During the first semester of DeWolf’s Seminar in Systematic Theology, students were required to give a twenty-to-thirty-minute oral report on a religious journal, chosen from a list of twelve journals compiled by DeWolf, and to submit a one-page typed review. In preparation for the review King had contacted his former Crozer professor Morton S. Enslin, editor of the Crozer Quarterly. In his summary King uses some of the information Enslin provided and comments on an article by his former professor, George W. Davis.1 King reveals a dissatisfaction with liberalism’s doctrine of man: “Any theology which does not have an adequate anthropology is not worth the name.” King’s analysis of Davis was considerably longer in the draft of this report (see below, note 2); he shortened his critique to meet length limitations.
Dr. Davis begins his challeging article with the affirmation that Christianity is a religion of depth. By depth as here employed, he means that Christianity breaks through the surface phenomena of reality, bringing an apprehension of what lies beyond these phenomena. He admits that Christianity has its surface and subsurface phenomena, but interest in these must never obscure the significance of depth phenomena. Liberalism, with its emphasis on higher criticism, important as this emphasis is, has devoted much to the surface and subsurface factors to the complete concealment of the depth phenomena originally responsible for biblical religion. If liberalism is to produce anything more than a secular and surface arrangement of intellectual propositions, it must explore and recognize the depths in Christianity. Some of the depths in Christianity which liberalism must recognize are: (1) The Moral foundations of Reality, (2) Spiritual Control, (3) Specific Action, i.e. the faith that specific divine action for human redemption occurred in Jesus of Nazareth, (4) Continuing Divine Concern and Human Opportunity. Can liberal theology, now on the defensive, experience a rebirth? Dr. Davis feels that it can if it takes full cognizance of the depths of the Christian faith.
Critical Comment: I feel that Dr. Davis is grappling with a profound problem and one that all liberals should take cognizance of. It seems to me, however, that Dr. Davis fails to even mention one aspect of a theology of depth which is all important namely, the doctrine of man. Any theology which does not have an adequate anthropology is not worth the name. It is essentially at this point that liberalism has been criticised for being all too shallow. How Dr. Davis could overlook the significance of an adequate anthropology in a theology of depth is quite incomprehensible to me.2
1. See Morton Scott Enslin to King, 26 October 1951, p. 59 in this volume.
2. King’s rough draft provides a fuller expression of his thinking about Davis: “In this article Dr. Davis is grappling with a profound problem. Indeed it is one that all liberals should take cognizance of. No true Christian thinker can fail to see the necessity of delving to the depths of the Christian faith. Yet Dr. Davis is right in affirming that liberalism has all to[o] often been overly concerned with the surface and subsurface phenomena of the Christian faith to the total exclusion of the depth phenomena. Neo-orthodox theologians have reminded us, on every hand, of [liberalism’s] appalling failure at this point. Reinhold [Niebuhr,] probably more than any other thinker in America, has stressed the need of a ‘dimension of depth,’ transcending nature, transcending history, if ethical action here and now is to be sustained by a faith that touches absolute bottom. But such a criticism was expected to come from neo-orthodox circles. Now that the same plea for a dimension of depth comes from a man who is an avowed liberal, makes this article all the more significant.
“Yet even though Dr. Davis’ article is a significant and necessary one, I must confess that he fails to go the limit in calling liberalism back to a theology of depth. He fails to even mention one aspect of a theology of depth which seems to me all important, viz., the doctrine of man. Any theology which does not have an [adequate] anthropology is not worthy of the name. I’m sure that Dr. Davis, after such a brilliant analysis, would not be so naive or optimistic as to believe that liberalism has always been depthful in its doctrine of man. It is essentially at this point that liberalism has been criticised for being all [too] shallow. Who can doubt that the criticism has been warranted? There is a strong tendency in liberal Protestantism toward [sentimentality] about man. Man who has come so far in wisdom and [decency] may be expected to go much further as his methods of attaining and applying knowledge are improved. Although such ethical religion is humane and its vision a lofty one, it has obvious shortcomings. This particular sort of optimism has been discredited by the brutal logic of events. Instead of assured progress in wisdom and decency man faces the ever present possibility of swift relapse not merely to animalism but into such calculated cruelty as no other animal can practice.
“Maybe man is more of a sinner than liberals are willing to admit. I realize that the sinfullness of man is often over-emphasized by some Neo orthodox theologians, but at least we must admit that many of the ills in the world are due to plain sin. The tendency on the part of some liberal theologians to see sin as a mere ‘lag of nature’ which will be progressively eliminated as man climbs the evolutionary ladder seems to me perilous. I will readily agree that that many of man’s shortcomings are due to natural necessities, but ignorance and finiteness and hampering circumstances, and the pressure of animal [impulse], are all insufficient to account for many of man’s shortcomings. We have to recognize that man has misused his kingly prerogative as a social animal by making others bear the burden of his selfishness. This seems to be an important aspect of any depth theology” (Draft, “Crozer Quarterly,” 12 December 1951, MLKP-MBU: Box 114). The last four sentences of the second paragraph also appear in King, “The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr,” April 1953–June 1954, p. 278 in this volume.
MLKP, MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.