Contributions of Non-Evangelicals to Theology (1)

Here are some thoughts about what non-evangelical theologians have contributed to the truth.  If, as I have said elsewhere, that all non-Christian systems of thought are, at least in principle, built upon thin air, does it follow that the contributions of non-evangelical theologies are utterly worthless? To which we must reply “yes” and “no.” Yes, they are intellectually and therefore theologically bankrupt when ever they assume premises which do not comport with the biblical worldview. On the other hand, whenever they work within the biblical framework it is not necessarily the case that they can be written off and ignored. In point of fact they sometimes prove upon examination to have some very important things to say to evangelicals.

In order to show this we shall see whether there is anything to be learned from these less-than-biblical theologies. The old Liberalism will be noticed first.

Then we shall turn our attention to neo-orthodoxy, particularly as set down by its most brilliant and at the same time most conservative exponent – Karl Barth. Barth’s voice is not going to go away. Like him or not he was a theological giant whom to ignore is to forsake academic rigor and take the intellectual low road. One cannot bypass the most significant theologian since Calvin and expect to have a balanced view of the theological landscape.

The so-called “Yale School” will be examined, as will be the theologies of Moltmann and Pannenberg.  We shall also take account of a newer but significant school of thought, the so-called Radical Orthodoxy group, which has emerged recently from England. These theologies (though mainly the latter) have some important things to say about culture, and we need to hear them.

Liberalism’s Non-Revelatory Theology

At the very core of the liberal-critical perspective on theology is the belief that God has not revealed Himself in the book we speak of as the Holy Scriptures, the Bible. It is axiomatic, therefore, that any liberal ‘theologian’ is not going to bother with the Bible as a main source for his or her theology.[1] Believing as he does that all available knowledge is confined to the human potential for discovery, he has as his material for theology any means at his disposal (say, sociology, historiography, or science), which he thinks may lead him into avenues of promise wherein he might better ‘discover’ the ineffable. Just who or what it is that he is searching for is difficult for us to understand – especially if the said theologian lacks the poetic muse. Often what Liberalism produces is little more than a brand of syrupy philosophical speculation whose only dogma states that those conservative ‘fundamentalists’ who stand on the Bible alone are pre-modern and unenlightened dullards. Anyone reading a theologian like Paul Tillich[2] will wonder whether the phrase “theological inquiry” is not a misnomer. Professor Tillich once stated, “God does not exist. He is Being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him.”[3] Reading such remarks makes one wonder whether Tillich could call himself a theologian at all, since his god did not even exist. One non-evangelical interpreter noted:

If one takes up the first volume of Tillich’s Systematic Theology and looks at it side by side with Barth or Brunner’s Dogmatics, they appear as different as night and day. Where Barth and Brunner depend upon continued reference to Biblical sources and work out theology in closest relation to a systematic Biblical exegesis, Tillich’s work seems filled with philosophical terms. He discusses God only after he has clarified the metaphysical meaning of being and nonbeing. He discusses sin in relation to an existential analysis of anxiety. Anxiety is interpreted in relation in relation to the metaphysical structures of space, time, causality and substance. This weaving together of theology and philosophy is the key to Tillich’s method.[4]

One might ask, ‘When does theology cease being theology?’ We answer, when it is immanent humanistic philosophy parading around in theological guise.

But if Tillich and his followers[5] signaled the logical terminus of liberalism, it did not always don the garb of ludicrous brilliance. A century earlier it saw itself as the champion of true gospel, ready and willing to restore the religion of Jesus to its pristine humanity, a condition from which it had been distorted and embellished by the early Church so as to now become a religion about Jesus. This was done, they said, by introducing foreign ingredients borrowed from Greco-Roman culture. Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), for example, claimed, “that living faith became a creed, devotion to Christ became Christology, ministers of the Spirit became clerics, and Christianity became ineffectual because it was overlaid with alien elements.”[6]

So it was that liberalism once saw itself as restoring the “ethic of Jesus” through a process of stripping back the Hellenistic veneer that the supposedly second century writers of the New Testament coated it with. Still, when all was said and done, Liberalism was the slave of Modernity as it had emerged from the Enlightenment. But not only that, as World War I was to prove, the bullish confidence in “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man” was in reality, at least in Germany and the Continent, only a thin disguise for an ugly nationalism.[7] As Karl Barth realized, “The identification of Christianity with the best of German culture…was not only wrong, it was sinful.”[8]

This, indeed, can be the only conclusion when a theology looks as its central point of reference, to the human heart.

Positive Contributions?

In our estimation the old liberalism had placed its head upon the chopping block of Enlightenment rationalism and modernism. It’s only excuse for survival was that it catered to an ever-decreasing set of churchgoers and seminarians, thus it was granted a stay of execution. When the world moved on it discovered that its message of dependence and social action was being espoused from quarters with more relevance and less blind optimism. As far as the subject of theological method is concerned, we cannot see any useful purpose for it. The voice of liberal theology, after all is said and done, is scarcely any different than the voice of the society it inhabits.


[1] For example D. A. Carson notes that, “At some point the Bible becomes of marginal influence; it merely provides the linguistic pegs on which to hang a lot of systematic thinking about God, thinking whose essential shape derives from elsewhere. One cannot but be amazed that the biblical index to the German edition of Tillich’s three-volume Systematic Theology requires a mere two pages.” – D. A. Carson, “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology” in Woodbridge and McComiskey, editors, Doing Theology in Today’s World, 51. In his footnote to this passage Carson notes that the Scripture index is omitted in the English translation, so peripheral is it to the orientation of the book.

[2] I fully realize that Tillich is often called a neo-orthodox theologian, but his position is so far from someone like Barth that I think he stands at the end of the line of theological Liberals. I find support for this in Peter Toon, The End of Liberal Theology, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1995), 70.

[3] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 1:205.

[4] Daniel Day Williams, What Present-Day Theologians Are Thinking, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1959), 67.

[5] His most [in]famous disciples were the “Death of God” theologians of the 1960’s, including Thomas J.J. Altizer, William Hamilton, and Gabriel Vahanian. For an evaluation and critique see John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology.

[6] Toon, The End of Liberal Theology, 54.

[7] “Not only had the theologians endorsed the war, but they had also given religious praise for the experience of war itself as a source of moral rejuvenation and necessary heroism.” – Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 26.

[8] Toon, 63.

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