What’s New in Christianity?
by Robert M. Price
It is one of the commonplaces of the modern theological scene that liberals, obeying the “modernist impulse," seek to reformulate ancient faith in modern terms, and that when they have done so conservatives ask indignantly what remains of the "old time religion” (or, less pejoratively, of the "faith of our fathers”). And this is a good question in itself, no matter how it may be wielded by those who are temperamentally inclined to intransigence. Just what is the element of continuity that would justify the continued use of the trademark "Christianity"? For instance, is Unitarianism "Christian"? Is the Unification Church “Christian”? Is a theology which dubs the Incarnation a myth "Christian”? Conservatives in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen, it seems tome, are right to ask. And perhaps the ingenious answers of modern liberal demythologizers and reinterpreters are equally right. Perhaps an existential self-understanding here or a word-event there, or some deep-structure or other will provide an answer to the question, "What's old in our new Christianity?” But I want to focus on one quite surprising element of continuity spanning traditional and contemporary forms of Christian faith. That element is constituted by a series of face-saving maneuvers by means of which ancient and modern Christians have sought to answer the embarrassing question, “What, if anything, is new about Christianity?" Does it (and did it ever) offer, say, a new creation, a new revelation, or a new salvation?
Has Jesus Christ's advent brought in the new creation? The New Testament and modern theological writings are brimming with rhetoric that suggests he did. Jews have always found this claim rather puzzling, though most often they have been restrained in pointing out that the King of Kings had no clothes, even when it wasn't particularly dangerous politically to do so. It was hard to beat their straightforward logic: "If the Messiah by definition is the bringer of the New Age of Bliss, how can Jesus have been this Messiah? Where is the Messianic Age?" This little embarrassment of course did not go unnoticed by the early Christians, who, one might say, quickly redefined "clothes" so as to accommodate transparency. This is the famous crisis of the "delay of the Parousia." William Wrede made a breakthrough in outlining how Jesus had first been expected to return immediately, this apocalyptic “coming" being his first as Messiah, an honor to which he was elected at his resurrection.1 But as time passed, and no Parousia materialized, Jesus' earthly life became interpreted Messianic ally. In other words, messianic significance was read back into the events of the only “advent" of Jesus that remained on hand. In the process, of course, “Messiah" was redefined in a realized-eschatological way (or non-eschatological way, which is to say the same thing unless we wish to beg the whole question by similarly redefining and eviscerating “eschatological”).
The next step was similarly to redefine the present “messianic” reign of Jesus. As Bultmann says, the process of demythologizing began already in the New Testament. "The decisive step was taken when Paul declared that the turning point from the old world to the new was not a matter of the future but did take place in the coming of Jesus Christ.”2 Though sociologists may recognize this quicker than New Testament scholars, this sort of thing is only the common maneuver to save face "when prophecy fails.”3 All sorts of millenarian cults have predicted the speedy end of the world only to be left looking disappointedly into the sky (Acts 1:11). Soon one of the faithful with a little more imagination than the rest discovers "realized eschatology." Well it's true that Jesus didn't visibly return in 1914 as planned, but Jehovah's Witnesses are content to believe that he reigns invisibly from the sky since then. All right, so William Miller was a little off on his prediction of the coming of "the prince" to cleanse the earth (the "temple") in 1843, but now Adventists know better--on that date Christ began his investigative judgment in the heavenly temple.
At least on one very basic level, then, the claim to a "new creation" in Christ was radically qualified, and that right at the start. And this element of that "old time religion" is alive and well today in the “demythologizing" program of liberal theologians with their complete jettisoning of literal eschatology. What do we have here but a salvage-operation identical to that of the New Testament Christians, and for that matter of Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists? Now perhaps demythologizing and realized eschatology are good idea's that stand on their own merits. But if so, then they were good ideas when adopted by millenarian cultists. The family relation should be acknowledged no matter how embarrassing.
But just as outstanding is the debt owed to Judaism by "eschatological” and “kerygmatic" liberals. How often have we heard the smug claims that whereas Old Testament (and present-day) Judaism is a (merely) anticipatory faith looking to the future for its fulfillment, Christianity's faith is precisely one of fulfillment since the Messiah has in fact arrived.4 Of course many of the same modern theologians talk about how Jesus only "inaugurated” the Kingdom, while the essence of Christianity is a theology of hope5 looking forward to the consummation of the eschaton! The contradiction in all this should be as embarrassing to the Christians as it is insulting to Jews, who would never suspect from either their Old Testament exegesis or their religious experience that their faith is inadequate. When mention of a “new creation” is made, the question is properly asked, “What's new in Christianity?” And the answer of the new liberals is no less problematic than that of the early believers.
If Christ did not usher in a new world, then perhaps he may be said to have brought a new revelation about the world. This alone would be quite important. But may we say this? First let us note that there was already difficulty on this score in the New Testament itself. We may observe this in the polemics of the apostle Paul. He is concerned to press for the acceptance of the new revelation of justification by grace alone. Certainly Paul believes that he has a new truth to proclaim since acceptance of it is a life or death matter. If it were not an indispensable addition to faith, why would he not be content to stay within Pharisaic Judaism and promote revival within its doctrinal confines? Yet if the revelation is truly, qualitatively new, how may he expect Jews to receive it? There must be some point of contact, or else Paul will be inviting Jews to convert to a different religion entirely (which of course is just how it has historically turned out!). So the demands of apologetics force him to argue that the revelation of grace is not new! In fact it is supposed to be plainly set forth in the Old Testament (cf. his references to Abraham and David in Romans 4). Hans-Joachim Schoeps and others would agree with Paul that the Old Testament was indeed a message of grace (though not quite in the way envisioned by Paul).6 But the point is that Paul unwittingly compromises his claim that the gospel is a “new revelation" by trying to give it a pedigree. For if grace is indeed to be found in the Old Testament, why complicate things with Christ? What is new in this “revelation"?
Once again, we find that modern theologians have inherited the same difficulty, which remains despite all their attempts to demythologize, deliteralize, and ecumenicize. For instance, the neo-orthodox “kerygmatic” theologians tended to brush aside the fact that virtually all of Jesus' teachings, far from being a unique propositional revelation, were either preceded or paralleled by sayings of the rabbis. At least Jesus said more of these things than a large number of the rabbis put together,7 but the important thing was not so much that Jesus revealed ethical/doctrinal information as that he revealed “God himself." (This. is like saying “What garden hose? Besides, I returned it last week, and it leaked anyway! "—we’ve got you beat on any grounds you care to pick!) But this latter attempt to safeguard the uniqueness of Jesus’ revelation tended toward denying that members of other faiths had experienced "God himself," a claim that became increasingly embarrassing for the liberals of the sixties and seventies. Whereupon Process theologians suggested a new strategy. Now it seemed that Jesus did not bring a really new revelation, but rather a “decisive re-presentation" of that message of saving grace already, always, and everywhere implicit in human life anyway.8 But here is Paul 's contradiction all over again. If members of other faiths (or no faiths) are already picking up on this grace (and John Cobb and Schubert Ogden are quick to admit it), then how “decisive” is Jesus? Besides this, it is ironically apparent that the “revelation” about grace, divine process, etc., treasured by Ogden and Cobb has much more to do with Whitehead than Jesus anyway, no matter how much ventriloquistic skill is used to make it appear otherwise.9 So if we are concerned with revelation, we must ask again, “What’s new in Christianity?" God’s grace? Openness to the future? These are indeed “good news" in all the religions in which they occur, but certainly Christians have no corner on this market. The irony is that they have both claimed and denied that they do, as the apologetic need of the moment may have dictated.
The question of a new revelation leads naturally to that of a “new salvation,” especially since the revelation is supposed to be a revelation of salvation. And nothing could be more obvious than that the New Testament writers believed they had seen the fulfillment of the words “Behold I will do a new thing.” (Isaiah 43:19). One specific example would be Luke’s text in Acts 13:39, “It is through him that everyone who has faith is acquitted of everything for which there was no acquittal under the Law of Moses." Or see the argument of the entire Epistle to the Hebrews. Salvation is new. The cross of Christ has effected salvation. "He hath opened heaven's door" as the old carol has it.
But this assurance is qualified already within the New Testament itself. Paul admits that God had been forgiving people long before anyone ever heard of Jesus (Romans 3:25-26). He overlooked sins in the past, he forgives them now, but what's the difference? Again we find in I Peter 1:20 that Christ was "marked out before the foundation of the world, but made manifest in these last days." Similarly Revelation 13:8 characterizes Christ as "slain from the foundation of the world." Here we seem to have the idea that the death of Christ is the temporal manifestation of an eternal state of salvific affairs.
Presumably this real qualification of the claim for newness of salvation in Christ went unnoticed by the New Testament Christians themselves. Clearly the shift was motivated by the desire to allow for the salvation of Old Testament believers, and to affirm that (unlike the teaching of the Moonies) Christ's atoning death was not some unforeseen "Plan B," but rather God's eternal purpose. But then in what sense is it new?
Sure enough, modern Christian thinkers have had to deal with the same issue. As one might suspect, the problems that motivate their thinking are a bit different. Basically liberal theologians, having repudiated supernaturalism as mythological, are sorely embarrassed by the notion that God may have "acted" in history in so literal a way as actually to have effected some metaphysical change over a "BC/AD” divide. In the works of Schubert Ogden, Maurice Wiles, Gordon Kaufman and others, miracles are defined not as concrete events occurring at the initiative of a personal God, but rather as natural events which fortuitously “disclose” the transcendent dimension of reality.10 And this dimension (ontologically static) could hardly be said to change because of Calvary. Thus moral influence theories of the atonement are preferred. Wiles frankly admits; this.11 D. M. Baillie speaks of the Cross revealing the ever-forgiving nature of God.12 Paul Tillich speaks of a revelation of the eternal participation of Unconditioned Being-itself in the vicissitudes of finite existence, the knowledge of which may effect a change in us.13 So we are back to the “re-presentation” view of Ogden, referred to earlier. And one must ask if on these terms the atonement has not been compromised, as has been alleged historically with regard to “influence” theories. Has not Christ become one more prophet of salvation, rather than a savior? If so, “What's new in Christianity?” There are plenty of other messengers of God's judgment, forgiveness, and salvation. And each of them in his or her way is unique.
So what's new? Certainly not the set of qualifications and contradictions we have been considering. In fact, we have found striking parallels between their ancient and modern versions. Perhaps what we have really seen is one more instance of the problem of new wine and old skins not mixing very well. In this case, the new wine is the desire of liberal theologians to face reality square on, including historical criticism and comparative religion; the old skin is the historic tendency toward triumphalism and breast-beating. 1£ modern religious thinkers want to emulate, e.g., Paul's proclamation of "a new thing," they should stop emulating his desperate search for a pedigree. They should stop trying to hold onto the old claims of uniqueness and superiority and instead plainly admit that Christian symbols of faith in God articulate the faith in transcendence and grace experienced equally and symbolized differently in other religions. Christian faith cannot truly claim a new creation, a new revelation, or a new salvation. Why can it not be content to share with other people of faith their common creation, with all its problems and joys; their common revelation, with all its valuable symbols and “re-presentations;" and its common salvation, with all its varied experiences and confessions?
l. William Wrede, The Messianic Secret (Greenwood, South Carolina: Attic Press, Inc., 1971).
2 Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958), p. 32.
3. Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964).
4. See, for instance, John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1975), p. 200.
5. "From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving." Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967), p. 16.
6. Schoeps, of course, sees the Torah as the embodiment of God's promise of grace to Abraham, and not as the antitypical bracketing of it, a la Paul. Paul, Schoeps shows, was led to the erroneous latter conception because of subtle translation shifts in the Septuagint. In the Greek text, torah (faithful covenant) had become nomos (inflexible legal dicta), and this is where Paul is said to have gone astray. Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Paul, the Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974).
7. We may cite as representative in this regard A. M. Hunter in his book A Pattern for Living (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1974).
8. See, for example, Schubert Ogden, Christ without Myth (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1979), p. 144.
9. For Process Christologians, "Christhood" involves primarily the vehicularity of one individual in communicating that understanding of reality which most clearly reflects God's purposes in the world. See David Ray Griffin, A Process Christology, or John Cobb's Christ in a Pluralistic Age. The problem here is that, if anyone is the primary candidate for this role in a Process perspective, it is surely not Jesus but Alfred North Whitehead, through whom the Process perspective has been "revealed" to us.
10. See Ogden, The Reality of God (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977), pp. 182-183; Maurice Wiles, The Remaking of Christian Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), p. 38; Kaufman, God the Problem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 143.
11. Wiles, Remaking, pp. 79ff.
12. D. M. Baillie, God Was in Christ (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), pp. 19lff.
13. Pau1 Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 175.