Terminology Tuesday: Death-of-God Theology

DEATH-OF-GOD THEOLOGY. In the mid-1960s, counter-cultural radicalism was echoed in theology as a few thinkers adopted Nietzsche’s slogan, ‘God is dead.’ Thomas J. J. Altizer (b. 1927) argued that God had become fully human in Christ, so as to lose his divine attributes and therefore his divine existence (a sort of extreme kenoticism). William Hamilton (b. 1924), with less claim to theological profundity, said that modern people were no longer able to believe in God, and the church ought therefore to seek to do without him as well. Paul van Buren (b. 1924) followed linguistic philosophers in arguing that the concept of God was ‘cognitively meaningless’, since God’s existence and nature were not verifiable or falsifiable by the methods of science (cf. Logical Positivism).
The death-of-God theology was a minor movement (though it brought great notoriety, briefly, to its authors), but an instructive one: because it underscored the bankruptcy of the liberalism and the weakness of the neo-orthodoxy dominating 20th-century theology. Altizer’s extreme kenoticism had roots in Barth, and Hamilton’s talk about modern man recalls Bultmann. Tillich taught that one may find God by passionately embracing unbelief. (Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’ also influenced the movement, perhaps by the authors’ misuse of Bonhoeffer.) If we agree (with liberalism and neo-orthodoxy) that God is too transcendent to be described in words, or too immanent for his acts and words to be distinguished from those of nature and man, then what do we have but a dead, or nor existent God?
BibliographyT. J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia, 1966); idem and W. Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (New York, 1966); J. Ice and J. Carey, (eds.), The Death of God Debate (Philadelphia, 1967); J. Montgomery, The ‘Is God Dead?’ Controversy (Grand Rapids, MI, 1966); idem and T. J. J. Altizer, The Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue (Chicago, IL, 1967); C. Van Til, Is God Dead? (Philadelphia, 1966).

Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. I. (2000). In New dictionary of theology (electronic ed., pp. 188–189). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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