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Absent from Absolutes?: “Yes and No” – “Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?” – Romans 3:3 – Geneva Bible

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Absent from Absolutes?: “Yes and No”


“Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?”

Romans 3:3 – Geneva Bible

But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay.
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us,
even by me and Silvanus and Timotheus, was not yea and nay,
but in him was yea. For all the promises of God in him are yea,
and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us.
-2 Cor. 1:18-20 KJV-

“If sound reasons are against faith it is wrong to believe
and if not it is wrong not to argue.”

-John H. Gerstner, 1991, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 1:73-



A Day to Remember

The guest lecturer that day was a chain smoker.  Reportedly he had challenged the thesis that a smoker could not be a Christian.  Or was it the other way around–that a Christian could not be a smoker?  As a seminary student, William Orr had challenged his professors at every point until he became convinced that the Christian faith was irrefutable.  On this day a student posed a question:  “Don’t you think that Jesus was trite?”  Our Pittsburgh Seminary guest professor responded, “If there was anything that Jesus of Nazareth was not–it was ‘trite.’  One does not get nailed to a cross for being trite.”

In the History of Philosophy class Dr. Orr’s forty-five minute survey of modern western philosophy, without a note, was brilliant.  Of particular impact was his statement that there was no essential difference between “Christian” existentialism and the atheistic existentialism of a man like Jean Paul Sartre.  To top it off, after Dr. Orr had concluded his lecture, Dr. Avey, who had taught at Ohio State University before joining the faculty of the College of Wooster, and who had written the College Outline Series on the History of Philosophy, rose to his feet and expressed his personal appreciation to Dr. Orr for his excellent analysis of Neo-Orthodox Theology.

At the Heart of Neo-Orthodox Theology

In the disillusionment of “the war to end all wars” the inadequacy of classical Liberalism [1]was all too obvious; consequently Neo-Orthodox Theology rooted in the famous “leap in the dark” concept of faith associated with the Danish Lutheran Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)  began to emerge.  Neo-Orthodox Theology represented an alternative to “Fundamentalism”–a label which Princeton scholar J. Gresham Machen carefully disowned in his classic defense of the faith in Christianity and Liberalism.  Key concepts of Neo-Orthodoxy:  “‘Yes’ and ‘no’ dialectic,” “authentication,” “existential encounter,” and “the courage to be” were associated with such names as Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Paul Tillich.  This writer recalls the neo-orthodox existential thumping of the lectern underscoring the message that the man who confesses “I do not know” is far more of a Christian than the man who affirms “I know.”   The so-called “Fundamentalist” student was apparently supposed to feel ashamed of the assurance he had in his heart!  This was no mere academic matter for a student who by now was joyfully affirming the words of a favorite Inter-Varsity hymn:

But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able

To keep that which I’ve committed Unto him against that day.

These stanzas were not the words of a “know-it-all” or a self-righteous saint; obviously the hymn begins with the very opposite tone:

I know not why God’s wondrous grace To me He hath made known,

Nor why unworthy, Christ in love Redeemed me for his own. [2]

According to the existential mind-set, faith was distinguished by doubt rather than from it.  Yet from a biblical standpoint, doubt or unbelief in the face of God’s redemptive acts is the greatest insult one can pay to Him. [3]  Moral absolutes, as embodied in the Ten Commandments, and doctrinal truths as embodied in the historic confessions, were set aside by the existentialist in deference to the encounter which conceivably could consist of helping a little old lady cross the street, on the one hand, or running that old lady over with one’s automobile on the other. [4]  The all-important thing was to authenticate one’s ontological self by a blind leap in the dark.  From a biblical standpoint, however, this divorced faith from reason and equated it with foolhardiness.

Barth’s dialectical “yes and no” theology is the epitome of existentialism in which reason purportedly has no place. [5]  The irony, as Dr. John H. Gerstner saw it, was that

. . . Barth attempts rationally to justify his anti-rationality in the things of revelation.  He gives reasons for no reasons.  This amounts to reasons for non-rational faith–that is, reasons for faith, in the last analysis.  Barth protests his anti-rationality too much. [6]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Existentialism

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazi Gestapo on April 5, 1943 on the alleged charge of money laundering and attempts to obtain military exemption for pastors.  From his prison cell on June 8, 1944, Bonhoeffer offered his own analysis of existentialism to his longtime friend Eberhad Bethge:

Of course, we now have the secularized offshoots of Christian theology, namely existentialist philosophy and the psychotherapists, who demonstrate to secure, contented, and happy mankind that it is really unhappy and desperate and simply unwilling to admit that it is in a predicament about which it knows nothing, and from which only they can rescue it.  Wherever there is health, strength, security, simplicity, they scent luscious fruit to gnaw at or lay their pernicious eggs in.  They set themselves to drive people to inward despair, and then the game is in their hands.  That is secularized methodism.  And whom does it touch?  A small number of intellectuals, of degenerates who regard themselves as the most important thing in the world, and who therefore like to busy themselves with themselves.  The ordinary man, who spends his everyday life at work and with his family, and of course with all kinds of diversions, is not affected.  He has neither the time nor the inclination to concern himself with his existential despair, or to regard his perhaps modest share of happiness as a trial, a trouble, or a calamity. [7]

And to think that this statement came from the son of Germany’s foremost practitioner and professor of psychiatry and neurology [8] who taught and required his eight children to epitomize reason and precision of thought and expression! [9]

Notwithstanding Bonhoeffer’s personal friendship with Karl Barth, and his signing on to the Barmen Declaration –the faith statement of the German Confessing Church of which Barth was the principal author, [10] the imprisoned pastor acknowledged in the same letter,

The Confessing Church has now largely forgotten all about the Barthian approach, and has lapsed from positivism into conservative restoration.  The important thing about that church is that it carries on the great concepts of Christian theology; but it seems as if doing this is gradually just about exhausting it. [11]

Bonhoeffer’s biographer summed up the imprisoned pastor’s thoughts on Karl Barth as follows:

For Bonhoeffer, there is no reality apart from God and no goodness apart from him.  All pretense to that effect is Barth’s pejorative notion of religion, a scheme to subvert God altogether and make a fallen humanistic path to heaven alone.  It is Barth’s Tower of Babel, and it is the fig leaf that tries to fool God but fails. [12]

As for Paul Tillich, Bonhoeffer wrote,

Tillich set out to interpret the evolution of the world (against its will) in a religious sense – to give it its shape through religion.  That was brave of him, but the world unseated him and went on by itself; but it felt that it was completely misunderstood, and rejected the imputation. [13]

Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945–two weeks before the Allies arrived.

Life After Bonhoeffer

That “small number of intellectuals” to whom existentialism appealed, in the analysis of Bonhoeffer, would expand so as to infiltrate and capture the thinking of American colleges and seminaries, and through their graduates, to affect the mainline Protestant denominations of America.  Biblically committed evangelical pastors have been marginalized, and required either to comply by way of compromise, operate clandestinely, or leave the denomination as being out-of-step with the modern church.

Barth’s voluminous Church Dogmatics, in the judgment of Mennonite evangelist Dr. Myron Augsburger, represented “Christological universalism” whereby a person could not go to hell even if he wanted to–so universal in scope was the salvation purchased by Christ as regarded by Barth. [14]  G. C. Berkouwer observed the same problem in his scholarly study entitled The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth.  It is noteworthy that Berkower had been critical of Cornelius Van Til’s critique of Barth on the ground that Van Til had based his conclusions, not solely on the statements of Barth, but upon what he considered the implications of those statements. [15]

The Confession of 1967 adopted by the United Presbyterian Church in the USA was characterized by neo-orthodox theology.   As the Westminster Standards were set aside in deference to a collection of historic confessions which would serve as a guide to the denomination but would not specifically bind it, the UPUSA [now the PCUSA] thereby became a confessional denomination, as distinct from a creedal denomination. [16]  A heresy trial thereafter would be practically impossible. Clearly, or not so clearly, the Confession of 1967 would become the new focus shaping the ordination vows for pastors and ruling elders.    We now witness unprecedented doctrinal and moral decline in America’s mainline denominations, and (it goes without saying) in society-at-large: accommodation of sexual perversion, widespread indifference regarding biblically-defined male-female roles in the church, the destruction and redefinition of marriage and family, and the imposition of “political correctness” through the media whereby the law of God, as defined biblically, is now regarded as a threat to democratic society under the guise of ever-expanding “hate” laws. [17]

We would do well to return to the well-reasoned theology of the Frenchman Jean Calvin whose Institutes of the Christian Religion, confessionally embodied in the Westminster Standards, arguably constituted the post-apostolic doctrinal high mark of the Church’s catholicity. [18]  Further, we would do well to check out the major treatises of “the first American  philosopher” [19]–the renowned 18th-century pastor of the Northampton church and most outstanding spokesman associated with what Harvard’s Perry Miller called “America’s first colonial event”–the 18th century Great Awakening.  A re-examination of our roots is always in order.  Of course, the Bible itself, consisting of sixty-six books, “breathed out” by the Living God Himself into the minds and hearts of the apostles and prophets, will set us straight if we will but receive it, in the whole and in the part, considering everything in its proper order and context–the Church’s only infallible rule of faith and practice–to be prayerfully studied, meditated upon, proclaimed, and applied, first of all to our own lives as individuals, families, and congregations–and then to the world at large.



[1]. For a discussion of classical Liberalism, the reader is referred to Article 1 in this series.

[2]. Daniel W. Whittle, “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace,” Hymns: Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Inter-Varsity Press 1952, p. 59.

[3]. Psa. 78:21-2; Rom. 3:1-3; 9:30-33; Heb. 10:38-39

[4]. Francis Schaeffer has an excellent discussion of modern existentialism in chapter nine of his book How Should We Then Live?.

[5]. See John H. Gerstner’s excellent discussion of Barth’s rejection of reason in Volume I of The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, pp.70-73

[6]. John H. Gerstner, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 1:72

[7]. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “To Eberhad Bethge,” [Tegel] June 8, 1944, Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 326-327

[8]. Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p. 13

[9]. Metaxas, pp. 14-15

[10]. Metaxas, p. 61

[11]. Bonhoeffer, Letters From Prison, p. 328

[12]. Metaxas, p.469

[13]. Letters From Prison, p. 327

[14]. In the early 1960s, Dr. Myron Augsburger, the President of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, conducted a series of evangelistic meetings in Orrville, Ohio.


[16]. This was the analysis of  the esteemed San Anselmo Professor of Church History, Dr. Clifford Drury who taught the class on Presbyterian History and Polity at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1967.

[17]. Daniel 6:5

[18]. Jaroslav Pelikan in The Riddle of Roman Catholicism stated, “. . . the Reformation began because the reformers were too catholic in the midst of a church that had forgotten its catholicity.”

[19]. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, p. 365



Beckwith, Paul, ed.  Hymns: Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Inter-Varsity Press 1952

G. C. Berkouwer, 1956.  The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth: An Introduction and Critical Appraisal.

Bethge, Eberhard. ed. 1953 [1971] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers From Prison: Now Greatly Enlarged. SCM Press, Ltd. New York: MacMillen Publishing Company.

Brand, David C. 1991.  Profile of the Last Puritan: Jonathan Edwards, Self-Love, and the Dawn of the Beatific.  American Academy of Religion Academy Series, edited by Susan Thistlewaite. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Bruce, F. F. 1961. The English Bible: A history of translations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Calvin, John. 1960. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed., John T. McNeill. 2 vols. The Library of Christian Classics. Vols. 21 & 22. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Drury, Clifford. 1967. Presbyterian History and Polity Course. Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA. Class Notes.

Durant, Will. 1926 [1961] The Story of Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster

Geneva Bible. 1560.

Gerstner, John H. 1991. The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson

Pelikan, Jaroslav. 1959. The Riddle of Roman Catholicism : its history, its beliefs, its future. New York: Abingdon Press.

Schaeffer, Francis A. 1976. How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.

The Holy Bible. 1611 Edition. King James Version. New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


About the Writer

David Clark Brand is a retired pastor and educator with missionary experience in Korea and Arizona.  He and his wife reside in Wooster, Ohio.  They have four grown children and seven  grandchildren.  With a B.A. in the Liberal Arts, an M. Div., and a Th.M. in Church History, Dave continues to enjoy study and writing.  One of his books, a contextual study of the life and thought of Jonathan Edwards, was published by the American Academy of Religion via Scholars Press in Atlanta.



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