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Looking Back in the Lutheran Spokesman

From July 1967 —

WHAT IS A THEOLOGIAN? (by sainted Prof. Edmund Reim) — It may seem presumptuous to claim space in our Spokesman or to use up the time of our readers for a simple question to which any dictionary can give a pat answer. Yet this word as well as its companion term, theology, is used so carelessly, even deceptively, in these times, that it may be worthwhile to take another good hard look at the word, and also to the persons to whom it is being applied with such indiscriminate abandon.

The occasion for these reflections is an article in TIME magazine (May 19, 1967) on what it calls “New Views of Heaven and Hell.” It speaks of “many theologians” who are now attempting to “re-define” heaven and hell. It goes on to say, “Most Christian theologians readily agree that eschatology — the doctrine of death and the afterlife — owes more to superstition than to supernatural wisdom.” It quotes an imposing list of writers, three of whom are Catholic, four who are identified only as “Protestant,” one Lutheran, one Methodist, and one a Jewish rabbi. It adds two additional Protestants who declare that they do not know the answer to the problem, who are willing to wait and see. On the other hand it mentions three Catholics, one Protestant, one Methodist, one Calvinist, and one Episcopalian, all of whom think there must be some form of afterlife, but are rather indefinite in what they say about it. The strange thing is that two of these have already been quoted for the other side of the question. But a German Protestant Theologian — name of Dorothee(!) Soelle — caps the climax for vagueness by venturing the opinion that “emphasis on this world means an intensification of the death experience. The new theology says that life is definite, not indefinite, that our chances are limited.”

Taking all these opinions together, they have a wide range, from downright blasphemy (that the doctrine of eternal perdition “makes a demon out of God”) to pitifully feeble attempts to make the concepts of heaven and hell acceptable to the modern mind.

We hold no brief, either for or against any of these writers quoted. The quotations are too short to provide a basis for fair judgment. The context is not available. But we do feel that the time has come to speak out against this indiscriminate and superficial use of the terms applied to these writers. Just what is a “Theologian,” or for that matter, a “Biblical Scholar”? Just what is “Theology”? What is the true meaning of these words? — the dictionary does little more than merely to record the current use of these terms which men have invested with such ill-defined authority. Nor does the Bible offer any quick and ready answer. For neither of these terms, theology or theologian, is to be found in the Bible. They did not come into use with reference to the Christian religion until quite some time after the days of the apostles. But the Bible does have something to say about the afterlife, and when it speaks on this or any other subject, it speaks with full authority. And though it does not use the term, it does tell us what goes into the making of a theologian, if he is to be at all worthy of the name.

In the first of his pastoral letters the Apostle Paul addresses young Timothy in a most solemn manner as a “man of God” (I Tim. 6:11). This expression is used to the Thessalonians. “But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another” (I Thess. 4:9). Here the Greek original compresses the entire idea of being taught by God into one single, compact, and vigorous word, “God-taught.” This is what is needed above all for the making of a true theologian, that he be God-taught. And conversely, every one who is God-taught is by that very fact a theologian, a true man of God. For this, and this alone, is true Biblical scholarship.

Let this be the test we apply to the “theologians” who figure so prominently in the public press, and note how in spite of their public prestige they will fall from their false and shoddy pedestals. For the great majority of those quoted in the article referred to above base their opinions not on Scripture but on reason. They find it unthinkable that there should be such a thing as an eternal punishment, so they call it superstition. They think that the plain words of Scripture must be the language of mythology, so they proceed to de-mythologize the Word according to their own thought and reason — a most treacherous basis, indeed. And instead of letting themselves be God-taught, they undertake to teach God what He should have said in the first place, and how He should have said it. This is the arrogance of the new theology!

As for those who read their pronouncements, awed by their professional status and prestige, taking each successive opinion as it is delivered as the last word, whether it be on the afterlife or on religious matters in general, let them remember that the privilege of speaking the last word belongs to God. And let us be assured that He has already spoken it and given it to men in His prophetic and apostolic revelation. For the true test is still the same as when Isaiah the prophet referred his people to the Word of God, saying, “To the law and the testimony: if they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them” (Is. 8:20).

Let the test be made. And if it be but a child that ventures to challenge the opinion of some internationally known “Biblical Scholar,” if what was said against the rationalizing of that scholar was the simple truth of the Word of God, then it will be the child that is the true Man of God, rather than the other.

Note: All emphases in the original — Ed.