Henry Sloane Coffin is one of the most delightful writers that I have ever read, similar to George Buttrick. There is something about that generation. In the excerpt below, Coffin offers an illustration for our knowledge of God, using “great authors” as an analogy for God’s self-disclosure. In Coffin’s day, personalism was a favorite means to articulate the Christian faith. Emil Brunner was perhaps its greatest exponent in systematic theology.


To know God — what a presumptuous statement! In what sense is it possible? Knowledge of anything depends upon some fitness in us to the object to be known. The same vibrations of ether are to the skin heat, and to the eye light. The same vibrations of the air are to the body an imperceptible tremor and to the ear sound. We have to develop the organ which equips us to interpret anything and to understand it. And this is emphatically so of our knowledge of persons. An English critic some years ago said: “To understand some writers we must change our planet and wait patiently till we are acclimatized.” Great authors as a rule have to educate a public to appreciate them, and often they wait years, perhaps until they themselves are dead, to be prized and understood. We can all think of books that meant nothing to us once. We wondered why anyone praised them. But we have since grown up to them, and have come back to them with eagerness. Life’s experiences have developed in us the capacities to interpret what was once lost upon us. It is often said that no hero is a hero to his valet. That is not because the hero is no hero, but because the valet is a valet.

[Joy in Believing, ed. Walter Russell Bowie, pp. 58-59.]

As with any analogy, it can be criticized. God is not just a very eloquent novelist, waiting for our maturation. There is a necessary dialectical otherness that is missing, but that is the risk of all analogies.

As some of you may remember, I blogged an excerpt from Coffin previously: “Faith Without Apologetics.”


Image: Reformation Bible College

Faith Without Apologetics

August 26, 2014


The defense of the faith (apologetics) along evidentiary or rational lines is not entirely without merit. It can serve a certain negative role, as in the way historical Jesus research can rule-out patently false postulates. To use Sarah Coakley’s examples,

Thus, for instance, if a self-proclaimed Christian believer avers that Jesus was not a Jew (a denial on which so much hung in the twentieth century), or if she insists that Jesus tells her that being obedient to him should rightly result in worldly influence and financial success (a supposition not absent from certain forms of twenty-first-century spirituality), we may appropriately object, not only on intra-Christian biblical ground, but also on historical grounds that this cannot be the same Jesus who lived and taught and walked about and was crucified in Palestine at a known period in the first century C.E.” (Seeking the Identity of Jesus, eds. Gaventa and Hays, p. 312)

Coakley is speaking to the broader usage and legitimacy of historical argumentation, not apologetics directly, but I believe the principle applies there as well. The purpose of her essay, which is brilliant, is to move past the exegetical impasse represented by the Bultmann/Käsemann debates of the 1950’s. But that is not the purpose of this post.

As with any basically competent student of Barth, I have spent considerable time negotiating the value of apologetics and the legitimacy of historical “foundations,” to the extent that is even allowed. Not happy with the metaphysical collapse into existentialism, the presumed last safeguard for Christian faith within much of twentieth-century theology (culminating at the popular level with the “death of God” controversy of the 1960’s — watch this documentary — and continuing today among self-styled radical/apocalyptic types), I am nonetheless convinced that theology is much better without apologetics on the front end. This pertains to the whole “freedom” and “joy” of theology, which are sure watchwords for an approaching Barthian!

Apologetics frequently belies an anxiety at the subjective level and a profound diminishment of God at the objective level. I have touched upon these matters in the past, in a piecemeal fashion, but I won’t argue the point at present, for the simple reason that I do not have the time. Let me just offer these reflections from Henry Sloane Coffin:

To us likewise the prophet [Isaiah] would say that a burdensome religion is a false religion; that a god whom we conceive in doctrines which we force ourselves to believe and which we struggle to safeguard, with whom we have fellowship in forms we must spur themselves to keep up, and whom we serve in duties our consciences strap on their reluctant backs, is a man-made idol, not the living and true Lord, of heaven and earth. Religion that is a load is not comradeship with the Most High God. Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you. The test by which one may discover whether he is dealing with an idol or with the living God is this: Do you feel yourself carrying your religion, or is it carrying you? Is it a weight or wings?

A Christian’s beliefs are not ideas which he compels his intellect to accept; they are convictions — ideas which grip and hold him. They seem to come with hands and arms and to grasp his reason; he is aware of being lifted and carried along by them. The Truth takes him off his feet, and he is conscious of resting on it, rather than on ground of his own choosing.

[Joy in Believing, ed. Walter Russell Bowie, pp. 8-9]

Beautiful. “Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you.”


Image: “Feeling Cheeky” by Olivia Bell. I wanted an image to capture the joy of theology, so I went with this! Do check-out her other work. It’s great.