The Gospel Story and the Hermeneutics of Mediating Theology

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The chief beneficiary of this conservatism in general biblical hermeneutics was the New Testament story. Everyone who believed that the sense of the gospel narratives is the history of Jesus the Messiah believed also that the notion of historical salvation or revelation is itself meaningful. On the other hand, people who beiieved that monotheism, immortality, and the realization of man's happiness through altruism are the substance of man's religion, equally available to all men at all times without any special revelation, discerned this as the true sense of the gospel narratives, the messianic history being merely their outward trapping. Nobody said that the real sense of the narratives was religiously meaningless or anachronistic.

The first of these perspectives actually conceals two divergent views. The Calvinist and Puritan inheritors in England and the Super-naturalists in Germany simply took it that all the narratives refer to actual events and describe them just as they happened. The mediating theologians who also commanded much of the biblical scholarship of the eighteenth century, first the Latitudinarians in England and then the Neo-logians in Germany, agreed with them to some extent, specifically on the necessity of a factual interpretation of the story of Jesus and a revealed religion. Beyond that, however, they leaned in the other, more rationalistic, direction. Jesus was indeed the Messiah, so that a historical faith is necessary for one's spiritual well-being. However, this faith has meaning only as an indispensable solution to a universally experienced moral lack or dilemma. Thus the explicative sense of the narrative of Jesus the Messiah is indeed that of ostensive reference, but its religious application or meaningfulness is derived in part from general moral experience and religious principles and not only from the Bible itself.

Thinkers like Locke suggested that historical and spiritual faith coincide. The story of man's creation and fall refers to mankind's general religious and moral experience directly and not only by way of the historical incorporation of the experience into the specific factual history of Adam. Sometimes this independent appeal to man's universal moral need, which one may understand at least in part without awareness of the biblical story, is quite direct, as in Conyers Middleton's allegorical treatment of Genesis 1-3. Sometimes the appeal takes a more ambiguous form as in Locke's On the Reasonableness of Christianity,x where the author takes the story literally but still argues the case for the need of redemption on a more general basis.

In other words, the mediating theologians rejected the Calvinists', Puritans', and Supernaturalists' version of the notion of sin in which its meaningfulness was strictly dependent on its making specific ostensive, referential sense as history, told by the particular story of Adam and his progeny. These conservatives believed that the historical event of Adam's fall involves the guilt of all his descendants. The divine economy which has been at work in this historical sequence from eternity compensates for the disaster by condemning Adam's race to eternal punishment and misery, except for the salvation offered some in Jesus Christ's redeeming passion which had also been prepared from eternity.

The Latitudinarians and Neologians rejected this harsh version of sin based on the strict ostensive construal of the story in Genesis, and the consequent applicative interpretation of the story by a doctrine of original and ubiquitously inherited guilt and condemnation to eternal torment. But they turned their backs equally on the Deists' denial of the notion of human sinfulness in any form and on the concomitant need of a redeeming historical revelation. Mankind, it seemed to the mediating thinkers, having been gravely affected in its moral capacity and thus shorn of its natural immortality, proper moral understanding, and strength, needs a redeemer, a fact to which our natural experience in the world testifies. Redemption in history becomes intelligible from its natural context in our moral and religious experience, so that the wise man readily appreciates that rational, natural religion and morality need to be perfected from beyond themselves by a re%realed religion which is above rather than against them. The mediating version of the concepts of sin and revelation may be sharper than that: the redeeming historical revelation may in large part contradict rather than perfect our natural religion and morality; but even then it remains certain that without our antecedent awareness, either positive or negative, of such morality and religion, the revelation has no applicative meaning. Without that antecedent context, the Bible's story of historical revelation would be religiously meaningless.

God's design of man's nature toward the realization of perfect happiness had been vitiated by man's action. One way or another the need and hiatus created by this situation are eventually met by the coming of Jesus. The historicity of Jesus, including his specific time and place, is obviously not deducible from the general human situation and experience. The fact that he lived and really was the Messiah would have to be demonstrated by external or factual evidence such as miracles, the probability of his resurrection from the dead, and the general reliability of the written witness to him. But the religious meaningfulness of historical redemption or revelation, in contrast to the factual reference or ostensive meaning of the gospel narratives, depends on there being an antecedent or concomitant religious context, independent of the narratives, within which to interpret them.

Among more conservative mediating thinkers it was customary to augment this argument from the religious appropriateness of the Redeemer for the human situation with an argument that historical conditions when he came were exactly ripe for his appearance. Mediating theology, firmly committed to the positivity of Christian religion, nonetheless succeeded in reversing the direction of the interpretation of the biblical stories from precritical days, so that they now made sense by their inclusion in a wider frame of meaning.

The religious sensibility and philosophical outlook to which mediating theologians appealed changed drastically after the eighteenth century, but the logic of the argument and its use of the Bible remained essentially the same. Instead of external evidence, there were appeals to a leap of faith in the miracle of historical redemption, with or without corroboration by scientific historical investigation of the actual life of the historical Jesus. Instead of man's moral imperfection, there were appeals to internal conditions such as despair and the longing for the paradox of grace, or external conditions such as mankind's unredeemed alienation from itself in the process of its history and the concomitant loss of man's true self-hood in alien social structures and institutions. But the mediating theological argument remained the same: the explicative meaning of the gospel narratives is their ostensive reference to Jesus the Messiah. The correlative, applicative, or religious meaningfulness of the narratives is at least in part provided by their answering a universal human condition or need of which we are all at least implicitly aware. Their explicative sense is quite distinct from, but in harmony with, their religious meaning. The principle of general hermeneutics applying to their explication is that meaning is logical coherence in the statement of a proposition, and also that meaning is reference. The principle of general hermeneutics for the applicative interpretation is the full or partial pertinence of mankind's general religious and moral experience to the biblical narratives at issue.

In these respects the theology and hermeneutics of the mediating theological thinkers remained constant down to the middle of the twentieth century. Whatever their differences, John Locke, Samuel Clarke, Joseph Butler, Johann Salomo Semler, Johann Joachim Spalding, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritsehl, Wilhelm Herrmann, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Rahner, Gerhard Ebeiing, Woifhart Pannenberg, and Jürgen Moltmann all agreed on these principles. Most of them have disavowed that they were out to "prove" the truth of Christianity, chiefly the assertion that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer—the claim with which (as it seemed to them) all other Christian doctrines must r harmonize. But they have all been agreed that one way or another the religious meaningfulness (as distinct from demonstration of the truth) of the claim could, indeed must, be perspicuous through its relation to other accounts of general human experience.

To the mediating theologians, the unique truth of Christianity is actually discoverable only by divine, self-communicating grace (or revelation). And this, in turn, has to be grasped through the venture of an act of faith which remains just as risky and uncertain as the grace or revelation, to which it refers, stays indemonstrable. But the possibility of such a miracle —for it is nothing less—and the meaningfulness of what is communicated by it, involve more than an appeal to divine authority. They involve an appeal to the appropriateness of this miracle to the human condition; and that condition is one that all right-thinking men can or should be able to recognize. In other words, there is an area of human experience on which the light of the Christian gospel and that of natural, independent insight shine at the same time, illumining it in the same way. The degree to and manner in which the one mode of insight has to be bolstered by the other is a matter of difference among various mediating theologians, and they have invented a wide variety of often very complex ways of stating their views on this subject. But on the substantive point that both modes must be present and correlated they are all agTeed. There is no such thing as revelation without someone to receive it, and receive it, moreover, as a significant answer to or illumination of general life questions.

I have used the term apologetics to cover (among other things) this appeal to a common ground between analysis of human experience by direct natural thought and by some distinctively Christian thought. This has been the chief characteristic of the mediating theology of modernity. Usually, apologetic mediating theologians have accused their predecessors of wanting to "prove" or "secure" the Christian gospel (that saving truth for the human condition comes through Jesus Christ), while they themselves onlv wanted to indicate how it could be

"meaningful" to "modern man." And when their successors came along, they in turn usually said the same two things. Modern mediating theology gives an impression of constantly building, tearing down, rebuilding, and tearing down again the same edifice. (Notable instances of this procedure are the revolt of nineteenth-century Christian liberals against the "evidence"-seeking theology of the eighteenth century, the revolt of the so-called dialectical or neo-orthodox theologians against nineteenth-century liberalism in the 1920s, and contemporary arguments in favor of the meaningfulness of a specific Christian "language game" among all the other language games people play.)

The mediating theologians have always said that given the pride and perversity of men, the belief that Jesus is Messiah may be an offense to them. Moreover, it may be difficult in view of the increasingly "secular," nonreligious thought of "modern man." But they also had to insist that it does make sense and is not experientially nonsensical. Furthermore, in regard to this central affirmation, at once historically factual and religiously true, the Bible meant what it said and is our indispensable source for the information. Even if the Bible generally no longer authorized what one believed—by providing either the reliably informative contents or the warrants for believing them — it had to provide and does provide the indispensable, factually informative, and religiously meaningful content in this instance.

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