's societal pluralism presupposes an ontological pluralism. In other words, he regards the differences between the church and the family, for example, as ultimately ontological in character.

When Christians speak up in favor of "pluralism," they often have this societal pluralism in mind, a pluralism that resists encroachment by the state on the church, the school, the family, and the business enterprise. Even if they do not use the terminology of Kuyper and Dooyeweerd, they are well aware that God has created the family with an integrity of its own such that it must not be swallowed up by the state, which is what tends to happen in totalitarian countries.


Another meaning given to the term pluralism is the recognition and acceptance of racial, ethnic and cultural diversity. It cannot be denied that there is a plurality of languages, races and cultures present on this earth. Various thinkers insist on using the term pluralism to refer to this state of affairs.

The recognition of the significance of cultural and ethnic plurality or diversity goes back a long way in history. The term pluralism as used in this chapter is a comparatively recent one, but there were earlier terms that stood for the same set of issues, such as historicism. In a recent book dealing with historical consciousness we read: "The crisis of historicism has become the crisis of pluralism." [NOTE 10] All through recorded history mankind has lived with ethnic and

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cultural diversity. Thus there have long been groups of people speaking different languages. But for most of human history there was very little awareness of this state of affairs and its potential significance. With the heightening of historical consciousness in Europe since the eighteenth century, Western man found himself faced with the set of questions usually referred to as the "problem of historicism."

The linguistic diversity was indeed amazing, but it did not seem threatening. After all, there is nothing exclusive about language. An individual of reasonable intelligence is capable of learning a number of languages and of expressing himself reasonably well in several. But what about religions? If a human being can be multilingual, can he also be multi-religious? And can a person embrace more than one set of values at the same time? Hendrik Kraemer points to the problem we face here: "It is the great and painful privilege of our period of history that the plurality of religions and normative standards of truth and value in fields other than religion proper presses itself upon us in an inescapable way." [NOTE 11]

Language, culture, social organization, and religion can never be fully separated. Yet it seems that some sort of distinction is called for here. The diversity and plurality in linguistic and ethnic respects, at least, should be regarded in positive terms as an outcome of God's determination to create a variegated world. We reject the notion that anyone race is superior per se to others, and we freely admit that the world's languages cannot be ranked in a manner that would allow us to determine with regard to any given pair of languages which one is superior. We accept ethnic and linguistic diversity and rejoice in it.


When it comes to religious diversity, an extra factor enters the picture -- sin. Plurality or "pluralism" in religious respects is not a reason for rejoicing, for it means that the original religious unity of mankind has been lost. The book of Genesis tells us about the formation of two religious communities after the fall into sin -- one of belief and the other of unbelief. And since unbelief has nothing to hold it together, it has undergone further fragmentation in history. The great commission with which Christ charged His disciples (see Matthew 28: 18-20) is in effect a mandate to

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overcome this religious "pluralism," to work toward its elimination.

I put the term pluralism in quotation marks in the paragraph above because I see no good reason for using a word with an "ism" ending to refer to this regrettable state of affairs. The plurality of religions or faith communities should not be regarded as a reflection of God's will for His creation. In this regard it does not parallel the ethnic and linguistic diversity discussed earlier, that is, the existence of a stunning array of languages and racial differences. Neither is it to be compared to societal pluralism, the recognition of family, church, school, and business enterprise as independent of one another and not subordinate to the state.

So-called "religious pluralism," of course, is intertwined with cultural variety and difference. That there is considerable cultural diversity in our world is not to be denied, but again I see no good reason for speaking of this diversity as "pluralism." To do so is to risk slipping into the gentle relativism which so many people embrace today as the rationale for tolerance.

Of course Christians have an understandable reason for being attracted to the language of pluralism and the gentle relativism it expresses. The gospel has stirred up opposition throughout human history, and Christians are still mocked and scorned today, especially in intellectual circles, where they are told repeatedly that well-educated people should know better than to believe a myth about a man rising from the dead. In such a climate Christians all too quickly look to pluralist rhetoric as a cheap and easy defense of their faith. Instead of bearing scorn and abuse silently or explaining what they believe in order to clear up the inevitable misconceptions, they allow their faith to be relativized. If all cultures and religions are equally good -- this is essentially what the gentle relativism of our time comes to -- then no one can reproach the Christian for his faith. Don't we live in a pluralistic society in which one person believes in Jesus Christ, a second in science and rationality, and a third in astrology?


I am not suggesting that Christians should disregard religious differences or that they should practice the intolerance that has done so much harm to the Christian cause in the past. The question we need to face is whether Christians ought to embrace pluralism,

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which, as I indicated earlier, is a way of dealing with the question of tolerance. If the answer is no, that is, if the Christian is not to embrace pluralism in the sense of historicism and cultural relativism as his rationale for tolerance, how is he to approach this important issue of our time instead?

I believe the guidance needed is to be found in Scripture. The key passage on the question of the toleration of religious differences is the parable of the wheat and the tares, which we find recorded in Matthew 13:

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, "Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?" He said to them, "An enemy has done this." The servants said to him, "Then do you want us to go and gather them?" But he said, "No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn" (vs. 24-30).

Commentators on this passage like to point out that the weeds or tares are not easily distinguished from the wheat. And so it is with true and false teaching: false teaching often incorporates elements of the truth and therefore is not always distinguishable from the truth. Another factor, of course, is that the roots of the wheat and the tares are intertwined, which means that any attempt to uproot the tares would harm the wheat.

I believe we are to take this parable as a Biblical rationale for religious toleration. It must be admitted that its consequences were not always clearly recognized throughout the history of Christianity. Roland Bainton has pointed out various "expedients employed by persecutors to evade the liberal implications of the parable" and "devices for emasculating the parable." [NOTE 12]

But in what respects and to what extent must Christians be tolerant? Political theorists have reminded us that there are limits to tolerance. And does a commitment to tolerance mean accommodating oneself to untruth? Stephen Neill, who speaks of "the painful issue of the intolerance of truth," asks: "How is the claim that one religion is true, or at least more true than another, to be

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reconciled with our principle of tolerance and of the plural society?" [NOTE 13] J. Gresham Machen sounds a similar warning with regard to tolerance:

There is a sense, of course, in which tolerance is a virtue. If by it you mean tolerance on the part of the state, the forbearance of majorities toward minorities, the resolute rejection of any measures of physical compulsion in propagating either what is true or what is false, then of course the Christian ought to favor tolerance with all his might and main, and ought to lament the widespread growth of intolerance in America to-day. Or if you mean by tolerance forbearance toward personal attacks upon yourself, or courtesy and patience and fairness in dealing with all errors of whatever kind, then again tolerance is a virtue. But to pray for tolerance apart from such qualifications, in particular to pray for tolerance without a careful definition of that of which you are to be tolerant, is just to pray for the breakdown of the Christian religion; for the Christian religion is intolerant to the core. [NOTE 14]

The Reformers -- including both Luther and Calvin -- clearly went too far in the direction of intolerance because they did not sufficiently distinguish the role of the state from the role of the church. The question of tolerance needs to be raised separately for these two contexts. The seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke recognized this point, and his views on tolerance have deeply affected Protestantism. Locke wrote: "... I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other." Locke did not by any means maintain that the church was obliged to tolerate teaching it regarded as false: the church "... has the power to remove any of its members who transgress the rules of its institution. " [NOTE 15]


Christians should not only tolerate religious and theological views that differ from their own; they should also be willing to discuss issues with people of opposing viewpoints in an effort to learn and to teach. Genuine openness in discussion is essentially a willingness to learn from one's discussion partner, although what one learns is not necessarily what one's partner intends to teach.

The same point can be made using the language of pluralism, but I have chosen to speak of tolerance instead. Still, it should be

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noted that various thinkers who do use the language of pluralism here are sober about the dangers and do not advocate relativism in the sense of a compliant willingness to forsake one's own position, as though one ought to enter the discussion without any position. Quite the contrary, for discussion in a "pluralistic" setting requires that each participant have a position and be able to presuppose a certain amount of agreement. David Tracy, who worries about a "mindless, chaotic pluralism of pure subjectivities," observes: "The heart of a responsible pluralism in any community of inquiry is to achieve enough basic consensus (especially on methodology and criteria) to allow critical discussion of both agreements and disagreements within the relevant community of inquiry." [NOTE 16]

It should also be noted that "pluralism" is not always as tolerant as it appears. James Hitchcock warns against an "illusory pluralism" that may appear to promote tolerance but actually does the opposite. The appeal to "pluralism" is often a political gambit designed to get people to surrender positions to which they are deeply committed. An honest pluralism, according to Hitchcock, requires that people be self-conscious and forthright about their convictions: "... the real nature of pluralism ... in a mass society can only mean the existence of a number of strong, cohesive, well-defined groups which work out a social relationship with one another through compromise but also through tension and a tenacious defense of their own interests and values." [NOTE 17]

Serious differences cannot be ignored; we must learn to live with them. We will see next what this means for science and theology, where the differences and disagreements are of a theoretical nature.

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