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Preface to the Paperback Edition

Ten years have gone by since these lectures were composed, delivered and originally published. During this time there has been a good deal of movement in the world of theological thought. So much so, indeed, that in some circles it has become the fashion to speak of the ‘new theology’ and the ‘new morality’. Why then reprint this ten-year-old theology which by now must surely be out of date?

Actually there are a number of ‘new theologies’ representing different schools of thought, with one deep cleavage of which the importance is too easily overlooked. For many of us here and in America the phrase is apt to suggest theology associated with such names as Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, the Bishop of Woolwich, van Buren and Altizer. But according to a review in the Times Literary Supplement of Jacques Maritain's Le Paysan de la Garonne; ‘in France, as with other themes in history, Teilhard de Chardin has become an either-or. Either you are a Teilhardist or you are an anti-Teilhardist. And according to whichever you are, you are progressive or conservative.’1 The contrast is well summed up by C. F. Mooney when he writes:

The whole Modernist movement in fact tended to create the impression that between modern thought and traditional church teaching there could be no compatibility at all. If Teilhard de Chardin has a special mission in the Church, it would seem to be to remove this impression once and for all. Nor is it without significance that, whereas such modern thinkers as Rudolf Bultmann can see only rupture between today's world outlook and the ‘mythical’ data of the New Testament, Teilhard keeps insisting that this same world outlook can ultimately be understood by the light of this data, and that in the last resort only Christian faith can grasp the full meaning of the obscure human searchings present in every scientific achievement.2

The deep cleavage is this. For the one group the ‘newness’ springs from the radical rejection of much that traditionally has been thought to be basic to the truth of the Christian faith. Much in the New Testament that has been taken as historical must be ‘de-mythologized’. The later metaphysical constructions of patristics, scholastics, reformers and others no longer have meaning in the twentieth century. The new theology is heralded by such headlines as ‘Our Image of God must Go’, or ‘But that I can't Believe!’, or ‘The Death of God’. But to the members of the Teilhardist avant-garde all this is as irrelevant as the proverbial water to a duck's back. The Christian faith which they seek to present as interpreting a scientific understanding of the universe and providing a hopeful future for man is the original faith as it has been received and developed through successive generations of theological research.

To my mind the most important movement of theological thought in these ten years is not associated with any one of the big names that have hit the headlines. Beneath the surface a new current has been mingling with the stream. It is beginning to exert its influence and we are beginning to see something of the course which in future it will have to take.

For more than a century our biblical studies have mainly been concerned with exegesis, that is, with the attempt to determine the date and provenance of the various documents and what they meant in the minds of their original authors and readers. The background of this in the general history of human thought was the development of ‘modern’ scientific theory based on observation of the data provided by the natural world in the present instead of reliance on the dicta of acknowledged authorities in the past. Thus in the seventeenth century zoology made a fresh start when study of the nature and habits of actual animals displaced descriptions by Aristotle and pictures preserved in bestiaries and the traditions of heraldry.

In one respect the mingling of the streams came to a head with the nineteenth-century Darwinian controversies. In respect of God's creative activity we learned to accept the observed evidence of the actual behaviour of the natural world as one of the channels of His self-revelation. We take, for example, this way of understanding the Genesis account of creation. For specifically Christian faith in God's redemptive activity the channel of revelation is the history of the biblical Chosen People leading to the gospel story and issuing the life of the Christian Church.

So far, so good. But as yet we have hardly begun to grasp what it will mean to graft the study of this history into the stock of our theological thinking. We are at a turning point in the history of Christian theology comparable to that which in the wider field gave birth to modern science in the seventeenth century. Let me quote from what I wrote last year:

We shall find it hard to accustom ourselves to the uprooting of traditional habits, as hard as it must have been for the compilers of bestiaries in the early seventeenth century. For so long we have taken it for granted that in the New Testament, in the teaching of Jesus, and in the understanding of their faith by St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John and the rest, we have the genuine statement of what Christianity really is; that the subsequent history of the Church is the history of a falling away from the original high level of faith and practice; and that what we need is to get back to the understanding of our faith which those New Testament Christians had. It is hard to get used to the fact that in the sense in which we are seeking it they never had it. They were Jews, most of them Palestinian Jews. They had the outlook of their time, place, and culture. Their creed was the Jewish creed of that age. The original Christianity was the faith of a few of them who had followed Jesus of Nazareth in the hope that he might be the promised Messiah. That hope had been shattered by his arrest and execution, revived by his resurrection and transformed into faith that somehow or other, in spite of appearances, he had been the Messiah after all, and was now their heavenly Lord through whom God was carrying out his purpose of reconciling the world to himself. The New Testament shows them trying to make head or tail of what had happened on the basis of their Jewish understanding of God and the universe. So far from having given us a full and final explanation of the meaning of our faith they were taking the first steps towards its discovery, initiating a process which under the guidance of the Holy Spirit has been continuing ever since and is still going on. To answer the question ‘What is the Christian view of anything?’ we have to take into account how the understanding of it by the New Testament Christians has been deepened and enriched in the experience of their successors, and is still being deepened and enriched by our experience of life in the world of today.3

For the theologian actual history is what takes the place of the zoologist's actual animals as the object of study. To realize this opens the door to a reconciliation of the truths for which both iconoclasts and Teilhardists stand. Both were moved by a healthy reaction against an unhistorical view of God's method in revelation.

We have no ground for supposing that the first Christians themselves ever asked, considered, or attempted to answer all the questions which were dealt with at Nicaea and Chalcedon, which have perplexed Christians down the ages, and which exercise our minds to-day. First must come a genuinely historical attempt to understand the kind of men they were, leading up to the question: ‘What must the truth have been and be if that is how it looked to men who thought and wrote like that?’ This has to be done over and over again, as we take up the study of successive generations of Christian scholars. We ourselves are in the succession: all we can do is make our contribution from our own point of view, leaving it to be similarly revised by those who come after us. But theology is bedevilled by the illusion that somewhere, sometime, someone really knew the full truth and that what we have to do is to study what he said or wrote, find out what he meant by it, and get back to it. Both schools are in reaction against this assumption, but in different ways: the iconoclasts as men who, having come of age, must put away childish things and start afresh; the Teilhardists as men whose maturer vision gives them a fuller understanding of what they had thought and said in their youth.

Paradoxically both are controlled by the assumption against which they are reacting, the assumption that somewhere at some time it is possible to have a finally satisfactory statement of the truth. The iconoclastic demand to substitute the new theology for the old presents them as rival claimants for this untenable position. The Teilhardist reinterpretation of the faith in terms of evolutionary science reads back into the minds of our ancestors ideas they never had. But God alone knows all the truth, and in this space-time universe is communicating it to us human beings as our growing minds grow in ability to receive it.

We must make a fresh start from the historical picture of the first Christians as Palestinian Jews trying to fit their faith in the risen Lord into their inherited Jewish theology. From them we go on to their successors. In each case our first aim is to learn what kind of minds they had, being the men of their age and culture. Then we ask how far their outlook helped or hindered them in seeing more deeply into the meaning of their faith. Their Jewish background gave the first Christians penetrating insights which have stood the test of time. It also closed their minds to aspects of the truth which had to wait for others to discover. The patristic age brought contributors from minds both enlightened and beclouded by Greek and Roman culture and the influence of oriental religious piety. So it has been ever since; until to-day it is mainly progress in scientific research which opens our eyes to fresh insights while doubtless blinding us to much that waits to be seen by theologians yet to be born. At every stage the study of the history of Christian doctrine involves the effort to discriminate between enduring insights into truth and passing reflections of the spirit of the age.

I have been asked by what criterion or standard we can tell the one from the other. In the sense in which the question is asked, there is none. We have to make up our own minds, reviewing in the light of to-day's knowledge what we have inherited from our fathers. The Christian faith is a unique thing in the world, working out its development for the first and only time in history. We are, as it were, inside the first acorn that ever became an oak. How can we tell the right way to be going so as not to be an elm or a beech? When Christopher Columbus set off to sail beyond the sunset he could not tell till he got there what kind of a land he would find across the ocean. He sailed by faith and not by sight. To-day Sir Francis Chichester has a multitude of navigational aids which he would be a fool to ignore because they were not known to Columbus.

Among theories and formulae ‘time will show’ well describes the method by which the Church has actually lived and grown. It was prescribed many years ago by an unknown writer in Deuteronomy xviii. 21, 22. In orthodox Catholic tradition an ecumenical decision is one which is promulgated by a constitutionally convened council of the Church and ratified by being accepted by the faithful. ‘The ratification of conciliar decisions by catholic consent’ is a translation into ecclesiastical language of the maxim ‘time will show’.

This is not to deify time, for time is not God but God's, the order of successiveness through which God makes Himself known to man. ‘Time will show’ means ‘God will show in His own time’. It is a useful phrase because it bids us wait on Him for the solution of our problems, recalling us from the impatience which would demand, like Marcion of old, that God shall do everything on a sudden.

It needs patience, the patience required first to get to know the minds of our predecessors in the context of their own age and then to consider what the thought of our age will allow us to endorse and what it will bid us revise. It is the discipline which will save us both from iconoclastic extravagance on the one side and from too facile an echoing of tradition on the other. This is what I had come to see when I wrote these lectures. What I have learnt since then from my share in the life and thought of the theological world makes me want to re-affirm it to-day.

Moreover, what I have read and heard during these ten years has confirmed me in three convictions.

1. When we think of God as personal this is not a mythological personification of some more ultimate reality. It is penetrating more deeply into thinking of Him as He really is. A corollary of this is that ultimate explanations will be found in terms of God's will and purpose which underlie the regularities investigated in scientific research.

2. This thinking of God as personal is not the same thing as thinking of Him as a Person, a distinction clearly brought out by C. C. J. Webb in his 1918 Gifford Lectures on God and Personality. Hesitation to think of God as personal is largely due to confusion on this point, and to failure to grasp the philosophical significance of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It is reinforced by a prevalent tendency to imagine it to be more ‘scientific’ to subordinate the personal to the impersonal, as when a man's personal action is explained to be the inevitable expression of an impersonal system of complexes.

At its worst this tendency lures theologians into a woolly-mindedness which substitutes arguments about depersonalized abstractions for wrestling with the mystery of God's revelation of Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ. Discussion of ‘the Christ event’, ‘the resurrection experience’, ‘the new being’, and ‘the love which is the ground of our being’ takes the place of any attempt to enter into and share in the personal relation of the disciples to our Lord. Too often it seems to be forgotten that what is called the resurrection experience was a matter of personal intercourse with a personal living Lord.

3. I have never been the same since I learnt from R. G. Collingwood to recognize the existence of scientifically knowable change. The combined influence of the scientific naturalism and the Hegelian idealism of my youth had tended to make it axiomatic that whatever could not be explained as either caused or reasonable could not really be what it appeared to be. A sudden shaft of light revealed the fact that so far as this space-time universe is concerned, this is not so. There may be actual events of which as they stand no reasonable account can be given; it is a waste of time to try to give one, as futile as an attempt to give a geometrical definition of a square circle. The element of truth for which the pragmatists stand is that such things must be accepted as what they are, wrestled with and changed in fact, in order to be made transparent to thought.

I would like to end by quoting a slightly altered version of a prayer ascribed to Bishop Ridding, published in 1915 in G. C. Binyon, Prayers for the City of God:

In times of doubts and questionings, when our belief is perplexed by new learning, new teaching, new thought, when our faith is strained by creeds, by doctrines, by mysteries beyond our understanding, give us the faithfulness of learners and the courage of believers in Thee; patience and insight to master difficulties; stability to hold fast our tradition with enlightened interpretation, to admit all fresh knowledge of truth unknown to us, and in times of trouble really to grasp the new knowledge and to combine it loyally and honestly with the old. Alike from stubborn rejection of new revelations and from hasty assurance that we are wiser than our fathers,

Save us and help us we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord

August 1967


  • 1.

    T.L.S. March 23rd, 1967, p. 248.

  • 2.

    C. F. Mooney: Teilhard de Chardin and the Mystery of Christ (London, 1966), p. 198.

  • 3.

    Sex and Christian Freedom (London, 1967), p. 41.