One of the great benefits of my job is the duty of conducting searches for various patrons of the Historical Center. While looking for an article that one patron needed, I came across this jewel — originally a sermon or chapel address, perhaps? — by Professor Harold B. Kuhn of Asbury Seminary, back in 1945.
Many are asking right now, “How did we get here? How did we come to such a place.” Read his insightful analysis. It becomes obvious that we still haven’t learned the bitter lesson.
The Old Paths
Harold B. Kuhn
Professor, Asbury Seminary
[excerpted from The Calvin Forum XI.3 (October 1945): 41-43. Emphasis added.]
JEREMIAH, burdened with the wickedness of both church and state, proclaimed the Word of the Lord to his generation to be as follows: “Ask for the old paths where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16.) As every true Christian reformer must do, he called his people back to a revealed standard. The prophetic voice demanded then as now, an obedient commitment to the proposition of a final and definitive Revelation. For us it requires a belief in a completed and closed canon of Scripture, unto which we are duty bound to call the loyalties of men.
It may be stated as a proposition, that Sacred Scripture is not venerated specifically by reason of age. Nothing is of value simply because it is old; but our age has grievously and viciously erred in its rejection of the old simply because it is old. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been marked by an unwarranted contempt for that which is of long standing, and by a foolish eagerness for the novel and the untried. This tendency has manifested itself in nearly all of the areas of our culture.
In music and art, the canons of Classicism have been rudely thrust aside: the cultural arts are henceforth no more to reflect those elements worthy of emphasis — but rather, they were to be “realistic,” which is another way of saying that our music and art should portray the selected ugliness of human life. In literature, the modern objective seems to be, not the inculcation of “the good, the true, and the beautiful” but to rake out of the muck of human sordidness those elements which will attract attention, and (incidentally) sell a “book of the month.” To canvass the titles of the current “best sellers” is to invite despair.
Conventional standards of morality have likewise been thrown to the wind by deliberate intent. A “new freedom” was offered to a generation already bewildered by the First World War. Those standards of decency and chastity which were accepted as social norms for centuries (frequently imperfectly embodied, but recognized nevertheless) were cast aside. The resources of the press, the screen, and latterly the radio, were marshalled to cast contempt upon Christian ideals, caricatured as mid-Victorian.
The same tendency was carried into the theological thought of the “modern” age. Under the guise of liberalism, that which was formerly treated as infidelity and (even) atheism, slithered into the religious life of our nation. The Bible came to be treated as a book of mere antiquarian interest. The heavy artillery of an unregenerate religious scholarship was trained upon the Scriptures. The view of the Scriptures as divinely inspired, and therefore as finally authoritative in human life and experience, was replaced by an attempt to “square the Bible with the conceptions of modern science” and to bring the Christian message into harmony with the conceptions of modern secular culture.
Now, some liberal scholars pretend that the discoveries of recent decades have made belief in the Bible impossible; and among them have been found those who, with apparent pathos, have suggested that they have been forced to abandon faith in the Scriptures. In point of fact, it has not occurred that way at all; rather, our modern age has assumed a priori, that is, in the nature of things, that a supernatural revelation is impossible. It is not uncharitable to suggest that this assumption is a by-product of a deep-seated unwillingness to be governed by the dictates of Revelation.
Thus the real issue between Christianity and Liberalism is not whether this or that particular point in Scripture is worthy of credence, but rather: Is Christianity a supernaturally-revealed system, or not? To this the “modern” age has replied with an unwarranted NO. With this as a point of departure, the Scriptures have been distorted and/or mutilated to fit a theory.
This prompts the observation that almost the entire structure of modern philosophy (i.e. the Continental thought from Descartes to the present, with its offshoots in the Anglo-American world) has gone wrong, and its work will have to be done over. The errors of philosophy have been carried into theology — being in many cases magnified and intensified there. The net result is that Systematic Theology has been largely superseded by Philosophy of Religion, which in many cases contains less rather than more of religion. Much modern religious philosophy is so attenuated and watered down as to be scarcely recognizable as religion.
What is the net result of this? Modern thought has produced a prodigy called THE MODERN MAN, to whom the basic Biblical tenets of revelation, sin, redemption, final judgment and a future life are simply irrelevant. He will, in most cases at least not the preaching of such doctrines, but rather will say that they have no meaning whatsoever to him! This Modern Man is a scorched-over pragmatist, a relativist in morals, and completely cavalier with respect to eternal things.
The Philosophy of Naziism
The objective of this abandonment of all that is old for some “new thing” was to have been the creation of a society without inhibitions, free from restraining conventions, and hence at liberty to proceed nobly and steadily toward a Golden Age. But the scheme has backfired. A ruthless man with a mania for power, from the slums of Austria, seized upon the worst features of liberal thought, constructed from its worst exponents a system, and implemented his evil designs with an army from among the frustrated elements of a defeated Germany, and proceeded to build a New Order!
Until fairly recently, it was the fashion to consider the present war but another “capitalistic struggle for markets” and fascism as merely “the last stand of a dying capitalism.” The realities of the situation, especially as they are being uncovered within a collapsing Germany, support the view which many thoughtful persons have long held: that the German leader set out deliberately and seriously to completely break the continuity between past and present — to achieve a frank severance between the ideals of Christian civilization and the “new order.” In this respect, the Nazis reflected the passionate devotion of religious liberals for the new.
Hitler announced at the outbreak of the present struggle: “We are living at the end of reason; the sovereignty of thought — that pathological degradation of normal life and consciousness — is an invention of the Jews!” (Quoted in Library Journal, May 1, 1944, p. 384.) The monstrosity called Naziism may fairly be termed the logical and inevitable outcome of the thought of Germany during the last 150 years. Nothing new has been put into the temperament of Central Europe during the past two decades. Rather, the National Socialists have merely made a logical and specialized application of the principles of “modernity”—that is, that which humanism visualizes the entire race as becoming, the now collapsed German government proposed to achieve through the master-race. In accomplishing this, the accepted standards of decency, chastity, and common humanity are to be replaced with standards which are useful to the cause of the greater Reich. Even in the hour of Germany’s death-agony, its leaders called upon their subjects to discard all conventions moderating war as “no longer serviceable.”
We must not assume that many in Germany have not inwardly revolted at this subversion of all that is decent, in the attempt to achieve a New Order. Wagner makes Loge cry to the lamenting Rhine-maidens: “If the gold gleams no longer upon you, then bask in the gods’ augmented grandeur!” And the events which transpired before the recent collapse indicate that many in Germany who normally would have in better times risen in revulsion upon the abandonment of every principle of honor, virtue and decency, have been satisfied with the promises of world-dominion and of a greater Reich. As the dragon which Germany became in her lust for the New Order has felt the sword of the Siegfried of the United States, it is high time that Christian men and women pondered the causes underlying the tragedy which now reached its climax.
God or Chaos?
It is the conviction of many, that the present world chaos is the direct and inevitable result of the abandonment of the theistic postulate, and the substitution of the postulates of humanism as the basis for the world structure. This interpretation takes for granted the belief that national and world events have basic causes in ideologies and philosophical trends, which are far more significant than any economic or social causes. Before our eyes is being proved the falsity of the banal platitude, that “it does not matter what a man believes, so long as he is sincere in it.”
Assuming the foregoing, it is impossible to view the spread of Liberal Theology otherwise than with the most grave concern. Implicit in “modernism” are the same evil germs which have found political expression in the tragic events of the past decade and more particularly, in the catastrophe since September, 1939. This is another way of saying, that given the abandonment of the belief in the supernatural, there is no limit to the possibilities of human degradation and human misery. For, we repeat, the attempt at a “new order” in Europe is intimately related to the whole pattern of twentieth century thought, which looks with supreme disdain upon Revelation as old, and which seeks to break the historic continuity between Bible-believing Christianity and the new “World Faith.”
It follows that the complete crushing of Junkerism, and the reduction of the Axis nations to a point of complete dependence for survival upon the more responsible Anglo-American power, will not solve the problems of our day. Apart from the possibility that Prussianism may rise again as a political entity, there remains the fact that wars do not defeat ideas and remove intellectual and spiritual infection. The downfall of Naziism will create a vacuum in central Europe into which something must rush, and it is doubtful whether Europe yet possesses sufficient spiritual resources to rebuild herself. As for her conquerors, victory begets pride and self-sufficiency, which is scarcely calculated to infuse a new grip upon God and the realities of the Faith into the veins of a sick and paralyzed land of the vanquished.
More tragic still is that America hugs closely to its breast those principles which have found historical expression in the present agony. Our nominal Church life still bears a contempt for that which is old and which has been revered as authoritative; it grasps unreasoningly, at whatever parades as new; it has a studied disdain for the principles of supernaturally-revealed Christianity. The hope of Western civilization lies in a forthright and complete abandonment of the premises of modern religious thought, and a return to a belief in the authority of the Holy Scriptures. There must be rebuilt a faith in the literal accuracy and the definitive authority of the Two Testaments. This will involve a revision of the entire thought-structure of our age, in harmony with a true and vital supernaturalism.
This supernaturalism centers in the chief feature of the Christian world-view: Did, or did not, God enter the human scene in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ? It was to this that the Law and the Prophets looked. In time it was this which marked the consummation of centuries of preparation. It was concerning this (the incarnation with all that it involved, and centering in His vicarious death) that the Apostles wrote to complete the Christian canon. The old paths are thus paths of perennial relevance. If God, in Jesus Christ, became flesh and dwelt among us, and gave Himself a ransom for sin, then the whole question of the Incarnation and of Redemption transcends time; and only in an accommodated sense can the Scriptures be termed ‘old.’ But we shall have to accommodate ourselves to the sluggishness of human thought. Jeremiah’s task is thus our task: we, as messengers of the Lord, are to beseech men to “ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein!” It is there and there alone that men of the twentieth century shall find rest to their souls.