The Spell of Saint Thomas – II
Jaroslav Pelikan

In the June issue of The Cresset we offered an analysis of the contemporary trend toward a revival of the theology and philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. We suggested certain crises in the development of the modern mind which have made Neo-Thomism seem congenial to it, and noted several considerations which cast doubt upon the relevance and validity of that system.

Part of that essay was devoted to the question: Why Thomism and not Protestantism? The answer to this question we sought in the fact that by involving itself in elements not generically related to its basic structure, Protestantism has been unable to withstand the critiques of the Enlightenment. Here we shall try to set down those resources in the Protestant description of the Christian faith from which a tenable and vigorous reply to Neo-Thomism can be fashioned.

Protestant Revival

Not as well-known as the reevaluation of Thomas Aquinas is the effort which has been put forth during the past half-century in restudying the Protestant Reformation and its meaning for the modern world. As a result of that effort, the Reformers have acquired a new relevance for the problems of our time. During the past two decades, Protestant thought in Europe and America has been seeking to implement the historical insights thus gained for a constructive theological system.  

The "Luther-Renaissance"

Beginning in about 1883, the four-hundredth anniversary of Luther's birth, Continental Protestantism took up the task of understanding the thought of the Reformation and interpreting it to today's world. To accomplish this, it was necessary to free the Reformation from the encumbrances of the ages that followed it and of the "official" systems that came out of it, and to penetrate to the fundamental motifs animating the Reformers, and especially Luther, in the performance of their historical responsibility.

Out of this research came a Luther profoundly different from the Reformer of Protestant myth and fable. The discovery of some of his earlier works, such as the Commentary on Romans, brought the realization that much of classical Protestantism has not done justice to the radical and prophetic character of Luther's faith, nor to the dynamic ethical insights which he drew from the Christian Gospel. And so Luther began to speak to the modern world with a vividness which the traditional Luther had never had.

Such a restudy has involved the publication of a definitive edition of Luther's works—the so-called Weimar edition, now almost completed—the inauguration of several journals, and the publication of literally thousands of studies on everything from Luther's use of alliteration to his views on zoology. There was, it must be admitted, a great deal of pedantry and collecting of academic bric-a-brac connected with this research, but under the leadership of scholars like Karl Holl (1866-1926) it became possible for students of Luther to understand his faith and thought more clearly than previous generations had been able to do.

Archeology or Theology

            The unearthing of the real Luther and the real Reformation was a magnificent, scholarly achievement, made possible only by the development of the techniques and materials of scientific, critical history.

            As a friend has observed, however, "the case for religious history is the case for significant history," and detailed study of any such Christian age or event as the Reformation can be justified only if it ultimately has meaning in the present scene. Contemporary Protestantism has not been as successful in discovering this meaning as it was in ascertaining the original and historical import of Luther and the Reformation. Having answered the "question, "What did the Reformation say," the Protestant world is now engaged in dealing with the question: "What does the Reformation say to me?" The second is impossible without the first—the first pitifully useless without the second.

A Sample Attempt

            Realizing this fact and concerned with forming a constructive system on the basis of these new discoveries, several thinkers of the past twenty-five years have begun the task of restating Protestant theology in the vocabulary of the modern world and in terms of the more adequate picture of the Reformation bequeathed to us by the last two generations.

            One attempt to perform this task is the movement which is identified with the names of Karl Earth (b. 1886) and Emil Brunner (b. 1889), both of Switzerland. By far the more systematic of the two, Professor Brunner is steadily gaining adherents among American Protestants. Evidence of this is the recent publication by Westminster Press in Philadelphia of four of his chief works: Revelation and Reason, Man in Revolt, The Mediator, and The Divine Imperative.

            All four works proceed from Brunner's conviction that "faith is passionately concerned with this actuality (of the historical revelation), in the most matter-of-fact sense of the word." Not idealism or moralism or mysticism, but historical realism is his watchword. The burden of Brunner's essay on Christ, entitled The Mediator, is this yearning for biblical and historical realism. Because of it, he finds new meaning in the Reformers' concern for the humanity of Christ as the bearer of His divinity. Similarly, Man in Revolt is a devastating refutation of any and every doctrine of man which would unrealistically seek to affirm the "natural goodness" of the race. Here again the Reformation definition of the bondage of the human will before God is rendered articulate.

            Having defined the nature man in this way and seeing in the God-man Christ Jesus the only Mediator between God an man, Brunner has proceeded to define revelation in terms of the historical self-disclosure of God in Christ; this was brought out in the review of his Revelation and Reason which appeared in The Cresset for May, 1947. Historically manifested in Christ and historically transmitted in revelation, the grace and power of God are operative in the histories ethical situation: such is the theme of Brunner's The Divine Imperative, regarded by many as the most significant theological work produced thus far in our century.

            In an essay of this brief compass, we cannot hope adequately to summarize the thought of Emil Brunner. For our problem here; suffice it to say that perhaps more thoroughly than any other prominent theologian outside the Lutheran Church, Brunner has consciously striven to incorporate in his comprehensive system the results of the "Luther-renaissance" discussed above. Despite the limitations of his work still to be noted, it does not seem presumptuous to maintain that much of the prominence and support his thought has received is due to his effort to write Reformation theology. And that is why no attempt to formulate a Protestant answer or equivalent to Neo-Thomism dare ignore the work of Emil Brunner.

Some Observations

            From the comments made thus far it should be clear that Brunner's thought has impressed itself deeply upon much of contemporary theology, and that its influence has, on the whole, been salutary. There are, nevertheless, certain objections or limitations that suggest themselves in an evaluation of his work.

            1. In spite of his obvious desire (to rid himself of the "liberal" theology of the nineteenth century, Brunner has not succeeded completely in eliminating traces of the thought of F. D. Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl from his system. This is seen most clearly in his inability to formulate an adequate doctrine of the Holy Christian Church and in his attempted formulation of the doctrine of the Word of God. In both cases, nineteenth century subjectivism and individualism— as transmitted to Brunner especially through Soren Kierkegaard—get in the way of a satisfactory explication of Christian faith.

            2. Nor is Brunner as free of eighteenth and nineteenth century idealism as he would wish to be. Even his interpretation of revelation in terms of historical realism is sometimes framed uncritically in an idealist definition of the nature of knowledge, and his ethics still betray occasionally how much Immanuel Kant and his critiques still direct Protestant theology.

            3. For an American, Brunner's ethics also seem conditioned by his European background. The original title of The Divine Imperative—"The Commandment and the Orders"—indicates that much of Brunner's ethical definition and prescription requires more than mere translation to become effective and intelligible in the American religious and social arena.

            All of this is not intended to disparage the achievements of the great Swiss theologian, merely to point up at least some parts of his system that bear watching.

What Is to Be Done?

            Sure it is that the theological work of Emil Brunner sounds a keynote still sadly absent in American religious thought. As has been mentioned, this is attributable in large measure to his dependence upon the insights and judgments of the Reformation. Solution of our American problem, therefore, cannot lie in any appropriation of Brunner, in a new theological "school" holding high his banner among American Protestants.

            The formation of any such "school" would be a denial of the resources at our command for a positive reinstatement of our heritage of Christian faith arid thought, a short-circuiting of the necessary and redemptive process of self-examination and confession which gives vitality and strength to the Christian witness. To assume that Brunner's answers or anyone else's are adequate for our situation is to maintain either that we do not have the resources to form our own answers or that our answers would come out the same as his. Either position is inconsistent with the clear facts of history and the central affirmations of Protestantism.

            Does not the devastation of much of Evangelical Europe by the war and by the domination of a power hostile to the Christian faith impose upon American Protestantism the responsibility of taking up the task which they have indeed thus far so nobly advanced? The full impact of the German and Swedish Luther-renaissance has not yet begun to inform our thought, nor have we yet launched a similar movement on our own.

            This must certainly be the ginning. In the past five years, Baptists, Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, and Congregationalists, as well as Lutherans, have made worthwhile contributions to our knowledge of Luther and the Reformation. There have been significant stirrings in the Lutheran communion to which this write belongs, seeking honestly for a fuller degree of perception of the meaning of Reformatory faith. The formation of an American Society for Reformation Research in August, 1946, is another step toward this end. Out of the signs, coupled with the renewed concern for the Reformation at our universities and seminaries, there may come a deeper understanding of the beginnings and dynamics of our faith.

            Point for point, Protestantism must match Neo-Thomism in research, in publications, in schools and institutes. It must be equipped with the tools of critical historical and theological study. It must be positive and courageous, admitting its errors and weaknesses, but confident of its strength. It must realize that to be truly evangelical and successful in the world of today, a Christian movement dare not be a stirring among the vested ranks of the clergy alone: if the faith of the Reformation is valid, it is valid for the entire Church. As the late Dr. Ludwig Fuerbringer was wont to point out, Lutheran Protestantism is a total culture, a genuine Weltanschauung, exhibiting in its origins and in its various national manifestations an infinite variety of forms, but displaying a unity of conviction and assertion that is sorely needed today.

            Can Protestantism offer an adequate answer to Neo-Thomism? I think it can and must. Erich Seeberg put the matter very trenchantly in the preface to one of his books on the theology of Luther:

Will a book on Luther still find interest? I hope so; for in my opinion there are hidden in Luther powers of the Spirit that can make the present theological crisis fruitful in a positive way. . . . We do not want a Luther-renaissance; we need a Luther-revolution!"

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