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Lecture V: The Eye of Faith


I have been maintaining that all apprehension of truth is by the co-operation of revelation and reason: man by his reason apprehends what God reveals. I have also maintained that the ground of the claim that Christianity is in some special sense a revealed religion is the conviction that a certain series of events in the history of the world embodies a certain activity on the part of God which is of supreme significance for our understanding of all that He does everywhere, and is therefore in a special sense revelatory. This conviction, in turn, rests upon a certain understanding of that series of events, on what I may call seeing them with the eye of faith. We must now squarely face the fact that the claim of Christian faith to be based on revealed truth includes the claim that a certain understanding of historical events, this seeing with the eye of faith, is itself part of the God-given revelation.

All thinking men share in the philosopher's desire for objectivity.1 When it was first suggested that God gives His revelation in events rather than in propositions, the attractiveness of the suggestion lay in the fact that it seemed to substitute the objectivity of observable happenings for unverifiable statements. The preacher of the word would no longer have to call upon his hearers to accept certain doctrines on the ground that they were written in a certain book; he should direct their attention to certain historical events and bid them consider their implications. It was soon seen, however, that the matter is not so simple. What, precisely, is meant by a historical event? Is it merely the occurrence of a certain happening in time and space? If so, has it any revelatory significance apart from some interpretation of it? Here are two difficulties: (i) History is an inexact science in the sense that evidence is seldom such as to provide demonstrative proof of precisely what happened, and (ii) if the revelatory character of the event depends upon its interpretation, how can it be said to possess the desired objectivity?

(i) If we hold fast to the principle that in this world we are to walk by faith and not by sight, the first of these two questions should not trouble us overmuch. Disquiet is due to the difficulty of accepting the kind of revelation that God has seen fit to give us; it comes from clinging to the notion that the only revelation worth having would be one which has the guaranteed certainty that we would provide if we were God. In later lectures I hope to show that the provision of this element of uncertainty is of a piece with God's whole method of creation and redemption as He does in fact reveal them to us.

(ii) More important, here and now, is the second question: If interpretation must be included in the idea of a historical event to make it revelatory, to what extent does this deprive the revelation of objectivity?

For an answer to this question we must look back to our earlier discussion of objectivity. Let me recall what I said in my second lecture about a paradox implicit in all human thinking, the paradox that there is always a quest for objectivity which can only be satisfied by the object fulfilling the demands of the thinker's canons of thought. All that I said in that lecture about each man's apprehensions being conditioned by his outlook is relevant now to the present issue. The existentialist may err in denying the possibility of apprehending any objective truth which is common to different thinkers; at the opposite pole it is equally erroneous to suppose that somewhere there is to be found a kind of truth which is distinguished from other objects of thought by being such that we can contemplate it uncoloured by our presuppositions.

Thinking, I then said, implies a fundamental act of faith, the faith that everything that exists or happens fits in so as to make sense. Our thinking is an attempt to justify this faith by comparing our supposed apprehensions of reality, hoping thereby to correct whatever inaccuracies there may be in our observations or in our thought about them. Sometimes a man may do this by comparing the observations and reflections upon them that he himself has made at different times. Or there may be a joint effort, two or more men pooling their ideas in the quest for clearer and fuller understanding. In this way knowledge grows by the interaction of categories and evidence. The process has gone on long enough for it to be generally agreed that quite a number of truths may safely be regarded as objective. Why do we smile at Kipling's village that voted the earth was flat and at Leacock's vestrymen who agreed that the world should be held to have been created as described in Genesis until decided otherwise by a majority vote in a meeting properly convened?2 Kipling and Leacock can count upon it seeming ridiculous that men should argue and vote about what everyone knows to be matters of objective fact.

That this earth is a spherical planet which has arrived at its present condition through a number of changes are beliefs which belong to the world that is studied by the natural sciences. Here it is a commonplace that the objective truth of one age is subject to revision by fresh study of fresh evidence in another: Newtonian physics gives way to the relativity theories of Einstein. Yet no scientist believes, and no one of us in his senses can believe, that the history of scientific research is nothing but the history of changing fashions in subjective preferences. We have faith that by comparing our observations, and the theories that we base upon them, we are making progress towards a clearer apprehension of the objective truth about things which is the goal of our search.

When comparing the Hebrew prophets with the English romantics I drew a distinction between two ways of laying hold on truth which I then called the scientific and the intuitional.3 These are not unrelated methods used by different people moving along parallel paths that never meet. Prophets and poets may sometimes be unscientific, but scientific research involves an element the intuitional. It is, indeed, involved in all human thinking.

Nothing could at first sight seem more purely objective than the way in which conclusion follows from premisses in a valid syllogism. Yet to draw the conclusion a man must perform the intuitional act of looking at the two premisses and seeing in them, taken together, the conclusion implied. Now consider a line of thought more akin to a scientific inquiry. Imagine yourself waking up me morning with a cold in your head and wondering what can have been the cause of it. You remember that the day before yesterday you were in a train for a long time either with cold feet in sopping wet shoes and socks which you have not been able to change, or opposite a man with a streaming cold. If you decide that your cold has come from one or other of these source, how have you drawn the conclusion? By inspecting the circumstances and seeing in them the explanation you accept. But how does it come about that you see and accept it? Let us suppose that you say you caught the cold from your fellow traveller. This means that you have brought to the consideration of the case a mind which takes for granted the theory of infection by the transmission of germs.

In my youth, many years ago, I was at an Anglican Fellowship conference at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. After breakfast one morning I was strolling in the grounds with an eminent woman doctor. The wetness of the grass was penetrating our light indoor slippers, and I remarked to my companion that perhaps we had better move on to the gravel path. She replied (somewhat in the spirit of Socrates refusing to escape from prison) that having for many years denied that there was any danger in what we were doing, her professional conscience would not allow her to take such evasive action. Doubtless she too thought that colds are caught by the transmission of germs rather than from cold wet feet. Whether she was right or wrong it is not for me, a layman in medicine, to attempt to decide. My point is that her judgment, ‘There is no danger in what we are doing’, was intuitional in the sense that she held together in her mind the state of our feet and the state of my mind, and looking at the combination of the two in the light of her views on the character of colds, saw in it an instance of error demanding refutation.

‘The distinguishing mark of philosophy and of science’, said John Laird, ‘is to look for the reasons of things, and to set them down faithfully in order to show their explanatory value’.4 We look for the reasons of things, but what we see is conditioned by what is already in our minds when we do the looking. This, however, does not destroy our belief that there is something there to be seen, and that by perseverance in making and comparing observations we can learn to discount misleading prejudices and acquire helpful presuppositions which will increase our capacity to see straight and grasp the true nature of the object. In medical matters the trained physician is more likely than the layman to give an accurate diagnosis because his training has built up the kind of presuppositions required. A layman's confidence that he has caught his cold from a fellow-traveller comes from his sharing in the general diffusion of a theory of which the trained physician knows the grounds.

The trained physician is more likely to make an accurate diagnosis. But there is no absolute guarantee that in every case he will do so; and there is a further factor which has to be taken into account. Physicians differ among themselves in that some seem more than others to have what may be called a flair for diagnosis. Of this I cannot say more at the present stage of our inquiry than that it is just something that happens. In all spheres of human activity, in the arts, in the sciences, and in practical affairs some men are more gifted than others. Advances are made when these gifted individuals open doors through which others may follow to share what is gained by their insight. Here again there is no absolute guarantee that a new departure is a fresh insight into objective truth. The pioneer has to lay bare his alleged discovery for criticism by comparison with other observations and insights. Little by little true paths of advance are distinguished from false trails, and we add to the store of what we can take to be objective.

What, then, is objectivity? Fundamentally it is an object of faith, the faith that by the use of our reason, if we honestly seek to discount our personal prejudices and discuss with one another what we think we see, we shall be able to pass beyond an existentialist limitation to our private worlds and to share in the knowledge of a common reality.5 The extent to which we have such knowledge varies in different fields. Sciences are more or less ‘exact’: in each, as Aristotle says, we have to be content with what is attainable.6 In all it is a matter of more or less. In the most exact of sciences, in the fields in which we are most confident that we have objectivity, it has come to us through the insights of men conditioned by the existing state of their minds, purged and clarified by comparison and discussion, and accepted because it fits in so as to make sense with what else we think we know. We who accept it accept what we can see with the eyes of twentieth-century Western Europeans, leaving whatever further purging and clarifying may be necessary to men of other climes and later ages. We may feel pretty sure that certain of our apprehensions are irreversible or irreformable, but such assurance is, strictly speaking, a matter of faith rather than of sight.

Now let us return to the thought of the Bible as the medium of revelation because it contains the witness of men who saw in certain historical events the redemptive acts of God. At the centre stands the witness of those who saw in Jesus of Nazareth God's Messiah, and saw Him exercise His messiahship in such a way as to lead men to see in Him none other than God Himself. They would have had no such beliefs if they had not been men who looked upon Him with minds conditioned by the traditions of their spiritual ancestry, men conscious of being members of God's chosen people who were looking for the fulfilment of God's promises given to His people through the prophets. Not everyone who met our Lord in Palestine saw in Him what the disciples saw; not everyone who in earlier years had to do with the Hebrews and the Jews saw their history as the history of God's chosen people. What ground have we for holding that the prophetic interpretation of the events of Israel's history, and the New Testament writers' recognition of God in Christ, were insights into objective truth and not illusory figments of imagination?

So far as I can see, God has not willed to give us any means whereby we can demonstratively prove that this is so. We have to be content with the same kind of assurance that is given to us in other fields of study. In medicine and in mathematics, and in the arts as well as in the sciences, advances in knowledge come through men gifted with a flair for seeing what others do not see. These open the door through which the others may pass and have their eyes opened to see it too. Their vision is accepted as genuine insight into objective truth by those who say: ‘Yes, now that you have opened my eyes to it, I can see that it is so’. So too the Old Testament prophets and our Lord's disciples were men gifted with the flair for seeing in the events of Israel's history and in the Son of Mary what other men did not. Their vision approves itself as genuine insight, what they have seen is accepted as objective truth, by those who in reading what they have written have their eyes opened to see what they saw.

At first hearing this may sound like a revival of the religious genius view of the prophets which flourished in the liberal theology of fifty years ago.7 If so, it is a revival with a difference so great that it would be truer to say that it has passed through death and resurrection and become a new creature. The parents of that view were the two-source theory of knowledge and the idea that revelation must take the form of statements to be accepted on authority; it was an attempt to commend the corresponding view of the Bible by investing the writings of the prophets with the required characteristics. In this it made the same mistake as is made by those who, in dealing with the New Testament, identify the depositum fidei with the kerygma.8 It makes all the difference in the world when we locate the depositum fidei not in the apostolic kerygma or the prophetic utterance, but in that to which they point, that which they open our eyes to see.

I have already expressed my suspicion that it was the influence of the traditional idea of revelation which led Dr. Farrer, in his third Hampton Lecture, to put his trust in ‘inspired images’.9

The same lingering influence from the past is apparent in Dr. Paul Tillich's treatment of the subject.10 ‘Revelation’, he says, ‘radiates knowledge—a knowledge, however, which can be received only in a revelatory situation, through ecstasy and miracle’. He is then at pains to contrast the kind of knowledge which comes by revelation with that which we gain otherwise. Not only is it knowledge which can only be communicated to those who participate in the revelatory situation of ecstasy and miracle; it ‘does not increase our knowledge about the structures of nature, history, and man’. It cannot interfere with, or be interfered with by, ordinary knowledge.

There is no scientific theory which is more favourable to the truth of revelation than any other theory.… The same situation prevails with regard to historical research. Theologians need not be afraid of any historical conjecture, for revealed truth lies in a dimension where it can neither be confirmed nor negated by historiography. Therefore, theologians should not prefer some results of historical research to others on theological grounds, and they should not resist results which finally have to be accepted if scientific honesty is not to be destroyed, even if they seem to undermine the knowledge of revelation. Historical investigations should neither comfort nor worry theologians. Knowledge of revelation, although it is mediated primarily through historical events, does not imply factual assertions, and it is therefore not exposed to critical analysis by historical research. Its truth is to be judged by criteria which lie within the dimension of revelatory knowledge.

Here we see the persistence of the theory of the two fields, the two sources, the two kinds of knowledge such that ‘never the twain shall meet’. Yet there is the curious sentence about the knowledge which, though ‘mediated primarily through historical events, does not imply factual assertions’. Taken literally, the words ‘does not imply factual assertions’ would mean that it would make no difference to our Christian faith if Jesus Christ never actually lived on earth or was crucified, that the gospels would be just as good a foundation for our faith if they were a myth of the kind suggested by J. M. Robertson, W. B. Smith and A. Drews.11 But how in that case can the events through which the knowledge is mediated be described as historical at all?

We cannot have it both ways. We cannot claim both that our faith is rooted in history and that it implies no factual assertions. In so far as they are assertions of historical facts they must be subject to criticism by the canons of historical inquiry. But what of that further element in the assertions of faith, that in which they pass beyond what are usually regarded as questions of pure history and speak of the events as significant acts of God?

Here Tillich goes too far in saying that what he calls the revelatory situation is only to be found in conditions of ecstasy and miracle. Undoubtedly there have been and are occasions in which such language would be appropriate to describe the experience of prophet or disciple, or of reader or hearer who enters into their vision. But such occasions are not the only revelatory situations, and the absolute distinction between the two kinds of knowledge cannot be maintained.

Why was it given to some and not to others to see in Israel the chosen people of God? Why was it given to some and not to others to see God Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth? To seek an answer in terms of ecstasy and miracle implies that the case is a different one from those in which similar questions arise in other departments of knowledge. But why should this be so? I have myself tried to teach the elements of Greek to classes of young men of whom some were soon at home in the language while others could never see the point of the simplest rules. We must all of us have known unfortunate students in school or college who could not pass examinations requiring a minimum of mathematical knowledge because mathematics meant nothing to them. In all the arts and the sciences men are variously gifted: in this direction or that some are blind and others see. Why should we seek a different explanation for the fact that in this or that historical event some men see the act of God and others do not? Why should a prophet or a disciple have a flair for diagnosis of a kind quite different from that of a Newton or an Einstein, a Lister or a Pasteur, a Michael Angelo or a Beethoven?

I see no justification for expecting that there should be such a difference. Nor would it be of any use to us if there were. We cannot render more secure the objectivity of the biblical revelation by withdrawing it from the kind of scrutiny by which we test and establish objectivity in general. We do not doubt mathematical truths because some pupils are unable to see them, and it certainly would not increase our confidence in them if we thought that they could only be grasped by miracle in ecstasy. The uniqueness of the revelation lies neither in the language nor in the forms of thought in winch it has its biblical presentation nor in the mode of its apprehension, but in the substance of what is apprehended. To one man the opening of the eyes of his mind to see with the eye of faith may come in an experience that can only be described in terms of ecstasy and miracle; to another it may come by a flash of insight comparable to the grasping of a grammatical rule or a mathematical equation. All such opening of our eyes is the work of God the Holy Spirit, the Lord who spake by the prophets and who, in using what they have written to enable us to share their vision of the truth, still to-day does so in divers manners.

If we want to assure ourselves of the objectivity of what we see, we have to follow the usual method of considering it in relation to whatever else we think we know and asking how it all fits in together so as to make sense. If we want to commend it to others, all we can do is try to explain what we see and how we see it in the hope that they may be led to see it too, not forgetting to pray that the Holy Spirit who has quickened our mind to see the point of some rule of Greek grammar or apprehend some mystery of faith will give a like blessing to pupil or unbeliever.

This opening of the eyes of the mind to see with the eye of faith is not the substitution of faith for reason, or the supersession of reason by faith, as though one organ of apprehension took the place of, or overrode, another. It is the enlightenment of reason by faith enabling it to do its own work better.

In terms of this metaphor of vision, three things are necessary for knowledge: something to be seen, a mind that sees straight, and the right perspective along which to look. In a cinema, no matter how good his eyesight, a man who is sitting at the end of a row near the front will see the pictures on the screen distorted. To get the right perspective he must be moved to a seat further back and in the centre. Of these three factors the content of the Christian revelation belongs to the first: it is among the possible objects of knowledge waiting to be seen and known. The good eyesight, the mind that sees straight, is a gift of the Spirit widely shared in greater or less degree by unbelievers and believers alike. The one claim which we Christians cannot help making is that our faith gives us the right perspective. Conversion is being lifted out of the side seat in front and put down in the centre further back.

How are we to make good this claim? There is only one thing that we can do. Like John Laird's philosophers and scientists, we must try faithfully to set down what we see in order to show its explanatory value, submitting it to the criticism and judgment of all who bring to that task whatever ability in the use of their reason God may have given them.


Already in these lectures I have used the word faith in a number of different senses. The context in each case should have made the meaning clear enough. But it will be well to pause for a moment and consider the various uses of the word.12

The first distinction is between what may be called its intellectual and its fiduciary use. In the former of these it denotes a state of mind somewhere between opinion and knowledge: ‘I think’, ‘I believe’, ‘I know’ express successive steps on an ascending scale of certainty. One can define opinion and knowledge in purely intellectual terms, but to fix the point between the two for which the words faith and belief are appropriate, one has to bring in pragmatic considerations. By ‘I believe’ we should mean, ‘I am sure enough of this to be prepared to act upon it’. Faith is holding that x is y with sufficient certainty to make it the basis of action. In this sense the word is sometimes used of the state of mind of the believer, and sometimes of the content of his belief. When we say that we walk by faith and not by sight we refer to this state of the Christian's mind; when we say that his godparents did promise on his behalf that he should ‘believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith’ we use the word to mean what is to be believed. I will call this latter usage its objective sense.

Owing to its pragmatic quality, in sayings like ‘we walk by faith’ the word easily passes over from its purely intellectual into its fiduciary sense, the sense in which the state of mind would be described as ‘believing in’ instead of ‘believing that’. In this usage the object of the faith is not a statement, such as that x is y, but a person or a cause; the believer enriches his intellectual degree of certainty with an attitude of trust, and it may be of devotion and self-surrender. When a politician says that he has faith in the good sense of the electorate, he professes to trust their judgment; when he says that he has faith in democracy or in his party leader, he professes devotion to a cause or a person. The strength of such faith will not be measured by the degree of its intellectual certainty, but by the extent to which the man's trust will impel him to surrender himself to the object of his devotion. For a man to have faith in God he must indeed share with St. James' devils the belief that God is, but the word will not have reached its full meaning until he has passed beyond that to the complete surrender of himself in trust and devotion.

Subjectively, then, from intellectual certainty enough to justify action faith may develop into personal trust and devotion. We must now look at the development on the objective side, where the word faith is used for the content of what is believed. The history of the Christian religion helps us to understand how the same word has come to be used both subjectively and objectively, to understand the relation between its intellectual and its fiduciary meaning.

The decisive step in this history was the proclamation of the righteousness of God by the Hebrew prophets, and their interpretation of God's righteousness in terms of moral judgment. Intellectually this means that in order to discover the will of God one is not to cast lots or inspect the entrails of birds or go to a sanctuary in the hope of having a revelatory dream; one is to ask oneself what one honestly believes to be the right decision to take. By taking this step our spiritual ancestors not only crossed the line which marks the boundary between superstition and the beginning of reasonable religion, implicitly they provided for the future growth and development of their faith. Every advance in moral insight, in sensitiveness to moral issues and understanding of them, will be an advance in knowledge of God, a fuller apprehension of the revelation of Himself which He wills to give us. Judaism and Christianity, if they keep true to this beginning, will be able to avoid the divorce between religion and philosophy which worked such havoc among the Greeks. On the subjective side, in morals as well as in metaphysics, faith in the intellectual sense means being sure enough of the truth of a judgment to make it the basis of action. Faith in God, in the fiduciary sense, means trusting in One who reveals Himself to us in and through our judgments of fact and value. On the objective side a man's faith in the intellectual sense of the word is the view of the nature of things which his reason and conscience lead him to make the basis of his actions; in the fiduciary sense it could mean the causes or persons in which or whom he puts his trust. This, at any rate, seems to be the use of the word by the German theologian, Dr. H. Thielicke, in his exposition of the phrase sola fide:

When the Reformers made sola fide the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae they meant faith in Jesus Christ, fides Jesu (objective genitive). The Reformers were not concerned with faith as a subjective disposition as contrasted with works but with its object, Jesus Christ. Luther was always emphasizing that what mattered about faith was not its subject, but its object, which was located extra me. In his exposition of Psalm 90 he even used the daring metaphor that the subject of faith was a mathematical point, so far was he from regarding faith as subjective experience through which man's understanding of himself is illuminated, and so exclusively should faith be defined in reference to its object, the extra se of the historic Christ. As it became secularized, Protestantism lost light of this, and sola fide became a subjective disposition of man, an emotional experience, the famous ‘defiant faith’ of Lutheranism.13

Enough has been said to show how varied are the uses of the word, how it can be used subjectively and objectively, in the intellectual and in the fiduciary sense. It would clearly be absurd to maintain that one or other of these is its proper sense, or has a prior claim to correctness of usage. Sometimes the word will mean one thing, sometimes another. Quite often, indeed, it will be intended to express a fusion of more than one sense, as when to say that a man has faith in God means both that he believes in the existence of God and that he puts his trust in Him. In speaking and writing the best we can do is to try to make clear by the context the meaning we intend, leaving it to hearers and readers, from their knowledge of the various uses of the word, to understand what is meant.

In this connection I cannot help remarking that to my mind the phrase ‘justification by faith’ has outlived its usefulness, and, except for the historical study of Christian thought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had better be dropped from our theological vocabulary. In some circles it has become the custom to take it for granted that the words express a fundamental article in Christian belief. But the above quotation from H. Thielicke shows that among Lutherans, at any rate, there is no agreement about the meaning in this context of the word faith, a fact made even more clear by Bishop Anders Nygren, who on p. 68 of his Commentary on Romans, quotes interpretations of the word from no less than seven of his fellow-theologians and adds the comment: ‘it must be declared with utmost emphasis that nothing was further from Paul's mind than this’.14 And on p. 129 of the same work Bishop Nygren indicates that there is similar confusion about the word justification.

Some twelve years ago, when I was writing my Croall Lectures, I tried to find an intelligible and acceptable way of understanding the doctrine. I had to begin by distinguishing justification from salvation, keeping this latter word for the final state of the blessed in the life of the world to come, and using justification for the condition of those who in this world are on the right side of the line which divides those who are on the way to that salvation from those who are not. Then, taking my stand on the prophetic principle to which I have referred above, I concluded that the faith which justifies is that fundamental faith which finds expression in a man's attempting to live up to the best light he has got, whether or no he has ever heard of the Christian gospel. Thus I wrote:

Surrender to the truth of the Christian faith is an integral element in human blessedness; it is an experience in which for their own good all men ought to share. Sonic of us, by God's grace, may be privileged to enter upon it during this life, and all who are to be saved will be given it either here or hereafter. Meanwhile, the condition of avoiding damnation, the justifying faith which in necessary, so to speak, in order to be in the running for tie higher privilege of saving faith, is of another kind. It consists in the surrender of a man's whole self in devotion to whatever claims he honestly believes to be made upon him by truth.15

This which, for me, is the sense in which I can say that I believe in the doctrine of justification by faith is, I fear, indistinguishable from what some people would call justification by works. Others use the phrase to mean something different. Not long ago, in conversation with an English theologian, I found that he took it as simply expressing the truth which in some lectures at Oxford I once expressed as follows:

In all true religion, God acts first, and what we call our religion is our response to the divine activity. He creates, and we live; He calls and we respond; He comes on earth and dies for us and we are won to penitence and discipleship.16

Neither of these two interpretations gives what is meant by Thielicke, Nygren, or the seven Lutherans whom the latter reject. And a further variation is suggested by the following passage from Fr. E. K. Talbot:

The only thing which is going to disinfect us of our egoism is the gazing upon the object of our worship. ‘The Catholic Faith is this—that we worship.’ All Christian morality—the whole theory of it—rests upon that: all Christian conduct; all Christian goodness has its spring and source in the worship of the holy God. For only so are we going to be lured away from ourselves. And we know how St. Paul is never tired of insisting on it: that is the great difference, the life which rests on faith and the life which rests upon law.17

Here, then, we have five or six different interpretations of the same phrase. For this reason, while I still believe what I wrote in both Croall and Oxford lectures, I should not now describe either belief as acceptance of the doctrine of justification by faith, or make use of those words at all. Whatever may have been the case in the past, the phrase has now become so indeterminate, patient of so many different interpretations, that it no longer has any value as current coin in the theological exchange.

To cling to the use of the phrase is to yield to the theologians' besetting temptation, the temptation to think that somewhere at some time God's revelation has been given in a form of sound words, which form must be preserved while we argue about what we are to mean by it. It is to invest a certain formula of Reformation theology with the kind of sacrosanctity which in my last lecture, when discussing certain German theologians, Dr. Lionel Thornton and Dr. R. S. Franks, I maintained should not be ascribed either to biblical or patristic statements.18 It is to forget that, as Mr. Weldon has put it, ‘words do not have meanings…; they simply have uses’.19 In whatever document they may occur, we have first to ask what they were intended to mean by those who used them. Then we have to try to express what they stood for in accordance with the forms of thought and linguistic usage of our own day. So far we have what I have just called historical study, and it is in this study that such a phrase as justification by faith has its proper place. If as a result of such study we find ourselves in disagreement about what the words originally meant—and still more if we are disagreed about what we to-day should believe to be the truth of the matter—what we need to do is to discuss in terms of the thought of to-day what we should believe to-day rather than to be concerned with whether our beliefs are justifiable interpretations of a traditional formula.

Here there comes into prominence a corollary of the view of revelation which I have been maintaining in these last two lectures. I spoke at the outset of the two-source theory of knowledge being taken for granted by the original Christians as a traditional element in their world of thought. It was not alone in this. The revelation of God in Christ came in mid-history, at a time when men's minds were already governed by inherited categories of thought and well stocked with ideas. The revelation was given in the form of new evidence which had to make its way into these minds. There it would be found that some of the categories could assimilate it while others would have to be revised, some of the ideas would be established as apprehensions of truth while others would be shown to be false and have to be discarded. ‘The Buddha’, said Whitehead, ‘gave his doctrine to enlighten the world: Christ gave His life. It is for Christians to discern the doctrine’.20 This discovery is a process which takes time. It is still going on and its history, the history of Christian doctrine, has both a negative and a positive side. The negative is the discovery that existing ideas are inconsistent with the evidence and must be revised or discarded; the positive is the deeper and fuller understanding of what is involved in the evidence itself.

We can never take it for granted that everything we read in some patristic, scholastic or Reformation doctor, though the writer be a theologian of unquestioned authority and unimpeachable orthodoxy, is an expression of, or is even consistent with, the Christian revelation. We cannot, indeed, take this for granted in the case of Councils of the Church or of the biblical writers themselves. We have always to ask how far their attempts to express the revealed truth are coloured by their presuppositions and embody ideas whose inconsistency with it had not yet come to light.

The late Dr. Willard R. Sperry was once explaining to me the grounds on which Congregationalists refrain from prescribing the recitation of the historic creeds of Christendom in their public worship. ‘You Anglicans’, he said, ‘all study the history of Christian doctrine in the first five centuries, whereas we jump from the New Testament to the Reformation. We know as little about the first five centuries as you know about the Reformation. It is natural to you to read the Nicene Creed as a historical document, as a statement of the biblical truth in the forms of thought current at the time; we think that if you insist on our using these words you are requiring us to accept the Aristotelian philosophy of substance’. Whether or no Dr. Sperry was right in his exposition of Congregationalism it is not for me to say. The anecdote illustrates my point. In studying the history of Christian doctrine we have first to ask of any document how much of what is written was contributed by ideas already in the writer's mind quite apart from his acceptance of the revelation which he is seeking to expound. Only after this shall we be in a position to consider whether the result of their coming together has been mutual illumination, or whether the truth of the revelation has to be disentangled from a network of undiscovered inconsistencies.

The necessity of such disentangling is recognized by those who think, like Cullmann, that the primitive Christian faith was adulterated by Hellenization. But they over-simplify the problem by suggesting that it can be solved by a historical study of the filiation of ideas, by asking whether they come from Hebrew, Jewish, Greek or other sources. This question is important as a matter of scholarship, but its relevance to that of the truth of the ideas or of the rightfulness of their place in the development of Christian thought is that it helps us to know the presuppositions of those who were seeking to understand and express the significance of the revelatory acts of God. It prepares the way for the real question, and cannot be substituted for it. We cannot evade the responsibility of deciding for ourselves whether the presuppositions are to be welcomed as illuminating or discarded as inconsistent.

This task cannot be completed by the simple method of inquiring whether or no an idea can be traced to some biblical source. It is a task of almost infinite complexity. Every attempt at the expression of Christian doctrine has to be examined with a view to discovering whether its presuppositions have been a help or a hindrance towards fuller understanding of the revelation of God in Christ.

In the second series of these lectures we shall be turning our minds to the study of Christian doctrine on these lines. I shall be speaking as one who confessedly reads the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments with the eye of faith, that is, as one who believes that he is rightly guided by the Holy Spirit to see in the events to which they bear witness the revelatory acts of God. What I shall be trying to discover and express will be the significance of that revelation for us in this twentieth century, for our understanding of the meaning and purpose of this universe and of our life in it. We shall treat the history of Christian doctrine as the history of successive thinkers seeking to grasp for themselves that significance by interpreting the revelation in terms of the thought of their age and culture. Aware that this study has both its negative and its positive side, our aim will be to disentangle insights from distortions; to answer the question: what must the truth be if men who thought as they did saw it like that? If we are asked by what criterion we are to distinguish the insight from the distortion, the true from the false, we cannot refer to a statement in some formula unconditioned by presuppositions due to the historical circumstances of its origin. To repeat what I said before: if we want to assure ourselves of the objectivity of what we believe ourselves to have seen with the eye of faith, we have to follow the usual method of considering it in relation to whatever else we think we know and asking how it all fits in together so as to make sense; if we want to commend it to others, all we can do is to try to explain what we see and how we see it in the hope that they may be led to see it too.

Near the beginning of my third lecture I spoke of how there is a logic in things before there is a logic in thought. Truly logical thinking is that which accurately grasps the nature of its objects and the relations between them.21 If this be so, and if the substance of revelation be divine acts which come into our ken as events which are evidence for our understanding of the nature of things, then the history of Christian doctrine—indeed, of all human thought—is the history of the logic in reality working itself out in the minds of men. The real object of our study is not what the men whose works we are reading were consciously aware of thinking and saying; it is the truth which was struggling to make itself known through minds conditioned by their presuppositions. To take one example of what I mean: the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity represent a revision of the notions of godhead, of manhood and of unity which were taken for granted by the first Christians. As we look back, we can see how the new evidence provided by the revelation in Christ required this revision. As we read the writings of the Fathers, and the records of the Councils, we can see how it was working itself out. But to say that at the time they realized that this was what was going on would be to read back into their minds ideas they never had.

As it was with them then, so it is with us now. We have to try to see as best we may, and to set down what we see as clearly as we can, leaving it to our successors to discover and discard our distortions, hoping that we may have contributed something of use to set them further on the way.

I have spoken of how all thinking implies the fundamental faith that somehow all things fit in together to make sense. What I have just been saying implies more than this. To speak of the object of our study as the truth struggling to make itself known in the minds of men, as the logic in things working itself out in human thought, is to pass beyond thinking of reality as passively waiting for us to discover how it makes sense. We find that in our attempt to understand the nature of things we have our place in a succession of spectators of an objective process of self-revelation. Our interest is not so much in what we ourselves think, or in what other human beings are thinking or have thought; it is in that which is seeking to become known to us. But, properly speaking, for verbs like ‘seeking’, ‘struggling’ and ‘working out’ the subject of the sentence should be personal, not ‘that which’ but ‘he’. We come back to where we started. All human apprehension of truth is man receiving the self-revelation of God.

Looking at it in this way, the Christian sees all who are seeking after truth as seeking after God. Like as the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so long their souls for God, yea, even for the living God. This throws light on the distinction between pure and applied science,22 suggesting that in its sphere it is analogous to the distinction in prayer between adoration and petition. Perhaps to compare the two distinctions may bring mutual illumination. We are familiar with spiritual guides who warn us that we must never attempt to use God, to treat Him as a means to an end. But what if He has revealed Himself as wanting to be used, putting Himself into the hands of men so that they may be free to do with Him what they will? Is it possible that for errors both in petitionary prayer and in the application of scientific discoveries the corrective will come from following that line of revelation which derives from the Hebrew prophets, from looking to growth in moral insight for the direction both of our desires and of our technological skill? We here take note of these questions, but they, and others like them, belong properly to the second series of my lectures.


Gradually there emerges from this discussion the idea of revelation which is to take the place of that which was based on the two-source theory of knowledge, which located the depositum fidei in a kerygma or a form of sound words. To the eye of faith the agent of revelation is God: God making Himself known to man through His creative and redemptive activity in nature and history. To the eye of Christian faith the revelation in Jesus Christ is the clue to the understanding of everything else. In order to be used for this end it must first be understood itself. ‘Christ gave His life; it is for Christians to discern the doctrine’. From age to age men grow in this understanding as they learn to discount the colouring given by misleading presuppositions in the thought of those who went before. ‘Orthodoxy’, as Dr. Turner has put it, ‘must always steer a difficult course between the Scylla of archaism and the Charybdis of innovation. Its upholders need to be delivered both from a facile assurance that they are wiser than their fathers, and from a blind refusal to accept new truth and to grapple with new tasks’.23

One instance of what I have in mind may be given here. At the time of Christ it was generally taken for granted that the purpose of religion was the benefit of the religious. To belong to God's chosen people meant for the Jew to be given a superior status in relation to God. The various mystery religions existed for the purpose of giving their initiates the assurance of a blessed immortality. It was inevitable that the Christian Church should be thought to exist for the same kind of purpose. It is now commonplace to say that Jesus wrought a revolution in the idea of messiahship and kingship. ‘Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you.… For verily the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many’.24 It is, I repeat, a commonplace to say that God in Christ, by revealing Himself in a kingship of service, wrought among men a revolution in the idea of kingship. Equally familiar is the idea that among Christians each should seek to serve, and not to lord it over others; this is the obvious lesson to be learned from the words: ‘It is not so among you: but whosoever would become great among you, shall be your minister’. What we have as yet hardly begun to learn is the revolution required in our dunking about the relation of the Church to the world. In my first lecture I referred to the fact that historical research shows the Christian Church to have come into existence as the messianic community, the continuing body in and through which the risen ascended Lord willed to carry on His messianic work on earth.25 Surely the revolution in the idea of the Messiah involves a parallel revolution in that of the messianic community.

Here again I am trespassing on ground to be covered in my second series of lectures. I hope there to show how this revolution in our way of thinking about the Church throws light on the puzzle provided by our confused thinking about the ultimate destiny of those who die outside the Church militant here on earth.26 I have mentioned it now because of its relevance to much that we have been considering in this lecture and the one before. How far do most expositions of the so-called doctrine of justification by faith rest upon the assumption that God's aim in founding His Church was to bring into existence a community within which men should have an assurance of blessed immortality? How far does the same assumption underlie any disturbance we may feel at discovering that God has not willed to give us revelation in the form of divinely guaranteed statements of truth? I will leave these questions in your minds as I end this introductory part of my course. We shall return to the subject next year.

  • 1.

    See above, Lecture II, pp. 30 ff.

  • 2.

    R. Kipling: A Diversity of Creatures, and S. Leacock: Arcadian Adventures among the Idle Rich.

  • 3.

    Above, Lecture IV, p. 85.

  • 4.

    Theism and Cosmology (London, 1940), p. 30.

  • 5.

    On this, see further my Towards a Christian Philosophy (London, 1942), chap. ii.

  • 6.

    Eth. Nic. 1098 a 27.

  • 7.

    See above, Lecture IV, pp. 73 ff.

  • 8.

    Above, Lecture IV, p. 86.

  • 9.

    Above, Lecture IV, p. 76.

  • 10.

    Systematic Theology, Vol. I (London, 1953), pp. 143 ff. I may remark that for an accurate understanding of Dr. Tillich's writing it is sometimes necessary to ask oneself how it would have been expressed if it had been written in German. This is especially the case with His use of the preposition ‘of’. This enables one to see that ‘The knowledge of Revelation’ and ‘The History of Revelation’ mean the knowledge that comes by revelation and history as seen from the point of view of revelation.

  • 11.

    See references in M. Goguel: Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History? (E. Tr. New York. 1926), pp. 15–19.

  • 12.

    On this, see also my Christian Faith and Practice (Oxford, 1950), pp. 2 ff.

  • 13.

    E. Tr. by R. H. Fuller in Bartsch: Kerygma and Myth (London, 1953), p. 138.

  • 14.

    E. Tr. (London, 1952).

  • 15.

    The Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1943), p. 32.

  • 16.

    Christian Faith and Practice (Oxford, 1950), p. 70.

  • 17.

    L. Menzies: The Retreat Addresses of E. K. Talbot (London, 1953), p. 111.

  • 18.

    Above, Lecture IV, pp. 79, 86.

  • 19.

    T. D. Weldon: The Vocabulary of Politics (London, 1953), p. 19.

  • 20.

    A. N. Whitehead: Religion in the Making (New York, 1926), p. 56.

  • 21.

    Above, Lecture III, p. 51.

  • 22.

    Above, Lecture II, pp. 25 ff.

  • 23.

    H. E. W. Turner: The Pattern of Christian Truth (London, 1952), p. 132.

  • 24.

    St. Mark x. 42–5.

  • 25.

    Above, Lecture I, p. 19.

  • 26.

    See above, Lecture III, pp. 54 ff.