Professor Keith Ward
Liberal Christianity grew, first of all in Germany, as a response to the eighteenth century Enlightenment, with its call to subject everything to rational criticism, with its enthusiastic embrace of the new scientific method, and with its adoption of new critical attitudes to past historical records. A liberal Christian is one who accepts the propriety of close empirical observation and experiment in establishing truths about the physical cosmos, and the propriety of critical enquiry and argument based on consideration of available evidence in weighing claims about historical facts. Non-liberal Christians reject either or both of these positions. They may, for example, deny the theory of evolution on the ground that it is not in the sacred text, or deny that historical methods of investigation can be applied to the Bible.
Liberal Christians may have a wide range of views on the content of their faith, but they will be affected by critical science and history to some extent. The problem of liberal Christianity is the problem of how extensive such affects will be. At the radical end of the spectrum are those who think science and history have sole sovereignty over all factual questions. Then religious faith would not speak of facts at all. No questions about the origin, causal structure, and end of the universe will be relevant to Christian faith. Even the historical life of Jesus will be irrelevant to faith. Insofar as the existence of God, or at least of a God who makes any difference to the universe, is taken to be a fact, Christian faith will be in no position to say that God exists. Doctrines and stories about God and divine acts in history will have no factual content. They may be taken as expressing deep attitudes and emotions, or as advocating in picture form ways of life and moral commitments.
This is the view taken, though not quite consistently, by the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, and more consistently in the twentieth century by the English theologian Don Cupitt. For Bultmann, Christianity contrasts inauthentic with authentic life, calls the believer to choose authentic life, and conveys the power to live authentically. Bultmann held the view that the resurrection of Jesus is not a historical event. It is the proclamation of new life, and liberation from despair. The preaching of the resurrection is the resurrection. Past history is irrelevant. Nevertheless, he also held that God confronts us in a unique way through an encounter with the risen Christ, in the proclamation of the gospel of the cross and resurrection.
The Swiss theologian Fritz Buri held that this retention of a historical element of Christian uniqueness is not tenable, and that humans can be presented with the possibility of authentic life without the preaching of the cross. The Christian form of that presentation is only one of many possible symbolic forms for speaking of authentic and inauthentic existence. There are many religious forms, and since none of them have factual content, they can be viewed as different life-pictures with a more or less equivalent role in placing existential possibilities before men and women.
Consolidating such a view, Don Cupitt holds that Christian beliefs do not tell us about facts. They evoke and sustain loving attitudes and ways of life. They are ‘myths’ whose function is to articulate and elicit deep moral and emotional commitments.
Such a ruthless way with facts does not appeal to many Christians. It may well be true that religion is primarily a matter of practical commitment rather than a purely intellectual exercise. That is important to remember, when believers tend to get passionately involved in arguments about abstract intellectual doctrines like that of the Trinity. Yet it is usually felt that practical commitment should be appropriate to the facts in some way. So most believers suppose that there exist facts that are not facts of empirical science or history.
The most obvious fact of this sort is the fact that God exists. God is spiritual, not material, so empirical science cannot directly deal with God. God has no body, so no agent of allegedly divine acts can be observed, and divine motives are inaccessible to the historian. God may have some effects on the universe and on history, but since no divine agent can be seen, measured or tested, any testimony to such acts will be ambiguous and disputable. Anyone who thinks that all facts are material or historical facts will deny that such agency exists, and seek to explain such alleged acts in other ways – as just anomalous physical events, perhaps, or as illusions.
Belief in God may have many roots, but in the end it will probably depend on a claim that someone has apprehended a spiritual reality clearly enough to be a reliable witness to the divine presence and nature. Christians think that the prophets apprehended God in visions and through experiences of ‘possession’ or inspired speech. They think that Jesus had a particularly clear and intense apprehension of God as Father. And they think that followers of Jesus through the ages have apprehended God, as an imageless reality in contemplative states, as mediated through the personal presence of the risen Christ, and as known in the inward activity of the Spirit.
God can be experienced as a transcendent reality, mediated in and through many finite states, in nature, history and in the creativity and mystery of inner personal experience. God is known, not only in discrete and startling experiences of the holy, but also in a general interpretation of experience as encounter with a transcendent reality of commanding value and fearsome power.
God is not knowable through scientific observation and experiment. A scientist will always look for a purely natural explanation for any event. Yet the existence of God has some implications for science. God is not demonstrable through a critical study of history, and a critical mind will always find reason to doubt whether any historical event is an act of God. Yet if God was in Christ, reconciling the world to the divine being, then God acts in history, and that will have implications for the historian.
Faith in God is not based on science or on history. But it calls for a certain sort of interpretation of facts about the cosmos and about history. It calls for an interpretation of empirical reality as a realm in which spiritual presence is manifested and spiritual purposes realised.
Christians need to speak not just of informed critical enquiry, but of informed critical commitment. Committed to the existence of a supreme transcendent reality and value, and to the possibility of its apprehension in nature, in history, and in personal experience, Christians will see nature, history and inner experience as carrying intimations and signs of such a reality.
With regard to science, most Christians will not accept any account of evolution that excludes the providence and purposes of God, or any account of the laws of nature that excludes the possibility of divine influence.
Most Christians will, for example, exclude any account that makes physical laws universal, exceptionless and completely explanatory, in a sense that leaves no room for purposive explanations. They will exclude any account of evolution that sees it as random, accidental, or unrelievedly horrendous and cruel.
On the other hand, Christian beliefs about the nature and purpose of God will be modified by what appears to be the fact of many billions of years of cosmic evolution of the cosmos from unconscious simplicity to integrated complexity and consciousness, probably followed by more billions of years of descent into freezing lassitude. And beliefs about divine providence will be modified by acknowledgment of the suffering and extinction of millions of animal species, brought about by the laws governing the evolution of life. Science will not destroy belief in God. But it may affect human ideas of divine providence and purpose by giving greater knowledge of the sort of universe God has created.
Within the New Testament, in the first chapter of the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians especially, the writer puts Jesus into a cosmic context. Jesus is seen, not just as a young Jew, but as the human manifestation of the archetype of all creation, by whom and in whom the whole cosmos was created. ‘Christ’ is interpreted, not just as a human being chosen to implement God’s purpose, but as a cosmic power ‘in whom all things hold together’ (Colossians 1, 15 – 20), and in whom the whole cosmos (‘all things, whether on earth or in heaven’) will be reconciled to God. The 8th chapter of the letter to the Romans speaks of ‘the creation’ waiting with eager longing to be set free from its bondage to decay (Romans 8, 18 – 21).
All this fits well with the Prologue to John’s gospel, speaking of Jesus as the cosmic Logos of God ‘made flesh’, and with the visionary chapters of the Book of Revelation which look for the creation of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. The Christian story is not just the story of a young man unjustly put to death. It is the story of a cosmos formed in the image of divine wisdom, of that wisdom taking finite form in the person of a human being, and participating in the life of the creation in order that the whole cosmos should be renewed, freed from decay and brought to participate in the divine nature.
From New Testament times, therefore, the Christian faith has been concerned with the whole cosmos and its relation to the divine. Now we know that the cosmos is an immensely greater arena for divine redemption than the New Testament writers could ever have guessed. The cosmic vision of Christianity needs to be reformulated in the light of what we now believe about evolution and cosmology. This will not undermine the gospel, but it will set it within a context that brings out the depth and width of its vision.
If we talk about an incarnation of God in Jesus, we are not talking about a culminating event at the end of time. We are talking about an event fairly early in the history of the universe, on one tiny planet, among a group of primates who have existed as homo sapiens for between five to ten million years, and have evolved from single-celled organisms that existed on earth about four billion years ago.
This means we must rethink much of our imagery of creation, of heaven, and of the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time. The creation is a billion year development from the primal simplicity of the Big Bang through the formation of atoms and complex molecules, to replicating organisms, the development of central nervous systems and brains, and the onset of intelligent consciousnesses, perhaps of many different forms throughout the universe. There could be millions of years of evolution still to come, and perhaps God’s plans for intelligent life have hardly begun.
Heaven, life in the knowledge and love of God, is a possibility for all intelligent conscious beings. If ‘everything on heaven and earth’ is to be united in Christ, that Christ must be infinitely greater than the human Jesus. It must be, as John’s gospel saw, the eternal Logos of God. But its finite forms may be many and diverse. We can say it is truly embodied in the human Jesus, that Jesus is God for us. But the eternal Word may take forms we cannot imagine, and that humans may play a relatively small part among the richness of created lives that will share in the life of God in heaven.
Belief that Christ will appear in judgment becomes a symbol of hope that the whole cosmos will culminate, after aeons of time, not in a whimper of cold emptiness, but in the ultimate destruction of evil, and the incorporation of all the good that has ever been into the unending life of the God who was truly seen on earth in Jesus. This will almost certainly take place beyond the boundaries of this physical cosmos, which will eventually cease to be. The ‘new creation’ will be in other forms of time and space that we can hardly begin to imagine. It is not surprising that Paul felt himself unable to say what the ‘resurrection body’ would be like (12 Corinthians 15, 35-36). It will not be some slightly modified version of our present human body. It will be, as Paul says, glorious, incorruptible, and as unlike us as wheat is from the seeds from which it grows.
This calls for an expansion of Christian vision. It is most unlikely that a human Mary and Jesus will be at the apex of heavenly existence, as they are in most traditional pictures of heaven. They are more likely to be human representatives of a wide diversity of intelligent life-forms. Our iconography of heaven must change. The cosmic purpose of God is unlikely to be centred on human beings. It may well be concerned with the flourishing of many forms of sentient life, and humans may be just a passing stage even in the evolution of life on earth. The human Jesus will not be the consummation of creation, though he can be regarded as an ideal exemplar of a truly human life in relation to God.
The important Christian fundamentals can still stand firm. God is a creator of unlimited love and compassion. The destiny of humans, as of all intelligent creatures, is to be liberated from self and to share in the divine nature. Jesus is the one who reveals in human history God’s purpose of unitive love, a love that unites finite lives to the infinity of God. Jesus’ life founds a new society, the church, within which God’s Spirit lives and acts. Jesus is the human incarnation of the divine Word and Wisdom, and the one who unites human nature to the divine. But we have no idea of what we shall see when we see him as he is. We only know that, through divine power and love, we shall then be conformed to his image of glory (Cf. 1 John 3, 2: ‘What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is’).
This gospel cries out for an evolutionary cosmic vision, the vision of a universe that is drawn towards intelligence and love by the perfect Good from whom it derives and on whom it depends for its existence. This Christian vision is that the Supreme Good draws the material universe towards itself, and enters into the universe, perhaps in many forms but specifically on this planet in the form of a human person, so that there shall be on this planet a foreshadowing of the final cosmic goal and the growth of a new community of the Spirit that will keep the vision of that goal alive. Modern science can bring the Christian gospel alive in a new way, teaching us more about the grandeur and glory of the creation, as it moves on its billion year journey into God.
With regard to history, most Christians will not accept any account of history that discounts the possibility of divine action and influence. They will reject accounts of history that are purely naturalistic – that account for everything that happens solely in terms of physical laws and human motives and purposes. They will be open to the possibility of miraculous events that transcend the normal physical regularities of nature. And they will be open to the possibility of encounters with God, especially among great religious teachers and saints, which can influence the course of history.
On the other hand, beliefs about exactly how and where God acts in history will be modified by more careful and critical analysis of available historical data. Detailed and comparative historical study will reveal the huge amount of fraud in religion, the extent to which the deeds of saints are often magnified by legendary accretion, and the degree to which we must remain decently agnostic about exactly what happened in the recorded past. Christians may well be convinced that God was disclosed in the person of Jesus, and that the gospels give a reliable enough account of Jesus’ teachings and character to give new insights into the nature and purpose of God. Yet they should realise that the gospel accounts do not give certainty about exactly what Jesus said and did, that they provide accounts from significantly different perspectives, and that there can be very different assessments of such things as the status and importance of miracles, or of the extent to which Jesus’ recorded teachings have been amended by later retelling of them.
Historical assessments will range from the very sceptical view that we know almost nothing about Jesus to the very trusting view that all, or almost all, of what the gospels tell us is accurate. This raises the important question of how much believers need to know about Jesus before they can call themselves Christians.
My own view is that we need to have enough data to believe that Jesus was a person in whom God could be authentically disclosed in a new and distinctive way. This means we need to be reasonably sure, for instance, that he taught about humility, non-violence, and unlimited love, that he died for the sake of the kingdom, and that he appeared to the disciples after his death. But we do not need to know that he was born of a virgin mother, that he performed all the miracles and exorcisms attributed to him in the gospels, that he was actually tempted by the Devil and fed by angels in the wilderness, or that his body rose physically from the dead and ascended into heaven in a cloud.
My view on this is affected by the fact that I think historical study can give us good (though not theoretically overwhelming) reason to believe the first set of things, but may leave us feeling that we are dealing with later additions, exaggerations and legends when we come to the second set. I accept, of course, that others may feel that much more in the gospels is factual. But it is not necessary to accept that ‘more’ in order to commit yourself in faith to the God who is disclosed in the person of Jesus and in the church that seeks to make that person present in spiritual form.
The main point is, however, that any informed critical Christian should be aware of the sort of arguments that have been widely deployed in this area. We should see that there is a range of possible viewpoints, and recognise that there is legitimate room for diversity, once we have admitted the relevance of historical enquiry.
The worst sins against historical truth are committed by those who proclaim their own understanding of the gospels without any hint that there are other understandings in existence. They compound the felony by pretending that their account is historically established and faithful to God, whereas alternative accounts are unsound and due to lack of faith. Any responsible teaching that is based on the New Testament must be honest and open about the range of interpretations that exists of these documents. No one should claim to be certain that their own interpretation is correct, though of course one interpretation may and should be expounded and defended, as long as a just and sensitive account of alternatives is available.
The objection to this procedure is that it seems to leave Christian faith at the mercy of the latest learned articles of Biblical scholars. Will the acids of criticism not dissolve away all faith in the historical Jesus? Or at least leave one so uncertain about what happened that firm commitment becomes impossible?
The word ‘liberalism’ is often used in a narrower sense than the one in which I have used it, to signify the work of a group of German scholars in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, who approached the problems of historical criticism in a particular way.
In 1770 Gotthold Lessing published some of the writings of Hermann Reimarus, who had died shortly before. In these Wolfenbuettel FragmentsReimarus held that the real historical Jesus had been primarily an ethical teacher, who had believed that the end of the world was imminent. After his death the disciples hid his body, and realising that the world was not ending, the church began to construct a mythical Christ that bears little relation to the historical original.
Two major themes of nineteenth century German liberal thought are presaged here. One is that Jesus was
important primarily as an ethical teacher. The other is that the dogmas of the church are later Hellenistic constructions that belong to mythology, constructed by human imagination in response to deep human needs, but which a more scientific view of the universe renders obsolete.
Underlying these themes is the belief, made explicit by David Friedrich Strauss, that nature and history both consist of a closed causal nexus of purely natural causes and effects. Miracles do not occur, and any beliefs Jesus had about the end of the world were deluded. So the importance of Jesus had to lie in his moral teaching. Nevertheless, the myths about Jesus that developed later may express in narrative form archetypal ideas about the processes of history and human moral goals that are of great psychological value.
Adolf von Harnack developed these themes further, holding that in the ideas of ‘God the Father, Providence, the position of men as God’s children, the infinite value of the human soul – the whole Gospel is expressed’ (What is Christianity? Lectures given in 1899 and published in English in 1900, p. 67). This is not a total reduction of Jesus’ teaching to morality, of the sort of which Kant might be accused. God and some sort of providential divine action in history give special force to Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of God, ‘the rule of the holy God in the hearts of individuals’, is the goal of history. Harnack spoke of Jesus’ message as being a message of ‘eternal life in the midst of time’, so that morality is love of and trust in God, not just keeping a set of ethical principles.
Kant held that ethics is wholly autonomous – ethical principles can be known without any reference to religious beliefs and they do not depend for their validity on any external or revealed authority. Moreover God does not enter into the moral life in any experiential way. All alleged experiences of God are fanatical illusions, and appeals to divine grace are craven admissions of human weakness. Harnack did not follow those opinions. For him, Jesus discloses in his life and teachings a ‘higher righteousness’, the demand of a transformation of the heart to receive and mediate self-giving divine love. Jesus mediates that love in a real and powerful way, enabling his disciples to become the beloved children of a personal and passionate God.
The ethical authority of Jesus is not a matter of laying down particular rules that have to be obeyed. Jesus already had the 613 rules of Torah,and did not need to add any more. Jesus’ authority lay in the vision he provided of a new life in the kingdom of God, the community of the divine Spirit. That new life could be summed up in two simple rules – love of God with the whole heart, and love of neighbour as oneself (Matt. 22, 34-40). These rules provide a more rigorous and testing way of applying all the particular rules of Torah. They also provide a way of moving beyond all such particular rules, as the church did when it abandoned observance ofTorah, and tried to live just by ‘the law of Christ’, which is the law of total love.
Such love cannot be laid down in a set of rules – which have to change to adapt to new situations. It is laid down in the example of a life of healing, forgiveness, non-attachment and passionate care for others, especially the poor and outcastes of society. The moral authority of Jesus is the life he lived and the death he died, surrendered in self-abandoning hope for the coming of God’s rule in the hearts of men and women.
Jesus not only reveals the character of that love as the character of God. He made and makes it possible for individuals to practice such love, insofar as they receive from him the Spirit of God, and God’s love takes form in their inner lives. This is ‘eternal life in the midst of time’, the life of God incarnated in the society of those whose hearts are ruled by divine love.
The Christian myths that turn Jesus into a divine being, a God-man, have the function of giving imaginative and emotional form to what might otherwise be rather abstract doctrines of the Fatherhood of God, the moral goal of history, the role of Jesus in disclosing and mediating the higher righteousness, and the infinite dignity of humanity. For Harnack, the intricacies of conciliar definitions are inadequate philosophical attempts to convey simple practical truths about a loving God who wishes to implant the divine love in the hearts of all those who turn to God in trust.
Harnack and his teacher Albrecht Ritschl both saw Christianity (especially in its German Protestant form) as the perfect religion, a form of inner ethical monotheism, a morality of the heart and spirit. The place of Jesus is in being the supreme exemplar of this morality, and the founder of the community whose vocation was to incarnate the higher morality of love and fellowship in the world.
These writers tended to be unsympathetic to grand metaphysical schemes, or to any metaphysics at all. So they saw the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas as empty speculation, unimportant to faith. They were also unsympathetic to mysticism, or to claims of special individuals to have direct knowledge of God. They preferred to think that the basic religious experience was moral experience, interpreted within the Christian community.
Like Immanuel Kant, by whom they were deeply influenced, they saw religion as primarily practical, a system for promoting a loving way of life. Unlike Kant, they did not see God as just a postulate for assuring agents that virtue would be rewarded in the end. They saw the experience of God as Father as an important one, one that is implicit in moral experience itself, seen as apprehension of absolute duty, experience of an inner divine power making for righteousness, and a hope for the victory of love in a broken world. This is a distinctively Christian view of what morality is, and it depends essentially upon a living faith in God, the God whose character is uniquely revealed and whose presence is uniquely mediated by the historical Jesus.
It is important, for this view, that the historical Jesus should be to some extent accessible, and that his character, teaching and proclamation of the kingdom should be historically ascertainable. The conditions upon which a critical historian could achieve that were set out by Ernst Troeltsch, as three basic principles of critical historical method. The principle of criticism is that, since belief must be proportioned to evidence, and historical evidence is nearly always disputable and can be interpreted in more than one way, no historical fact can be established with more than probability. The principle of analogy is that things in the past have probably proceeded in much the same way as things in the present, so you must assess the probability of past occurrences in the same way that you would assess the probability of their occurring now. And the principle of correlation is that historical events cannot be considered in isolation, but must be seen in their social and cultural context, if their significance is to be properly understood.
The application of these principles meant that Biblical records of miracles would be discounted, or at least would be regarded as liable to be greatly exaggerated and often legendary. The records of Jesus’ life and teaching are unlikely to be accurate in detail, though some affirmations of a more general sort may be made, and some are much more probable than others. Jesus must be understood in the context of contemporaneous Jewish Messianic movements, if we are to understand his significance.
Ritschl, Troeltsch, and Harnack all agreed that the element of the miraculous in the gospel accounts is not crucially important - though the resurrection appearances pose a problem here, as they do seem rather crucial to the subsequent development of Christianity. Those appearances, however, may have more the nature of visions, of a communal, vivid and enduring sort, than the raising of a physical body from the tomb.
Johns’ gospel, in which Jesus constantly refers to his own person as the object of faith, can be discounted as an accurate record of Jesus’ actual teaching. In the synoptic gospels Jesus talks rather about God, the coming of God’s kingdom, and the way of life those who look for the kingdom should adopt. In those gospels, Jesus’ parables, his rather extreme aphorisms about conduct, and his cryptic teachings about the imminence of the kingdom, are very probably accurate, if only because they are so difficult and unexpected.
Finally, Jesus will be most helpfully understood as a Messianic Jew – on this, the German theologians almost wholly failed to see the distinctive Jewishness of Jesus. So they tended to see Christianity as something entirely distinct from, and an important advance upon Judaism. As Albert Schweitzer was to say, they tended to see Jesus as an enlarged version of their own Protestant selves and ideals.
For them, Jesus was more of a universal moral teacher than a Messianic claimant. Nevertheless, this was an inner, God-directed and God-dependent morality, and there is a spiritual sublimity in the idea that true religion lies in the practice of loving-kindness and mercy, commanded, evoked, enabled and eventually to be fully realised in the human heart by God. Faith is not the assent of the intellect to complicated doctrines, but moment by moment trust in the power of a morally demanding and merciful God. Jesus is the point in history at which the nature of the demand and the promise of its eventual fulfilment are disclosed. He is the founder of a community in which the future rule of God becomes partially present, in a new and distinctive way, the way of the Spirit working within the heart.
In Ritschl, Troeltsch, and Harnack, Reimarus’ accusation of fraud on the part of the apostles, and his complete rejection of divine action and revelation, have disappeared. Divine providence does exist, though it rarely, if ever, breaks the laws of nature to produce amazing miracles like turning water into wine. Revelation of the divine nature does exist, though it is not infallible and free from all possible doubt. The apostles were genuine and faithful disciples of Jesus, as an overwhelming disclosure of God’s character and mediator of the Holy Spirit, though they probably did not regard him as personally divine.
To what extent are these theologians successful in rescuing history from total scepticism, and providing a firm foundation for Christian faith? I think what they show is that Christian faith cannot be based on history, as though we could just take the Biblical accounts as true and base our faith on that. Faith, for them, is a practical commitment to morality seen in a distinctive way, as response to an absolute moral demand, an enabling moral power, and a providential directing of history towards the moral goal of a society of fellowship, compassion and free co-operation. This commitment provides an interpretative framework for history. The available evidence must be consistent with it, and must support the interpretation in an intelligible, but rather unspecific, way. That is all the person of Christian faith has a right to require of critical history, and a fully critical attitude to history can support such a view of faith.
These German ‘liberal’ theologians show that critical historical method does not lead to total scepticism, or to constantly wavering opinions. A prior conception of faith can be brought to history as an interpretative framework, and while it can be tested in various general ways, history is unlikely to provide a final decision on whether that prior conception is acceptable or not.
What we can ask about is the adequacy of a conception of Christian faith as practical commitment to a way of seeing morality, and as a way of seeing history as the progressive realisation of such a morality. It may turn out that we need to say rather more about God and the nature of God’s action in the universe, and rather more about possible ways of apprehending such action, than these German theologians allowed. In brief, metaphysics (talk about the ultimate nature of reality) and mysticism (talk about ways of apprehending God) may be more important than they thought.
Harnack’s treatment of Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic forms of faith was less than fully appreciative. He saw the religion of the Catholic church as a ‘total perversion’ of the simple trust, humility and fellowship, the ‘dependence on God and freedom in him’, that he thought the Gospel proclaimed. He saw the Orthodox doctrine of ‘deification’ (theosis) as subchristian, and as belonging to ‘the lowest class of religion’ (These judgments can be found in lecture 13 of ‘What is Christianity?’ a series of lectures given in 1900).
Such harsh judgments flow from his conviction that ‘the Gospel, as Jesus proclaimed it, has to do with the Father only and not with the Son’ (lecture 8). So Christological dogmas have, he thinks, lost all connection with the historical Jesus. They replace direct faith in Jesus with theoretical dogmas. And they replace the simple moral teachings of Jesus with what he calls ‘pharmacological’ notions of ontological union with divine substance. Harnack wants simple personal relationship and moral commitment, not metaphysical and impersonal speculations about human and divine substances.
However, things are not so simple. Harnack says that Jesus ‘was himself what he taught’, that he had a unique knowledge of God, and a unique vocation to do God’s work. He is the ‘personal realisation’ of the Gospel, and in him ‘the divine appeared in as pure a form as it can appear on earth’ (lecture 8). How is it that Jesus was uniquely able to embody the kingdom in his own person, that he had a unique knowledge of God and a unique calling from God, and that the divine appeared in him in a uniquely pure way? How is it that he alone among humans shows ‘eternal life in the midst of time’, and was raised from death to life and glory, as Harnack affirms?
However much Harnack disliked metaphysics, some metaphysically persuasive account of Jesus’ uniqueness is required, if such statements are not to be mere poetic exaggerations of what were in fact rather ordinary events in the life of a rather ordinary religious reformer. And some account of the possibility of unique knowledge and experience of God is required, if Jesus is to be accepted as a reliable and authoritative guide to a truly moral way of human existence.
The contribution of Ritschl, Troeltsch, and Harnack to re-thinking Christianity is to have located moral commitment (not intellectual assent to correct dogma, not ritual practice, and not unusual and ecstatic personal experiences) as the central concern of Christian faith, and to have given a new interpretation of what Christian morality is. In short, such a morality is not a set of specific moral rules, but a view of morality as encounter with a transcendent personal moral will, who demands a concern for the welfare of all human beings without exception ( we might now say, of all sentient beings without exception), and a realisation of the personal potentialities in which human flourishing consists. These demands are absolute. But God is compassionate, and the divine mercy is infinite. On such a view, the history of religion, or at least of authentic religion, is the record of such moral encounters, and of a gradually broadening and deepening understanding of them.
While historians must be content with probabilities, must be sceptical about the literal veracity of many ancient records, and must subject Scripture to the same critical criteria as any other text, they can find enough evidence to support the belief that there is such a supreme moral will, that has been at least partially apprehended at various times in history. And they can find enough evidence to support the belief that Jesus has the unique historical role of decisively revealing that view of God and of morality, and of inaugurating the community, the kingdom of God, in which the divine love can be mediated in a new and deeply inward way.
Insofar as Jesus is the place wherein the divine is disclosed, made known and accessible, Jesus can be regarded as the mediator of God to humanity and the medium of God’s historical actions for the welfare of God’s creatures on earth. This is one major form of what has been called liberal Protestant Christianity. It is a re-thinking of Christianity that is true to the roots of Christian belief in the Hebrew Scriptures (however much it misunderstood Judaism). It is needed whenever Christians find themselves arguing angrily over intricate points of dogma. Its motto could well be the statement of the prophet Amos: ‘I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5, 21 and 24).
The religion of a morality of love, revealed and mediated by the person of Jesus, is very different from the sort of fully autonomous morality that Kant recommended. Kant left no place for revelation or for experiences of divine grace, and he thought that moral rules could be worked out by reason applying the principle of possible universal agreement (the Categorical Imperative). Ritschl and Harnack gave God a more constitutive place in moral life. The personal God gave real imperative force to the morality of love. The person of Jesus revealed what love really requires. The resurrection of Jesus (whether physical or not) revealed what God’s love promises. And the Spirit of God helped to make love possible.
This is a distinctively Christian view of morality. But it is not a morality that derives its moral rules directly from the Bible or from the church. Both Ritschl and Harnack adopted a fully critical attitude to religious authority and to the Bible.
A critical approach to the Bible puts in question any appeal to the moral teachings recorded in the Bible as coming directly from God, and therefore as unquestionable and authoritative. It can be a great intellectual release to see the Bible as primarily a record of the testimony of those who have been touched by a sense of God, or who feel themselves to have been possessed by the Spirit of God, rather than as the very words of God. We are free to see their testimony as expressing all the limitations of knowledge and understanding of their own culture, historical situation and psychology. They may indeed have been possessed by the Spirit of God, but that did not simply over-ride their own rational and moral views.
So when we read of the command to exterminate all Canaanites who do not simply surrender to the Israelites, together with their children and cattle, we are free to see that as an extremely primitive understanding of what God, the Supreme Good, requires. When we read that adulterers and disobedient children are to be stoned to death we are free to say that these are the moral codes of early tribal societies, not the commands of God.
Moral insight develops, at least sometimes. The Bible itself records some decisive advances in moral understanding. Ezekiel records that people should be punished only for their own sins, not for the sins of their fathers – a crucial moral advance. The ‘Lex Talionis’ limits retribution to an eye for an eye, not just unlimited vengeance on a whole family. And, most decisively for Christians, the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7) goes further and recommends turning the other cheek, love of enemies, and non-resistance to those who do evil. It has proved extremely difficult for Christians to interpret Jesus’ teachings in a practical way, but there is no doubt that such teachings render any literal application of Old Testament rules obsolete.
Once a whole set of Biblical rules has been seen to be subject to criticism and rejection, it is hard to prevent criticism of the New Testament as well as the Old. Released from the binding authority of both Church and Bible, eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers set out to see if they could find some sort of rational basis for morality. Various strategies were attempted. Solutions ranged from seeing morality as an attempt by the weak to restrain the ravages of the strong (Nietzsche), to seeing it as a cultivation of social sentiments (Hume), as enlightened self-interest (Butler), or as a set of principles that could be universally agreed and adopted (Kant).
Most of these proposals agreed with Kant’s assertion that morality should be autonomous, in the sense of not being dependent on prior religious beliefs. Kant’s stronger sense of autonomy, that the human will is a law unto itself, yet naturally acts on universally justifiable principles, was not widely shared. Some thought that an appeal to universal moral principles was merely a confidence trick used to obtain social cohesion in societies of aggressively competing individuals.
It became clear that morality does not collapse without religion. But there are various accounts of what morality is, and general views of human nature and its place in the cosmos are relevant to which account you are likely to accept. Morality is not autonomous, in the sense of being totally independent of whatever views of human nature you hold. If you think humans are accidental by-products of a process of random genetic mutation, it would not be rational to hold that there are absolute obligations to act on strictly impartial principles, at any personal cost. If, on the other hand, you think humans are created by God to know and love God forever, it would not be rational to hold that you should invent whatever moral principles you think fit (or indeed that you should have no moral principles at all).
It is in that sense that Christian belief makes a difference to moral belief. If you believe God has created you for a purpose, the most reasonable way to act will be to aim to achieve that purpose. Indeed, that will become a matter of strict obligation. For Christians, Jesus’ own life discloses what that purpose is – it is to love God, and to heal, forgive, reconcile and help others, especially those in greatest need. A life of Christ-like love is the basic Christian obligation, based on the disclosure of the moral demand of God in the person of Jesus.
It is important to add that this will not be just a matter of obeying a strict command as if from some arbitrary dictator – that is Kant’s rather perverse interpretation of heteronomy, a term under which he includes acting in obedience to the commands of God. God’s commands, in the Christian view, are for the good of creatures. They delineate what acts make for the welfare and flourishing of persons, who are creatively to actualise many of the positive potentialities God has given them. It is in such creative activity that humans are to ‘be like’ the creator God. They are to be co-creators with God of the good things of the created world.
The human response to God is not one of craven submission. It is, ideally, one of reverence, gratitude and love – reverence for the beauty and perfection of God, gratitude for the gifts of creation, and love for the One who gives the divine life in love that personal beings should flourish and be happy.
Where Kant is right is in pointing out that Christian morality is not slavish obedience to arbitrary rules set down in the Bible. Where he is wrong is in thinking that Christian morality can be worked out by reason alone, without reference to Jesus Christ. What is required is the key that Paul provides for understanding Christian morality. That key is simple: ‘The letter kills, but the spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3, 6). God wills the welfare of creatures. In Jesus he gives a decisive clue as to what this involves. But specific moral rules, whether they are found in the Bible or propounded by the Church, may carry with them limitations of perspective and insight that need to be modified by new knowledge or experience.
This is all too clear when we read both Biblical and church teachings about the role of women. The systematic subordination of women as a servant-sex, which both Church and Bible have propagated, is in blatant contradiction to the Biblical call for the equality of all in Christ. The irony is that it is secular moralists who have led the call for the abolition of slavery, the institution of a bill of human rights, the equality of women, social welfare programs in society, and care for the environment. These should have been Christian initiatives, founded on the love of a God who commands, through Jesus, that the poor should be liberated and creation revered. There are Christians who have taken the lead in these movements. But many Christians have remained bound by a literal adherence to outdated moral rules and traditional practices, in the name of loyalty to unchanging revelation.
It is the revelation of freedom from written Law and the breaking down of all barriers that make one group of people superior in principle to others that should be definitive for Christians. In fact the main Christian tradition has never been content to take its ethical principles just from the pages of the Bible. The Catholic tradition of ‘Natural Law’ has focussed rather on the doctrine of God as creator. Assuming that the purposes of nature are the purposes that God has placed in nature, it has based much ethical teaching on the principle that the purposes of nature should not be frustrated, but should be held inviolate. By looking at natural human inclinations, implanted by God, the main moral guidelines that govern human life can be discovered by reason.
With the acceptance of evolutionary science, however, such appeals to nature also need to be re-thought. In a biological process that is based on random mutation and natural selection, many of the ways in which ‘nature’ works will not be in accord with the purposes of God in creation. God can certainly be seen as setting up such a process in order that personal, responsible and intelligent communities should come into existence. But the way nature works can no longer be taken as a definitive guide to how humans should act responsibly. For nature is partly random and many of its specific processes are indifferent to moral concerns.
So an informed scientific view of nature needs to identify those processes that are ‘natural’, in that they occur in accordance with scientific laws, but that should nonetheless be eradicated or modified by any morally concerned person. The growth of cancer cells, for example, is natural, but should certainly be frustrated. And if we ask why they should be frustrated, it is because their growth frustrates the deeper purpose of God in creation that personal life should flourish.
The moral criterion, in other words, cannot be simply that a process is physically present or even normal. Each physical process must be assessed in terms of its contribution to the existence and flourishing of personal life, of moral awareness and the capacity for social relationship. There is still a place for ‘natural law’ thinking in a scientifically understood universe. But we need to be clear that what is taken to be ‘natural’ is not just what happens in nature – and even less what might seem to be a ‘purpose’ of nature itself, which has no purposes – but what God intends to generate through the general processes of nature. The moral criterion will, in short, be personal flourishing in a just society and not just physical structure. It is by reflection on the purposes of God that nature is meant to subserve that we can come to a reasonable view of how we should deal with the natural world. That will mean more ‘interference with’, and modification of, physical structures, than would have been envisaged in medieval times. But that is hardly surprising, since we have had the technology for such change only within the last century.
The new ethical dilemmas and possibilities that scientific technology has opened up are not even envisaged by either the Bible or by traditional Natural Law thinking. So our moral principles need to be continually re-thought. Nevertheless, the Bible and tradition lay down the general Christian orientation of such thinking. That orientation does not lie in any specific moral rules, which may well be rendered obsolete by new understandings of nature. It lies in the consideration that God creates the cosmos in order that personal life should flourish, that Christ gives special emphasis to care for the poor and the oppressed, and that the Spirit acts to unite all creation (‘everything in heaven and earth’) to the divine life ‘in Christ’.
Armed with these principles, the Christian moral vocation is to think creatively and responsibly about how these goals would be best attained, insofar as human action can help to attain them. For Christian morality, there is an objective goal of human flourishing in relation to Supreme Goodness, and the human task is to be co-workers with God in working towards that goal. Christians may have given up a specific ‘law of God’ ( aTorah), but there is a powerful and distinctive Christian morality, and to embrace it is to embrace at least one form of Christian faith.
The German liberal theologians were right when they pointed out that history shows there are few unchanging elements of revelation, that the gospel calls us often to discard old traditions and drink the new wine of freedom in God, and that Christian revealed morality is a life of self-giving love, not an adherence to ancient and limited moral rules.
They did not see so clearly, however, that this morality of a growing moral insight into the will of God for the universal flourishing of creatures, needs to be based on a doctrinal or metaphysical foundation. It requires an objectively existing God of supreme perfection, who reveals the divine nature and purpose in the person of Jesus, and who continues to work in the church to complete the flourishing of humans by uniting them to the divine life. There needs to be a metaphysics of God, of revelation, of incarnation, of the Spirit, and of the ultimate goal of the cosmos. Perhaps their witness in a Germany that was just about to descend into the abyss of two world wars and the obscenity of National Socialism was muted by their apparent failure to provide a firm doctrinal basis for Christian moral commitment. Their critical voice was heard, putting in question many traditional tenets of Christian faith. But their call for a liberal morality of love was partly compromised by their own belief in German (Aryan) cultural and intellectual supremacy, and partly weakened by their inability to found their morality on any firm metaphysical base that could countermand the myths and lies of the Nazi propaganda machine.
Metaphysics, a general view of the nature of reality, is necessary as an intellectual foundation for religious faith. The problem for liberal Christianity is that there is no longer any agreed metaphysics that could play such a role - a role that first Plato and then Aristotle played for the church in the first millennium. So we seem to be in a world in which different opinions clash without any possibility of rational agreement. In such a world, religious fundamentalisms can flourish, for they also are just opinions, no less without foundation than any others, it seems. Liberalism passes into post-modernism, for which reason itself becomes a useless guide. That, I think, is a very dangerous place to be. But it is, paradoxically, the place to which the eighteenth century Enlightenment has led us. In my final lecture, I will examine the ways in which modern Christianity has tried to respond to this unexpected and uncomfortable situation.
© Professor Keith Ward, Gresham College, 14 March 2006