In all that I have so far said I have been speaking from within the Christian faith, while at the same time acknowledging that faith of some kind is present in the hearts of all mankind. There are other faiths than the Christian faith, other religions than the Christian religion, but I have not hitherto so much as touched upon the question how the former are related to the latter. Furthermore, I have made little or no reference to the familiar distinction between natural and revealed religion or theology. These omissions must now be made good.
When in 1885 Lord Gifford founded the lectureships that bear his name, he defined their purpose as the ‘promoting, advancing, teaching and diffusing of natural theology in the widest sense of that term’, and then went on to say:
I wish the lecturers to treat their subject as a strictly natural science, the greatest of all possible sciences, indeed in one sense the only science, that of Infinite Being, without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special, exceptional, or so-called miraculous revelation. I wish it considered just as astronomy or chemistry is. I have intentionally indicated, in describing the subject of the lectures, the general aspect which I would wish the lectures to bear, but the lecturers shall be under no restraint whatever in their treatment of their theme.…
It is plain that Gifford was here relying upon the traditional distinction between natural and revealed knowledge, a distinction which indeed presented no difficulty to the majority of his contemporaries. Among these would be some who, like many eighteenth-century Deists, denied the existence of any revealed, and others who, like Hume and Kant, doubted the availability of any natural knowledge of God; but both parties would have agreed that the terms of the distinction between the two kinds of knowledge were in themselves clear enough. It was the distinction between what men could discover for themselves by ‘the unaided light of reason and nature’ and what they knew only through authoritative divine communication. Yet there were already some who refused to accept any such dichotomy, placing their reliance upon a kind of knowledge which conformed to neither of these definitions, a knowledge which was neither ‘unaided’ nor yet given in the form of communicated doctrine. Since not a few of those who were afterwards appointed to the lectureship belonged to this third category, these found themselves in considerable embarrassment as to the line they were to follow. As early as 1890. only five years after Gifford had written his will, John Caird began his Gifford Lectures in Glasgow by protesting that the distinction between a natural and a revealed knowledge of God was ‘arbitrary and misleading’.1 And if I were now to ask myself whether what I have so far said is natural or revealed theology, I should find it difficult to answer unequivocally. I fear Dr Karl Barth and those who follow him would say it was all natural theology, while some others would say that I had infringed the conditions of the Gifford Bequest by my constant mention of revelation.
One of the difficulties has been that such a phrase as ‘the natural knowledge of God’ seems to cover and confuse two very different things. The natural theology which was developed with so much skill and in such great detail by the doctors of the Middle Ages consisted in the construction of philosophic arguments such as would provide, for those who had sufficient philosophic training to understand them, some independent support—a sort of flying buttresses—for the more elementary of those beliefs which, having been given by divine revelation, were already in the possession of the faithful. Prominent among these were St Thomas Aquinas’ five ways of demonstrating the existence of God—the argument from communicated motion to an unmoved First Mover, the argument from the chain of causation to a First Cause, the argument from the contingency of the world to a Necessary Being, the argument from the observed fact of lesser and greater degrees of goodness to a Perfect Goodness, and the argument from the observed design in nature to a Divine Designer.
Such arguments were first put forward by Plato and Aristotle and their disciples, pagan philosophers who had no knowledge at all of the Hebrew-Christian revelation. Yet the beliefs they were designed to establish, or something which in varying degrees approximated to them, were already operative in the minds not only of their own people but of many other pagan peoples. A pagan is not a man who does not believe in and worship deity, but a man who believes in and worships too many deities. He is not a man who has no religion but a man who, as we shall presently find Dr Barth contending, has too much. How then have those pagans who have not had the benefit either of the Greek or of the medieval theistic argumentation come by such knowledge of the divine as they possess? This question was too seldom put to themselves either by Plato and Aristotle on the one hand or by St Thomas and his fellow scholastics on the other, but when it was put, the tendency was to assume that such knowledge had been reached by processes of thought quite germane to those which the philosophers, in framing their arguments, were afterwards to set out in strictly logical form. It was widely supposed that it was in the course of their attempt to explain the natural world that the notion of divine beings first suggested itself to men's minds.
Such a view, however, finds little support in what we now know, which is altogether more and more accurate than anything the Greeks and medievals knew, of early religion. There could not then have been in men's minds any process of inference, in however latent and non-explicit a form, from the contingency of the world to a First Cause or from the design evident in nature to an Arch-Designer; and this for the very simple reason that they did not think of the divinities they worshipped as having caused or designed the world. Even of the ancient Israelites it is true that only at a comparatively late stage in their history did such a thought become dominant in their minds—a fact which is obscured for us by the placing of the story of creation at the very beginning of the Old Testament canon, though in fact it dates only from the period of the great prophets. Generally speaking, we may say of all pagan peoples that they worshipped their deities long in advance of conceiving them, as few have ever come to conceive them, to be responsible for the existence of the world and of men.
It is, however, well known, that the most influential of the post-Aristotelian schools of philosophy, namely the Stoic, developed an entirely different line of explanation of the presence among all peoples of ideas concerning gods and the divine realm in general. Through the opening-up of the barbarian world that had meanwhile resulted from the conquests of Alexander they knew now much more than Aristotle and his predecessors had ever done of the religious beliefs of other nations; and they found that these had everywhere much in common. They explained the existence of these common notions (koinai. e;nnoiai), as they called them, by saying that they were native to the human mind as such—not anything injected into it at a later time but part of its very substance from the beginning. They did not doubt the validity of Plato's and Aristotle's syllogistic proofs and they would frequently be found repeating them, but they preferred to place their reliance on something prior to all proofs and syllogisms, namely the intuited knowledge already present in their minds as in the minds of all men everywhere. What was thus given a priori did not really need the further fortification of a posteriori considerations, however valid these might be. The common notions were what Zeno, the founder of the school, called ‘cataleptic’, or gripping perceptions (fantasi,ai katalhptikai,) of a distinctness (evna,rgeia) and intensity (to,noj) that ‘seized men by the hair and dragged them to assent (sunkata,qesij)’. The belief that God exists is such a common notion, and thus cannot be denied unless through some confusion of thought. ‘People quarrel’, says the Stoic in Cicero's dialogue De Natura Deorum, ‘about what God is like, but that He exists nobody denies’.2 He does not mean, however, that the common notion of God extends to nothing beyond his bare existence, for he says a little later on: ‘Since we preconceive by an indubitable notion what kind of being God is, first that He is a living being, and second that there is nothing in all nature superior to Him, I do not see that anything can be more consistent with this preconception and notion of ours than to attribute life and divinity to the universe, than which nothing can be more excellent.’3 So also Sextus Empiricus informs us that the Stoics understood the common preconception about God (koinh. pro,lhyij peri. Qeou/) to be ‘that He is a living being, blessed, immortal, perfect in happiness and free from all evil’.4 And Plutarch tells us that the Stoic Antipater of Tarsus began his book concerning the Gods with the following words: ‘We shall begin what we have to say by briefly stating the distinct preconception which we have concerning God. We conceive Him as a living being, blessed, immortal and well disposed towards men.’5
What the Stoic teachers sought to do was thus not to prove the existence of God or his possession of such attributes, but to convince men that they already believed these things. Many men believe without knowing that they believe, but the Stoic always knows what he believes. He recognizes each cataleptic perception of truth for what it is, nor does he ever mistake for a cataleptic perception any belief which in reality does not possess that character. It is recorded by Diogenes Laertius that the Stoic Sphaerus was once at the court of King Ptolemy of Alexandria and was boasting that a Stoic never gave his assent to anything but a cataleptic perception. The king immediately bade one of the waiters serve Sphaerus with some pomegranates made of wax and, when the latter tried to eat one, shouted with delight that he had given his assent to a false perception. ‘No’, replied Sphaerus, ‘I did not give my assent to the proposition that they were pomegranates, but only to the proposition that they were probably pomegranates [doubtless because they looked like pomegranates and had been offered to him by a king]. That proposition was true, and therefore I was not deceived.’
It is probable that Zeno and his immediate successors (of whom Sphaerus was one) were content to place their sole reliance upon the self-evidencing character of the common notions. They are true because they are cataleptic, because they cannot be doubted by those who clearly know what they themselves believe. But unfortunately the later Stoics were inclined to find a further buttress for their convictions in the argument that because they are universally held they must be true. In doing this they seem to have committed the fallacy which the logicians describe as the simple conversion of an A-proposition. Certainly all innate ideas must, as being part of the very substance of human intelligence, be universally held, but it is far from being the case that all universally held ideas are innate. At all events, it was thus that there came into being the argument e consensu gentium, which found sufficient proof of the existence of God in the fact that men of every race believed in him. One cannot help feeling that we have here a declension from the true Stoic position.
This position differs radically from that of Plato and Aristotle in that it relies upon an a priori knowledge of God as distinct from a knowledge of him gained from the excogitation of a posteriori proofs. Here, then, we have two quite different types of natural theology. The Stoic type had considerable influence in the early Middle Ages, in Erigena and the Victorines, and as late as the thirteenth century in St Bonaventure and some of his fellow Franciscans. But by that century the Aristotelian type had become dominant under Dominican influence. St Thomas Aquinas will have no traffic with innate ideas or with any a priori knowledge of God, placing his whole reliance, apart from the Christian revelation, on inferences drawn by the discursive reason from sense-observation of the corporeal world. It was only after the close of the Middle Ages, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that the Stoic natural theology was to come into its own again, as for instance in Lord Herbert of Cherbury's De Veritate and De Religione Gentilium, among the Deists, and in Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.
But it is evident that this Stoic type of natural theology, instead of providing men with new knowledge, amounted to no more than a clarification and careful codification of knowledge they already securely possessed. Thus the important distinction is not really between two natural theologies, so much as between what is properly called natural theology and what we shall provisionally call natural religion; between what has been offered to men by the philosophic theologian and what men already believe before philosophic theology had begun its chosen task. My contention then is that, if we do speak of a natural knowledge of God or a knowledge gained by ‘the light of nature’, we should be clear which of these two very disparate things we have in mind. Only thus can confusion be avoided.
Leaving aside what I have called natural theology, let us now consider the epistemological status of what I have, very provisionally, allowed myself to call natural religion. Are the adherents of pagan religions in possession of any true knowledge of God and the things divine?
The question has been much debated of recent years by theologians standing within the Reformed or Calvinist tradition, and therefore I find it convenient to begin what I have to say by summarizing Calvin's own views as found in the opening chapters of his Institutes. He sets out from the assumption, which he takes to be ‘beyond controversy’, that some sense of divinity, and indeed by a natural instinct, inheres in the human mind. It is present in the minds of even the dullest and least civilized races and of those who in other respects appear to differ least from the beasts. It is, he says, a common preconception, a communis praesumptio, inscribed on every human heart (and here we note that this Latin term was that universally used by the Roman Stoics to translate the Greek original koinh. pro,lhyij peri. Qeou/). Certainly many fabrications have been introduced into religion in order to persuade men to obedience or to terrify them into subjection, but it is absurd to say, as some do, that their belief in a divine being resulted from such a fabrication (and here we note the correspondence with the Stoic distinction between the common innate notions and those which have afterwards been added by various legislators and are different in different lands). ‘It must therefore always be clear to those of sound judgement that a sense of divinity is engraved on human minds such as can never be deleted’; a sense that is ‘natural and congenital, inherent as it were in the very marrow of our bones’.6 Furthermore, however, ‘God has not only implanted in men's minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken, but has so manifested Himself in the whole working of the universe, daily offering Himself to our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold Him.’ ‘There are innumerable proofs both in the heavens and in the earth which testify to His marvellous wisdom, and not only those more recondite which astronomy, medicine and the whole of physical science reveal to closer observation, but those also which force themselves on the notice of the most uncultivated of men.…’7
Yet, Calvin continues, it was in vain that God provided us with these witnesses of himself. ‘In spite of the great clarity with which God exhibits both himself and His immortal Kingdom, such is our insensibility, and so dulled do we become in the presence of these transparent evidences, that they pass us by without profit.’ The divinely implanted and divinely evidenced knowledge has been radically and hopelessly corrupted. ‘Hence that flood of errors with which the whole world is crammed.’ Instead of acknowledging the true God the nations have invented innumerable gods of their own. ‘An immense crowd of gods has issued from the minds of men’, but all such are ‘only dreams and phantoms of their own brains’. To acknowledge and worship them, far from bringing any profit, is a grievous sin—the sin of idolatry against which the Bible has so much to say. ‘Those who adulterate pure religion, as all must necessarily do who put forward opinions of their own devising, make a departure from the one true God. No doubt they will say that such was not their intention, but it little matters what their intention was or what they told themselves.… Any opinion concerning the heavenly mysteries which has been formed by men themselves… is the mother of error.… It is no inconsiderable sin to worship God by guesswork (fortuito).’8 Only through God's own revelation can fallen man reach any true knowledge of him. Only on the Church will the divine light arise, and all without it are left in blindness and darkness. ‘It is indeed a home thrust that is aimed at our human capacities when [as so often in the Bible] all the thoughts proceeding from them are derided as foolish, frivolous, insane and perverse.’9
Calvin's answer to our question, then, is that though a sense of God is so indelibly imprinted on the human mind that it can never be totally effaced, and though the testimony of nature is suited to provide further fortification for this sense, nevertheless it is so defaced by sin that the only service it can now render to men is to show them that, as St Paul says, they cannot plead the excuse of having been left in ignorance. No true knowledge of God can now be recovered by any save those who have received the Christian revelation. The pagan religions, though it was the innate sense of God that prompted their conception, can do nothing but mislead. The pagans, it seems, would be better without them, since by their adherence to them they do but increase their guilt. To their sinful failure to worship the true God they do but add the further sin of idolatry.
Many Calvinist theologians of later generations are even more explicit than Calvin himself in declaring that it would be better for pagans to have no religion than to have those they profess. Does the great Calvinist theologian of our time, Dr Barth, say this too? It appears that he does, but with the very important difference that he includes the religion of Christians under the same judgement. ‘Barth’, wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in words that have recently attracted widespread attention, ‘was the first theologian to begin the criticism of religion—and that remains his really great merit.’10 ‘He called the God of Jesus Christ into the lists against religion, pneuma against sarx. That was and is his greatest service.’11 And when Bonhoeffer says ‘against religion’, he too has in mind the Christian religion as well as others, for it will be remembered how much he has to say about the necessity of understanding Christian truth ‘in a non-religious sense’.
But let us hear Dr Barth himself. His fullest treatment of the matter is in the section entitled ‘The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion’ in the so-called second half-volume of his great Church Dogmatics. It contains over fifty thousand words. It is turgid and repetitive in style yet undeniably impressive. I hope you will bear with me if I try to compress the substance of it into two thousand words, mainly the author's own, and I hope equally that too much injustice will not be done to the original by such severe compression.
Dr Barth begins by defining human religion as ‘the realm of man's attempts to justify and to sanctify himself before a capricious and arbitrary conception of God’. Yet, he goes on, the revelation of God in Christ, since it is a revelation to man, has also its human side in what we call Christianity or the Christian religion, and in this aspect it appears as ‘only a particular instance of the universal which is called religion’, a species within a genus which includes many other species—Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, animism, totemism and many more. ‘It is difficult to find any time or place when it was not thought that the voice of God had been heard.’ Every culture seems ‘to have been determined or partly determined by a reverence for something ostensibly more than man, for some Other or Wholly Other, for a supreme relative or even an Absolute’. Nor can we claim that ‘the Christian religion is the true religion fundamentally superior to all other religions’, for the revelation of God in Christ judges and condemns all religions, including the Christian. Dr Barth quotes Luther as having said, ‘The heathen have committed far greater sin by their worshipping sun and moon, which they have regarded as the true worship of God, than they have with any other sins. Therefore the piety of man is vain blasphemy and the greatest of all the sins which he commits… Whoso will not obtain grace by the blood of God, for him it is better that he should never come before God. For he but enrages the Majesty more and more thereby.’ What Dr Barth adds to this is that it ‘does not affect only other men with their religion. Above all it affects ourselves also as adherents of the Christian religion.’ All religion is an attempt to reach God from our standpoint and to justify and sanctify ourselves in his sight by our own piety, but what revelation does is to teach us that only God can justify and sanctify us, and that he does this, not because of our religion, but in spite of it. He justifies us while we are yet sinners, and our having religion is a chief part of our sin. Dr Barth's statement at this point is so unqualified that I am reminded of having somewhere read that the perfection of exquisite good manners in China is to refer to one's own religion as ‘the wretched superstition to which I happen to be addicted’! Revelation, he goes on, ‘reaches us as religious men; i.e. it reaches us in the attempt to know God from our standpoint’, but such an attempt is sinful, sharing in the sinfulness of all human activities. ‘We need to see that in the view of God all our activity is in vain even in the best life; i.e. that of ourselves we are not in a position to apprehend the truth.… We need to renounce all attempts even to try to apprehend this Truth.’ We must put aside all reliance on anything we ourselves do, and rather acknowledge that in sending his Son God has already done everything for us. ‘If a man tries to grasp at truth of himself… he does not do what he has to do when the truth comes to him. He does not believe. If he did, he would listen; but in religion he talks. If he did, he would accept a gift; but in religion he takes something for himself.… In religion man bolts and bars himself against revelation by providing a substitute, by taking away in advance the very thing which has to be given by God.’
Accordingly Dr Barth entitles a long sub-section ‘Religion as Unbelief.’ ‘Sin’, he writes, ‘is always unbelief. And unbelief is always man's faith in himself.… It is this faith which is religion.’ Revelation is indeed not alone in thus condemning all religion, since atheism does this too. But atheism does not condemn it as effectively, since it itself battens upon religion and, since its task is only one of negation, would be out of work if it succeeded in destroying it completely. This is why atheism has usually come in the end to ‘a kind of toleration of religion’. ‘But’, concludes Dr Barth, ‘the abrogation which is a genuine and dangerous attack on religion is to be found in another book’, i.e. the Bible, beside which the atheistic books ‘can only be described as completely harmless.’ It does indeed behove Christians to be markedly tolerant towards all religions. But such tolerance is very different from the patronizing toleration of the atheist or sceptic; and again it is very different from the tolerance of those believers who have ‘told themselves or been told that theirs is not the only faith, that fanaticism is a bad thing, that love must always have the first and the last word’. ‘Tolerance in the sense of moderation or superior knowledge or scepticism is actually the worst form of intolerance.’ The right kind of tolerance is rather ‘informed by the forbearance of Christ, which derives therefore from the knowledge that by grace God has reconciled to Himself godless man and his religion’. It ‘is possible only for those who are ready to abase themselves and their religion… knowing that they first, and their religion, have need of tolerance, a strong forbearing tolerance’.
After all this it comes as something of a surprise to the reader to find the final sub-section of Dr Barth's discussion entitled ‘True Religion’, though indeed they had already been given incidental hints that something of the kind was to come. That his repeated insistence on the falsity of all religion should be followed by an equally lengthy disquisition on true religion is, however, an example of that ‘dialectical’ mode of thought and exposition with which his readers have so long been familiar, and which is reminiscent of, while at the same time being subtly different from, the Roman practice of first stating a principle in unqualified form and afterwards proceeding to qualify it.
He now explains that we can speak of true religion only in the sense in which we speak of a justified sinner, who is simul justus et peccator. He goes on as follows:
Religion is never true in itself and as such. The revelation of God denies that any religion is true, i.e. that it is in truth the knowledge and worship of God and the reconciliation of man with God.… If by the concept of a ‘true religion’ we mean truth which belongs to religion itself and as such… no religion is true. It can become true only in the way in which man is justified—from without… The abolishing of religion by revelation need not mean only its negation—the judgement that religion is unbelief. Religion can just as well be exalted by revelation, even though the judgement still stands. There is a true religion: just as there are justified sinners. If we abide by that analogy,… we need have no hesitation in saying that the Christian religion is the true religion.
In our discussion of religion as unbelief, we did not consider the distinction between Christian and non-Christian religion. Our intention was that whatever was said about the other religions affected the Christian similarly… Therefore the discussion cannot be understood as a preliminary polemic against the non-Christian religions with a view to the ultimate assertion that the Christian religion is the true religion.… This religion too stands under the judgement that religion is unbelief, and that it is not acquitted by any inward worthiness, but only by the grace of God.…
The fate that has overtaken the religion of Israel, Dr Barth goes on, should be a warning to us in this regard.
Once it was the human answer to the divine revelation as demanded and ordered by God Himself. In its exercise it was accused and condemned of unbelief, but always re-adopted into grace. But now—the example had to be recorded—it is a rejected and emptied religion… It is the Jewish religion from which God has turned away His face. It is one amongst other religions and no more than they. Its only advantage is the terrible one that once it was more than they, but only once.… If it rejects grace, and therewith its unmerited acquittal, it can never be anything more than false religion, unbelief, idolatry and self-righteousness.
But the same fate will overtake the Christian religion if it should even in the least degree rely on any virtue or superiority in itself, instead of casting itself without reserve upon the divine forgiveness of its sins. No doubt Christianity may be able to give a good account of itself as being per se better than they, but ‘if it does this, it has renounced its birthright. It has renounced the unique power which it has as the religion of revelation. This power dwells only in weakness. And it does not really operate… unless Christianity has first humbled instead of exalting itself.’
But are there no non-Christian religions that also speak of grace, placing their whole reliance upon a God who justifies sinners? Dr Barth thinks there are, and he regards this as ‘a wholly providential disposition’ of things, teaching us a necessary further lesson. The Yodoism of Japan is very notably a religion of grace as also, less notably, is the Bhakti religion of India. Therefore
the Christian-Protestant religion of grace is not the true religion because it is a religion of grace. If that were the case, then… we could quite reasonably say the same of Yodoism and, with a rather more blunted sensibility, of the Bhakti religion. Indeed, why should we not say it of a whole range of other religions, for which grace in different names and contexts is not a wholly foreign entity. Only one thing is really decisive for the distinction of truth and error. And we call the existence of Yodoism a providential disposition because with what is relatively the greatest possible force it makes it so clear that only one thing is decisive. That one thing is the name of Jesus Christ.… The truth of the Christian religion is in fact enclosed in the one name of Jesus Christ and nothing else.
The heathen can in their own way rely upon divine grace, ‘yet that does not mean that they are any the less heathen, poor and utterly lost’. ‘Christians are what they are, and their religion is the true religion… not in virtue of their religion of grace, but in virtue of the fact that God has graciously intervened for them, in virtue of His mercy in spite of their apparent but equivocal religion of grace, in virtue of the good pleasure which He has in them, in virtue of His free election of which this good pleasure is the only motive.… But we can see the concrete significance of this, we can see how different it is from any higher principle, which might be used in the assessment of all human religion, only when we are clear that “by the grace of God” means exactly the same as “through the name of Jesus Christ”.’ ‘If we try to look away from the name of Jesus Christ even momentarily, the Christian Church loses the substance in virtue of which it can assert itself in and against the state and society as an entity of a special order.’ But ‘in the relationship between the name of Jesus Christ and the Christian religion we have to do with an act of divine election… It is election, and only election, which makes the Christian religion the true religion… For the Christian religion is true because it has pleased God, who alone can be the judge in this matter, to affirm it to be the true religion. What is truth, if it is not this divine affirmation?’12
Such, then, is Dr Barth's teaching. What are we to say about it? That it provides a much-needed corrective to certain errors into which we had been lately inclined to fall, I cannot doubt; but it administers this medicine in so brusque and defiant a way, and in such merciless over-doses, that in the end I find myself not only refusing to swallow it but at the same time suspecting that something is wrong with the prescription.
Dr Barth always writes, not merely from the standpoint of Protestant Christianity, but from a standpoint which represents Protestantism, and especially the Protestant doctrines of justification by faith alone and of election, in what Catholics, both Roman and Greek, would regard as its most uncompromisingly one-sided form. He is quite explicit about this. ‘Christian Protestantism’, he declares, ‘is the true religion to the extent that the Reformation was a reminder of grace and truth determined in this name [the name of Jesus Christ].… Out of the reminder there sprang the doctrines of justification and election.’13 His interest in Japanese Yodoism is that it yields the nearest, though still quite superficial, parallel ‘not to Roman or Greek Catholicism, but to Reformed Christianity’.14 The result is that he is led to regard world religion only as matter for divine forgiveness and not at all as a positive response to God's own gracious approach to men or as evidence of his gracious working in their hearts.
This latter was the criticism developed by Dr Hendrik Kraemer in the volume which he prepared for the World Missionary Conference at Tambaram in 1938. With much that Dr Barth writes he showed himself to be in full accord; so much so indeed that most of the English-speaking delegates came away regarding him as a pure Barthian, though he has since protested that this was ‘especially because in Anglo-Saxon countries there arises easily the fearful suspicion of being manoeuvered into Barthianism’.15 Like Dr Barth he insists that ‘Christianity as a historical religious body is thoroughly human, that is, a combination of sublime and abject and tolerable elements’, so that ‘to speak glibly of the superiority of Christianity is offensive’. Its only superiority lies in the fact that ‘radical self-criticism is one of its chief characteristics, because the revelation of Christ to which it testifies erects the absolute authority of God's holy will and judgement over all life, historical Christianity included… In the light of the Christian revelation, it is impossible and unnatural to think of achievement, whether ethical or religious: for the heart of the Gospel is that we live by divine grace and forgiveness…’16 Thus the only relevant emphasis is not on the superiority of Christianity but on the uniqueness of what God has done for us in Christ.
Yet when Dr Kraemer comes to face the question: ‘Does God—and if so, how and where does God—reveal Himself in the religious life as present in the non-Christian religions?’17 he finds Dr Barth's uncompromising answer much too simple and unrealistic. Dr Barth, he says,
does not deny that there must exist something common between God and man, which makes it possible for man ‘to hear God's Word’. However, to avoid the danger of making human religious experience and effort a preamble of faith, which would imply making the realm of revelation and grace continuous with human effort, he refuses to move one inch further.… He will not and cannot deny that God works and has worked in man outside the Biblical sphere of revelation, but how this has happened he refuses to discuss.…
This, it seems, savours too much of theological and logical consistency and breathes not the free atmosphere of Biblical realism.…
Whosoever by God's grace has some moderate understanding of the all-inclusive compassion of God and of Christ rejoices over every evidence of divine working and revelation that may yet be found in the non-Christian world. No man, and certainly no Christian, can claim the power or the right to limit God's revelatory working.18
Incidentally, I wonder whether Dr Kraemer does not allow too much to Dr Barth in saying that the latter does not deny the existence of something common to God and man which makes it possible for man to hear God's Word. On the contrary, the thesis of the little brochure Nein! was that there is nothing in the nature of man which makes him a suitable recipient of divine revelation or enables him to hear it when it is given; the capacity to hear being given only in and with the Word itself, and given only to those to whom God has elected to speak it.
In his later book Religion and the Christian Faith, published eighteen years after the earlier one, Dr Kraemer goes still farther. He reproaches himself for having in the earlier book dealt with the non-Christian religions ‘too unilaterally as purely human products’, acknowledging the divine activity in them ‘only in short parentheses’. He was, he confesses, ‘too ambiguous’ in his answer to ‘the crucial question of whether or not there is revelation to be found’ in these religions.19 He regrets especially having said that it is ‘not feasible to try to point out where the spots of this divine activity are’,20 and he now proceeds to make amends by specifying a number of such ‘spots’, as he quaintly calls them, concluding his list, interestingly if a little surprisingly, with the Aeschylean tragedies about which he asks, ‘Has one no right to say that here was a meeting with the light—and life-giving Logos?’21 He therefore puts to Dr Barth the pointed question, ‘Has this whole business of religion anything to do with God, or has God anything to do with it?’22 On a later page he gives his own answer:
If Barth says—and he does—that the Bible knows no other mode of revelation than Christ, he has the Bible against him. If he says that all modes of revelation find their source, their meaning and contention in Jesus Christ, and that the revelation of God's righteousness in Christ is the Truth, the only Truth, without whom no man comes to the Father—then he is quite right.…23
Some reference should perhaps also be made to the difficult but undeniably impressive works of the Swiss philosopher, M. Frithjof Schuon, three of which have appeared in English translation. He is reminiscent of Dr Kraemer when he begins the latest of these with the words:
Religions are cut off from one another by barriers of mutual incomprehension; one of the principal causes of this appears to be that the sense of the absolute stands on a different plane in each of them, so that what would seem to be points of comparison often prove not to be. Elements resembling one another in form appear in such diverse contexts that their function and nature too changes, at any rate to some extent.24
He therefore believes that each of the great religions must faithfully abide by its own characteristic approach to the divine, and he deprecates any attempt to fuse them into one, whether by an eclectic fitting together of parts from each or by resting content with some vaguer religiosity that may be thought to be common to them all. Yet divine truth itself is one; for it is necessary, he says, ‘not to confuse the phenomenal or cosmic with the spiritual reality; it is the latter which is one, and it is the former which is diverse’.25 ‘The uncreated Word shatters created speech, whilst at the same time directing it towards concrete and saving truth.’26 It will be seen that we have here a different combination of positions from any that we have hitherto considered.
If we now compare with one another the views of Calvin, Dr Barth and Dr Kraemer, it will be seen that all three insist with equal emphasis on the universality of religion among all races at all times. Everywhere and always men have looked up to and bowed down before a power or powers greater than themselves. But if we further inquire into the origin of this universal phenomenon, Calvin and Dr Kraemer answer that it derives from the sensus divinitatis implanted in human nature by God himself, whereas it would appear that Dr Barth will not allow this answer. He writes as if the knowledge so imparted was from the beginning so wholly destroyed by human sin that every pious impulse arising in men's hearts prior to and apart from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ was and is conceived in sin, having nothing at all in it which is of God or from God.
It is against this position that Dr Emil Brunner entered so emphatic a protest in his brochure on Nature and Grace and in his later book on Revelation and Reason; and, says Dr Kraemer, ‘Brunner's protest is justified’.27 Here the traditional distinction between natural and revealed religion is surrendered in favour of the distinction between general and special revelation. The substitution was of course not an original one on Dr Brunner's part, since it had already accomplished itself in the minds of numerous earlier theologians; but I, for my part, have no doubt that it is at least a change in the right direction. As a synonym for general revelation Dr Brunner uses the phrase ‘revelation in creation’,28 and within this he includes both what St Paul calls ‘the law written in the hearts’29 of the Gentiles and what the same apostle calls God's manifestation of his invisible nature to them ‘through the things that he made’.30
There has, however, been a tendency among those who have thus spoken to regard God's revelatory activity within the minds of the pagan nations as having been completed when he implanted the original seed of divine knowledge in their minds and at the same time left evidences of his handiwork in the external world. They have spoken as if, having provided this initial endowment, God had left the nations outside Israel to make the best they could of it, there being no continuing divine guidance of their minds throughout their later history. It is against this view that I am particularly anxious to enter a protest, so that I am glad to find Dr Kraemer acknowledging that ‘God is continuously occupying Himself and wrestling with man, in all ages and with all peoples’,31 and that ‘while the religious and moral life of man is man's achievement’, it is ‘also God's wrestling with him’.32 If there is any measure of true insight into things divine, however limited, within the great ethnic systems of religious thought; if there is any element of truth, mixed with however much error, in the thinking of Gautama Buddha, the Bhagavadgita, Lao-tse, the Greek tragedians, Socrates, or Epictetus; it came through no ‘unaided’ exercise of human wit but from the working of the Holy Spirit of God. What is true in any religious system is from God; what is false is of our own imagining. Man can know nothing of God except as God himself reveals himself to him. No man can by searching find out God, except as God himself takes the initiative both in prompting the searching and in directing the finding. Thus it is not only to Israel that God revealed himself through their successive historical experiences, but also to other peoples through theirs; though how far each people responded to what God was thus minded to teach them, and how far they mingled such response as they made with corrupt notions and practices of their own is, of course, another question.
Hence, while greatly preferring the distinction between a general and a special revelation to the traditional one between a natural and a revealed knowledge, I cannot find it wholly satisfactory. Not all the light that God has imparted to the various pagan peoples in the course of their historical experiences is general to them all; there is something that is special to each. It is for these reasons that I feel, like not a few of my predecessors, somewhat baffled by Lord Gifford's wish that his lectures should proceed ‘without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special, exceptional, or so-called miraculous revelation’.