Christ, the Meaning of All Scripture, Life and History
Chapter 10—The Historical Framework of the Gospel
Christianity is a historical religion. Its gospel is the proclamation about an event which happened in Palestine during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius Caesar. Just as the confessions of Israel's faith consisted primarily in rehearsing God's great acts in their history, so the Christian faith consists primarily in rehearsing God's great deed in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:3, 4). Says George Eldon Ladd:
The uniqueness and the scandal of the Christian religion rest in the mediation of revelation through historical events. The Hebrew-Christian faith stands apart from the religions of its environment because it is an historical faith, whereas they were religions rooted in mythology or the cycle of nature. The God of Israel was the God of history, or the Geschichtsgott, as German theologians so vividly put it. The Hebrew-Christian faith did not grow out of lofty philosophical speculation or profound mystical experiences. It arose out of the historical experiences of Israel, old and new, in which God made Himself known. This fact imparts to the Christian faith a specific content and objectivity which set it apart from others.
The Bible is not primarily a collection of the religious ideas of a series of great thinkers. It is not first of all a system of theological concepts, much less of philosophical speculations.
The recital of God's historical acts is the substance of Christian proclamation.1
If the essence of the Christian message consisted in philosophical ideas about God, timeless truths, ethical ideals or profound religious insights, then the historical framework could be discarded without effecting any essential change in Christianity. But Christianity stands or falls on the veracity of the record that Jesus of Nazareth lived, died and rose again.
Throughout the history of the church there has been a tendency to cut the New Testament loose from the Old Testament in one way or another and thus to dehistoricize the gospel. But when the historical element is pushed aside, the New Testament message is seriously distorted. It becomes so individualized, internalized, spiritualized and rationalized that it loses contact with the earth.
Rationalism and the so-called Enlightenment, as well as much modern criticism, undermined faith in the historicity of the Bible. Liberalism and neo-orthodoxy concluded that placing faith in the historicity of the Bible was too risky a venture. Events such as the fall of man, the Flood, the Exodus, the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus were regarded as religious myths embodying timeless spiritual truths. The supremely important element was not the Christmas story but the birth of good will in the heart, not Christ's actual resurrection but men's awakening to faith through a personal religious encounter with God. It is true that the holy history of the Bible may be used as the means to awaken a man's religious consciousness. But the important element in this approach was not the holy history of Jesus Christ but its reenactment in individual experience today.
Pietism, Revivalism and Pentecostalism
It is easy for Christians of a more conservative persuasion to cast aspersion on the liberals. But the truth is that conservative movements such as pietism, revivalism and pentecostalism have also tended to subordinate the historical element of Christianity to personal experience. Pietism with its stress on inward piety, revivalism with its preoccupation with the dramatic conversion experience, and pentecostalism with its emphasis on the inner work of the Holy Spirit have tended to internalize the essential content of the Christian message.
It would be wrong to discount the benefit of these movements, which have ministered Christ to the experience of thousands. In many respects they have been a beneficial reaction to a dry orthodoxy and an arid intellectualism in the church. But we must question their tendency to make the gospel sound suspiciously like the proclamation of the great acts of God "in my experience."
It is easy to think that events which occurred centuries ago are too impersonal because they are so distant. On the other hand, something which touches us directly, like an experience of "Christ in the heart" or the ecstatic infilling of the "Spirit," can appear more real than a recital of history apparently far removed from our present situation. After all, did not the apostle James say that a mere historical belief is worthless? ("Even the demons believe . . . and shudder.") (James 2:14-16, 19.)
We do not question the importance of the Holy Spirit. His work is just as necessary for our salvation as Christ's death on the cross. The issue is the nature of the Spirit's work. He is not sent to add to the work of Jesus Christ and thereby create a tension between God's work for us and His work in us, between the historical act of redemption and the experience of Christ in the heart. There is a true Christian "mysticism" or union with Christ. There is a new birth and baptism of the Holy Spirit without which no one can be saved. But this experience is not independent of or even supplementary to the holy history of Jesus Christ. The Spirit is given to baptize or incorporate us into the holy history of Jesus Christ. His life, death, resurrection and ascension become ours by faith.
To take the new birth or the Spirit-filled life and give it significance apart from the holy history of Jesus Christ is a positive mischief. In fact, it is unchristian. We are born again when the Spirit includes us in the holy history of Jesus in such a way that we participate in the new creation which took place in Him. We are filled with the Spirit when we are so immersed in the holy history of Jesus that it becomes the sole object of our glorying. We cannot write a new holy history that will make us significant in the eyes of God. There is only one history which counts before God, and it is the Spirit's work to graciously include us in it—just as every true Israelite was included in the Exodus even though he might have lived a thousand years later.
This relationship between the holy history of Jesus and the Spirit is the unique aspect of the Christian religion. It has profound and practical consequences.
1. It does away with unbiblical individualism. Every believer is baptized by the Spirit into the one holy history (1 Cor. 12:13). Each person becomes part of the redeemed community, where all share in the dignity of one holy history. Just as no Jew could boast in his own private exodus but could only be grateful that he was included in the one Exodus shared by the entire community, so each believer shares in that one life, one death and one resurrection which counts before God. There is no superiority or inferiority in this community. All have the one righteousness before God. The idea of one Christian regaling other Christians with his exciting holy history while the rest enviously drool over his experience is an offense to the gospel of Christ. The church is an assembly. It is a community which assembles around the holy history of Jesus as it is represented to them in gospel and sacraments. They all have one food and one spiritual drink.
2. The Spirit does not give anyone a knowledge of God in a private experience superseding the knowledge of God given in Christ and Him crucified. God has given the full and final revelation of Himself in the holy history of His Son. Those claiming access to some additional knowledge of God through mystical experience are denying the gospel. In the gospel, believers have equal access to the one knowledge of God.
3. In these days when "Christ in the heart" can mean all kinds of things, we must be clear that the Jesus in our hearts is the Jesus of holy history. The only way He can be in our hearts is for us to treasure in our hearts His life, death and resurrection. When Paul said that Christ lived in him, he explained how: "The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).
When Christ in the heart is divorced from the Christ of history, the believer becomes preoccupied with his own history instead of God's saving history. Religious subjectivism can become the most crushing form of legalism. Says G. W. Bromiley:
4. The New Testament gospel might be called "the objective gospel" because it announces a salvation based upon something which has already taken place in history. The believer has no defense against subjective legalism unless the Spirit teaches him that his standing before God, both now and in the final judgment, is based on that concrete historical event completely outside his own experience. This is not the negation of Christian experience but the recognition that it is the byproduct of something more fundamental. One who makes his own experience the principal thing is like the man who pursues happiness. The Spirit who comes to us clothed in the gospel teaches us to find our satisfaction in the life and work of Another. This enables us to forget ourselves into the kingdom of God. That is the essence of a good experience.
While we must be careful not to exaggerate, a study of much modern evangelism, piety, and hymnology reveals how serious the influence upon Evangelicalism has been of the combined forces of Pietism, Schleiermacher, and Kant, e.g., in the emphasis upon the centrality of decision, upon the believer and his emotional state, and even upon psychological procedures. Biblical material is used, but with an emphasis and proportion very different from those of the Bible, so that the result is very far from biblical. For a theology cannot be genuinely biblical, however sound its doctrine of Scripture or however strict its use of scriptural material, if it achieves an emphasis which is subjective and therefore anthropological rather than objective and therefore Christological and theological.2
Ladd is undoubtedly correct when he says:
Orthodox theology has traditionally underevaluated or at least underemphasized the role of the redemptive acts of God in revelation. The classic essay by B. B. Warfield acknowledges the fact of revelation through the instrumentality of historical deeds, but rather completely subordinates revelation in acts to revelation in words.3
All the great doctrines of the Bible must be set in the historical framework of the Bible. The great New Testament words and concepts have their roots in the history of the Old Testament. To ignore those historical roots and develop a New Testament theology isolated from its historical background distorts the Christian message. This is why the classic systematic theologies are inadequate. They subordinate revelation in acts to revelation in propositions ("propositional revelation"). They tend to abstract theology from its historical setting and place it in a rationalistic framework.
The period which followed the Reformation was the period of Protestant scholasticism. The faith was set in a rationalistic framework which in many respects was a return to medieval scholasticism. Orthodoxy was as much preoccupied with metaphysics and systematization as it was with the truly historical, biblical gospel. Its distinctive characteristic was abstract, speculative thought. It was Grecian rather than Hebraic. Brian G. Armstrong points out that in the seventeenth century, justification by faith was "certainly a secondary consideration in Reformed orthodoxy."
And in the continuing debate with Roman Catholicism all kinds of topics—transubstantiation, auricular confession, the marks of the Church, the authority of the Church, Scripture, etc.—were debated without end, but almost never justification. One finds literally hundreds of accounts of conferences between leading Protestant and Catholic churchmen, but we have yet to find one in the seventeenth century which had for its topic the doctrine of justification.4
In the Reformed orthodoxy which followed Calvin, theology was developed in a rationalistic and speculative framework rather than a historical framework. A philosophical and logical concept of predestination was moved to the center and starting point of a dogmatic system. This concept then worked itself out through the doctrines of God, man, Christ, salvation, etc.
Calvinism slowly reverted to a religious expression more closely resembling medieval scholastic thought than the thought of the early reformers....
In general we must say, however, that scholasticism, not Calvin's theology, prevailed in Reformed Protestantism.
In Beza reason and Aristotelian logic were elevated to a position equal to that of faith in theological epistemology.
Beza's whole theological program shows a serious departure from that of Calvin.5
Reformed Protestantism has been saddled with a doctrine of election with no roots in the holy history of the Old Testament. God is not allowed to express His sovereign freedom by His acts in holy history. He is imprisoned within the canons of human logic—all in the interest of protecting His sovereignty! A God who can be contained within the canons of human logic, even good Reformed logic, is robbed of His sovereignty and the freedom of His infinite personality. The supralapsarian decrees of Calvinistic theology were not made in heaven but in Holland.
The other major stream of Protestantism moved the Supper to the center of its theological system. It then proceeded to defend it with a scholastic fervor which equaled the heat of the Calvinists' defense of the "horrible decree." The pet concerns of the two major branches of the Reformation overshadowed the gospel of justification to life eternal by the work of Jesus Christ. Like the Reformed doctrine of election, the scholastic doctrine of the Supper was not set in the Old Testament framework of covenantal signs and seals. Every major gospel truth has its roots in the Old Testament. Every great New Testament expression has an Old Testament background. When the New Testament gospel is divorced from its Old Testament background and given a scholastic background, it must suffer distortion.
Protestant orthodoxy exalted the rational element of Christianity to the level of faith. It then began overshadowing faith. Protestant scholasticism bred rationalism, and rationalism bred liberalism. Liberalism denies the historicity of biblical religion and reduces Christianity to so-called "timeless truths" cut loose from the concrete acts of God in history.
In concluding this chapter, we will restate our thesis: If the apostolic gospel is to be restored, its historical framework must be restored. There are encouraging signs that some Christian scholars in different sections of the church are moving in this direction. We might mention the works of Oscar Cullmann (Christ and Time), George E. Ladd (A Theology of the New Testament), G. Ernest Wright (God Who Acts) and Leonard Goppelt (English trans., The Apostolic and Post Apostolic Times). A movement within Calvinism is critically examining its own tendency to place theology in a rationalistic framework. The Bible is being better appreciated for what it is—a book written by men who were soaked in the history of the Old Testament and who interpreted God's act in Christ in the framework of that history.
1 G. E. Ladd, "The Knowledge of God: The Saving Acts of God," in Basic Christian Doctrines, ed. C. F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1962), pp.7-8,10.
2 G. W. Bromiley, Sacramental Teaching and Practice in the Reformation Churches (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957), p.55.
3 Ladd, "Knowledge of God," p.9.
4 B. G. Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestant Scholasticism and Humanism in Seventeenth-Century France (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), pp. 223-24.
5 Ibid., pp. 15, 37, 39.