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Chapter V: The Nature and Office of Theological Statements

§ 22

In order to carry our argument further, we may now remind ourselves of some things that were advanced at an earlier point in it. We then drew a distinction between knowledge of truth and knowledge of reality, or between knowledge of propositions and knowledge of being; and for the latter of these two kinds of knowledge we used Lord Russell's term, knowledge by acquaintance. But we found ourselves differing very radically from Lord Russell's catalogue of things with which we are thus acquainted. In his essay of 1911, which was then quoted, he contended that our direct acquaintance is only with sense data such as patches of colour, noises and bodily pains; with concepts or universals such as colour, noise and pain; ‘and possibly with ourselves, but not with physical objects or other minds’. ‘Our knowledge of physical objects and of other minds’, he wrote, ‘is only knowledge by description’; and this, I take it, is the same as to say that the object of our knowledge is not these realities themselves but certain propositions concerning them.1

As against this, I ventured to affirm that we are directly aware of reality, and of such realities as the external world, ourselves, our fellow men and God. It is this direct awareness (our knowledge of S) that is primary, our propositional affirmations (our knowledge that S is P) being secondary and derivative and always more tentative. But what I have been particularly concerned to argue is that faith is one such primary mode of awareness. Faith does not deduce from other realities that are present the existence of a God who is not present but absent; rather is it an awareness of the divine Presence itself, however hidden behind the veils of sense. Apart from such awareness there can be no true religion, and therefore no full humanity. Here I take the liberty of quoting some words of Professor H. A. Hodges:

It has been traditional to say that man is man by virtue of his possession of reason, and no doubt it is possible to read a rich and true meaning into this; though it may also be taken to mean mere cunning, as if man were superior to the dog simply because he can catch his rabbits more efficiently and can bury his bones without forgetting where he put them. That is not what makes him man. He is what he is because he is capable of a kind of double awareness; while seeing around him the same physical world in which his dog moves, and controlling it much better than his dog does, he can also discern a Presence half-hidden and half-revealed by the façade of physical things and processes. This insight gives to his own existence and activity a quite new significance. Man stands before nature as its potential master, but in face of the Presence he is conscious of responsibilities and obligations. It gives him a new dignity, and it brings him a new kind of risk; since if he gets out of harmony with the all-pervading Presence he will get out of harmony also with himself, and will begin to tear himself in pieces.2

Finally, however, we must remind ourselves again that, if we allow ourselves to speak of a senseof the presence of God, or of a sense of duty or a sense of humour, these are not on all fours with the senses by means of which we apprehend the external world. They are not like the latter prior to all reflective thought, but are developed on a higher level with the aid of such thought. Only a thinking being can see the funny side of things, or distinguish right from wrong, or be aware of God. We may affirm the perceptional element in faith without denying the conceptional element in it.

Having given ourselves these reminders, we may now advance a stage further. Each of those perceptional modes which goes beyond ordinary sense perception calls for a characteristic response on the part of the percipient. Perhaps the most general term for such responses is ‘appreciation’, but that term is too narrow in its associations to cover all the varieties very comfortably. We speak of our appreciation of virtue, of humour, of beauty and so forth, but it will not do to speak of our appreciation of our fellow men or of God. When our apprehension is of other selves than our own, we are above all aware of the claim they make upon us, and the response they demand is what we call an attitude of responsibility towards them. In the ethico-religious sphere, where we have to do with personal relations, we do but evade the realities presented to our apprehension if we face them otherwise than responsibly. Nor can we bring the least reason into the discussion of these matters if we approach them disinterestedly, or without full recognition of the demands they make upon our own will and action. Our thinking about them is quite unreal unless it be, in Kierkegaard's phrase, ‘existential’.

Our present particular concern is with the apprehension of the divine, and the response which is here demanded of us may be spoken of as ‘obedient commitment’. Faith is apprehension through commitment. This alone is true faith, fides salvifica as distinguished from mere intellectual acceptance, for one reason of another, or from one cause or another, of certain propositions which men of faith are also accustomed to affirm, such as that a Supreme Being exists, that there is a providence that shapes our ends, or that there is a life beyond death. Faith is thus at one and the same time a mode of apprehension and a mode of active response to that apprehension. This is a region of experience in which there can be no apprehension without commitment, but it is equally true to say that there can be no commitment without apprehension. I have elsewhere3 pointed out how in one of his books Dr Emil Brunner remarks that ‘Faith is obedience; nothing else; literally nothing else at all’;4 while in another he repeats this only to add that it is impossible for us to resolve the two words, ‘obedience’ and ‘faith’, into one, because there is in faith both a cognitive and a volitional element, making it necessary to keep moving back and forth in our speaking of it between the indicative and the imperative moods.5 So also Dr Rudolf Bultmann, in expounding St Paul's view of ‘the structure of faith’, writes in his Theology of the New Testament that ‘Faith is the acceptance of the kerygma not as mere cognizance of it and agreement with it but as that genuine obedience to it which includes a new understanding of one's self.’6 Again, in expounding the Johannine view of faith in Christ, he writes: ‘It is not as if one first had to believe Him, trust Him, in order that one might believe in Him, but that one ought to believe Him, and in so trusting Him is in fact believing in Him; one can do neither without doing both.’7 So also Dr Ethelbert Stauffer in his New Testament Theology:

In Paul the accent falls upon the revelation of the Word. It is the Word of the gospel that calls out faith from men. Hence faith is said to come from hearing, according to a formula that appears in a number of forms. But the hearing that is of faith expresses itself in the obedience of faith. This obedience of faith has nothing at all to do with subjecting the human intellect to some dogmatic formula. What Paul has in mind is much more the subjection of man's self-glorification to the sole glory of God.8

There is no doubt, then, that the faith of which St Paul and St John speak claims to be a veridical apprehension of the divine at the same time as it is an obedient commitment to it, and a commitment at the same time as it is an apprehension. Such faith cannot indeed be sundered from assent to theological doctrines and ecclesiastical dogmas by any clean-drawn line, yet the distinction between the two must be carefully maintained. It is God himself, as he comes to meet us in Christ, of whom the Christian is indefeasibly certain, and not such statements as he can make about God; and the degree of his assurance in holding to such statements will vary directly with the degree of their proximity to, or remoteness from, the elements of reflective insight already present, in however latent a form, in faith's own awareness of the God who thus comes to meet him.

This is to express it in terms of the individual; but if we so express it, we must at once remind ourselves that it is not to the individual Christian in his solitude that God reveals himself, but to the faithful community, and to the individual only in community. ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’9 Hence the measure of assurance with which the believer will hold to any doctrine will be affected by other factors than his own individual insight into its truth. In cases where his own insight does not yet extend, or extends with only a weak measure of assurance, to affirmations which are confidently made by his fellow Christians, he will think it quite likely that it is they who are right and he who has not understood. So much is true mutatis mutandis of the scientist as over against his fellow scientists, or of the literary critic as over against his fellow critics; or ought to be. The critic who can find little to admire in Milton or in Pope should be humble enough to suspect that it is his own sensibility that is defective, rather than that there is nothing admirable to be found in them. But the Christian looks back on a longer and more solid paradosis or tradition than the literary critic or the natural scientist is able to do; and certainly any belief that comes anywhere near to satisfying the Vincentian canon, quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus, will be treated by him with the greatest respect.

For the Christian, of course, the Bible possesses an authority which is all its own. Certainly he has no right to the assurance that all its particular affirmations are veridical, yet it is to the prophetic and apostolic witness which it contains that he himself owes his whole ability to apprehend the presence of God in Christ and so to have any Christian faith at all. He will thus be very slow, in any matter touching the intellectual explication of the essential nature of that faith, to attach more value to his own insight than to that of the Biblical writers. To a lesser, but still to a most significant, extent this will be true also of his attitude towards the later development of dogma. This question of the kind of authority to be ascribed to the Bible, to later tradition and to catholic dogma, is a large one, about which much has been written, and about which I myself have ventured to write elsewhere, but my present concern is only to make the point that the measure of assurance with which the Christian makes any doctrinal affirmation ought clearly to be affected by other factors than his own direct insight into its truth. Only the most arrogant individualist could think otherwise.

§ 23

We must now endeavour to define more precisely the nature of those affirmations in which Christians, beginning with the New Testament authors, have sought to draw out the latent intellectual content of the faith that is in them. We have said that while each of these claims to express something of the reality with which faith is confronted, no claim is made that they are fully adequate to that reality. On the contrary, their far-reaching inadequacy is something which our very faith itself constrains us to affirm. The incomprehensibility of God is a Christian dogma. It has never been a cause of distress for the Christian mind, but rather of rejoicing—

Like aught that for its grace may be

Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.10

For the old Latin fathers had it that deus comprehensus non est deus. There is a prayer of St Athanasius which begins, ‘O God, incomprehensible because Thou are blessed, and blessed because Thou art incomprehensible’; and St Augustine prayed, Let us delight to find Thee by failing to find Thee, rather than to fail to find Thee by finding Thee.’11 This balance of emphasis between knowing and unknowing, between the deus revelatus and the deus absconditus, pervades the New Testament, and has its manifest roots in the Old, but there is as yet little attempt to relieve the pressure of the antinomy by a closer determination of the threshold separating them. As A. B. Davidson wrote in his Theology of the Old Testament, posthumously published in 1904, ‘Scripture does not say in what sense God may be seen and may not be seen, how He may be known and may not be known. It assumes that men themselves understand this, and merely alludes to the two facts as things undoubted in men's thought and experience.’12

The thinkers of the medieval and modern world have not, however, been content to leave the matter there, but have busied themselves to fix the standing as knowledge of our theological affirmations by a clearer definition of the respect in which they fall short of an adequate understanding of the realities of which they speak—of the respect in which, as it has sometimes been put, our apprehension of the divine falls short of comprehension. To this end a great variety of terms and concepts have been pressed into service, and we may now remind ourselves of some of these.

It is well known that medieval theology, especially as represented in St Thomas Aquinas, operated chiefly with the concept of analogy, and that on this concept Roman orthodoxy still relies. St Thomas is an empiricist in what we have distinguished as the narrower sense of the word, believing that we have no direct knowledge either of other human selves or of God, but only of the things of sense. Such positive statements as we are able to make about God can therefore be made only on the analogy of our experience of the created world. Since, however, I have in mind to devote much of the next chapter to a critical examination of this teaching, it will be convenient to postpone a fuller characterization of it to that place, and meanwhile to give account of certain other concepts which have been called into play by later thinkers, since the break-up of the medieval world.

There is first Spinoza, who in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus goes so far as to hold that the office of theological doctrines is not to offer us truth but to encourage in us obedience and piety. He does not deny that there is some truth in them, but the truths they contain are of the simplest kind and even these are put forward rather for our practical guidance than for our intellectual assent. Faith does not so much demand that our doctrines should be true as that they should be pious.

It is not true doctrines that are expressly required by the Bible, so much as doctrines necessary for obedience, and to confirm our hearts in the love of our neighbour, wherein (to adopt the words of John) we are in God and God in us.13

I do not wish to affirm absolutely that Scripture contains no doctrines in the sphere of philosophy… but I go so far as to say that such doctrines are very few and very simple… Scripture does not aim at imparting scientific knowledge, and therefore it demands from men nothing but obedience, and censures obduracy but not ignorance.14

Furthermore it appears that the measure of truth contained in such doctrines must be left entirely to speculative philosophy. ‘The Holy Spirit only gives its testimony in favour of works… and is in itself nothing but the mental acquiescence which follows a good action in our souls. No spirit gives testimony concerning the certitude of matters within the sphere of speculation save only reason, who is mistress of the whole realm of truth.’15 It is to the imagination, not the reason, that divine revelation is addressed, and it was by means of images that the sacred writers received it;16 but only rational philosophy can assess the measure of speculative truth which these images embody. Clearly such a view of the nature of theological affirmations bears no resemblance to that of St Thomas, yet many later writers have, as we shall see, occupied positions which are intermediate between them in the limited sense that on one side of them they resemble St Thomas's view and on the other Spinoza's.

Kant agrees with Spinoza that theological affirmations are practical and not speculative or metaphysical in character and function, but unlike Spinoza he believes them to be apprehended by reason. For there is, he believes, a practical as well as a theoretical exercise of reason, and it is upon this rather than upon our imagination that religious faith rests. Nevertheless, fully rational as it is, he will not (as we saw at an earlier point) allow to such faith the name of knowledge. Not that it is mere opinion; ‘to say opinion (Meinen) is to say too little, but to say knowledge (Wissen) is to say too much’.17 ‘Sufficient ground is still left to you for speaking, in the presence of the strictest reason, of a firm-established faith, if at the same time you feel constrained to renounce the language of knowledge.’18

What then, according to Kant, is the precise status and function of such faith? It operates always with transcendental ideas, that is, with ideas which carry us beyond the sphere of sense experience. Yet these, though transcendental themselves, must not be put to a transcendent use, as though yielding knowledge of objects outside sense experience. Their only legitimate use is the immanent one of helping us to organize our sense experience. Their function is always regulative, never constitutive. The objects to which they refer must not be taken to be actual objects in the real world, about which we can know what they are in themselves; rather are they ideal beings which reason finds it imperatively necessary to postulate in order to understand and to organize into some sort of unity the things which we do empirically know. Three such are enumerated by Kant, the Ego, the Universe and God. It is the last of these that here particularly concerns us and of this he says:

The third idea of pure reason, which encloses the merely relative supposal of a being who is the one and all-sufficient cause of all cosmological series, is the rational concept of God. We have not the least ground for affirming absolutely the existence of an object corresponding to this idea…. All the idea has to tell us is that reason compels us to regard the interconnection of things in the world in accordance with the principles of systematic unity, that is to regard them as if they all took their origin from one single all-embracing Being who is their supreme and all-sufficient cause. This makes it clear that reason has no other interest here at stake but its own formal rule for the extension of its empirical procedure, without ever extending itself beyond the limits of such procedure; and that no constitutive principle such as would extend it to further possibilities of experience lies here concealed.

The highest formal unity, which rests upon the concepts of reason alone, is the purposive unity of things, and the speculative interest of reason makes it necessary to regard the whole ordering of the world as if it had sprung from the design of a Supreme Reason.19

In the same context Kant anticipates the question whether we are to take it that there is any reality at all corresponding to the idea of God, ‘whether there is something distinct from the world which is the ground of its order’. His answer is ‘without doubt; for the world is a sum of appearances, and must have some transcendent ground’. Of what this something is, beyond that it is ‘a something’, we have no knowledge, and therefore we cannot make the smallest constitutive use of it so as to construct the beginnings of a speculative theology. Yet he continues:

It may then be asked whether we can in this situation presuppose a single wise and all-powerful Author of the world. Without any doubt we can; and not only so, but we must presuppose this. But do we thus extend our knowledge beyond the sphere of possible experience? By no means. For we have only presupposed a something, of which we have no conception as to what it is in itself—for it is a purely transcendental object; but in relation to the systematic and purposive ordering of the universe, which our study of nature compels us to presuppose, we have conceived this unknown being on the analogy of an intelligence, endowing it with those attributes which in the case of our own reasons would be the ground of such a systematic unity.20

In one of the closing sections of the first Critique (from which all the above quotations have been taken) Kant justifies the use of the word Glaube (belief or faith) for the kind of assent we give to the idea of God as thus regulatively and immanently used for our better understanding of the sensible world. But he here calls it doctrinal faith, because he now wishes to distinguish it from another kind of belief or faith, which is not thus theoretical but rather practical in its use; and indeed he says that it is only because the former bears a sort of analogy to the latter that the use of the word Glaube to designate it can properly be justified. The other kind of faith of which he now comes to speak he calls moral faith. He introduces his discussion of it by saying that after all ‘a purely doctrinal faith has a certain instability in itself, for it often deserts us in consequence of difficulties which meet us in our speculation, though we find ourselves inevitably returning to it again and again’. But, he continues, it is quite different with moral faith. This is a faith in which I cannot waver, for it follows from the nature of the moral law, and to that law I am absolutely committed.

The end is here incontrovertibly established and, according to all the insight I possess, there is no other possible condition under which this end can harmonize with all other ends, and so have practical validity, save that there be a God and a future world; I know quite certainly that no one knows of any other conditions under which the unity of ends under the moral law could be assured.… Thus I shall unhesitatingly believe in the existence of God and a future life; and I am certain that nothing can make me waver in this faith, since thereby my moral principles would themselves be overthrown, and these I cannot renounce without becoming abominable in my own eyes.21

Yet when all is said, this is faith, not knowledge.

In this way there still remains to us, after all ambitious endeavours of a reason that attempts to range beyond the limits of experience have proved vain, quite enough to satisfy us practically. No one indeed will be able to boast that he knows there is a God and a future life; for if he knows this, he is just the man whom I have long wished to meet.22

This then is the teaching of the Critique of Pure Reason. That of the Critique of Practical Reason, published seven years later, follows it on the whole very closely. But the point is now definitely made that our moral faith in God and in the objects of the other transcendental ideas not only does not share the ‘instability’ attaching to the so-called doctrinal faith which employs these within the theoretical sphere for the organization of our sense experience, but is of aid to that doctrinal faith itself by removing the instability. The facts of the moral life ensure for us, in all the uses to which we put them, the reality of the transcendental objects, though without enabling us to say anything more of a theoretical kind about them than we had already done. To that extent the transcendental ideas with which such faith operates are even said by Kant to become constitutive rather than merely regulative in function. He writes as follows:

By this means the theoretical knowledge of pure reason certainly obtains an accession, which however consists only in the fact that those concepts which would otherwise be problematic (merely thinkable) are now definitely declared to have objects corresponding to them, since practical reason has indispensable need of these for the possibility of its own object of the summum bonum, which is absolutely necessary to it practically; and thus the theoretical reason is justified in assuming them.… Thus through the agency of an apodictic practical law, and as necessary conditions of the possibility of what that law bids us make into an object, these concepts acquire objective reality; that is, we are shown in this way that they have objects. This still falls short of knowledge of these objects, for we cannot thereby make any synthetic judgements about them or determine their application theoretically. Indeed we cannot make of them any such theoretical rational use as that wherein all speculative knowledge consists. Nevertheless the theoretical knowledge, not indeed of these objects, but of reason in general, is thereby so far extended that through the practical postulates objects have been given to these ideas, and what was a merely problematic thought has for the first time acquired objective reality. There is no extension of the knowledge of given supersensible things, but an extension of the theoretic reason and of its knowledge in respect of the supersensible in general; in that it is forced to allow that there are such thingswithout being able to determine their nature more closely…. For this accession, then, pure theoretical reason, for which all such ideas are transcendent and without object, is wholly indebted to the pure practical exercise of reason. In this region these ideas become immanent and constitutive, as providing the possibility of giving reality to the necessary object of the pure practical reason (i.e. the summum bonum), whereas otherwise they would remain transcendent and purely regulative principles of speculative reason such as do not constrain it to assume a new object beyond experience but only to bring its exercise within experience nearer to completeness.23

This is soon followed by an interesting passage in which Kant briefly indicates how far he is prepared to go in endowing the God whose reality is thus assured with the attributes traditionally ascribed to him in the Christian tradition:

I now endeavour to attach this concept to the object of the practical reason, and here I find that the—moral principle allows it to be possible only by assuming a Creator of the world possessed of the highest perfection. He must be omniscient, in order to know my conduct up to its innermost springs in the disposition of my mind, in all possible cases and into all future time. He must be omnipotent in order to allot to my conduct its fitting consequences. He must similarly be omnipresent, eternal, etc.24

Such then is Kant's attempted contribution to the solution of our problem of the epistemological status of faith and of the theological tenets in which the content of faith is accustomed to be explicated. The strong agnostic strain in it is indeed very evident—as it must surely also be in the teaching of Spinoza. It will readily be understood from what I have already advanced that the root of all my own difficulties with it lies in the fact that, having accepted the irreproachable doctrine that all our knowledge derives from experience, he then confines our ‘experience’ to that gained through the bodily senses. Nothing for him qualifies as veridical experience save our perception of the phenomena of the external world. We thus have no knowledge save that which natural science allows or provides—and for Kant this meant Newtonian natural science. Spinoza had anticipated him in this, holding mathematical science to be the only true type of knowledge, so that even his ethics were ordine geometrico demonstrata. And, as we have seen, he has found plenty of our contemporary philosophers to follow him—we remember, for instance, Wittgenstein's pronouncement that ‘the totality of true propositions is the total natural science’.25 ‘But’, as Clement Webb has written, ‘it is not necessary to follow Kant in making mathematics and physical science the sole standard of genuine knowledge, or in consequence to treat experiences in which the whole of our personality is engaged as somehow inferior in validity to the results of abstraction.’26 Not all that Kant proceeds to say about the unconditionality of moral obligation and the thoughts of God to which by this very unconditionality we are ineluctably constrained, compensates, or nearly compensates, for the impoverishment of our total spiritual life involved in this starting-point. We remember Heinrich Heine's caustic suggestion in his History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany that the ‘moral theology’ which Kant appends to his two Critiques was added for the sake of his pious old man-servant Lampe, whose distress at the direction in which his master's teaching was tending would otherwise have been inconsolable. Even if spoken half in jest, this grievously slanders Kant's stature as both a profound and an honest thinker. What the facts do point to is rather an imperfectly resolved tension between two parts of Kant's own total outlook on life.

Nevertheless our debt to him is immense. He has done more to illuminate our problem than any other single thinker since the Middle Ages. It is altogether remarkable—and this must be my excuse for having set out his views at what may seem a disproportionate length—how difficult later thinkers have found it to escape from his influence, to find approaches to the problem that are radically different from his, or to dispense with many of the distinctions and much of the terminology which he first introduced.

§ 24

Let us now very briefly remind ourselves of what some of these later thinkers have had to say to us regarding our problem of the epistemological standing of those theological judgements in which we attempt to explicate the faith that is in us. It is agreed that these cannot claim to be fully adequate to their objects, but what is wanted is a closer definition of the nature of their inadequacy. It is also agreed, and is indeed quite obvious, that the language in which they are expressed is very far from being that of flat common sense or even of that in which the findings of the natural sciences, which are a sort of extension of common sense, are accustomed to be clothed. We are therefore told on all hands that much or all of it is not to be taken ‘literally’ or understood in the ‘straightforward’ sense, that it is in the more technical meaning of the word ‘improper’, or that it is ‘logically odd’—this latter term being the one chiefly employed by Professor Ian Ramsey in his book on Religious Language published in 1957. But again we desire to know wherein exactly this oddness or impropriety consists.

I begin my list with Hegel, but his view of the matter is in all our minds and the briefest reference will suffice. In one important respect he carries us back behind Kant to Spinoza. He believes that the religious mind operates, not by means of Begriffe, exact concepts or notions, but by means of imaginative representations or Vorstellungen. Religion is picture-thinking, which means that it is thinking of super-sensible reality in terms of sensible things, and of the invisible in terms of the visible. Philosophy, on the other hand, can offer us adequate knowledge of the super-sensible realm, which to him is the realm of reality as distinct from appearance, because Begriffe are its natural currency. Yet this it could not do were it not preceded by the imaginative representations of religion. ‘In point of time the mind makes general images of its objects long before it makes notions of them.’27 Religious faith has thus a double justification; it is sufficient for the ends of practical piety, and it is a necessary precursor of a true understanding of reality, though not itself yielding such an understanding.

Of the later Hegelians I need mention only Bradley, who here follows his master very closely. Religion, he tells us, ‘is a necessity’, and yet it is ‘a mere appearance’.28 ‘It is clear that religion must have some doctrine, and it is clear again that such doctrine will not be ultimate truth.’29 Religion necessarily operates with the idea of God, but ‘God is but an aspect, and that must mean but an appearance, of the Absolute.’30 All mere appearances suffer from an internal contradiction which constrains them, when fully thought out, to pass beyond themselves; and thus ‘in religion God tends always to pass beyond himself. He is necessarily led to end in the Absolute, which for religion is not God.’31 ‘Hence, short of the Absolute, God cannot rest, and, having reached that goal, he is lost and religion with him.’32 But if this is true of God, so by the same reasoning is it true of man; and if we say that in that case both are ‘illusions and not facts’, Bradley replies that ‘if facts are to be ultimate and real, there are no facts anywhere or at all. There will be one single fact which is the Absolute.’ The only question is therefore what rank within the hierarchy of appearances we can ascribe to the God of religion, what degree of reality short of ultimate reality we are to ascribe to him; and Bradley's answer is that he is more real than anything within the temporal or finite world. ‘The man who demands a reality more solid than that of the religious consciousness seeks he does not know what.’ And here he begins to speak a little differently from Hegel, refusing to say that something more solid can be found in philosophy. To Bradley ‘philosophy itself is but appearance’, and though as knowledge it must be allowed to stand higher than religion because it is its particular business to discourse of the Absolute which alone is ultimately real; yet religion, whose essence is not knowledge though it involves knowledge, but is rather ‘the attempt to express the complete reality through every aspect of our being’, is in that regard ‘at once something more and therefore something higher than philosophy.’33

Reference may next be made to the views of Dean Mansel, whose Bampton Lectures on The Limits of Religious Thought aroused so much controversy in the Church of England just a hundred years ago. Mansel is obviously under great debt to Kant, a debt of which he shows himself well aware in spite of his somewhat violent repudiation of some of the most characteristic elements in Kant's construction. He goes at least as far as Kant in denying that any theological proposition we are capable of making can claim to be absolutely true. He is indeed something of what would nowadays be called a fundamentalist in his apparent acceptance of the whole contents of Scripture as being divinely revealed, but he does not take this to mean that they provide us with absolute truth, since the Scriptural revelation carries ‘on its face the marks of subordination to some higher truth, of which it indicates the existence, but does not make known the substance’.34 Nor does he believe with Spinoza and Hegel, any more than did Kant, that philosophy can lead us any nearer than can religious thought, to the absolute truth of things. Yet he will not allow that the limits thus set to our knowledge need cause us any kind of distress, since ‘Action and not knowledge is man's destiny and duty in this life; and his highest principles, both in philosophy and in religion, have reference to this end.’35 This being understood, ‘man is content to practise where he is unable to speculate’.36 Mansel is as emphatic as possible in holding that we cannot practise without some degree of knowledge to guide us, but such knowledge is sufficiently given us in Scripture, though always in the form of images and imperfect analogy rather than of exact concepts. Moreover even philosophy, or natural as distinct from revealed theology, here comes to our aid; since, as he writes, acknowledging here his agreement with Aquinas, ‘The conviction thatan Infinite Being exists seems forced upon us by the manifest incompleteness of our finite knowledge; but we have no natural means whatever of determining what is the nature of that Being.’37

Mansel therefore adopts the terminology of Kant in saying that such ideas of God and things divine as we are able to possess are regulative and not speculative in their character and function. We must, he says, ‘be content with those regulative ideas of the Deity, which are sufficient to guide our practice, but not to satisfy our intellect; which tell us, not what God is in Himself, but how He wills that we should think of Him’.38 Finally, I shall allow myself one fuller quotation:

It is thus strictly in analogy with the method of God's Providence in the constitution of man's mental faculties, if we believe that, in Religion also, He has given us truths which are designed to be regulative, rather than speculative; intended, not to satisfy our reason, but to guide our practice; not to tell us what God is in His absolute Nature, but how He wills that we should think of Him in our present finite state….

We must remain content with the belief that we have that knowledge of God which is best adapted to our wants and training. How far that knowledge represents God as He is, we know not, and we have no need to know.

The testimony of Scripture, like that of our natural faculties, is plain and intelligible, when we are content to accept it as a fact intended for our practical guidance: it becomes incomprehensible only when we attempt to explain it as a theory capable of speculative analysis.39

Returning from England to the Continent, let us next briefly remind ourselves of the teaching of two other schools of nineteenth-century thought. The first of these is the widely influential movement deriving from Albrecht Ritschl. Ritschl's thought is clearly set within a Kantian frame, though the influences upon it both of Luther and of Schleiermacher are equally apparent in their different ways. Like Kant he desired to extrude all metaphysical speculation from the concerns of faith, and like Kant he conceived these latter to be practical rather than theoretical in character. Religious judgements, he insisted, are always judgements of value (Werturteile), their office being, not to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, or to answer our speculative questions, concerning the divine realities of which they discourse, but to define the bearing of these upon our own situation and our own behaviour. We know God and Christ and the eternal world ‘only in their value for us’. Nor is there any further kind of insight into these to which philosophy can conduct us.

The other continental school is that of the Symbolofidéists in France, whose chief representatives were Auguste Sabatier and Eugène Ménégoz. As the chosen name of the school implies, they preferred to define the standing of theological propositions by speaking of them as symbolical in nature.

Religious knowledge is symbolical. All the notions it forms and organizes, from the first metaphor created by religious feeling to the most abstract theological speculation, are necessarily inadequate to their object. They are never equivalent, as in the exact sciences. The reason is easy to discover. The object of religion is transcendent; it is not a phenomenon. But in order to express that object our imagination has nothing at its disposal but phenomenal images, and our understanding logical categories, which do not go beyond space and time. Religious knowledge is therefore obliged to express the invisible by the visible, the eternal by the temporal, spiritual realities by sensible images. It can speak only in parables.40

§ 25

Passing now from the nineteenth century to the contemporary theological scene, let us consider some of the terms that are preferred by different writers to describe the peculiar character of theological propositions. Those who at present principally discourse on this matter may, I think, be roughly grouped into four schools—the Thomists, the Barthians, the existentialists and the linguistic analysts.

Dr Barth has consistently opposed the Thomists and their doctrine of the analogia entis, but his views are not without some affinity to those of the other two schools. Like the analysts, he is very much aware of the radical difference between ‘other human language’ and ‘language about God’, and it is to an explication of this difference that he devotes the opening sections of his monumental Dogmatics. As to the existentialists, he has often enough in his maturer writings expressed his opposition to them, yet in his early commentary on the Epistle to the Romans he certainly betrayed some indebtedness to Kierkegaard, from whose thought they drew their original inspiration. What was required for the understanding of such a text was, he said, ‘a relentless elastic application of the dialectical method’.41. In that early period his theology was therefore spoken of, and not without his consent, as the Dialectical Theology. This use of the term ‘dialectical’ to describe the proper character of religious thought certainly derives from Kierkegaard, whose use of it I mentioned at an earlier point and described roughly as follows. When we turn aside from direct confrontation with God, which is the ‘existential’ situation, in order to think about him, which is what theology tries to do, our thought falsifies its object unless we allow it, as it were, to be diffracted in two opposite directions at once, so that every affirmation we make about God must be complemented by another from which this non-existential standpoint will appear to be its opposite. But now in its turn this usage of Kierkegaard's derives from Kant. Whenever, according to Kant, we attempt to extend our knowledge to the realm of supersensible realities, we find ourselves landed in what he calls antinomies, that is, we are forced to say two apparently contradictory things about them. Yet these are not really contradictory in the proper logical sense, for of two contradictory propositions one must be false and the other true. They are rather dialectical opposites, both of which are false. Hence Kant arrives at his conclusion that we can have no knowledge whatever of supersensible reality.42

It is here we have the source of the Hegelian criticism of all religious thinking, as also of the argument used by Mansel for the destruction of the claims of speculative theology. A single quotation from the Hegelian Bradley may suffice in illustration:

Religion prefers to put forth statements which it feels to be untenable, and to correct them at once by counter-statements which it finds are no better. It is then driven forwards and back between both, like a dog which seeks to follow two masters.43

This sounds very like what we have been accustomed to hear from the champions of the Dialectical Theology, but the difference is that according to these latter the two dialectical opposites, when allowed to correct each other by being held together in the mind, do conduct towards a true understanding of the reality to which they refer.

Coming now to contemporary thinkers of the existentialist school, we may note first what is said by Dr Karl Jaspers in his latest work, Philosophical Logic. The concept with which he prefers to operate is that of the cipher (Chiffer). We cannot, he teaches, directly apprehend the ultimate or divine reality. We apprehend it always through the mediation of the finite or phenomenal world, and thus the only cognition of it which is available for us is in the form of cipher. In principle any event or any thing in the world may thus become for us a pointer to the divine. Potentially as least, the whole world has the character of Chiffersein, or is a code of ciphers. But we cannot decode or decipher it into any more ultimate form of knowledge. Rather must we accept the ciphers as such, and devoutly and duteously respond to the claims they make upon us.44

On the other hand, Dr Rudolf Bultmann's preference is for the term ‘myth’. This term he uses to define the epistemological status of many of the traditional Christian affirmations; though not indeed of all, because there are some which are so grounded in historical fact that they cannot be thus dissolved. By myth he means ‘the use of imagery to express the otherworldly in terms of this world, and the divine in terms of human life, the other side in terms of this side. For instance, divine transcendence is expressed as spatial distance.’45 Such a statement closely resembles the language of many of the other writers to whom I have referred, and also that of some others to whom I am about to refer. But the difference is that unlike these Dr Bultmann believes that we can dispense with the imagery, so penetrating behind it that we can restate our affirmations in a form more adequate to the truth they endeavour to express. As is well known, his programme is one of ‘demythologizing’. On the other hand, his disagreement with these other writers is much less radical than it would otherwise be in view of the fact that the restatement which thus ensues is not an ontological one, in terms of what the divine reality is per se, but an ‘existential’ one in terms of man's understanding of himself in relation to that reality. As he writes:

The real purpose of myth is not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express man's understanding of himself in the world in which he lives. Myth should be interpreted, not cosmologically but anthropologically or, better still, existentially.… Thus myth contains elements which demand its own criticism—namely, its imagery with its apparent claim to objective validity. The real purpose of myth is to speak of a transcendent power which controls the world and man, but that purpose is impeded and obscured by the terms in which it is expressed. Hence the importance of the New Testament mythology lies not in its imagery but in the understanding of existence which it enshrines. The real question is whether this understanding is true. Faith claims that it is, and faith ought not to be tied down to the imagery of New Testament mythology.46

The third school of contemporary thought which I have mentioned is that of the linguistic analysts, and I shall here content myself with brief quotation from two Oxonians who, whatever their connexion or lack of connexion with it, may at least be said to move within its atmosphere. The main thesis of Dr Austin Farrer's Bampton Lectures for 1948 was that the divine is characteristically apprehended by us in the form of images. Theological propositions are attempts to express what the images reveal, but they can never do this in a way that leaves the images behind. In Dr Farrer's words:

I have heard it wisely said that in Scripture there is not a line of theology, and of philosophy not so much as an echo. Theology is the analysis and criticism of the revealed images; but before you turn critic or analyst, you need a matter of images to practise upon.47

The Scholastics of the Middle Ages, he complains, hunted through Scripture for theological propositions out of which a correct system of doctrine could be deduced by logical method. But no such system was present in the minds of the Scriptural authors, whose thought was not on the conceptual level but moved round a number of vital images ‘which lived with the life of images, not of concepts’.48

My other quotation is from an essay by Mr Ian Crombie, who writes as follows:

Statements about God… are in effect parables, which are referred, by means of the proper name ‘God’, out of our experience in a certain direction. We may, if we like… try to tell ourselves what part of the meaning of our statements applies reasonably well, what part outrageously badly; but the fact remains that, in one important sense, when we speak of God, we do not know what we mean (that is, we do not know what that which we are talking about is like).… Because our concern with God is religious and not speculative (it is contemplative in part, but that is another matter), because our need is not to know what God is like, but to enter into relation with him, the authorized images serve our purpose. They belong to a type of discourse—parable—with which we are familiar, and therefore they have communication-value, though in a sense they lack descriptive value.49

Finally, there is Dr Tillich, whose thought cannot easily be fitted into any school but has been so widely influential. His preference among the various terms that we have seen to be employed to describe the nature of religious affirmations is for the term ‘symbol’. ‘The language of faith’, he writes, ‘is the language of symbols.’50 ‘Man's ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.’51 Here lies the difference between philosophy on the one hand and a theology that founds itself on faith on the other.

Philosophical truth consists in true statements concerning the ultimate; the truth of faith consists in true symbols concerning the ultimate.… The question will certainly be raised: Why does philosophy use concepts and why does faith use symbols if both try to express the ultimate? The answer, of course, is that the relation to the ultimate is not the same in each case. The philosophical relation is in principle a detached description of the basic structure in which the ultimate manifests itself. The relation of faith is in principle an involved expression of concern about the meaning of the ultimate for the faithful.52

But if now we ask what ‘true statements’ can be made about God, as distinct from using ‘true symbols’ concerning him, Dr Tillich replies that we can make only one such statement, namely that God is absolute being.

The statement that God is being-itself is a non-symbolic statement. It does not point beyond itself. It means what it says directly and properly.… Theologians must make explicit what is implicit in religious thought and expression; and, in order to do this, they must begin with the most abstract and completely unsymbolic statement which is possible, namely, that God is being-itself or the absolute. However, after this has been said, nothing else can be said about God which is not symbolic.53

If we now look back over the various views which we have so hastily surveyed, we must realize at once that, in spite of many deep-going diversities, and in spite of the heat which many of them engender in controversy with some of the others, they all have something very real in common. Behind this significant element of agreement stands ultimately the Biblical teaching concerning the limited nature of our knowledge of God, concerning the mystery of the Godhead and the inscrutability of the divine mind. Something of it goes back to the ‘negative theology’ deriving ultimately from Neo-Platonism and so strongly represented in the Medieval Scholastics. Not a little of it has its source in the new stirrings of thought which manifested themselves in the seventeenth century as seen, for example, in Spinoza. And we have seen how paramount during the last century and a half has been the influence of Kant. We must also have realized that the wide variety manifest in the terminology of the various writers does not really reflect an equal variety of meanings. One prefers to speak of theological thought as analogical, another as symbolic, another as parabolic, another as regulative, another as practical, another in terms of imagery, another in terms of cipher, and still another in terms of myth. Yet, as even the few quotations I have thought it right to include have been sufficient to show, most of them have on occasion varied their language so as to use several, or perhaps even most, of the other terms. At the same time the terms I have listed seem to fall naturally into two groups, which yield different strands of meaning, though both strands may be present in the same thinker. One of these would be fairly represented by the characterization of theological thought as analogical or symbolic, and the other by its characterization as regulative or practical. In what follows I shall say something about each.