May-June 1981 – Union Life Magazine
By Norman Grubb
Q. Does Union life Embrace Existentialism?
A. That depends on what we understand by “existentialism”. My understanding comes from Kierkegaard, who was fiercely combating Hegel’s theories of self-improvement as the ultimate goal of the individual. Kierkegaard called him down to earth by saying, “Let’s talk in terms of practical existence, not vague idealism.” And then he proceeded to shock Denmark awake with his two books Either-Or, which exposed not only the basic rottenness of the hedonistic life, but also the so-called morality of the “ethical” life. His conclusion is that “Before God we are all wrong.” He then shows that there can be no human bridge over the gulf of our wrongness which separates us from God, and he introduces the rational “absurdity” of the Infinite God taking finite form in His Son, who makes a sufficient atonement for us. Here is where Kierkegaard made famous the phrase “the leap of faith” (which he borrowed from the philosopher Lessing). For Kierkegaard it is a leap of faith beyond reason, on the authority of God’s word, into our acceptance by God and justification by grace through Jesus Christ. And to this basic “existential” leap of faith, which he would even call the “absurdity of faith” (because it is beyond reason) I thoroughly align myself. Yes, on Kierkegaard’s terms, I am an existentialist.
But since Kierkegaard’s days, other unbelieving philosophers, led by Heidegger and consummated we may say in Jean Paul Sartre, have prostituted the meaning of the leap, saying that it is a leap into anything which we will name as our belief (or Unbelief) and attach ourselves to. Thus Sartre pitifully dies with his leap boldly declared as into death as the end of all. Curiously the present Christian world seems to have caught on to that interpretation of the leap as true existentialism, and thus made it a dirty word to Christians, and some even accuse Kierkegaard of misusing the term. They had best re-read that magnificent interpreter of evangelical faith. I am proud to remain an existentialist of the original brand!
Q. Are you Neo-Orthodox?
A. It almost makes me laugh to think that such a question could be asked of us ardent Bible-believers! But again I think I know why, though this may have a more personal source.
The term neo-orthodox was coined by the liberal theologians and preachers of Germany when one of their supposed liberal ministers produced his famous Romerbrief. That was Karl Barth’s “Epistle to the Romans.” Because of the shocks of World War I and the unrest in what had been a comparatively peaceful world, and under the strong influence of Kierkegaard, Barth radically changed his liberal position and produced this commentary on Romans, verse by verse. It not only adhered faithfully to the letter as written, but gave to his liberal colleagues an explosive new interpretation of the “wholly other God” (a favourite term of Barth’s). It proclaimed the total revealed gospel of our redemption through his Son, incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended, and so sent hundreds of ministers, with little gospel in their understanding or messages, back to the Christ of the Bible. For Barth, the God of Romans was only approachable through the atoning sacrifice of His Son and the inner witness of the Spirit in response to faith. I have personally received such benefit and insights through Barth’s Romerbrief that I have read it many times. I delight in it, and said so in my autobiography, Once Caught, No Escape.
But is it also a fact that, though I never found it in his Romerbrief, Barth did not believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures in the same total sense that we do? He admitted the possibility of Scripture containing elements of human thought. And it was this which brought out the new term “neo-orthodoxy.” For this reason, we of the evangelical world have always disassociated ourselves from neo-orthodoxy. Through neo-orthodoxy some liberals came some way back to Scripture truth and to the preaching of Christ in His atoning sacrifice as the only Savior, but they doubted the validity of certain passages of Scripture. As they grew in strength and numbers, it was necessary that we evangelicals make our disagreement known. Strong books were written, such as Van Til’s, exposing the dangers to us Bible-believers of neo-orthodoxy, and that meant naming Barth as the originator. Therefore, I presume the only reason we in Union Life have ever had the new-orthodox label attached to us is that I approve of Barth’s Romerbrief. I have always received great benefits from rescuing valuable babies from soapy bathwater, though I find no soap in that Romans book!
Q. Are you Pantheists?
A. Again the answer depends on how we define pantheism. From the Greek I had in my English schooling, I remember that “pan” is the neuter case in Greek for “everything,” and of course theism relates to “Theo” (God).
In that sense it is ridiculous that any reader of a Union Life article could think that we who so totally center all in the Living Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we know the Father by the Spirit, could conceive of God as a thing, or as “everything!” Surely we give no grounds for any such suspicion. Rather we would actually say that by this definition of pantheism, every human not born again is a pantheist. Before we enter into a living relationship with the Father through the Son, our “god” is some kind of “thing,” whether that “thing” is our own fallen selves, or some earthly god, or possibly even our “religion.” All the unredeemed are pantheists, for some thing is god to them, some form of the “everything.”
But some people get nervous and even call us “pantheists” because we do believe in God as Spirit (John 11:24) as the Invisible One manifested by His visible forms (Rom. 1:20), as He who “fills heaven and earth” (Jer. 23:24), and as finally known by His universe as “All in all” (and thus known now by faith in His eternal changelessness). These are the terms commonly used of Him: omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. He is love, light, power, and thus He must be everywhere. So in those realities we see Him and speak about Him as manifested in all His forms: the “Beyond in the midst,” the transcendent in the Immanent, the Vine expressed through the branches, the Head expressed through the body. The “whole human race lives and moves and has its being in God” (Acts 17:28). The pantheists would see Him as the forms; we see Him in them. We therefore come under the category of being “panentheists,” the all-important little Greek preposition en in that phrase meaning in. He in everything, not He everything.
A simple illustration is our human selves. We as persons are “spirits” contained in our bodies. No one mistakes us for our bodies! But because of our strong emphasis on God being manifested in all His creation, and because we call ourselves “see-throughers” rather than “see-aters,” it is inevitable that some non-understanding people will falsely label us as pantheists. Indeed we are in such union with Him that we are called by Jesus “the light of the world.” But He is that light in our form.
Q. Do you believe in the inerrancy of the Bible?
A. That’s easy to answer: Yes! But there is this recurring problem of definition or more detailed explanation. That is why I don’t really like to get involved in these leading questions which are not framed in biblical terms. We so easily slip into the words and phrases, distractions which Paul several times warned Timothy to avoid. But having been asked the question, here is the answer.
Yes, but the only final inerrancy can be in the Scriptures originally given. And of course we don’t have them. We depend on translations or copies. This may give an excuse, if any want one, to raise questions about inerrancy. I don’t because I seek to be “existentialist.” In other words: Let’s be practical and down-to-earth.
Now I had to come down to earth to the very last word myself, because I had the privilege of spending the Twenties in the Congo, translating the New Testament into the market language of that area of north-eastern Congo, called Bangala. My brother-in-law, Alfred Buxton, had produced the first primer and made a partial translation of New Testament passages. I had time available and gave myself to producing the complete translations (as well as some parts of the Old Testament and Psalms). To do this I used my King James Version and my knowledge of Greek. Because of my years of study at public school and at Cambridge I could take back each phrase to the Greek. By these means I found completely all I needed to produce this translation. (To my joy, since the Congo became independent and adopted the name Zaire, this Bangala dialect, now called Lingala, is the official language of the whole nation, and the translation of the whole Bible has long been completed.)
But my point is that there is certainly sufficient “inerrancy” in our versions for all practical purposes, and in no place is any vital truth in doubt. Certainly there are variant readings and some few passages in question as to their real meaning, but except for linguists or theologians called to explore the most detailed accuracy, we can and do boldly say, “Yes, our Scriptures are inerrant.” And we are wise to concentrate our undivided attention on what the Spirit is saying through the Word, not on questions about the possible accuracy of one word or another. Let the Scriptures be what we hold them to be in our Union Life fellowship, and what Jesus said they are: “spirit and life.” And let us avoid those who remain in the “letter that kills.” Thank God for a totally reliable Scripture, revealing to us a totally reliable Lord Jesus Christ with the Father and Spirit.