Why Can’t I Just Read the Bible to Know Who God Is? Identifying the Modern Impact on Evangelicals and a Tentative Way Forward

Following up on the last post, let’s continue to think about how things have been conceived of in the history of the church’s thinking, and how things have potentially changed. When I write ‘potentially’ I use this passive to signal the push back I am anticipating to this particular post; I will attempt, throughout, to redirect some of the concerns that might arise in regard to the content I will be referring to in order to make my own peculiar point (cryptic enough yet?).

I am somewhere in-between on the spectrum that is between what we might call pre-modern and modern theology; my sensibilities tend heavily toward modern modes, but in such a way that I want to resource and retrieve the past for the 21st century church (and for myself). In my last post I decried the impact that synthesizing Aristotelian philosophy has had upon the development and grammarization of an ostensibly orthodox doctrine of God; but I didn’t provide any real alternatives. The content often shared here on The Evangelical Calvinist, and in our two edited books does get into alternative ways of developing a doctrine of God in conversation with the past categories. But in some ways I want to be more radical, yet still retaining my evangelical and Reformed identity; I want to be a theologian who is genuinely always reforming as that is dictated by dialogue with the living Word of God on an ongoing basis. I want to hold onto what George Hunsinger has called the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ in reference to Barth’s appropriation and engagement with the past, and allow that pattern to regulate the way forward—so recognizing that God has indeed spoken in the past, but under the realization that he continues to speak. This is my conviction: that God is not done with his church yet, and so I am unwilling to give certain periods of church history a sacrosanct status; in other words, I am unwilling to give the 16th and 17th centuries in the development of Protestant theology the type of end all status that I’d say 90% (or more) of conservative evangelical theologians are currently giving it today. Further, it is important to understand this (about me): I don’t ultimately see myself as a Reformed Catholic; if anything I see myself as a catholic Reforming. In other words, I am a Protestant. This means that, in principle, I go to Holy Scripture as my primary authority (not ecclesial tradition); and I realize that the Bible itself is not the end, but only the ground upon which I come into encounter with the living Word of God who stands behind Scripture giving it its telos or purpose or meaning.

So what’s an alternative way forward to thinking God? Answering this question becomes more challenging. Not because I don’t have my thoughts on this, but because the moment I share what I am about to share people will immediately read me into a particular category, read all the stereotypes of that category onto me, and then wash their hands of me and move on. How do I know people will do this? Because I’ve done it myself. All of that notwithstanding, let me share, indeed, an alternative way forward. What I am going to share is simply to register relative ways forward, not necessarily absolute; but I think it is something to be considered and reckoned with. The author I am sharing draws out certain conclusions about why he thinks modern theology has become a requirement, simply because of the developments of ideas in the history. I am more free-floating than that, and don’t think his conclusions are fully justified or necessarily able to be periodized in the way he wants to. In other words, I think the inclinations he ties fully into modern developments were in fact present at least as far back as the Nominalist medieval times. David Congdon writes of the shift that took place from doing premodern theology to modern theology this way (this will be a lengthier than normal quote):

What is the condition of possibility for a modern theology? In pursuing this question, we are not asking what it is that makes a theology modern as opposed to, say, premodern? We are rather asking, in typical transcendental form: Given that there is such a thing as modern theology, what must be the case in order to make such a theology possible? What must be true about the Christian faith to make sense, for example, of Karl Barth’s “reconstruction of Christian orthodoxy” under the conditions of modernity?[1] At a minimum, an answer to this problem must be that Christianity is intrinsically capable of being reconstructed. But then, what is it about the Christian message, the gospel, that permits, even empowers, this process of reconstruction?[2] How does one carry out this process responsibly?

Assuming that the notion of modern theology is not dismissed outright as oxymoronic—on the basis of the false belief that the conditions for modernity are antithetical to the conditions for Christianity—a typical rejoinder is that this line of inquiry is nevertheless asking about the conditions of possibility for liberal theology, understood as a modern reinterpretation of Christianity.[3] The assumption is that such a theology is beyond the bounds of genuine Christianity. Liberalism is repudiated as an “accommodation” to modernity, which conforms the gospel to an alien context that demands a thorough reconstruction of traditional doctrines.[4] Ironically, at the same time that liberalism is disparaged as an accommodation to modernity, mission is praised as a “contextualization” of the gospel for a particular culture. This presents us with a dilemma: the same logic rejected under the name of liberalism is affirmed under the name of mission. The only discernible difference, it seems, is chronological.[5] Reinterpreting cross- culturally is the gospel; reinterpreting crossculturally over time, apparently, is heresy. Christianity can be reconstructed synchronically but not diachronically. Matters are only made more confusing when we find Paul’s method in 1 Cor 9:19-23 defined as “missionary accommodation.”[6] Where exactly does mission end and the threat of liberalism begin?

The problem represented by the apparent tension between liberalism and mission comes to expression, however obliquely, in Joseph Cahill’s retrospective on Rudolf Bultmann’s legacy. “All forms of liberalism, be they political, social, economic, or religious,” he writes, “are ultimately based on accommodation—accommodating old truths to new realities.”[7] Later in the article, he then situates Bultmann in the context of “missionary efforts at propagating the gospel”:

[Matteo] Ricci’s visit to Nan-ch’angin in 1595, to Nanking in 1597, to Peking in 1601, and [Roberto] de Nobili’s work in India, beginning in 1610, were brief and early flashes across the religious sky—efforts at accommodation to the realistically pluralistic world which have only recently begun to have a permanent effect. The basic question they and their immediate followers raised (now surfacing in serious fashion) was whether or not different styles manifested in varying religious conventions, genres, habits, and linguistic modes of expression could conceal similar religious substances. In his own way, Bultmann raised the same question but confined it to the Bible and “modern man.” Could Christianity, by contact with supposedly alien religions, be subject to creative transformations? Could divergent axial mythologies be modified by deferential encounter? Could the assumed hegemony of one culturally postulated form of claimed transcendence create a common universe of discourse with another form? These questions posed by de Nobili and Ricci were logical extensions of the Bultmannian problematic.[8]

While the notion of “religious substances” is not exactly faithful to Bultmann’s thought, the problematic that Cahill describes certainly is. Unfortunately, he does not go on to thematize the question of mission and accommodation. He instead fleshes out the present cultural situation in terms of a “new axial period,” that is, a period shaped by new convictions, assumptions, and myths that shape one’s self-identity and consciousness. Cahill describes this new age as “dominated by historical consciousness.”[9]

By referring to historical consciousness Cahill draws on themes developed extensively by Bultmann’s contemporaries and students, especially Friedrich Gogarten and Gerhard Ebeling. According to Gogarten, the old metaphysical and teleological interpretation of the world and our existence in it, which understood the world to be the unfolding of an overarching divine plan, was replaced by a historical interpretation:

Just as the contents of a play are established beforehand in the major and minor roles which appear in it, so too the occurrences in this history are predetermined in the “spiritual substances of all hierarchies,” which “are united in the church into a mystical body, which extends from the trinity and the angels that are nearest to the trinity down to the beggar at the church door and to the serf kneeling humbly in the furthest corner of the church to receive the sacrifice of the Mass.” But since history is understood in this way as a kingdom of metaphysical essences or substances, moved teleologically in itself and encompassing the entire world in this teleology, we lose precisely what we understand as the actual occurrence, namely, the living personal experiences of particular individuals in their distinctiveness and responsibility, their historical significance. Their historicity is taken away when history anticipates them by occurring within the framework of metaphysical essences. And it is only because this metaphysical framework contains the life of human beings with all that has happened that they have a part in the history which takes place there.[10]

Modernity is the age in which this metaphysical understanding of history was called radically and irrevocably into question, as indicated paradigmatically by the rise of the historical-critical method. “Only with the collapse of traditional western metaphysics, i.e., with the loss of its self-evident character, did the historicity of existence fully enter into consciousness,” out of which arose “the freedom, but also the absolute necessity, to regard the historical [Historische] in its pure historicalness [Historizität].”[11] No longer was the hierarchical and essentialist “chain of being” taken for granted. No longer was the ecclesiastical tale of our given place in God’s order accepted on faith. It was no longer assumed that the old stories could narrate each person’s identity. For those institutions and ideologies that pend on this authority, new strategies were devised to shore up faith: most notably, Roman Catholics put forward the doctrine of papal infallibility in the early 1870s, while Reformed Protestants formulated the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in the early 1880s. Both sides were able to claim that such views were held long before they were codified in their modern form, and yet it is significant that these doctrines were codified when they were.

This brings us back to our starting question: what is the condition of possibility for a modern theology? To put it another way, what enables theology to address the collapse of traditional metaphysics and the rise of modern historical consciousness while remaining in genuine contact with the kerygmatic content of faith? How is it possible, to use Cahill’s phrase, for Christianity to “be subject to creativetransformations?”[12] The only satisfactory answer to this question is one that understands the logic behind such creative reconstruction as internal to Christianity. Understood appropriately, mission is this logic. It is what makes the transformations of Christian faith possible, insofar as mission is essentially the pursuit of vernacular modes of Christian existence. Mission is the daring venture of theological reconstruction. It articulates the possibility and process of (re)interpreting the faith for a new time and place. The task now, following on Cahill’s suggestive remarks, is to understand this missionary impulse at the heart of Christianity in conjunction with the hermeneutical problem posed by historical consciousness. In order to address the new mission situation of modernity we need a theology, conditioned by historical consciousness, that incorporates this missionary, and thus hermeneutical, logic into its very understanding of the gospel. This brings us to the immediate concern of the present study.[1]

I shared all of that to give you all the broader context from whence Congdon is working from. He has found his way forward, by and large, through the impulses provided for by Rudolf Bultmann; I have not. But what I want to really highlight is how things have shifted from the premodern to the modern; at least as far as the way the world and reality are conceived. Some folks simply reject this reality, but it’s interesting, because these folks, in many ways are simply reading many of the assumptions they were born under (i.e. as modern people) back into the history; as if 16th and 17th century thinkers were reading the Bible under the same lights as we currently do today. In other words, many 21st century evangelicals simply want to pretend like they aren’t “modern” and repristinate the past theological developments as if they aren’t involved in an interpretive process when they do that. I’d rather acknowledge my place as a modern person, and attempt to recognize any good that may have developed as a result of the times we live in and under (or those more close to us like in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries).

What I am really trying to do here is complexify and problematize how things currently stand for evangelicals. I grew up as a conservative evangelical, and in many ways I am still a conservative evangelical (although not of the Trumpian sort). Evangelicals are renowned for their desire to be Biblicists; those impulses are still present within me as well. I think it naïve to think we can read the Bible nakedly (i.e. de nuda scriptura or solo scriptura), but at the same time I want to allow Scripture (within an proper ontology of Scripture relative to its Dogmatic placement in the Domain of God’s life in Christ) to actually speak for itself; i.e. more than I think the metaphysics of the 16th and 17th century Protestant church allows for. The “modern shift” actually, I would argue, is what has ingrained this attitude toward being the type of Biblicists that evangelicals want to be. In other words, I think evangelical Protestants are much more a phenomenon of modernity than they are of the 16th and 17th century Protestant developments. This is not to say that that period (16th and 17th centuries) has no bearing on how evangelicals think about God so on and so forth, but instead it is to identify the type of Biblicist mode that orients the way modern evangelical Protestants look to the past from. It is a mode that is less metaphysical and more existential in orientation (and I’m not sure why that’s an inherently bad thing).

So we have shifted, in some important ways, and along with Congdon I actually think this shift in some ways is inescapable; and I even think there are many things of value as a result of the modern shift. One of the values I see is that we are invited to look more closely at the person and work of Jesus Christ as the lens through which we might construct a knowledge of God. In other words, if in fact we have moved beyond an essentialized universe constructed by a kind of hierarchical interlocked chain of being- from-God-to-all-other-contingent-reality (so Aristotle, Aquinas et al.) then we are no longer to read godness off of the discoverable world (as the philosophers did). We are, as Christians, at that point, fully and absolutely contingent upon God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ in order to know who God is. This is a valuable thing, I think; and it’s a value that someone like Karl Barth not only realized but lived into in his theologizing (and Thomas Torrance benefited greatly from this as well).

This is my tentative way forward. I think what Congdon notes in regard to mission is very important. Missionaries have to learn new languages, become enculturated, and learn the customs of the people groups they come to live with and among. As this process takes place the natural outflow is to begin the process of translation; translation presupposes a stable reality, or a fixed reality that is translatable (i.e. the objective reality of God’s Triune life). This is what I think is required for the 21st century church. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as translating from English to German; as we have been noting, the way reality itself is conceived of in the modern and now postmodern periods is quite distinct from the so called premodern (although we can see antecedents to the modern in Nominalism, and other currents of past times). As a result new categories for thinking reality, and those categories and the pressures they create come to bear upon the way Christians think God. They don’t change who God is, but they change our understanding of God in some important ways; and this is why Congdon was intent on ending what we heard from him by highlighting the importance of hermeneutics.

Yes, conservative evangelical and reformed thinkers can pretend they are not modern and postmodern people, but they are. They can attempt to repristinate the past, and somehow re-enculturate the 21st century with the 16th and 17th centuries as found in Protestant and Catholic Western Europe. But why? Do we really want to allow the BIBLE and its reality to genuinely regulate the way we think God, or would we rather allow the PHILOSOPHERS do that? As it currently stands, I’d say the philosophers are winning the day in the evangelical/reformed world.

I’m not claiming to have an absolute way forward; I’m simply noting a problem that I see in the current way for doing evangelical/reformed theology. I’m not suggesting that we see ourselves as some new breed of latter day saints who think that the church was corrupt in all its teaching up until the “liberation” of the modern period. Instead I am suggesting that we allow some of the goods provided for by the modern period to disentangle God from the onerous baggage that has accrued to his name through the overly-laden philosophical categories imposed upon him. I am asking us to consider some deconstruction when it comes to synthesizing God with metaphysics that end up distorting who he has revealed himself to be (I contend). I am asking us to think that God is actually Love, and really does have passions and emotions, and that these aren’t simply figures of speech. I am asking us to allow Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ to be the standard by which we determine whether or not our conception of God is orthodox, and not bequeath that privilege to the philosophers who supposedly discovered the “God-categories” latent in the universe.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), xvii-xxii.