Volume 11 - Issue 1

A taproot of radicalism

By Paul Helm

Biblical theologians are sometimes puzzled by the radical attacks made by assumedly Christian theologians upon the evidential value of the words and work of Jesus presented in the New Testament. While they can readily appreciate the views of those who argue, on textual and historical grounds, that this or that particular miracle story is inauthentic, even though they may not share those views, they find it almost incredible that scholars should refuse to take the New Testament documents seriously, at face value. For it seems as if such scholars are flying in the face of a lot of evidence. If the New Testament contained an account of only one miracle, or of one event which ought reasonably to be interpreted as a miracle, one could understand a certain scepticism. But who could responsibly reject all the data?

Facts and interpretations

Various theories have been offered to explain this state of affairs by people who deplore it. For some it is a conspiracy to subvert the faith. For others it is the result of baseless speculation. For others still it is the latest slither down the slippery slope, a slide which began a century or more ago, while for others it is a case of theologians trying to snatch the headlines. For any of these claims to be persuasive it would be necessary to produce some facts which only they account for. But are there such facts? Is there any evidence, for instance, that in the last hundred years first one tenet of the faith and then another has been denied because the first has been denied, with cumulative effect?

Even if there were such confirmatory evidence it would still rather miss the point, just as it misses the point to say that such radicalism is ‘out of date’. For the question is not whether radical theologians have motives for their radicalism, but whether they have reasons for it, reasons that will stand up to scrutiny and that will constrain objective enquirers to join them. Whether the radical is reluctant or eager, whether he works with ill-will or good-will—these are irrelevant considerations for someone who wants to know whether or not he ought to be a radical.

So the attitude which rejects radicalism because it allegedly flies in the face of the evidence of the New Testament, though widespread, is naïve.

It is understandable that a Christian theological student, immersed in the details of his study of the New Testament, should not be able to see much beyond these details. But he is wrong not to do so, and particularly wrong if what he is ultimately trying to do is to integrate the fruits of his study into responsible Christian confession and witness.

In terms of a familiar distinction, between data and theory, or between facts and interpretation, the narratives of the Gospels may be thought of as the data or facts. (Of course these facts, because they are in the form of words and clauses and sentences, are the result of lexical and grammatical interpretation, but this can be taken for granted in what follows.) The theological student’s bewilderment at the wholesale dismissal of the miraculous in the New Testament by theologians and others may arise from a failure to see that this rejection is not simply a denial of the factual character of certain events on the grounds, say, that there are discrepant accounts of them, but a denial of certain facts because of certain theories about such facts which are already held.

Suppose that Mrs Smith is accused of witchcraft or sorcery. Some may wonder whether or not the evidence to support this accusation is good. What exactly did she do? Who saw her? What effect did her actions have? But another might say: Mrs Smith could not have been a witch because there are no witches. He might agree that she acted like one, and thought she was one, and that her actions had serious effects. But how could she have been a witch, since there are none? (Compare the defence by the town-clerk of Ephesus of Diana-worship in Acts 19:35–36.) The objection here is not on the grounds that the facts are inadequate to support the conclusion, but to the very idea of such a conclusion.

To say that facts are interpreted in the light of theories is not at all to suggest that those who hold the theories have no reasons for holding them, that it is a matter of blind dogmatism, a leap of faith. Unfortunately the impression is sometimes given that these matters are always a matter of blind faith by a careless use of the word ‘presupposition’. ‘It’s all a matter of their presuppositions’, as though ‘presuppositions’ are mysterious, secret, unchallengeable things.

To simplify somewhat, it can be said that there are three main theories of the miraculous in the New Testament. The first theory holds that such events, divine acts in history, unprecedented acts of the Creator upon and within his creation, are possible and that the only question for the responsible New Testament scholar to answer is whether they in fact occurred. The second theory holds that such events could have occurred but that the evidence that they did not is always greater than the evidence that they did. The third theory is that such events could not have occurred.

It is the third theory which is important here. Clearly if a person holds such a theory then, faced with the New Testament narratives, he must interpret them non-miraculously. But why should anyone hold such a theory?

Kantian theology

There is one dominant pattern of argument in Western culture for the conclusion that miracles cannot happen. The argument has the following form:

  1. Miracles are, by definition, acts of God.
  2. To suppose that God acts is to suppose something which no human mind could know.
  3. Therefore no person can know that an event is a miraculous act of God.

The reason for this conclusion is not that there is not enough evidence to conclude that a miracle has occurred. If it were a matter of not having enough evidence then perhaps more could be gained, or at least there could be dispute over whether the evidence which there is is sufficient. Rather, the reasoning has to do with the limits of the human mind, limits which, it is claimed, cannot in the very nature of the case be overcome.

What are those alleged limits? Chiefly, that any individual thing about which people claim to know anything must be a possible object of our experience, and anything which is a possible object of experience lies within the boundaries of space and time. Hence we can never properly think of, form concepts of, God, since to do so would take us beyond the necessary boundaries of our experience. To put the point slightly differently, the only kind of God conceivable by us is one falling within space and time, a purely anthropomorphic God. But God is by definition not in space or time. He is therefore ‘beyond all the knowledge which we can attain within the world’.

This is Immanuel Kant’s argument. The whole basis of Kant’s philosophy is a criticism of metaphysics, of the idea that through reason, or revelation, it is possible to gain some knowledge of the nature of things. Metaphysical enquiry, according to Kant, generates antinomies, sets of conflicting arguments which all seem equally valid. Thus, for instance, our intellectual enquiries require us to think that the universe has a beginning in time and is a bounded space and at the same time that the universe is infinite in time and space. Such antinomies are generated because the human mind is so structured as to be capable of experiencing things only in terms of their appearances, never as things-in-themselves. We are required by our experience to postulate things-in-themselves, but they are never known in experience. The idea that we might know things-in-themselves is an illusion of thought through which we mistake the regulative requirements of our thinking for objects of knowledge.

Kant applies this to human thought about God. God is unknowable and yet his existence is required, particularly (according to Kant) by the nature of morality. The moral law (which is not, for Kant, the law of God but a law which rational, autonomous agents ‘legislate’ (i.e. will) for themselves) requires the idea of God as the rewarder of virtue and the punisher of vice. Only on such a supposition is morality made intelligible, for only God could ensure the connection between virtue and happiness. Thus, though human beings cannot know God, they are required by the nature of morality to postulate his existence.

Kant’s book Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1792–3) is in essence the application of this critical philosophy to Christianity considered as a historical religion. According to Christianity God makes himself known and makes known what he requires of men and what he has done for men through Scripture. Kant turns this claim upside down. For him morality is in no sense derived from religion or theology, rather morality (understood in purely secular terms) requires theology, and the theological texts of Christianity, especially the New Testament, are to be interpreted, or rather re-interpreted, in the light of Kant’s critical philosophy and rational morality. As John Kemp has put it, Kant

has no use for such Christian concepts as grace, salvation, and the service of God except in so far as they are given a moral interpretation: the service of God consists in leading a morally good life, not in rites and observances, and grace and salvation are earned by moral goodness and nothing else—Kant will have no truck with the doctrine of justification by faith.1

It is not that Kant thinks the New Testament does not teach the doctrine of justification by faith. Rather, since that doctrine is based upon unacceptable epistemological and moral assumptions, it cannot be the truth.

The influence of Kant’s view upon subsequent theology, particularly continental Protestant theology, can hardly be exaggerated. It had two major consequences. One was to make impossible or irrelevant the programme of natural theology, that of proving the existence of God from reason or nature. The other was to make impossible the idea that any source whatever—Bible or miracle—could provide us with revelation, with the knowledge of God.

So much for the negative and destructive side of Kant’s proposal. But Kant was not an atheist. What did he propose? Although God cannot be known, and hence nothing can be a revelation of him, yet God’s existence can and must be postulated, for God’s existence is a requirement of morality. Without the idea of a summum bonum, the idea of God as the rewarder of virtue and the punisher of vice, there could be no morality.

These two ideas, that there can be no knowledge of God but that the idea of God is regulative, have set the agenda for subsequent Protestant theology. Religion is not the bounden allegiance to God arising from his self-disclosure, as in orthodox Christian theology, rather it is (for example) the feeling of absolute dependence (Schleiermacher), or it is a life of service embodying the ethics of the kingdom of God to be realized here on earth (Ritschl), or it is the following of Christ whose character is understood exclusively in this-worldly moral terms (Bonhoeffer).2

But what has Kant’s philosophy to do with the study of the New Testament, and particularly the interpretation of the miracles? It is of central importance, for however these accounts are to be interpreted they cannot be interpreted as they stand, as recording the acts of God. Some other way must be found to interpret them, or they must be abandoned altogether.

Furthermore, according to Kant there is something improper or unbecoming about a religion which depends upon miracles. This point can be vividly illustrated from the work of Kant himself. In Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone Kant offers a reconstruction of Christianity in line both with his negative attitude to the knowledge of God which has been sketched above, and with the supreme importance he attaches to the morality of duty in accordance with what he calls the moral law. Some samples of his exegesis of the New Testament might be of interest.

First, Kant’s general attitude to Scripture. The interpreter must bring to its interpretation a supreme moral criterion.

The final purpose even of reading these holy scriptures, or of investigating their content, is to make men better; the historical element, which contributes nothing to this end, is something which is in itself quite indifferent, and we can do with it what we like.3

Kant distinguishes between an empirical faith (Christianity in his case) and moral faith (faith understood in accordance with his own ideas of autonomous reason).

If such an empirical faith, which chance, it would seem, has tossed into our hands, is to be united with the basis of a moral faith (be the first an end or merely a means), an exposition of the revelation which has come into our possession is required, that is, a thorough-going interpretation of it in a sense agreeing with the universal practical rules of a religion of pure reason. For the theoretical part of ecclesiastical faith cannot interest us morally if it does not conduce to the performance of all human duties as divine commands (that which constitutes the essence of all religion). Frequently this interpretation may, in the light of the text (of the revelation), appear forced—it may often really be forced; and yet if the text can possibly support it, it must be preferred to a literal interpretation which either contains nothing at all (helpful) to morality or else actually works counter to moral incentives.4

What Kant is in effect proposing here is a hermeneutic of Scripture which is in accordance with his view of what religion is whether or not that hermeneutic does violence to the actual meaning of Scripture. ‘Reason has freed itself, in matters which by their nature ought to be moral and soul-improving, from the weight of a faith forever dependent upon the arbitrary will of the expositors.’5 So Kant affirms as a basic principle of his exegesis that the attempt must be made ‘to discover in Scripture that sense which harmonizes with the most holy teachings of reason’.6

There is therefore no norm of ecclesiastical faith other than Scripture, and no expositor thereof otherthan pure religion of reason and Scriptural scholarship (which deals with the historical aspect of that religion). Of these, the first alone is authentic and valid for the whole world; the second is merely doctrinal, having as its end the transformation of ecclesiastical faith for a given people at a given time into a definite and enduring system.7

It is not surprising to find Kant reconstructing traditional Christian doctrine to suit the ends of pure moral religion. Writing about the virgin birth he says

Yet of what use is all this theory pro or con when it suffices for practical purposes to place before us as a pattern this idea taken as a symbol of mankind raising itself above temptation to evil (and withstanding it victoriously)?8

Since Kant wrote this the application of his basic approach to the critical study of the New Testament has taken one of two different forms which may be called the blanket and the filter applications. The first treats the New Testament as a seamless whole which, since it contains reports of miraculous occurrences and purports to be a revelation of God, is to be reinterpreted wholesale, the whole corpus of the documents being regarded as (for instance) the product of the faith of the early church having a historical basis which is now totally indiscernible. Alternatively, attempts have been made (notably in successive ‘quests’ for the historical Jesus) to filter out of the New Testament writings (particularly the Gospels) those elements which are regarded as mythological or legendary accretions in order to regain what must (it is thought) have been the true, original, unadorned facts of the matter: the career of Jesus the moral teacher, the victim of Pharisaic hypocrisy and of Roman callousness and indifference.

The details of these various programmes do not matter here. What is important is to see that this Kantian philosophical outlook enables the one who holds to it to treat the New Testament, perfectly consistently, in what would otherwise seem to be a dogmatically arbitrary manner. While such an attitude to the New Testament is not dogmatic it is certainly a priori in that the Kantian interpreter brings to the text of the New Testament definite views both about the limits of human knowledge and about the nature of religion as being the embodiment or expression of certain moral and social ideas.

Kantianism and the radicals

The recognition that such a general outlook is widespread in Protestantism, not only on the continent but also in the British Isles, serves to render the views of theologians such as Don Cupitt and the Bishop of Durham more intelligible. When the Bishop spoke, on a notorious occasion, of ‘conjuring tricks with bones’ in connection with the idea of Jesus’ physical body being raised, he was not being facetious nor attempting merely to capture the headlines. He was being consistently Kantian, consistent at least to the extent of saying, with Kant, that the true meaning, or value, or import of the resurrection has essentially nothing to do with a physical body come alive again (because that is contingent, historical and uncertain, and in any case a miracle) but that its true meaning or value is moral or ideal.

While it would be too much to say that the Kantian framework is the only or dominant motif in Bishop Jenkins’ ideas, nevertheless there are key expressions which are characteristic of a Kantian theologian. For instance in the much-publicized Credo programme on British television (29 April 1984) the emphasis falls on

telling miraculous stories because you’ve already had a wonderful belief and I think the virgin birth is like that.… The virgin birth, I’m pretty clear, is a story told after the event in order to express and symbolize a faith that this Jesus was a unique event from God.… What seems to me to have happened is that there was a series of experiences which gradually convinced a growing number of apostles that Jesus had certainly been dead, certainly buried and he wasn’t finished but he was raised up, that is to say, the very life and power and purpose and personality which was in him was actually continuing and was continuing both in the sphere of God and in the sphere of history so that he was a risen and living presence and possibility.

This reading of the text is one that only Kant’s critical philosophy makes possible, yet the centre of gravity for Bishop Jenkins (perhaps not altogether consistently) lies in his unconcern with the miracle stories as historical events (though not with a historical figure called Jesus) rather than in a purely moral faith bereft of any essential historical connections with Jesus. His is a filter, rather than a blanket, approach to the New Testament.

The Kantian influence is more marked in the case of the radical theological views expressed by Don Cupitt.

Theology may be subjectively impossible in that our cognitive powers are limited by the bounds of sense and God must be outside their scope, as Kant taught.9

In a later book, Taking Leave of God,10 Cupitt appears to have moved from a position which stresses negative theology (the idea that it is only possible to say what God is not, not what he is) to one which regards most if not all questions about the objective reality of God as wholly unimportant if not quite misplaced, misplaced because they treat the issue of whether or not God exists as one which can arise outside the context of human spirituality. Nevertheless, the influence of Kant is manifest in the way in which a strong version of the idea of personal moral autonomy governs all else in theology, in Cupitt’s view of spirituality, with its emphasis on disinterestedness and its non-theological, purely formal character, and in the way in which Cupitt attempts to ‘decode’ the divine attributes as aspirations of human spirituality. As part of this project Cupitt emphasizes the bounds of human experience11 and hence the idea that God forms a part of transcendent reality about which we can say nothing,12 for God is ‘altogether unspecifiable’13 and the idea of God is a projection of the human consciousness14 though not, strangely, as a postulate in strict Kantian fashion.15 Cupitt’s proposals here come within a whisker of theological reductionism, though he would probably reject the charge as being yet another attempt to make concern about God ‘objective’, thus taking that concern out of the context of human religion.

In his latest book, Only Human,16 the framework of negative theology is abandoned, for ‘all dogmatic theological beliefs as such, belong to a world that is gone, and now can no more be put to effective use in our own world than can the myths of some exotic tribe’. But the Kantian idea that the world is bounded by our experience ‘and outside it there is nothing at all, not even nothingness’ remains, even though the postulated God of Kant is no more. The result is an attempt to provide a humanistic spirituality.

Insofar as Cupitt’s earlier negative attitude to the knowledge of God has roots in Anglican theology it can be traced to H. L. Mansel17 (1820–1871). Besides being influenced by continental neo-Kantianism, Mansel himself is in the line of earlier Anglicans such as Archbishop King (1650–1729) and Bishop Peter Browne (d. 1735) whose views were rejected by Bishop Berkeley in his Alciphron (1732). While men of this school spoke of human ignorance of God’s faculties as they are ‘in themselves’, their emphasis on the language of theology being regulative rather than cognitive was grounded more in the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God rather than, as with Kant, based on the necessary limitations of the human mind in gaining knowledge of anything. The words of Scripture were treated by them as wholly metaphorical, not as truths but as symbols. But what the language of theology was meant to regulate were the conventional ideas of ‘practical religion’ of eighteenth-century Anglicanism.

Some conclusions

So far it has been argued that much of the current attitude to the miraculous in the New Testament, that which is at the heart of the Christian gospel, can be illuminatingly explained not as carelessness or unconcern over the evidence of the New Testament, but as a conclusion drawn from a set of Kantian premisses about the limits of human knowledge and thus the priority of the moral over the metaphysical in doctrinal constructions or reconstructions of the Christian faith. From this analysis it is possible to draw some conclusions for those who strive to maintain the orthodox Christian view of the gospel in the current theological scene.

It was noted earlier that attitudes to the miraculous in the New Testament are a matter of ‘presupposition‘. From the point of view of argument presuppositions are premisses from which certain conclusions—in this case conclusions about the reports of the miraculous in the New Testament—are drawn. But such premisses are not self-evidently true. The fact that they function as premisses does not give them a status which renders them immune to criticism.18 Not being self-evident, such premisses may either be rejected, or be regarded as conclusions of other arguments with other premisses. There is no process of ‘pure logic’ by means of which the Kantian conclusions which lie at the root of characteristically modern attitudes to the New Testament are inevitably arrived at. The premisses of such conclusions are themselves conclusions which require premisses. Perhaps the pattern of reasoning from premisses to conclusion does not continue indefinitely but every step in the reasoning can be argued over.

Another conclusion to be drawn from the previous discussion is that basic issues in the interpretation of the New Testament are theological issues (or perhaps, better, metaphysical issues). It is possible to engage in a ‘surface’ interpretation of the New Testament, the philological and grammatical construing of the text. But if the results of such interpretation are to gain purchase as truth then necessary as such work is, it is not sufficient. It has to be possible to move outside the circle of such interpretations and counter-interpretations and to use the results to make truth-claims about God binding upon the intellect and the conscience. So for someone to say, ‘I’m not interested in all this theology. Let’s get back to the text of the New Testament’ displays considerable naïvity.

What makes such an attitude naïve is that it supposes that the present situation is one in which the New Testament is barnacled over with theology and that the interpreter must somehow remove or avoid the barnacles and get at the ringing metal of the text. There have been situations in the history of the church when, by and large, this was the correct procedure. It was the correct procedure at the time of the Reformation when, as the Reformers correctly argued, the text of Scripture was hidden by encrustations of tradition. Hence the need for the plain unvarnished exposition of the text of Scripture. And behind this procedure at the time of the Reformation stands Christ’s procedure with the Pharisees.

But this is not the position at present, not at least in those circles heavily influenced by the work of academic theologians in the universities. Here the status of the text itself is an issue, or rather it is an issue which has been very largely settled by a consensus in favour of the Kantian position. It is therefore necessary that anyone who wishes to be properly equipped for the business of using the New Testament theologically, who wishes to answer the question ‘What truth does the New Testament teach today?’, should be equipped not only with the necessary skills in grammatical, philological and literary analysis, but also be aware of the metaphysical setting in which he is endeavouring to research and write.

A third consequence which arises concerns the question of the direction of the education of theological students, particularly those who wish to devote themselves to an understanding of and the propagation of the historical Christian faith today. One’s impression is that students of the text of Scripture are by and large people who have had a training in modern languages or classics, very rarely in philosophy. And those who do have a taste for theological construction tend very often to gravitate towards historical theology or the history of doctrine, the Reformation perhaps, or Puritanism. As a consequence, very few who have a training in philosophy or in a course which has required some philosophy then move into Christian theology, the theology of today, either New Testament theology or systematic theology, and stay there. These are of course only impressions, but are they so inaccurate?

A possible response to radicalism

So far an attempt has been made to offer a way of understanding contemporary ‘radical’ theology, analysing it in terms of the assumptions of Kantianism which have been so prevalent in Protestantism, particularly on the continent, but from time to time, and certainly recently, in the British Isles. Understanding the background of such radicalism is of course important, and such understanding may go a long way to remove the mystique which seems presently to surround writers like Don Cupitt.

But how, it might reasonably be asked, can such an approach be answered? A number of steps must be taken. As regards the Kantian framework of the theology, the weaknesses of Kant’s theory of knowledge need to be explored, both in general, and more particularly as they affect the whole question of the knowability of God. Christian theology has always recognized elements of metaphor and analogy in our talk of God, but has claimed with equal emphasis that it is possible to speak of God with literal sense.19 If that is so then there can be no a priori objection to the idea of God working miracles nor to his acts being known. Thus the a priori objection to the miraculous may be neutralized by counterarguments.

Is it possible to be more positive than this and to provide a philosophical underpinning of the Christian faith that is superior to the Kantian framework? It is a mistake to attempt to offer a philosophical defence of one’s faith. This way lies rationalism, the constraining of faith into a ‘reasonable’ a priori framework. The alternative is to deploy a positive argument for both the historical meaning and truth of Scripture at two levels. It is classically understood that Scripture has held authority over two thousand years of Christians; this understanding has brought peace with God, new hope and moral vision, comfort in bereavement and in approaching dissolution. It has borne the weight of the collective experience of the church. Of course, this could be massive collective deception, but is there any reason to think so?

The second level is more individual and personal. The ‘bottom line’ as regards our attitude to the New Testament, whether as ‘professional’ theologians or ordinary unprofessional believers, is whether that New Testament, understood as conveying the historic message of deliverance from sin through the work of the Divine Saviour, bears the weight of our experience. Not whether it ‘speaks to us’ in some vague way, but whether its detailed message enables us to make sense of our lives.20

A note on books on the philosophy of Kant

Perhaps the best way of gaining an entry into Kant’s philosophy is through two short introductory works with fearsome titles, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783) and Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals(1785). (The best and most accessible translation of the Groundwork, by H. J. Paton, is called The Moral Law.) Only then ought one to graduate to the two Critiques, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone is required reading for intending theologians. Of numerous books on Kant’s philosophy those by John Kemp, The Philosophy of Kant (Oxford, 1968) and Roger Scruton, Kant (Oxford, 1982) are recommended as introductory treatments. Kant’s Analytic(1966) and Kant’s Synthetic (1974), both by Jonathan Bennett, are standard modern critical treatments of Kant’s philosophy from an empiricist standpoint. Kant’s Moral Religion by Allen Wood (1970) is a useful exposition of Kant’s philosophy of religion.

1 The Philosophy of Kant (1968), p. 95.

2 The Kantian framework of Bonhoeffer’s Christology is stressed by Stewart Sutherland in God, Jesus and Belief (Oxford, 1984), pp. 114–120.

3 Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. T. M. Green and H. H. Hudson (New York, 1960), p. 102.

4 Ibid., pp. 100–101.

5 Ibid., p. 122.

6 Ibid., p. 78.

7 Ibid., p. 105.

8 Ibid., p. 75 (footnote).

9 Christ and the Hiddenness of God (London, 1971), p. 29.

10 London, 1980.

11 Ibid., p. 73.

12 Ibid., p. 96.

13 Ibid., p. 13.

14 Ibid., p. 14.

15 Ibid., p. 80.

16 London, 1985.

17 D. Cupitt, ‘Mansel’s Theory of Regulative Truth’ (Journal of Theological Studies, April 1967). See also Part One of Christ and The Hiddenness of God, ‘The Limits of Thought about God’.

18 As an example of such a criticism, Dr Joe Houston has argued (in an as yet unpublished essay) that if the Gospels are regarded as being made-up stories to justify the disciples’ experiences and originally understood as such they could not have had, nor have, a legitimizing function any more than there can be a commonly accepted practice of telling lies. One can only appeal to the past to legitimize the present if one appeals not to a fictitious past but to the past as one believes it to have been.

19 One piece of evidence that this is possible is the rich and varied treatment of the attributes of God in current analytic philosophy of religion (e.g. Richard Swinburne’s The Coherence of Theism)—work which Cupitt regards as being irrelevant because ‘unhistorical’.

20 I have tried to argue for this at greater length than is possible here in ‘Faith, Evidence and the Scriptures’ inScripture and Truth (eds. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge).

Paul Helm

Paul Helm
University of London
London, UK