Commentary Magazine

The Prophetic Faith, by Martin Buber

In the Here and Now
The Prophetic Faith.
By Martin Buber.
Macmillan. 247 pp. $3.75.


Thomas à Kempis wrote: “Every holy writing ought to be read in the same spirit in which it was written.” Our modern era fails to understand the Bible to the degree to which it fails to heed Thomas’s warning.

The Hebrew Bible is a report of a succession of dialogues between God and Israel; the present-day student—formidably armed with philology, archaeology, and other tools of critical research—almost without reflection regards it as a metaphorical account of the “evolution of religious experience,” or—which is worse—religious “ideas.” He does not argue or attempt to prove, but takes it for granted that his categories are correct, and those of the Bible wrong. He forgets that the ability to disentangle historical and literary details is not identical with the ability to perceive the essence of Biblical faith. Let it be added quickly that this is, of course, no argument against Biblical criticism as such; and those apologists of Orthodoxy who occasionally attempt to use specific inadequacies of Biblical criticism as a prop are certainly misguided, if not intellectually dishonest. But it is an argument against the sort of Biblical criticism which is uncritical of itself.

For many decades now, Martin Buber has been a voice crying in the wilderness. Himself fully armed with the tools of Biblical criticism, he has consistently opposed, as a prejudice vicious to the understanding of Biblical faith, any form of “reductionism.” To reduce what the Bible regards as a genuine God-man encounter to such modern categories as a “development of religious theories” or to a “reflection of a social struggle” is a procedure demanded not by scientific method but by intellectual prejudice. In order to understand the Bible, one need not believe that God exists, or that He can reveal Himself, or that He has actually done so; but one must use these beliefs as ultimate, serious, and irreducible working hypotheses, so to speak, while reading the Bible. In other words, one must read it “in the spirit in which it was written.”



Almost twenty-five years ago, Buber wrote: “The Bible—a book made up of books perhaps, yet one book . . . made one by one fundamental theme: the encounter of a community of men with Him who is Nameless.” Since that time, Buber has had no occasion to modify this fundamental insight, and he has applied himself to the task arising from it: the study of the reflections of this encounter in the men who took part in it. To this end the present volume is a notable contribution.

It is significant that Buber is forced to engage in sustained polemic against contemporary beliefs in order to come to grips with the nature of prophetic faith. For obvious reasons, it is tempting to interpret prophetic faith in terms of the gradual evolution of universalistic “ideas.” Viewed by this standard, Amos “approached near to monotheism, but did not actually reach it” (quoted by Buber), Deutero-Isaiah becomes “the first monotheist of Israel,” and such early pieces as the Song of Deborah have presumably not reached the stage of monotheism at all. It is ideas which become progressively “purified,” while other ideas are left behind as “superstitions.”

To apply this standard to the prophets is, we have said, tempting: where, if not among the prophets, has religious universalism reached its grand expression? Yet it is against this standard that Buber revolts: “The old controversy among scholars, whether the Hebrews who wandered from Egypt to Canaan were ‘polytheists’ or ‘monotheists’ . . . is an unreal business.” What is primary in Biblical faith is not that only one God exists, but that only one God has a claim on Israel, a claim exclusive and all-demanding. Biblical man is concerned with God not in detached philosophic speculation, but in inescapable commitment. Looked at in this way, the development of prophetic faith no longer appears as a progress in objective insights, where former views are left behind as false and “superstitious”; it emerges as a vital unity. The exclusive commitment to the One of Israel remains the unaltered reality, and what changes is merely the interpretation and implications of that reality. God’s significance for the flesh-and-blood Jew emerges prior both in time and in essence to His cosmic significance.



Buber thus insists that what he calls the “dialogical” relation between God and Biblical man be taken seriously. In the Bible God really addresses man, then and there. And it it not “man as such” who is addressed: God singles out—Israel in concrete situations and a specific prophet. What makes this relation dialogical is that God’s address demands a free response. It is true, of course, that the prophets insist on a human responsibility which presupposes freedom and is obligated to universal standards. Yet even here, as Buber is able to show, the prophets do not speak of a general obligation to a timeless ideal, but of specific decisions imposed on specific people by specific encounters with the living God. Whether God is eternal is important only derivatively, a subject for later reflection. The immediate certainty is the fact of God’s presence, and the need to fulfill His commandments; what these demands are—the content of His revelation—is no a priori and unchanging certainty.

Modern thinkers tend to reverse the truth. Soft-peddling the prophet’s “Thus saith the Lord,” they transform the content of the message from one spoken for the “here and now” into a timeless ideal. Thus becomes obscured the nature of the decision for which the prophet calls. In the early days of Joshua this is the decision: “You must decide to whom you wish to cleave, to them or to Him; from this moment you are not entitled to think that you can do both together.” Decision here is an absolute risk, on which one must stake one’s whole life. The modernist finds it possible to get rid of this uncomfortable risk when he views prophetism as fulfilled in its “mature” development: is not monotheism achieved, the other gods unmasked as idols? The risk involved in the prophetic message is then no longer the absolute risk of faith involved in the particular decision, but only the moral risk of defending timeless ideals against the relativities of time. This is, of course, respectable enough; the world having always evil in it, he who fully commits himself to a moral ideal is almost always forced to be a hero. But the absolute risk of the earlier age has vanished in this formulation: the protagonist of the timelessly valid ideal always knows, if not that he will succeed, at least that he is right.

Yet, as Buber shows, prophetism even in its most universalistic form still contains an element of the same absolute risk existing in the early days of Joshua. For the prophet does not preach universally valid ideals abstracted from the situation; he speaks in and for the situation, and his demands are addressed to a specific people; and this involves a risk which can escape being tragic by nothing short of faith—the faith in the reality of the God-man encounter. The prophet must have the faith to believe what he “hears.”



Buber comments profoundly on what beyond doubt constitutes the extremity of the prophetic situation: the danger of false prophecy. The decision and the risk now lies in this: what, in a concrete historical situation, is His prophecy? The agony which lies in this question cannot be suspected by those who, minimizing or denying the reality of the Encounter, make of the prophets preachers of universal ideals. The prophets find themselves in possession of no universal standard wholly adequate to distinguish between true and false prophecy. “It is not whether salvation or disaster is prophesied, but whether the prophecy, whatever it is, agrees with the divine demand meant by a certain historical situation that is important.”

No doubt the prophet knows universal moral and religious principles to which a prophecy must conform if its claim to authenticity is to be even considered. But what, over and above those generalities, does God demand in the unique historical situation? What does He demand, not in general, but here and now? “The false prophets make their subconscious a god, whereas for the true prophets their subconscious is subdued by the God of truth.” Who is to say when which is the case? An element of absolute risk remains ineradicable, precisely because the God of the prophets is not timeless only but enters into history.

Prophetic faith is unintelligible to a total rationalism. But this must be amplified. Prophetic faith is unintelligible to a total rationalism not because it contains an element of the “irrational”: the irrational in religion is something which, depending on one’s psychological interpretation of religion, one regards as indispensable or eliminates by “purification.” Prophetic faith involves not the “irrational” but the extra-rational, i.e. extra-psychological: the prophet is confronted by the Other who, while becoming partly intelligible in His revelations, remains wholly Other in essence, i.e., not “irrational” but a mystery. Buber treats this point excellently in connection with YHVH’s so-called “demonism.” The contemporary Biblical critic regards the demonistic elements in the Bible as having “entered, as it were, by mistake from earlier polydemonism,” thus enabling the liberal theologian to ignore them cavalierly. Buber rightly asserts that these elements are “of the essential stuff of early Biblical piety” and that, indeed, without them “the later form cannot be understood.” God is wholly Other, and yet requires a total commitment: it is just this that gives the commitment a hazardous character which no subsequent intellectualization can wholly remove.

This review has concentrated on Buber’s general approach rather than argued, as one could in many places, about critical details. This is partly because it is here that Buber’s most significant contributions lie, but also for a reason which is more important. To understand the Bible, we have learned with Buber, one must take seriously the faith of Biblical man in the reality of the God-man encounter; but one need not, of course, share that faith. Nevertheless we can now ask: is it really beyond doubt that man always speaks to himself when he believes himself in dialogue with the Other? that human existence is closed? that Eternity cannot break into Time? If we learn to read the Bible from the standpoint of Biblical man, these questions might become genuine again, and we might end up reading the Bible, as it was once read, for genuine guidance—instead of using it, as we do now, for the odd decoration or reinforcement of views which are not the Bible’s, but ours.



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