Review of Kaufman’s Systematic Theology

by John M. Frame

[Published in Westminster Theological Journal 32:1 (Nov., 1969), 119-124. Used by Permission.]


Gordon D. Kaufman: Systematic TheologyA Historicist Perspective. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968. xvii, 543. $8.95. Published in Westminster Theological Journal 32:1 (Nov., 1969), 119-124. Used by Permission.


Well, regardless of what we may have hoped or feared, the great twentieth-century age of systems is not over! We have another one now to buy for our libraries, this time thanks to the Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School.

The best thing about this system is its unpretentiousness. Its format seems geared toward helpfulness rather than impressiveness—a rare

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quality in a magnum opus, and in this reviewer’s estimation (pardon the paradox!) a most impressive one. The type is more often large than small, the quotations are all in English, the footnotes and references are always to the point, and the author seems to have resisted the temptation to develop a distinctive jargon. On the debit side, however, Kaufman’s theology is nonetheless somewhat jargon-laden. While not developing his own technical terminology, he has a tendency to incorporate into his thought all the slogans of recent theologians, with less critical discernment than his own principles might lead one to expect. This quirk gives the whole volume a somewhat eclectic tone, rather exasperating to those of us who find these slogans confusing enough in their natural contexts without Kaufman’s tossing them all together in one theological bag.

The “system,” however, is actually much more unified than this “tone” would suggest. The unifying principle is a certain methodological proposal of the category-revision type. Category-revision has preoccupied theologians (orthodox as well as liberal) since Kant taught us the importance of studying not only the “external world,” but also ourselves—the thought-forms which we bring to bear upon our experience of “the world.” What sorts of thought-forms are appropriate for our knowledge of God? Must God be thought of in terms of human feelings and intuitions (Schleiermacher), or in the context of the time/eternity contrast (Kierkegaard), or in “personalistic” categories (Buber, Brunner), or as the answer to man’s ontological despair (Tillich)? Should we think of God in “doxological” rather than “causal” categories (Berkouwer)? Such questions are important, but too often are pursued with little clarity of formulation. Consider: (1) “What does it mean to see x in terms of y, or in the context of y, or in y-categories?” (2) “Is there only one way of ‘seeing x in terms of y’ or are there many ways?” (3) “Under what conditions is ‘seeing x as y’ incompatible with ‘seeing x as z’?” (4) “In what ways are 1–3 ‘psychological’, and in what ways can they be called ‘logical’ questions?” Such crucial questions of prolegomena are rarely raised, much less often cogently answered by would-be category revisers. Kaufman too fails to do the requisite logical spadework on this issue, and therefore his category-revision, like most other proposals of this type, lacks clarity and cogency.

Kaufman’s proposal goes like this: He wants us to see the Christian message “in terms of” history (hardly a new proposal, but perhaps here for the first time used as the almost sole basis of a “system”). The use of “history” as such a comprehensive theological rubric has been dealt some severe blows in recent years, notably in James Barr’s Old and New

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in Interpretation (London: SCM Press, 1966, pp. 65ff); and Kaufman’s failure to respond to these discussions renders his proposal somewhat anachronistic, but not entirely lacking in interest.

Kaufman begins by arguing that our “deepest convictions” about the world are not proved but presupposed (Reformed apologists take note!) on the basis of something like faith (pp. 19–21). Since all our living and thinking is “based on” (?) such faith-presuppositions, we do not learn them the way we learn other things. Rather, these perspectives “happen to” us (p. 29); our “web of meaning” (p. 51) is transformed by events. And when we talk about “happenings” and “events,” says Kaufman, we are of course talking about “history.” (Are we?)

For the Christian, Jesus Christ is the “event” which transforms his “web of meaning” (pp. 41ff). All of our life and thought—most of all our theology!—must be “oriented to,” “in terms of,” “in the context of,” (etc.!?) the Christ-event. Kaufman waxes eloquent on the comprehensiveness of the demand for discipleship. Christ illumines every area of life (pp. 73, 79n., 227). As “norm,” “criterion,” “standard,” etc., Christ is set sharply against the “best human judgment” (p. 506). Thus Kaufman often berates contemporary Christians for their lack of real “commitment” (pp. 495ff, 503ff). His exhortation to the theologian is worth quoting:

“In this search for understanding, the ultimate authority of God’s revelatory act over every phase of theological work must not be forgotten. Christian theology is not simply the work of autonomous man thinking whatever he pleases; on the contrary, it is produced when men seek deliberately to subject their thinking to the authority of God’s revelation” (p. 65; cf. pp. 71,83,113f, etc.).

There is a difference, then, between “revelation” and “discovery” (33). Christian thought must, at every point, have a submissive quality. Man doesn’t discover what God must be; God must tell him.

Bold words indeed! But Kaufman is unable to make them stick. His system simply will not allow for a revelation clearly distinguishable from human wisdom, before which all human thought must be submissive. His impression that he has found such a criterion must be attributed to a lack of clarity about the whole issue.

For one thing, Kaufman continually muddies the waters by speaking of the “Christ-event” or “God’s revelatory act” as our “authority” (see above quotation; also pp. 11n., 67, 71, 83,113f, 154, etc.). But an “act” or “event” simply cannot be a “norm” or “authority” in any straightforward sense. No theological conclusions can be deduced from an “event,”

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only from propositions about an event. Further, events don’t tell us what to believe. They don’t ask us to “submit” our wisdom to their own; only persons can do that, by uttering sentences.

What Kaufman really wants to say (and occasionally does say, pp. 11, 22, etc.) is not that an “event” is our authority, but rather that as we study a certain “event” we meet a person who is our authority, namely, God Himself. But this refinement is little help, for Kaufman leaves us entirely baffled as to just what Cod has to say to us. The biblical text is not as such the Word of God (Kaufman, more honest than some theologians at this point, explicitly denies biblical inspiration; cf. pp. 19ff, 63, 66, 69, 130, 263ff, 487ff). Even the words of the historical Jesus, if we could discover them, would not be God’s words; for even Jesus’ words, teachings, ideas must be subject to the criticism of the theological historian (p. 184).

So the old problem remains: how does the theological historian criticize the words, teachings, and ideas of his tradition? What is his “authority”? Kaufman’s next answer appears to be “the image produced in our historical reconstruction” (p. 154n; cf. pp. 69, 331, 405; but cf. also the disclaimer on p. 185n, which is, to my mind, simply the expression of a confusion). But this idea brings us back to the same problem we had with Kaufman’s concept of “event as authority.” For an “image” as such cannot be an “authority” any more than an event can. An image cannot serve as a premise (as a proposition can), nor can it tell us what to believe (as a person can). If we are to derive theological propositions from “images” we need, again, prolegomena: we need a kind of aesthetic hermeneutic which Kaufman fails to supply. After all, as Wittgenstein once pointed out, anything can be an “image” of anything, given the right method of projection. Picture to yourself Jesus on the cross. What theological truths can you “derive” from that “image”? If you are an orthodox Christian, the picture “tells” you that the incarnate Son of God suffered the wrath of God in the place of those sinners whom he came to redeem. If you are Kaufman, the picture will “tell” you that God, inwardly frustrated because of man’s free decisions (p. 409), shows his love by a non-resistant (p. 219) response to man’s autonomy. How do you decide between the two interpretations? Kaufman doesn’t say, but merely repeats his vague admonitions to us to think “in terms of,” “by reference to,” or “in the light of” this image (cf. pp. vii, 23, 60, 65, 72, 76, 255, etc.). Christ is the “clue” (p. 287); but how do you get to be a detective?

In Kaufman’s own mind, this problem is somewhat mitigated, I think,

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by his failure properly to distinguish between “events,” “persons,” and “images.” He constantly uses the term “person-event” to refer to Christ (pp. 9, 26, 61f, 91, 95, 97n, etc.). Now he does offer arguments at various points to show that “personal” and “historical” categories are related in various ways (e.g., pp. 23ff, 329ff). But in his discussions of “authority” he seems to jump from “person-language” to “event-language,” and then again, sometimes, to “image-language,” with little if any appreciation for the distinctiveness of each type of discourse. Put simply, though events and persons are related in various ways, persons are not events and events are not persons. Kaufman’s talk about a “person-event” is not only itself confusing, but also throws a kind of smokescreen around the problem we have been discussing. A “person” can meaningfully be suggested as an “authority”; but in Kaufman’s system, no such “authoritative person” can be found. Kaufman does, however, feel more comfortable in discovering certain “events”; but as we noted an “event” is not a suitable candidate for the role of “authority.” By his odd concept of a “person-event,” therefore, Kaufman tries to have it both ways: the authority of a person with the locatability of an event. But this idea must be written off as a verbal obscuration of a genuine and difficult problem.

So, for the fourth time, how do we find the truth according to Kaufman? Well, as we might expect, here is where the Holy Spirit comes in. The theologian would certainly be frustrated in trying to balance off tradition, Scripture, and his own judgment against one another if the Holy Spirit didn’t inspire the theologian in the present (pp. 70f)! So it turns out that although Scripture isn’t inspired, the theologian is! Although Kaufman’s method is unintelligible, his concepts confused, and his categories unmanageable, at least the Holy Spirit is on his side! Evidently, the Holy Spirit has authorized Kaufman to eliminate the “wrath of God” (pp. 130, 154, 312n, 459n), the virgin birth (pp. 203f, 413) and the physical resurrection (pp. 411ff) from the corpus of theology. The Holy Spirit evidently is now promulgating the view that God is so transcendent he cannot speak to man “directly” (pp. 39, 125, 133n, 159f, 176, etc.) and so immanent that he cannot have certain knowledge of the future (p. 156). (If Kaufman did not realize that these premises, reversed, will generate opposite conclusions, surely the Holy Spirit should have!)

And it is amusing to see in Kaufman’s theology (as in so many others) how “idolatry” always comes out looking like right-wing politics (pp. 370, 374), while “Christian service” comes out looking like left-wing politics (pp. 504f, though this section contains some commendable qualifications).

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We might have thought that the Holy Spirit who taught Kaufman to be a universalist would have made him a bit more evenhanded in his catalogues of virtues and vices.

Kaufman therefore fails to show us any “authority” which addresses us with a genuine call to discipleship. He winds up presenting us with a “Holy Spirit” which sounds suspiciously like the spirit of modern man. For this reason his proposal for category-revision fails, too; for on Kaufman’s basis “history” becomes, after all, more of a problem than an asset. As a matter of fact, in the end, Kaufman bypasses “history” in favor of the contemporary “Spirit.” The theologian may still attempt to “see” things “in terms of” Christ; but the “terms” will be the theologian’s “terms,” not God’s.

Finally, it is our solemn task to warn contemporary theologians that the Holy Spirit is not to be so lightly invoked. The Spirit of God comes to us—not to revise the Gospel so as to make it more credible to modern man—but to testify to the truth and power of the words of Christ and his apostles (John 14:26; 16:13; 1 Cor 2:12–16; 1 Thess 1:5; 1 John 4:1–6). Those who would reject this testimony have no right to invoke the Holy Spirit’s favor, but can await only their own condemnation—by theWord to which the Holy Spirit testifies (John 12:48).

John M. Frame

Westminster Theological Seminary,


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