The first step is the attempt to deal with the texts of the Fathers, the synods, the decrees, and the Bible, historically. One must ask the question whether these texts are authentic. Further, one must show in which historical situation and under which psychological conditions these texts were written. Changes have to be examined. The sphere and the configuration in which these changes take place in the same author, must be inquired into and stated. Of all this has been done, then something happens which you yourselves can control easily, namely, what seemed to be contradictions are not contradictions at all, but are only different forms in which the same idea is expressed. Very often in the history of thought – this is something which you should take with you – it happens that contradictory statements are only contradictory if you take them as isolated statements out of the gestalt, the structure to which they belong, and in which, seemingly contradictory, they may actually say one and the same thing. It is one of the miserable things in so many discussions that we don’t follow this method of Abelard, first to show the whole structure in which a statement appears. I often am asked: Dr. Niebuhr says this in one book, and you say this. – This may be — Very often when I inquire into it, I find it is only the contextual difference which makes it seem to be a contradiction at all.
2) The second step is the elaboration of the literal meaning of a word, the – philological task, after the historical task. This may lead to the discovery of different senses of a word, even in the same writer. It is as if he lived in 1953, where in all my lectures I continuously discover that the semantic problem is predominant in our situation, that if we use a word like “faith” or “Son of God” or any word in theology, it has at least half a dozen meanings and probably as many meanings as people who sit in this room, and each. of them has a little bit of nuance in terms of a different meaning. And then one fights with each other, each in a different concept. So it is actually not a real fight, but a talking beside each other. This is what Abelard wanted to avoid – a very reasonable demand.
Now when we come to the semantics which he suggests, and ask ourselves: Is there a danger in this method? or, more largely speaking, to what degree can logical calculus, semantic purification and reduction, be applied to contents such as that of the Christian message? – -then .I would say there is no absolute possibility of applying it because if we come to the important things of life, to the things which are existential, every word has an edge which makes it what it is, which gives it its color and power, and which, if you take it away, leaves a bone, but not a bone with flesh and skin – it leaves a conceptual bone. And that is why I am not so convinced of criticisms by logical positivists, in spite of my great semantic interest, because I believe that if they have their complete way, all words in a realm like theology or philosophical metaphysics or ontology or art theory or history, would lose their full meaning and would be reduced to mathematical signs through which everything escapes, which is the real power and meaning of such words. So be very careful to use every word in the same sense in your discussions, but don’t be horrified or afraid or shaken if logical positivism shows you that you don’t use a word in terms of a mathematical sign.
3) The application of the authority of the Bible as the ultimate criterion is the next step. This sounds very Protestant, as so much biblicism in the Middle Ages sounds very Protestant, but it is not very Protestant. It was not a new experience with the Bible, out of which Abelard spoke – as it was with Luther. It was the application of the Bible as a law, so to speak as the ultimate legal judge. This is something quite different from the Protestant interpretation of the Bible as the place where the message of justification can be found.