Review of Ogden’s On Theology

by John M. Frame

[Originally Published in Westminster Theological Journal 50:1 (Spring, 1988), 157-165. Used by permission.]

A Review Article on Schubert M. Ogden: On Theology. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986. 160. $19.95.


Schubert Ogden has been over the years a well-known advocate of Bultmann’s demythologizing,1 of process theology,2 and (despite some meta-theological reservations) of liberation theology.3 In the present volume he presents his ideas on the nature of theology and some related topics by gathering together eight essays previously published between 1971 and 1982.4

It is perhaps best to approach Ogden’s concept of theology by first taking note of other concepts which, in his view, theology presupposes: existential faith, revelation, religion, religious studies, and philosophy.

Existential Faith: Living beings, he says, have a sort of instinctive confidence that their environment is favorable to their struggles to live and reproduce: what Santayana called “animal faith” (pp. 70, 106). On the human level, this animal faith becomes “more or less self-conscious.” “Thus it has been well said that a human being not only lives his or her life but also leads it” (p. 70). Human existence as such, therefore, is grounded in faith. Reason is “faith seeking understanding.” All human reflective thought is ultimately grounded in this existential faith, which itself “neither needs justification nor can ever be justified” (p. 72). To say this, however, is not to say that existential faith is necessarily authentic or true (pp. 72, 107f). While we cannot question our basic confidence that life is worth living, we the tragedies of life “drive us beyond any simple understanding” of that faith (p. 108).

Revelation: Because On Theology consists of independent essays, it is not always clear how the concepts of one are related to those of another. There is an essay “On Revelation,” but it does not discuss the relation of revelation to existential faith, nor do the essays which deal with existential faith. However, I gather that Ogden sees existential faith as a response to a kind of divine revelation (“original” or “natural” revelation): “the original event that is constitutive not only of Christian existence but also of human existence in general or simply as such” (p. 25). God is omnipresent and therefore immanent in all the reality thus constituted. Knowledge of God is thus involved in knowledge of the world and in all self-understanding (pp. 22-28), and God is, evidently, the object of existential faith. I would assume, however, that for Ogdenone may have existential faith, however, without being conscious that God is its object.

Religion: Various religions, indeed, interpret the object of existential faith in different ways, producing various “answers” to the “question” posed by existential faith. They seek, that is, to make sense of our basic confidence in reality in the context of tragedy. Religions may include symbols, rituals, doctrines, etc. Significantly, they may also appeal to “special revelations,” to various historical events, persons, experiences, rites by which they claim a knowledge of the divine distinctive to that religion. Christianity makes such a claim for Christ. Following Bultmann, Ogden construes that claim as adding no new content to general revelation, but adding only a new event in the life of the individual, creating in him a new authenticity, an “authentic possibility of ‘faith working through love…'” (p. 44). To Ogden, as to Bultmann, what Jesus says is not new, but that he says it, and says it now (p. 44).

Religious Studies: This discipline reflects on the religions (pp. 105ff). Psychology, sociology and history also study them, but religious studies studies them specifically as answers to the questions posed by existential faith (p. 114).

Philosophy: The philosopher reflects upon existential faith (p. 73). Its core is metaphysics, which studies being in general and those fundamental forms of being, the self, the world, and God (p. 77). Its “transcendental method” raises to full self-consciousness the “basic beliefs that are the necessary conditions of the possibility of our existing or understanding at all” (p. 77). The question of God is the most fundamental of philosophical questions (p. 81, quoting Hartshorne). Proof of God’s existence can come only through metaphysics (p. 82).

Philosophy also has the responsibility of assessing the credentials of purported revelations (p. 84). It must determine what is true and false about those revelation-claims, including the Christian claims concerning Christ.

Theology: Now we come to theology as such, which takes several forms, according to Ogden. There is “philosophical” theology, which is essentially philosophy in its work of reflecting on existential faith, determining whether God exists, assessing the various candidates for revelation. Then there are the theologies of the various religions, one of which is “Christian theology.” Ogden defines Christian theology as “the fully reflective understanding of the Christian witness of faith as decisive for human existence” (p. 1).

Christian theology, in turn, is divided into historical (or “descriptive”), systematic (or “constructive”) and practical theologies, though each, Ogden says, involves the others (p. 8; cf. pp. 121-128). Historical theology includes exegetical theology as a special case. It asks “What has the Christian faith already been as decisive for human existence?” (p. 8, cf. p. 124). As historical theology is oriented toward the past, systematics is oriented toward the present, asking “What is the Christian witness of faith as decisive for human existence?” (p. 10, emphasis mine). Practical theology is future oriented, asking “What should the Christian witness of faith now become as decisive for human existence?” (p. 13, emphasis mine). (At this point, Ogden opens some doors toward liberation theology: see pp. 94-101, 134-150)

Ogden faces squarely the important question of theology’s criteria of truth. Theological statements, he says, may be judged according to their “appropriateness” or according to their “credibility.” “Appropriateness” means representing “the same understanding of faith as represented in the ‘datum discourse’ of normative Christian witness” (p. 4). That “datum discourse” is not the Bible, but the “apostolic witness” determined through historical-critical study of the Bible (pp. 45-68). Still Ogden does concede that the Christian revelation has a historical starting point the sense of a definitive collection of symbols which theology seeks to interpret (p. 5).

“Credibility,” however, is a different issue. It is the question of whether the doctrines in question are true. No religious authority, whether the Bible or the “apostolic witness” or whatever, can be the ultimate criterion of credibility. Rather, credibility can be established only by the criteria used by philosophy, history, the sciences. Indeed, the most often repeated point in the book is that theology has no “special criteria” of truth different from philosophy, science, history and other disciplines. (See pp. 8, 10, 84, 87, 90f, 103f, 140; also the interesting quote from Coleridge on p. xi). Some of his arguments:

(1) Ogden thinks that the early church was correct in using the criterion of apostolicity to determine the extent of the canon, though they made historical errors in applying this criterion. Therefore, the canon is subordinate as an authority to the higher criterion of apostolicity (p. 140; cf. Pp. 52-57).

(2) All authority in the church is relative except the supreme authority of Christ himself (pp. 49-52).

(3) Scripture is not identical to the Word of Christ, or even with the apostolic witness. The apostolic witness can only be determined by historical-critical study, by seeking to uncover the earliest form-critical stratum (Marxsen’s “Jesus-kerygma”; pp. 62-68).5

(4) The Christian claim is addressed to all human beings, and thus must appeal to universal norms, not to “special criteria” (p. 87).

(5) If Christianity is to make good its claim to be decisively important for all human life, it must appeal, not just to the Christian tradition, but to all the evidence available (p. 87).

(6) Since Christianity claims to be true, it must allow itself to be subject to general criteria of meaningfulness and truth (pp. 90-91): “…the ultimate criteria for the truth of any claim can only be our common human experience and reason” (p. 140).

(7) One cannot establish Christianity as the answer to man’s existential question without constructing a theistic metaphysics (p. 92).

The second most frequent point in the book is Ogden’s assertion that personal faith is not a condition for theological understanding (pp. 17f, 103ff, 115, 130, 138). A theologian must be willing to ask the religious question, but not necessarily to accept the Christian answer (however difficult it may be to separate the two, pp.18f., 112).6 He argues that personal faith cannot be adequately tested to serve such a function (pp. 17f) and that such a principle would mean that no unbeliever can understand Christianity (p. 18). Liberation theology, with which Ogden is generally sympathetic, errs in demanding a prior commitment to a Christian liberation program before one can properly do theological work (pp. 138ff), though it rightly calls Christians to be involved in such liberating praxis.

Should theology, so conceived, be part of the university curriculum? Philosophical theology yes, says Ogden; also yes to historical or descriptive Christian theology. Constructive or systematic Christian theology, he thinks, has a place in a distinctively Christian university, but not in a non-Christian one (pp. 121-133). I confess I had a hard time following him here, possibly because I tend to lose interest in this topic. But I don’t see how on Ogden’s basis one can make a meaningful distinction between a Christian and a non-Christian university, since Christianity employs in his view no “special criteria.” Further, I do not understand how systematic theology, as Ogden defines it, should be excluded from a non-Christian university setting. His argument here is that the Christian religion cannot be presupposed “as a necessary condition of the possibility of any but a specifically Christian university.” But since when has the university curriculum ever been limited to studies expounding the necessary conditions of the possibility of the university? Does the university presuppose French Literature as a necessary condition of its possibility? I suspect Ogden has an answer somewhere to this question, but his point does not come out clearly as it stands.

Such unclarity is rather exceptional in the book. On the whole, Ogden writes lucidly. His arguments are tightly constructed and cogent, for the most part, granted his premises. The premises, however, are often questionable, and I suppose my biggest disappointment in the book was that Ogden rarely even seems aware of the most serious kinds of questions that can be raised against them. Of course the questions I have in mind come from the standpoint of orthodox theology, and it is plain that Ogden has so little sympathy with that standpoint that he is entirely out of touch with it. Like Bultmann, he seems to believe that the course of intellectual, cultural and technological history has made it impossible for twentieth century man to accept Christian orthodoxy without intellectual ignorance, stupidity or dishonesty. Well, that view has often been stated dogmatically, but the case has never been made with any cogency. Boiled down, it amounts to the view that one must never believe anything unfashionable; a proposition at odds both with Scripture and with the great Socratic tradition of western rational thought.

To prove that orthodox Christianity should be respected is beyond the scope of this review! But the reader will perhaps permit some responses to the theses of On Theology. Ogden’s doctrine of existential faith and natural revelation is, I think, insightful. He does insist with Paul in Rom. 1 that all people know God, and he does stress with other scriptures that God is present in every fact of creation and history, including man himself. It is also right to say that everyone lives by faith, however much that faith may be distorted by sin (cf. p. 107). However, I am not clear as to what role this concept plays in his overall epistemology.Ogden sometimes gives the impression that existential faith is the “bedrock,” the ultimate resort, the presupposition. However, he also says that existential faith is fallible, that it can be inauthentic and untrue. Apparently his view is that existential faith is incorrigible in its basic optimism, its basic commitment to the value of existence, but that its specific ways of formulating and defending that optimism are corrigible. But then what criteria are available for evaluating those “specific ways?” His answer is that since there are no “special criteria,” those criteria must be those of human intellectual disciplines: philosophy, history, science, etc. But there are no settled criteria of knowledge in those fields. Indeed, matters of epistemology in all areas of knowledge are enormously controversial. Ogden’s discussion does nothing to resolve any of these controversies. Surely Ogden himself is aware of them, but one wouldn’t know even that from reading On Theology. And it is not clear, therefore, what good it does us epistemologically to learn about “existential faith.” Apparently that faith is just one more datum to be examined critically by philosophy except that, perhaps, it excludes undue pessimism.7

Moving beyond the concept of existential faith to Ogden’s views of philosophy and theology as such, I find the latter to be distorted by a dogmatic adherence to Bultmannian biblical criticism and by some by some more misconceptions about the nature of authority, criteria, and the relation of these to faith. I shall not try here to address the questions about biblical criticism, but only the broader questions about authority.

First, it is true that Scripture is warranted by Christ and, in one sense, by the apostles. But that fact in itself does not make Scripture a subordinate standard in any meaningful sense. For it may be argued that both Christ and the apostles intended to establish Scripture, not as a relative standard, but as an infallible and absolute rule for the church. That is certainly the prima facie intent, at least, of the classic texts on biblical authority such as II Tim. 3:16 and II Pet. 1:19-21, and it is certainly what would be expected on the covenantal understanding of Scripture presented, say, in Deut. 31:24-29.

Second, I am sympathetic with Ogden’s rejection of “special criteria,” but I would establish this rejection on an entirely different basis and thus draw very different conclusions from it. There are no special criteria for theology because God intends, not only theology, but all human thinking, to be governed by his Word. Therefore, to reject special criteria does not necessitate subservience to non-Christian intellectual fashions (without, indeed, any recognition of their problematic character!), as on Ogden’s view; rather, it enables the Christian to stand boldly and claim the whole intellectual enterprise, indeed all of human life, for Christ. We can therefore agree with Ogden that we need a metaphysics to prove God’s existence; but that metaphysics will have to be a Christian metaphysics, itself subject to God’s word and therefore not in bondage to any human fashion. How impoverished this book is, since it does not even consider the possibility that our God is Lord over all human knowledge! Ogden himself is to be pitied, overwhelmed by the modern intellectual fashions to such an extent that he must bow to every wind of doctrine (existentialism, process thought, liberationism) and is entirely unable to speak God’s Word into the situation of modern scholarship.

Third, I would agree with Ogden that personal faith is not a condition for theological understanding, if by that is meant that unbelievers do often state the truth “in spite of themselves,” as Van Til used to say. And it is true that one’s heart-allegiance to Christ is not something that can be tested objectively. Still, we must reckon, as Ogden does not, with the profound distortions in theological understanding that result from unbelief (Cf. I Cor. 2:14). And there are relatively objective ways, not of testing heart-commitment, but of judging the credibility of a profession (cf. I John 4:1-6). It would, therefore, be foolish for the church (or even the university) to entrust its theological teaching to those who show no evidence of allegiance to Christ.

Ogden’s book, therefore, is a book with some insight and some good arguments, granted his dogmatic adherence to the liberal tradition. But for those of us who seek to do theology under the Lordship of Christ rather than in bondage to human traditions, it will have to be dismissed as mostly irrelevant.

It was once the case that liberal theologians could simply ignore orthodox scholarship and arguments without much risk, at least without much earthly risk. “Academic respectability” as then understood permitted, indeed required such dismissing of the orthodox case. That situation may be changing. Evangelicalism has been gaining numbers and cultural influence, while liberal theology has been losing in both respects. Evangelical scholarship is also improving in amount and quality, on any fair analysis. In time, I believe, economics alone (if not a renewed application of academic fairness) will demand the presence of evangelicals on university religion faculties, perhaps even on now-liberal theological seminary faculties. In such an atmosphere, liberal theology will no longer be able to afford the luxury of ignoring the arguments of those who make the strongest case against their theories. Those liberals who take that challenge seriously may wind up changing their views; or they may be seen by future historians as the founders of a new, revived sort of liberalism which remarkably held its own against the evangelical tide. We don’t know what the future will bring, of course. But I am reasonably confident that the sort of liberalism Ogden represents– self-satisfied, complacent, ignoring its biggest challenges– will be left in the dustbin of history, despite the substantial intelligence and scholarship with which (as in Ogden’s case) it is presented. And, of course, even if my conjectures about the future of theology should prove erroneous, there is still eternity before us. And, Ogden to the contrary, we know that the eternal future belongs to those who are faithful to the inerrant word of God.


1 Ogden, Christ Without Myth (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961).

2 Ogden, The Reality of God and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).

3 Ogden, Faith and Freedom: Toward a Theology of Liberation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979. See also essay #8 of the present volume, pp. 134-150.

4 The titles of these may be of interest, since I do not discuss the articles individually in the review: “What is Theology?” (1-21), “On Revelation” (22-44), “The Authority of Scripture for Theology” (45-68), “The Task of Philosophical Theology” (69-93), “Prolegomena to Practical Theology” (94-101), “Theology and Religious Studies: Their Difference and the Difference it Makes” (102-120), “Theology in the University” (121-133),  “The Concept of a Theology of Liberation: Must Christian Theology Today Be So Conceived?” (134-150).

5 Recall our earlier observation that, for Ogden, exegetical theology is a special case of historical theology. That is to say, it tells us how Christian faith has been decisive for human existence in the past, not how it is decisive for us today.

6 His qualifications here are rather unclear. He says that in some sense the answer is implicit in the question, yet also insists on separating the two for purposes of the present point. More certainly needs to be said about how the two are and are not separable. On 113, his point seems merely to be that the existential question is never fully answered. But if that is the point, then all theologians would be in the same boat; there could be no distinction between those who accept and do not accept the Christian answer, because no theologian could be said to accept the answer. There would be no answer to accept! But on 18f something else seems to be in view.

7 Robert Schuller will doubtless be relieved.


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