Seventy years have passed since the munificent founder of these lectures defined in his will the task to which his lecturers should set themselves and the terms by which they should hold themselves bound. To enter upon their delivery is to be conscious of mingled feelings of gratitude and awe. There is gratitude to Lord Gifford for his benefaction, to the University of Glasgow for the honour of the appointment, and to previous lecturers for all that they have contributed to one's own mental growth. Of those who have lectured here in Glasgow I am in private duty bound to mention three to whom I am much indebted for their formative influence on my own thinking: Samuel Alexander, William Temple and John Laird. It is not surprising that the memory of such men should beget a sense of awe at being called upon to follow in their footsteps, to seek to deal with the high themes propounded by Lord Gifford, and to do so in the presence of so august an assembly. The only thing to do is to remember St. Paul's picture of the Christian warrior girding himself for the fray, to seek for truth with no ulterior motive, and having acknowledged one's own unworthiness to put one's trust in God and go forward.1
To go forward we must first go back. We must see how the present has grown out of the past in order to know where we stand as we look to the future. I propose to begin by trying to recall the study of philosophy and theology in Oxford when I was first introduced to Gifford Lectures by reading Bernard Bosanquet's Principle of Individuality and Value in 1912.
The fact that these lectures were being delivered, and that this book was recommended to a man reading for Greats as the most up-to-date source in which his examiners might be quarrying material for questions, shows to what extent in philosophy Hegelian idealism was still among the dominant forces in this island. But its star was already on the wane. While the influence of the Cairds lingered on in such teachers as J. A. Smith, and Hastings Rashdall maintained a Berkleian type of subjective idealism, violent revolt was manifest in the pragmatism of F. C. S. Schiller. Schiller, however, in his drastic leap to the opposite pole, was playing a lone hand. The more solid advance was made by such men as H. W. B. Joseph, H. A. Prichard, W. D. Ross, C. C. J. Webb and, above all, John Cook Wilson. Of these I shall have more to say hereafter.
But first, and before going on to speak of the contemporary study of theology, I must say something of the background of thought in the life of the university as a whole. The outstanding feature in the history of English education between the two wars has been the growth of the municipal and county secondary schools, opening the door to grant-earning university education for numbers of boys and girls who in earlier years could have had no such prospect. This has had a double effect on university life: it has increased out of all proportion the number of undergraduates who come up for the purpose of serious study, and it has ensured that the members of the university should no longer predominantly be drawn from the somewhat sheltered circles of the older public schools. Between 1918 and 1939 the undergraduate population, from whom in the main the dons of succeeding generations would be chosen, came to represent a much wider section of their fellow countrymen.
It is difficult to now realize the extent to which in general, in 1912, the members of the university were familiar with the language and practices of Christian worship according to the rites of the Church of England. Individuals and groups, both senior and junior, might make mental reservations or be bold enough to utter open criticisms of the faith officially professed, but for the most part they came from schools where chapel services and divinity lessons had made them familiar with the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.2 Undergraduates were required to attend services in their college chapels as a matter of obligation, and a good proportion of their teachers would be found there too.
A fading Hegelianism, in the setting of this general acceptance of Christianity, was the background of the academic study of theology, a study which was more a matter of antiquarian research than of theology proper. That it had this character was due in the main to two factors.
1. Biblical criticism was still a comparatively new discipline. There was much discussion and great uncertainty about the sense in which the Bible could be regarded as a divinely revealed source of Christian doctrine. The general tendency was to lay stress on its nature as a record of human religious experience, showing the progress made by our spiritual ancestors in the discovery of truths about God. Meanwhile the undergraduate students were coming into residence in more or less complete ignorance of the critical approach to biblical study. Among those who came to read theology, the Christian faith of many was wedded to a wholly uncritical use of the Bible. Rumours of the destructive activities of so-called critics had produced in others a state of unease which they hoped that their theological teachers would be able to dispel by showing them what in the Bible could still be relied on as authoritative in the old way. It was necessary that they should be made to see for themselves the grounds on which the critical reading of the Scriptures was based. For this purpose an incredible amount of time had to be spent in disentangling, with the aid of coloured paints or crayons, the different pentateuchal and synoptic sources. There was little time left to use them, when disentangled, for any other purpose than that of attempted historical reconstruction.
2. If biblical criticism was a comparative novelty, so also was the problem of the constitution of a theological faculty on a fully interdenominational basis. Barely half a century had passed since the university had been opened to others than professing members of the Church of England. In 1912 degrees in divinity, and examinerships for an arts degree in theology, were still subject to that restriction. There was uncertainty about the extent to which, and the manner in which theology proper, the doctrinal interpretation of revealed truth, could be treated with academic objectivity. It was generally agreed that in the university the study of the Bible and of Christian Doctrine should concentrate on the historical question of who said what, and what at the time had been meant by it. The interpretation of it with a view to determining the truth for our present believing had better be left to unofficial discussions and denominational agencies.
It was remarked in my hearing by a teacher of philosophy: ‘There is more real theology talked in Greats than in the Theology school nowadays’.
While in the interests of academic objectivity university examination papers were confined to questions about the historical evidence which should not directly raise the theological issues, there was much discussion in theological circles of subjects such as the divinity of Christ and the gospel miracles. Here, too, the emphasis was on historical investigation. Just as in the Bible as a whole the question was whether man's discovery of truth about God was such that it could rightly be described by the use of such words as ‘inspiration’ and ‘revelation’, so we had to ask whether the evidence for the human life of Jesus was such that this man could in a unique sense be thought of as divine. The credibility of the miracle stories seemed to depend on the extent to which they could be shown to be outstanding instances of phenomena that could be paralleled elsewhere.3
Looking back on those times one can see in both theology and philosophy a single movement of the spirit which can be de-scribed as a resurgence of empiricism. I shall have more to say later about the meaning of this term and the significance of this trend of thought. I want now simply to call attention to the kinship between the philosophical questioning of idealism and the theological questioning of traditional orthodoxy. The philosopher no longer starts from some such principle as that the rational is the real, using it as a criterion whereby to judge the validity of our actual experience: his first care must be to ensure that no detail of our actual experience shall be ignored, explained away, or distorted in order to make it fit into a coherent scheme of thought. The theologian no longer sets out to expound a system of doctrine based on the conflation of various biblical texts: he scrutinizes the evidence for what men have actually believed with a view to discovering what remains as credible for himself. For both philosopher and theologian, the admission of loose ends and even contradictions in his system of thought is a more venial offence than carelessness about or indifference towards the evidence for what actually occurs in the history of this world.
As we now look back on those days we can see how in this both philosophy and theology contained the seed of what has come forth in the following years. But even in England, even in Oxford, thought does not develop in isolation, uninfluenced by pressure from events in the world around. For Great Britain, the British Empire, Western Europe and North America, August 1914 marked the end of an era. It would be foolish to ignore the effect of this century's political convulsions on the history of its thought. What I shall hope to show is that, while in their effect on philosophy and theology the results were widely different, in each case they were produced by working upon that element which in 1912 was common to both.
In the first of his Lowell Lectures, delivered at Harvard in 1925,4 A. N. Whitehead said: ‘Faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from mediaeval theology’. His point was this. So long as the world was thought to be governed by gods and goddesses, by incalculable angelic and demonic powers, it offered no field for scientific inquiry. Scientific research rests upon the ‘belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner exemplifying general principles’, and this belief came from ‘the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived of as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher’.
This phrase: ‘the rationality of a Greek philosopher’, reminds one of how for Plato this world of things and events in space and time was only partially patient of scientific knowledge, only partially embodied the intelligible forms which were truly knowable. For science to mean what it meant in 1912 a long development was needed not only from Plato but from medieval theology, a development in which the meaning of the words ‘reason’ and ‘rational’ suffered a sea-change. For the medieval theologian this world was a fallen world, and the divine rationality referred to by Whitehead was to be explored by deductive arguments based on principles roughly comparable to Platonic forms rather than on the observation of what actually exists and occurs. Science in the modern sense of the term means generalizing on the basis of this latter kind of observation, and to-day a rationalist is one who arrives at his conclusions by a method which at first was regarded as the forsaking reason for attention to irrational matters of fact.5
It was the success of the new method which led to the change in the use of the word reason, and in 1912 we were still under the spell of the nineteenth-century reverence for the certainty to be attained in this way. This world was neither the fallen, and therefore disorderly, world of the medieval theologian, nor the self-contradictory, and therefore unknowable world of Plato. Observation, experiment, and induction had shown it to be so dependable in its habits, so controllable by human intelligence, that God's creation was taken for granted as embodying the rationality of its Creator.
Moreover, so far at any rate as Great Britain was concerned, we had the feeling that we could study and think in a world of assured peace. Almost a century had passed since the Napoleonic wars: such fighting as we had had to do in India, the Crimea, and South Africa, the Italian risorgimento, and the Franco-Prussian war, had been sporadic interruptions in the spread of enlightened civilization. There might be other such incidents—a minor one was threatening in Ireland—but major upheavals and catastrophes belonged to the bad old pre-scientific times now gone for ever.
The war which broke out in 1914 put an end to this illusion of assured peace. In 1933 a German lecturer, lecturing in Manchester, described the effect on his countrymen as follows:
Before the war we believed that the world in which we lived was the result of a creative intelligent force. So the world appeared rational, and man seemed to be able to change and transform it according to his rational purposes. This interpretation was a result of an increasing intellectualism which had lost touch with the concrete world. The war gave us quite a new feeling of what reality is.
Pre-war men usually believed they knew a thing if they knew its laws. The soldiers discovered that we have no real knowledge of a thing as long as we have not experienced its concreteness.… The things of this world are not subject to the spirit in such a way that those who have knowledge can be lords of creation, one cannot use a thing or even benefit the world unless one has experienced all its properties and learned how to adapt oneself to them. When, for instance, the enemies' big guns shot into our trenches, all previous instructions had but small value; we had to adapt ourselves to what little protection the ground could give us. Moreover, by the experience of modern technical battle we were taught how superficial was the causal explanation of the world given by Positivistic science. Our first need is living, not knowledge, and living involves orientation to ends. But the soldiers discovered that there is no natural harmony of ends in this world. Teleology and dysteleology are linked with one another.…
Another discovery was that history develops to a large extent independently of personal will, and according to its own laws and inherent forces.…
The war had been for millions the school where they learnt to deal with reality as it is. This experience once made in the relatively small scope of war-life, they became able to apply it to all the other departments of the world and of life. Whereas pre-war man thought that the universe was entirely within the limits of his comprehension, there is now no such confidence. Man may work in this world and upon this world, but there is no possibility of giving a rational account of its nature.…
The main problems which arise for this new attitude are the mysterious character of the world and the existence of evil.… The world in which we live not only resists our attempt at rational transformation, there is even evidence that it has in itself a tendency to hinder and counteract the moral good. A happier time believed that this world, though imperfect in some parts, was good. But… evil is not merely a deviation of the human will from the right way. In this world there are tendencies which work against its order and harmony, and for its destruction.6
I have given this somewhat lengthy quotation because it helps to explain the origin of certain features in which post-war theology came to differ profoundly from that of 1912. Underlying the changes was this breakdown of confidence in the power of human reason to discover the secrets of an intelligible universe, that confidence which had led the theologians of my youth to feel that they were on most sure ground when they based their faith on the records of human discovery rather than on the acceptance of divine revelation. One expression of this breakdown was the hypothesis of the non-rationality of God, advocated in Germany by Rudolf Otto and in the United States by Paul Elmer More.7 Another was the exposition of the Bible as bringing from God to man an authoritative revelation demanding the response of faith. The outstanding example of this was the Römerbrief of Karl Barth, which appeared in 1918. Existentialism sprang from the same disbelief in the existence of the unity of truth as common to all and discoverable by the exercise of reason. I have a vivid recollection of a conversation in the 'thirties with a fervent admirer of Hitler who based her arguments on the assumption that belief in a good common to different nations was a relic of outmoded nineteenth-century liberalism. Fourthly, there was a growing readiness to admit the existence and activity of evil demonic powers which in 1912 would have been dismissed as harking back to pre-scientific medieval mythology.
We in this island did not feel the impact of these factors so immediately as our fellow-Christians on the continent of Europe. This was partly due to our being spared such deeper ravages of war as invasion, oppression, and defeat. In both wars, while through extremity of suffering the eyes of others were being opened to a keener appreciation of the mysteries of the Christian faith, our vocation has been to keep alive in Christian thought the element of balanced judgment. But this is not the whole story. Why was it that Karl Barth's Römerbrief which was first published in 1918 and went through six German editions by 1928 did not appear in an English translation till 1933? Why was it that when I moved from Oxford to New York in 1925 I came into a world in which Barthian theology was creating a stir as yet unfelt by the banks of the Isis? America had shared with Great Britain in remoteness from the battlefields of Europe. There must have been some further reason why both in Europe and America the voice of Barth evoked a more immediate response than here.
I am inclined to think that the answer is to be found in the conservatism and illogicality which characterize the British mind. I suspect that on the continent of Europe the logical conclusions to be drawn from the substitution of discovery for revelation had had more widespread influence on the preaching of the Christian faith than among us. Not only did our parochial clergy and ministers continue to proclaim the gospel of God's saving grace as though this were unaffected by what was being argued by professional theologians; we theologians ourselves could not believe that our liberalism implied any weakening of our faith in the historic creed of Christendom. I remember the late Bishop of Oxford, Dr. K. E. Kirk, once telling me that when he was a member of the University theological faculty he had read Earth's Römerbrief in the original German: it had impressed him as a very good expository commentary for pastoral use; he had been surprised a little later to hear that in some quarters it had been regarded as marking an epoch-making innovation in theological thought. Again, the so-called ‘social gospel’ came to us through such teachers as Frederick Denison Maurice, Brooke Foss Westcott, Henry Scott Holland, and Charles Gore, men for whom it was a corollary of a thoroughgoing faith in Jesus Christ as God incarnate. In America, for reasons over which we need not now delay, it had tended to become a substitute for that faith rather than an expression of it.
In what I have been saying I have had in mind throughout the theology of the non-Roman churches in western Christendom. After the condemnation of modernism by the papal encyclical Pascendi Gregis in 1907, Roman Catholic theology was little affected by the liberalism of which I have been speaking, and for some years after 1912 little or no attention was paid by Anglican and Protestant theologians to what was being thought and taught in the Church of Rome. But undoubtedly one reason for what I have called the conservatism of British theology was the fact that the Church of England, while freely opening its doors to the winds of inquiry, welcomed them as currents of fresh air in a household which in its faith and practice maintained its essential Catholicism. However much individual theologians may have been influenced by biblical criticism and liberal thought, the Church as a whole continued to worship in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer, to baptize its new members in the faith of the Apostles' Creed, to instruct them in the doctrine of the Catechism, and to affirm the Nicene Creed at every celebration of the Holy Communion.
For one reason or another different but parallel types of humanism, based on the liberal questioning of the authority of the Bible and the divinity of Christ, had penetrated more deeply into the religious life of continental Europe and America than among us here. The Barthian revival made a more immediate impact upon them than upon us because it ‘spoke to their condition’ more directly than to ours. Nevertheless, though our reaction may have been slower, we have come to share in the changed outlook which distinguishes the theological world of to-day from that of my youth. I can illustrate this change from my own experience of two events which in the year 1938 brought home to my mind the contrast with 1912.
In the summer of 1937 the World Conference on Faith and Order and the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work had agreed to unite in forming the World Council of Churches. In May 1938 there was a meeting at Utrecht in Holland for the purpose of drawing up a constitution for the proposed Council. The Faith and Order Movement had always been a Conference of churches ‘which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour’, and as its secretary I was present, charged with the responsibility of explaining that it could only come into the World Council if the Nicene faith in our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour were made the basis of its Faith and Order work. The Life and Work Movement had never had this restriction, and I was expecting the Council to be constituted on its wider scale, with the narrower basis written into its constitution as a requirement for its Faith and Order activities. But speaker after speaker, representing a wide variety of churches from America, Great Britain, Germany, Scandinavia and elsewhere, demanded the acceptance of the Nicene faith as the basis of the Council itself. I took care to point out that this was not demanded by the Movement I represented as the price of our adherence. It became abundantly clear that this basis would be adopted, not because of any desire to conciliate the stalwarts of the Faith and Order Movement, but because it was the almost unanimous demand of all those present. One speaker voiced the mind of the meeting when he said that if it was intended to have a Council of Christian Churches they must be Christian churches, and Christian churches are churches which accept that Nicene faith.
The prevailing impression made on my mind was that that debate registered the change that had come over the theological world since I had begun my theological studies in 1913. There was no one present to voice the modernist liberalism which would almost certainly have been a prominent, if not the dominant, force in any similar gathering held a quarter of a century earlier.
A month before the Utrecht meeting I had come back to Oxford after an absence of thirteen years. I came back as a professor in the faculty under which I had first learned theology, in which I had begun teaching as a young tutor. I came back to find myself in a changed theological world. I can best indicate the nature of the change by noting three features of it.
1. Pupils could now be expected to grasp the critical approach to the study of the Bible more readily and more quickly than in the past: time which had been devoted to colouring or underlining passages by way of exposing their sources could now be given to better study of their contents. In this study attention was passing on from the analytical dissection of different points of view to attempts to grasp the significance of the Bible as a whole. ‘The Bible is not only a collection of records describing the development of religious ideas among Israelites, Jews and Christians, but also and chiefly the story of God's saving purpose for his people begun with the deliverance from Egypt, continued in his later dealings with them recorded in Old Testament history and prophecy, and consummated in the sending of his Son, the Messiah.’8
2. This quotation reflects what by 1938 was in the minds of most of the younger theological tutors. One may sum up the situation by speaking of a growing conviction that a school of Christian theology should not be so much concerned with what I have called antiquarian research as with expounding the revelation of God which has come to men through Christ. From that time to this there has been growing impatience with an examination syllabus which lays undue emphasis on the analysis of sources, the accumulation of historical data, and the cataloguing of ideas while giving little scope for the consideration of their meaning or their truth.
3. With the critical approach to the Bible taken for granted as the normal and natural Christian way of reading it, with the Bible as a whole regarded as bearing witness to God's revelation of Himself to men, and with the demand that theology should be the expounding of this revelation, the door was opened to a revival of interest in systems of dogmatics to be found in different traditions of Christendom. Interest in Protestant neo-orthodoxy was balanced by interest in Catholic neo-Thomism: it was no longer the case that the theology of the Church of Rome was left out of account.
It must not be thought, however, that the changed outlook was simply due to the impact on theological thinking of world events, that it represented a surrender of rational inquiry to the demand for an assurance of revealed doctrine in an age of chaos. These circumstances may have hastened the development, but the development itself was the logical working out of principles already inherent in the earlier theology. The new emphasis on Christianity as a religion in which God's revelation of Himself makes demands on man's response expressed the conclusion towards which the progress of liberal and critical studies was tending along at least three lines.
1. In 1912 the historical study of the Gospels was based on the method illustrated by a volume which grew out of a seminar conducted by Dr. Sanday,9 and was given full expression in B. H. Streeter's The Four Gospels, published in 1924. The essence of the method was the comparison of the texts of the different gospels with a view to discovering relations of literary dependence. There was general agreement that St. Matthew and St. Luke were expansions of St. Mark, that they had both used a second document, now lost, called Q, and had added material drawn from other unidentifiable sources. Put briefly, the underlying aim in general was to isolate the earliest evidence for our knowledge of the life of Christ, on the assumption that this would bring us nearer to the rock bottom of historical fact.
When, in 1919, Martin Dibelius published Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums he was moving ahead along the customary lines of critical gospel study. But his advance undermined the assumption on which had been based attempted reconstructions of the gospel story. It is no good our thinking that by comparing documents to determine the respective dates of sources we can pare away accretions and thus determine what Jesus had actually done and said. The gospels are evidence of what was thought and taught about Christ by the earliest Christians. Our faith comes to us from them as with them we enter into the worship of Him who is their Lord and ours. In their recording of His acts and words there may be elements that we have to discount as reflecting presuppositions which have not stood the test of time. But we must not think that our methods of historical criticism enable us to understand better than did His disciples what was in the mind of Christ.
One instance will serve to illustrate this point. Various attempts have been made by comparison of texts to determine the precise words used by our Lord at the Last Supper, and the question has been raised whether, when we have narrowed them down to the bare minimum of indubitable authenticity, they imply any intention on His part to institute any new service for future observance. In answer to this question it should now be enough to say that there is evidence in the New Testament which shows that His disciples who were there understood Him to have meant this, and that we cannot go behind that.
2. I have said that in 1912 the divinity of Christ was among the live issues in theological discussion. There was then still current the notion that the Jesus of history, the Jesus discoverable by concentration on the earliest strata among the gospel sources, was one who taught the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man but made no claims of any supernatural kind for His own person. This position was already being undermined as a result of the attention drawn by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer to the eschatological and apocalyptic elements in the gospels. When the dust of controversy had settled it became clear that there could be no clear historical reconstruction of the life of Christ without recognition that at the heart of His thought of Himself was the conviction that He had come as God's representative for the establishment of His kingdom on earth in fulfilment of His promises to His people through the prophets.10 Whether or no during His earthly ministry our Lord ever thought or spoke of Himself as God in the full sense of the later Nicene doctrine, the evidence is inconclusive. But messiahship implied the claim to a unique status in relation both to God and man. Here let me quote from the book in which my one-time colleague Burton Easton was among the first to introduce form-criticism to English-reading students of theology:
Fundamental to Jesus' work was his vocation to proclaim the coming kingdom; with a message of infinite blessedness, no doubt, but equally with a message of infinite destruction…; man is about to confront God.
He who is entrusted with such a message can never feel that he belongs to this world; a sense of separateness must be an integral part of his nature. Now add to this the Messianic consciousness. Too many moderns treat it as if it were something almost any religious man might possess, as if it were a normal outgrowth of a sunny piety. It was nothing of the sort. It meant that in the coming judgment Jesus felt that he would not be on man's side but on God's.11
In an early work of my own, published in the same year (1928) as Dr. Easton's book from which I have quoted, I wrote: ‘The claim of the Christian Church is that His one thought of Himself involves, if it be true, such a supernatural office as justifies the beliefs about him stated in the Christian creeds, and that if these elements in His thought are set on one side, whatever remains is not the historic Jesus’.12 My point at the moment is that these two questions were not dictated by the requirements of a Barthian or any other dogmatic, nor did they voice a war-weary willingness to exchange trust in the use of human reason for acceptance of the authority of tradition. They stated conclusions arrived at by continuing further along the lines of rational inquiry on which theologians were moving before August 1914.
3. The recognition of Jesus' messiahship as the key to the historical understanding of the gospels involved a new appreciation of the place of the Church in New Testament Christianity.
According to Dr. Olaf Linton of Uppsala, there had been a general consensus of protestant theologians in 1880 to the effect that the pious individual Christian was the Urdatum of the Christian religion, that the original churches were sovereign self-organizing congregations (gemeinde), collegia quae libera hominum coitione constant, and that as the individual Christians found themselves forced to organize themselves in congregations, so the congregations were driven by circumstances into confederation. The premises on which the organization of the one church is to be understood are not religious ideas but worldly necessities.13 This reading of the New Testament evidence was by no means extinct in 1912, and as late as 1938 Dr. Newton Flew could write: ‘“Jesus founded no Church”—this statement has become almost a dogma of critical orthodoxy’.14
The messianic understanding of Christ's ministry and person came by reading the New Testament documents in the light of contemporary Jewish thought. The extended use of this same method of historical inquiry led to the realization that the messianic vocation to establish God's kingdom on earth implies the existence of the people of God, the messianic community, the ecclesia.15 As under the old covenant there had been one God and one chosen people, so under the new covenant there was one Christ and one Christian Church, the ‘remnant’ of the old Israel reconstituted to be the new Israel by the gift of the Spirit from the crucified risen and ascended Lord. From Pentecost onwards individuals became Christians by being baptized into this fellowship of the Spirit, and the local congregations, the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus and Corinth, were localized settlements of the one church.
Christianity has come down to us as the faith of the original disciples of Jesus Christ who accepted Him at His own valuation of Himself as Messiah. The books of the New Testament are those in which some of them, and others who came to share their faith, set down in writing their understanding of how that faith had come to them, and of what it meant for creed and conduct, that is, for their belief about the nature of the universe and the purpose of human life. In the words of the latest of the gospel writers: ‘These are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name’.16
As they saw it, during the earthly ministry of Jesus in Palestine His original disciples had had little understanding of what His messiahship meant to Him. It was after His resurrection, when they had been begotten again into a living hope17 and commissioned, as the new and true Israel, the Christian ecclesia, to go forth into the world with the charge: ‘As the Father hath sent me, even so I send you’,18 that by the guidance of the Spirit, looking back over the days when they had companied with Him in the flesh, they began to understand many things that at the time had been dark to them.
The starting point for the historical study of Christian theology is the faith of the Church as set forth in the books of the New Testament. More than nineteen hundred years have passed since those books were written, and successive generations of Christian theologians have sought to expound that faith in terms of the thought of their own times. However necessary may have been that critical study of the Bible which thirty years ago bulked so large in the curricula of schools of theology, we can now see that it was propaedeutic to the study of theology proper, study of the faith these books enshrine. In later lectures we shall have to consider in what sense this faith should be called revealed, and to what extent its exposition falls within the terms of Lord Gifford's trust. My present task is to set the stage for that further work by describing what is going on in the world of theology to-day. What I have already said will explain the emergence of two features to which I must call your attention before I close.
1. In 1953 Dr. J. R. Nelson, the Secretary of the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches, prepared for its use a ‘Factual Survey’ in which he wrote:
We live in a time of the renaissance of theological studies, which has brought forth renewed interest and serious inquiry in the meaning of the biblical revelation. As part of this widespread revival, there is evident a growing consensus on the centrality of the doctrine of the Church in the New Testament. Despite the fact that the biblical basis for this doctrine is so very clear to many scholars and non-critical readers to-day, it is well-known that the whole concept of the Church was virtually ignored even by some leading scholars, one or two generations ago. This rediscovery (as it has been for some Christians) involves a serious understanding of God's plan of salvation, of the calling of His people to a special task in this plan, of the intention of Jesus Christ to form a community of faith which should continue His ministry, of the institution of the Sacraments and the beginning of Church order—and, indisputably, of the essential unity of the Church.
The conception of Christianity as the faith of the Church finds expression in a revival of patristic and liturgical studies. When an international patristic congress was held in Oxford in 1951 the number of scholars who came together from various countries and denominations exceeded all expectations, and an even larger number attended the second such congress in 1955. Nor, indeed, is this interest in the systematic formulation of doctrine confined to the period of the early councils and creeds. Lutherans and Calvinists vie with neo-scholastics in producing volumes of dogmatics which are debated among university theological students. And the study of the Church's worship, as both expressing and influencing its doctrinal thinking, is making good its claim to an increasing share of attention.
2. The typological school of New Testament interpretation is an outcome of the realization that the starting point of the historical study of Christian theology is the faith of the New Testament writers combined with the reading of their works in the light of contemporary Jewish thought. Its advocates have done good work in reminding us that these writers were for the most part Jews whose background was the Old Testament and the cast of whose thought was Hebraic. It is true, I think, that because their books are written in Greek what I may call our ‘classical’ commentaries tended too much to interpret them in the light of the forms of thought and linguistic usage of the Greek classics. To have been recalled from this to look in the Old Testament for the ideas which govern the thinking of the writers of the New is a positive gain, and though in the first flush of their enthusiasm for this method of interpretation some of its exponents credit them with allusions that are more ingenious than convincing,19 a door has undoubtedly been opened to a fuller understanding of the text.
The political convulsions of this century have produced in many quarters scepticism of the capacity of human reason to discover truth, a desire for a religion proclaiming an authoritative revelation of God which does not submit itself to man's judgment but simply demands his acceptance and obedience, for a theology which confines itself to the exposition of the revealed truth. There have been theologians who have acquiesced in this scepticism, repudiated the pretensions of critics who have sought to sit in judgment on the oracles of God, and set themselves to write dogmatics on the basis of these assumptions. I have tried to show that a theology which meets the needs of the situation by taking for its subject matter the living faith of the Church is the outcome of developing the critical methods of the theology of my youth. I propose in these lectures to maintain that this is the right path for the theologian to follow, and that the fullest recognition of the revealed character of the Christian faith is consistent with the belief that it is God's will to submit it to the judgment of human reason.
Eph. vi. 14–16.
I remember my predecessor Dr. Headlam mentioning a remark by the Principal of one of the women's colleges to the effect that whereas in her youth most of the students came from churches where Mattins was the regular Sunday morning service, now they were more familiar with choral Eucharist.
I can remember a paper read by a theologian to the effect that intercessory prayer could reasonably be thought to produce results in the body of a sick friend by acting on that body through the telepathic influence of mind on mind. Thus healing miracles were in general held to be more credible than nature-miracles.
A. N. Whitehead: Science and the Modern World (New York, 1925), pp. 17, 18.
Cp. C. E. Riven: Natural Religion and Christian Theology (Cambridge, 1953), iv, v.
O. Piper: Recent Developments in German Protestantism (London, 1934), pp. 40–47.
R. Otto: Das Heilige (Breslau, 1917; E. Tr. Oxford, 1923); P. E. More: Christ the Word (Princeton, 1927). See my Place of Reason in Christian Apologetics (Oxford, 1925).
A. M. Hunter: The Unity of the New Testament (London, 1943), p. 10.
Oxford Studies in the Synoptic Problem (Oxford, 1911).
On this see W. Manson: Jesus the Messiah (London, 1943).
B. S. Easton: The Gospel before the Gospels (New York, 1928), p. 160.
L. Hodgson: And Was Made Man (London, 1928), p. 67.
Olaf Linton: Das Problem der Urkirche in der neueren Forschung (Uppsala, 1932), pp. 1–8.
R. N. Flew: Jesus and His Church (London, 1938), p. 24.
On this see A. M. Hunter: The Unity of the New Testament (London, 1943), pp. 46–74.
St John xx. 31.
1 St. Peter i. 3.
St. Matt. xxviii. 19; St. John xx. 21.
See below, Lecture IV, pp. 76 ff.