Book Review: The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark

Beginning in 1997, noted American sociologist of religion Rodney Stark[i] turned his attention from broader issues in the field of sociology of religion particularly, to the study of the history of Christianity from a sociological perspective. The volumes listed above chronicle the rapid publication of six volumes, the last five over just seven years.

Twenty five years ago Stark and William Sims Bainbridge published A Theory of Religion (1987) which articulated what has come to be known as the Stark-Bainbridge theory of religion,[ii] this work followed the earlier publication of  The Future of Religion (1986).  At the time of the publication of  A Theory of Religion both authors declared they were “personally incapable of religions faith.”[iii]

In 2004 about the time of the publication of For the Glory of God  Stark declared that he had never been an atheist, “Atheism is an active faith with a proclamation: ‘There is no God.’” Instead he confessed “. . . I don’t know what I believe. I was brought up a Lutheran in Jamestown, North Dakota. I have trouble with faith. I’m not proud of this. I don’t think it makes me an intellectual. I would believe if I could, and I may be able to before it’s over. I would welcome that.” [iv]

Three years later, in 2007, he joined the faculty of Baylor University in Waco, Texas as Professor of Social Sciences.  Evidently the previous three years had been a time of spiritual/religious commitment for him, for in an interview at that time he described himself as an “independent Christian.” This was a major shift in his commitment.  He said that he had “always been a “cultural” Christian” i.e. he had always “been strongly committed to Western Civilization.” And noted that he “was never an atheist, but . . . probably could have been best described as an agnostic.”[v]

The Triumph of Christianity draws from the earlier more focused works as well as adding fresh material around the cracks.  I assume it will be the capstone summary of his deeper work on the subject over the past decade and a half. This is not a conventional history of Christianity, the presentation is instead thematic, in which each chapter digs into weighty themes from historical ecclesiastical and sociological perspectives.

I found The Triumph of Christianity to be engaging, clear and challenging.  Challenging in the sense that Stark is not a “guild” historian who takes the generally established historical narrative history of the church, usually told from the perspective of Enlightenment historians, for granted.  Stark clearly revisits the received narrative challenging long established conclusions about every era As one reviewer said, “He demolishes a number of widely held myths along the way, and backs up his impressive array of knowledge with prodigious amounts of research. He has done his homework quite carefully, and is fully abreast of contemporary scholarship and the relevant literature.”[vi] He is in this sense an iconoclast—throughout the work he demolishes myths citing both contemporary research as well as original literature. This iconoclastic quality I very much appreciate because too many historians simply accept the status quo conclusions as opposed to digging deeper to see if the evidence supports the conclusions that have been received.

To touch on just a few of the conclusions he challenges:

Christianity was born a religion of the poor. The received wisdom decrees that Christianity was a religion born among the poor, disenfranchised proletariat.  In fact, this is not how new religions gain a foothold and grow.  The normal pattern for new religions is to attract the more affluent of society as opposed to the poverty stricken.  The New Testament itself gives hints that the disciples, (beyond Levi/Matthew the rich tax collector) and others of Jesus’ followers were comfortable if not well to do.  Even Jesus himself was probably more than a simple carpenter.

As for the growth of the church during the early centuries, it is probable that mass conversions did not play a major role.  Conversions more likely followed personal social networks through the web of relationships particularly dominated by women, who are historically far more spiritually sensitive than men.  Stark’s conclusions here are reminiscent of those of the mission strategy advocated by the late missionary statesman and strategist Donald McGavern who stated “The gospel flows most freely upon the bridges of relationships.”  Similarly, rather than being a male-dominated misogynist religion as has been charged by Harvard historian Karen Armstrong and Princeton historian Elaine Pagels in their pro-Gnostic literature,  women found a haven in Christianity which stood in stark contrast to the oppressive tyranny that they experienced in Greek society and even more freedom, safety and support than enjoyed by Roman women (who were more “liberated” than Greek women).

Christianity fostered a sense of community that was unknown in the ancient world. As a community the church provided a level of community and a “safety net” for the poor and helpless in its community, something otherwise unknown in the ancient world.  The church also reached out to help those beyond their own—a concept unfathomable to the Romans. The rejection of abortion led to longer lifespans for women since Roman women regularly died as a result of unsanitary abortion practice, along with longer lifespans the birth rates likewise were higher among Christians; this at a time of shrinking populations. This factor in itself contributed not only to the steady growth of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world, but also as a percentage of the total population of the Empire.  Witness a similar phenomenon today in Western Europe with the rising Muslim population due in large part to the falling birth rates among the native European population.

The “Mission to the Jews” was a Failure. Stark challenges the general conclusion found in numerous histories of the spread of the early church in that the mission to the Jews was generally a failure and that the Jewish Christian community fell en mass into the Ebonite heresy (which denied the deity of Christ while recognizing him as a prophet) and died out in the second century.  He contends that a careful reading of the literature reveals that contrary to popular opinion the mission to the Jews was very successful and those of Jewish background composed a significant percentage of the Christian population until well into the fifth century.

Constantine cynically manipulated the Church for his own political ends. If you followed the hype around The Da Vinci Code you will remember that Constantine, “the first Christian emperor,” was portrayed as being a pagan who “played” the Church for his own political advantage and was responsible for the decision at the Council of Nicaea that declared Christ to be God rather than man.  As I have written elsewhere this is at best fantasy.[i]  Stark challenges the Constantine bashers, and instead gives a balanced evaluation recognizing both the beneficial as well as the negative effects his policies had on the ongoing life of the Church in successive centuries. Constantine proved a mixed blessing to the Church.

Christianity was from the start a European religion. While most histories of Christianity focus on the Church as it was planted in Europe, Stark following in the footsteps of Philip Jenkins[ii] and Thomas Oden[iii]looking at the rise and spread of Christianity in both Africa and Asia—reminding us that for centuries there were more Christians in both North Africa and in Asia than there were in Europe.

Life in Rome was cultured and desirable. Despite the often glamorous on screen portrayal of the life of the privileged in the days of the empire, life in ancient Rome was miserable, and in many senses squalid, even for the rich. The culture and quality of life was brutish even for the rich. The idea of community was unknown. Christian ideals of brotherhood and compassion mercy and alleviating misery/suffering provided example and invitation to a better quality of life. Despite the fact that the Romans had engineered an empire, government policies could not maintain it long term. Corruption in the empire ground technical progress to a halt.

The Dark Ages were an ignorant repressive era after the enlightened Greco-Roman  era. C.S. Lewis once proclaimed that the Renaissance never happened. Stark goes further insisting that the “Dark Ages” never happened.  The whole concept of the “Dark Ages” is an Enlightenment engendered fiction.  Admittedly the time following the fall of the empire was one of chaos and destruction as the tribes from the North and East swept into Europe.  But Rome had run its course economically and intellectually.  For several centuries there had been no technological innovation.  A vast majority of the Roman population were slaves.  The life of the free men was far more difficult than the slave.  The slave was at least guaranteed a meal and clothing.  Not so the plebian. There was no middle class. Poverty was rampant.

After the fall of Rome there was a regrouping.  Over the succeeding centuries there were genuine technological advances in both agriculture and industry that allowed Europe to feed a burgeoning population. To visit Europe today is to see marvels of medieval architecture far more complicated and magnificent than anything we find in the ancient world. Add to this the birth of the University system that still exists today and the birth of experimental science and we see a much different picture than is normally portrayed.

Post-Christian Europe has rejected Christianity. We look at Europe today and see it as Post-Christian.  In fact the idyllic image of a pious Christian population under the control of the Church is a fiction made from whole cloth.  While the upper classes and royalty embraced Christianity, not so with the peasants.  As in the ancient world the rural areas remained pagan while Christianity flourished in the urban areas. In fact Europe was never really fully evangelized.  The images of churches and cathedrals full of people on a week-to-week basis are pure fantasy. Church attendance in Europe today is not much different than it has been down through the centuries.  The reassertion of pagan cults, witchcraft and magic is simply a visible picture of what has been part of folklore and rural religious beliefs down through the centuries.

 

Much more could be said, but I think the above points give a taste of the approach and conclusions of The Triumph of Christianity. I plan to use it as one of the textbooks the next time I teach Church History!

 


 


[i] He has twice received the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) (Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, s.v. Rodney Stark accessed Jan 29, 2012).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Brian S. Turner (ed). Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion  (Maldan MA: Blackwell, 2010), 183. http://books.google.com/books?id=RheC7rG9u6gC&pg=PA183 (accessed January 29, 2012).

[iv] The National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood, “Interview with Rodney Stark”, 2004 http://www.jknirp.com/stark.htm, accessed January 29, 2012.

[v] “A Christmas Conversation with Rodney Stark:  http://www.cesnur.org/2007/mi_stark.htm  accessed January 30, 2012.

[vi] Bill Muehlenberg, Culture Watch, http://www.billmuehlenberg.com/2011/12/17/a-review-of-the-triumph-of-christianity-by-rodney-stark/, (accessed January 29, 2012).

[i] “Constantine: The First Christian Emperor?” http://www.sacredsaga.org/constantine-the-first-christia/

[ii] The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died by Philip Jenkins.

[iii] How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity by Thomas C. Oden.

 

My Mom

a Eulogy by

Kay Fuqua Sawyer

We are here to celebrate! My Mom and is having a grand homecoming celebration in heaven…and if it were up to me, I would say that heaven is the richer for her being there. And probably all the angels are now wearing corsages! She was a wonderful Mom in every phase of my life.

 

Mom chose to serve her Lord first and foremost with her life. Because of that Mom’s life was a grand adventure! Such a grand adventure it has been. When I was a child life in the Amazon jungle was just everyday normal: going barefoot despite poisonous snakes & large insects, swimming with the piranhas, riding bikes all over, climbing banyan trees and mango trees. As I have been an adult in the US raising my own family, my parents’ chosen life has become amazing to me.

 

Mom was born February 27, 1930 and grew up in Southern California with her mom, dad and older sister. She never did like earthquakes much and I used to tease her when we would have our frequent rockers in the jungle. You see, her dad worked for Pacific Telephone company and when she was only 3 there was a 6.4 earthquake in Long Beach that caused extensive damage and 120 deaths. Her dad had to be away from the family for three days in the aftermath of the quake, getting the phone lines back up and working. A pretty scary experience for a 3 yr old!

 

Her parents frequently had  missionaries into their home, and Mom knew that was what she wanted to do with her life. To go to a foreign country where they had never heard about Jesus and share the good news of God’s love with them. She attended Biola to get the preliminary training in Bible that she would need. Mom’s family’s home church was Calvary Church of Santa Ana, CA where she has been a member since she was 7 years old. The church had an outreach ministry to the servicemen of El Toro Marine Base. They would invite the servicemen on leave to spent the night on Saturday at the church and have a free breakfast, if they would attend  services in the morning. Well a handsome man named Herb was one of those young Marines. At church Herb met a young lady named Flora Margaret who invited him home for lunch after church. Flora Margaret had a sister named Grace. It soon became evident, after more lunches after church, that Herb was more interested in Grace than Flora Margaret.

 

Grace & Herb (Mom & Dad) were married in 1950 and joined Wycliffe Bible Translators. Going to Jungle Camp training in Mexico was Mom’s first trip outside of the US, but it certainly would not be the last. 1953 saw them arriving in Yarinacocha, a tiny settlement of a few buildings on the bank of a lake in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The courage, faith and trust in the almighty God that it took for Grace to venture into the middle of the nowhere when she was 7 months pregnant with her first child, is mind-boggling to me! The birth of that first child was another one of those scary moments in Mom’s life. It looked like the baby would be born placentia previa, so Dr. Altig had several volunteers lined up in the hall way to give blood if necessary…one small problem, however,  there was no way to type the blood and match it to Mom’s.  The delivery went better than expected…and here I am!

 

Then 2 years later David joined our family.

When I was 3 years old, the 5 missionaries were killed by the Aucas in Ecuador. At the time my dad was visiting Mr. Reifsnyder  another missionary that lived several hours travel away. The plan was for him to be gone just a few days. Well the time stretched to a week then a week and a half, and no word from Dad. Then two weeks..we were not able to raise them on the radio. It was a nervous time for everyone because of what had just happened in Ecuador, but there was no way to get in touch with Dad. Finally a small plane was sent out to see if everyone was OK. Sure enough all was well. Mr. Reifsnyder had become  ill so Dad had stayed to help until he got better. But the radio was not working so they could not contact anyone.  Thinking back, Mom must have been worried to death, but turning to God for strength and help in fearful times became second nature for me because Mom always led us there.

 

Mom’s first assignment in Peru was Kindergarten teacher to students like Jeanie Goodall, Elainadell Townsend and David Nichol. Then for several years she was the Clinic Administrator, keeping everything running smoothly. About that time Verna joined our family.

 

Becoming the Radio Tower operator was a new challenge for Mom, which she relished, and did wonderfully. Her voice carried well on the radio and she loved serving the translators in the tribes and the pilots in any way that she could. One of the most exciting things she ever did was to be on the radio when contact was made with the Mayoruna people group for the very first time!

 

When I was in high school she was the publications coordinator for the school books, scriptures, and dictionaries that where being written in the various languages. The first books ever in these languages that had never been written down before! Whatever her assignment was she was always a integral part of the team to get the Word of God to the people. That was her attitude, whatever God gave her to do, she did it with all her might. No job was insignificant. Remembering people’s birthdays, playing the piano for church services and other meetings in the auditorium, playing her accordion for evangelistic outreaches in the Tushmo and other places, singing, making coursages and flower arrangements were all contributions to the work in Mom’s mind.  She was wonderful at keeping in touch with the people back in the US, and memories of her clicking away on the typewriter much faster than was humanly possible will always pop up when I think of Mom. Not to mention the beloved “Peruite” letters that kept many of us connected after we left Peru.

 

Other snapshots of Mom in my mind are her sitting in the rocking chair her reading her Bible & praying (she was a real prayer warrior—praying for us kids and our families, and people she knew all over the world), encouraging my culinary experiments (pie dough, catsup and marshmellows?), teaching  me to love music by her example, Sitting for hours with Mom putting together puzzles and talking about life,  always having an open home, having people over for meals whether dignitaries, other missionaries, indians, they were all enjoyed and treated with respect. One time two men were coming to Yarina from the Mayoruna tribe with Harriet Fields. They had never been out of their jungle village before. At that point this people group was very primitive and had had almost no contact with the outside world. We had arranged with Harriet that they would come to our home for dinner. As soon as the small single engine plane landed and they got off, the three of them came directly to our house. The two men were full of wonder as they entered the first house they had ever seen…touching strange things, pointing at a chair wondering what it was, chattering excitedly in their own language. Mom had prepared chicken for dinner thinking it would be similar to birds they would have eaten before, and something they could eat with their hands. We sat down to dinner (after we showed them how to use a chair), and everyone began to eat. The two men were smacking loudly, showing their appreciation and enjoyment of the meal. When one of them finished his piece of chicken he tossed the bone out the window…but the bone bounced back at him. What? He and his friend got up to see why the bone did not go out the window. There was something on the window they had never seen…screen. They rubbed their hands on it in wonder and then laughed heartily.

 

Mom was always open to us having our friends over, having parties and game nights. In fact Mom & Dad built a recreation room built beside our house with a ping-pong table and snack bar, so that the teenagers would have a place to go and something to do. Mom would bake brownies and cookies for all of us.

 

Mom made our home a safe, welcoming, growing place.

 

From the time I was very young we had a  worker in our home named Lucia. Lucia helped us with the household chores. Mom spent an hour or so in the mornings with Lucia teaching her how to read, and studying the scriptures with her. Lucia was still in our home until my parents left Peru.

 

Another favorite memory of Mom is story time. David, Verna & I would all get ready for bed, then snuggle together on the couch while Mom read us chapter books of wonderful stories. Dad would be at his desk “working” just a few feet away, and we would hear him chuckle at appropriate places in the story. (come to think of it, since our windows were just screen, I wonder if the Powlisons or Jacksons next door were listening too!) My own children also loved to hear stories read by Nani (as they called her). Since she was in Peru and her grandkids were in the US, she recorded several cassette tapes of stories for them. My boys listened to those tapes for years and it  brought them close to their grandmother even though they were far apart.

 

In 1987 Mom and Dad finished their part of the work in Peru, and moved on to Colombia, where Mom served as the school administrator for the missionary kids for another 8 years. The entire 8 years they lived in Loma Linda Colombia, they had to have a packed suitcase ready to go in case they had to be evacuated because of the terrorist activity. Their colleague Ray Rising was kidnapped on the road that Dad had traveled everyday to go to the farm. Then everyone else was promptly evacuated.

 

Mom & Dad came to Dallas to be a part of the work here at the International Linguistic Center. Mom worked in admissions at Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics. She loved meeting all the new students and getting to know them as she helped them with all their paperwork. She kept in touch with many of them as they went on to assignments in various countries. Inviting the Wycliffe Associates into their home in Cedar Hill was something Mom did every year when they would arrive in the fall.

 

After Dad went on to heaven 4 years ago, Mom moved to the Cowan apartments here on this center. Still wanting to contribute, she worked at the welcome desk. During her time at Cowan apartments she began to develop a strong friendship with Wes Thiesen, who with his family had also served in Peru as translators for the Bora tribe. Our families had always been good friends and quite often spent Christmas or thanksgiving together.  We were so happy when Wes and Mom decided to embark on yet another adventure, and get married last September. They had a short time together, but developed a strong bond. We are thankful for this extra bonus from our gracious Father God.

 

I am so thankful and blessed to be the daughter of Grace Mary Howland Fuqua Thiesen. She is my Mom…always will be. Prov. 20:7 says the godly walk with integrity; blessed are the children after them.

 

Mom (and Dad) your life of adventure and faith is a heritage so rich and full that words cannot express my gratitude.

 

Now I have a gift for you from Mom… (video of Mom playing “How can I say thanks for the things you have done for me…to God be the Glory” on the piano.)

 

 

 

A Hole in Our Gospel

Posted on Monday, July 11, 2011 at 08:56PM by Registered CommenterSacred Saga Team in  Comments2 Comments

A Hole in Our Gospel

I have recently finished reading Richard Stearns best selling recent book, The Hole in Our Gospel. In case you are not familiar with Stearns, he is President of World Vision, an evangelical relief agency founded about sixty years ago.  During the past six decades it has grown into one of the largest relief agencies in the world. It has programs that sponsor children in poverty stricken countries, is instrumental in bringing clean water to the underdeveloped areas of the world where it never has been safe to drink the water, sponsors micro-loan funding to build sustainable economic growth among the poorest of the poor. World Vision has an impressive record and has proved itself an organization of impeccable financial accountability, and spends a modest 16.3% of worldwide revenues on administrative overhead and fundraising (as opposed to other well know organizations which spend up to 80% of income on fundraising and overhead!)

Stearns resume is more than impressive in the corporate arena. He recounts his move from CEO of Lennox to President of World Vision in and intensely personal fashion relating the struggles that finally impelled him to leave the corporate world and refocus his life in ministry. His experience overseas observing particularly in Africa the desperate abject poverty that characterizes much of the continent fueled his passion compassion and vision.  It is out of his own personal transformation that he writes The Hole in Our Gospel.

The book itself is moving and having a significant impact. It has been followed by study books and an entire curriculum for churches to employ. Yet it has also significant criticism from some quarters as simply an endorsement of the social gospel, and as undermining the key Reformation articulation of the gospel as being grounded in the Pauline concept of justification by faith.  I return to these criticisms later, but first need to lay some groundwork.

 

Background

Before the dawn of the twentieth century the mission activity both domestic and foreign was holistic;holistic in the sense that the missionaries attended to both physical and spiritual needs of those to whom they ministered.  Western missionaries entered cultures and ministered to the physical needs of the people, often chronic medical needs, taught good agricultural practices, founded schools ant taught literacy, as well as doing Bible translation, church planting and evangelism.  Even at home in the US churches were active in both medicine and education, founding many hospitals that to this day retain the names of their denominational beginnings. The same is true in the field of education.

But, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century the church’s vision became more “spiritually” focused on individual conversion “my personal relationship to the Lord.” The vision of Christ as the Lord of all of Creation and all of life was radically truncated.  The proclamation “Christ is Lord” was reduced to the question “Will you make Christ your Lord?” This new focus had profound effects on the influence of the church in the broader culture.  In short, across much of American Protestantism Christ was relegated to the realm of the “spiritual.” In a betrayal of the Reformation heritage the world began to be  viewed as secular and not a place in which Christians who were serious about their faith should be involved. The position of conservative Christians in broader American society shifted radically in the fifty year period from 1850 to 1900.  Conservative Christians  had gone from being a dominant force in American society to being a marginalized minority. The kingdom was at the turn of the 20th century strictly regarded as future and any involvement in trying to improve things here and now was regarded as “polishing brass on a sinking ship,” since this world would be overturned in judgment at the return of Christ.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century the US underwent a profound demographic shift.  It changed from a predominantly agrarian society to an urban society.  This had profound implications for the Church and the way that the gospel was conceived and communicated. In the agrarian culture with the accompanying revivalism Christianity  the gospel was conceived simply, individualistically.  If one believed in Christ and obeyed the teachings of Scripture, an individual could be a good consistent Christian.

Walter Rauschenbusch, who had grown up in a conservative pietistic Baptist home and converted to Christ as a teenager, attended Rochester Theological Seminary and took a pastorate in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City, ministering among German speaking immigrants.  There he came face to face with rampant poverty, injustice and oppression in the social structures which the individualistic gospel (with which he had been raised) was powerless to address.  This experience led him to rethink the implications of the gospel and articulate “a theology for the social gospel” in a work by that name. His premise was:

the social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion. Both our sense of sin and our faith in salvation have fallen short of the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls for the faith of the old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations.[1]

While Rauschenbusch was relatively conservative in his theological outlook, those who took up his mantle saw the message of the gospel and the task of the church solely as working to end human suffering and establish social justice.

 As the Social Gospel took root it was wedded to the theological liberalism coming out of Germany which denied virtually all of the historic theological/doctrinal tenets of historic Christianity. During the first two decades of the twentieth century the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy consumed the attention of American Protestantism. Following in the footsteps of German liberal theologian Albrecht Ritschl modernists jettisoned the historic Christian understanding of the trinity, the incarnation, and the atonement. The emphasis was the establishment of a moral-ethical kingdom following the example of the (only human) man Jesus who lived in perfect consciousness of God’s presence with him.

The conservative Christians reacted viscerally to the growth of liberal Christianity and its takeover of the old main-line denominations, particularly the Northern Presbyterians (PCUSA), Methodists, and Northern Baptists (American Baptist Convention).  As a reaction to the advancing liberal influence the conservatives adopted a separationist mentality.  “If the Liberals are doing anything, we will have nothing to do with it.”  The net result was a rending of a holistic understanding of the gospel.  Northern Conservatives, who during the 19th  century earlier had been involved in ministering to both material and spiritual needs (e.g. the Salvation Army) and had universally opposed slavery, largely withdrew from the material ministries because these ministries were associated with liberalism.

Theological liberalism found a natural ally in political liberalism and together they sunk their roots deep into the social consciousness of mainstream American culture.

 

The Situation At Hand Today

On the one hand, the church in America (both liberal and conservative) has largely abdicated its God-given responsibility to the state with its welfare system. While compassionate in its vision the law of unintended consequences has kicked in and created a permanent underclass that suffers from “learned helplessness.” While most churches do have a “benevolent fund” these funds deal with immediate acute needs. It by and large does not deal with helping the poor get out of their chronic poverty.

Underneath this phenomenon is an understanding of the gospel in Pauline terms of “justification by faith alone.” While justification by faith is certainly a major Pauline theme, even by Pauline standards it is not the gospel. According to Paul the Gospel has to do with the Incarnation, Death and resurrection of Jesus:

. . .the gospel that I preached to youthat you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved. . . For I passed on to you as of first importance  what I also received – that Christ died for oursins according to the scriptures, and that he was buriedand that he was raised  on the third day according to the scriptures. . .Whether then it was I or theythis is the way we preach and this is the way you believed. (1 Cor. 15:1-11 NET Bible)

None of the other NT writers speak of justification by faith alone, nor does Jesus himself in any of the Gospels.  Jesus himself speaks of the “Gospel of the Kingdom” and he identifies love and compassionate deeds as that which characterizes its members.

 

Declaration not Invitation

 On the whole, Stearns is right on a key point.  We have in our preaching and understanding turned the gospel into a transaction.  We for example may pray the prayer at the end of the four spiritual laws, with hardly any understanding of what we are saying, but by repeating the prayer, we are assured that our fire insurance is paid up (oops! I mean we are saved eternally).  This process smacks of pagan magic whereby we manipulate God by repeating the proper incantation.

At its base the Gospel is a Declaration not an Invitation!  It is declaration of reality.  It is something that is true, it is not something we make true by our response. It is a declaration of a new cosmic reality that has been instituted by the love and the humility of the Triune God who so values his creation and everything in it that he became incarnate in the person of Jesus the Messiah so to reconcile the entire cosmos to himself. He has re-established relationship with humanity according to Paul. “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them.. . .” (2 Cor 5:19)

As D.A. Carson has said:

It was understood better in the past than it is today. It is this: one must distinguish between, on  the one hand, the gospel as what God has done and what is the message to be announced and, on the other, what is demanded by God or effected by the gospel in assorted human responses. If the gospel is the (good) news about what God has done in Christ Jesus, there is ample place for including under “the gospel” the ways in which the kingdom has dawned and is coming, for tying this kingdom to Jesus’ death and resurrection, for demonstrating that the purpose of what God has done is to reconcile sinners to himself and finally to bring under one head a renovated and transformed new heaven and new earth, for talking about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, consequent upon Christ’s resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Majesty on high, and above all for focusing attention on what Paul (and others—though the language I’m using here reflects Paul) sees as the matter “of first importance”: Christ crucified. All of this is what God has done; it is what we proclaim; it is the news, the great news, the good news.

By contrast, the first two greatest commands—to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves—do not constitute the gospel, or any part of it. We may well argue that when the gospel is faithfully declared and rightly received, it will result in human beings more closely aligned to these two commands. But they are not the gospel. Similarly, the gospel is not receiving Christ or believing in him, or being converted, or joining a church; it is not the practice of discipleship. Once again, the gospel faithfully declared and rightly received will result in people receiving Christ, believing in Christ, being converted, and joining a local church; but such steps are not the gospel. The Bible can exhort those who trust the living God to be concerned with issues of social justice (Isa 2; Amos); it can tell new covenant believers to do good to all human beings, especially to those of the household of faith (Gal 6); it exhorts us to remember the poor and to ask, not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Whom am I serving as neighbor?” We may even argue that some such list of moral commitments is a necessary consequence of the gospel. But it is not the gospel.[2]

What has all this to do with A Hole in Our Gospel? A lot really.  While many are heartily embracing Sterns’ message, many are reading Sterns and seeing him compromising the gospel of justification by faith and accommodating theological and political leftism a la Jim Wallis and Sojouners.

To come back to Stearns, I believe he has correctly identified what is a pressing issue that we as 21st century American conservative Christians must address head on.  On the other hand I find the biblical and theological justification for dealing with the issue to be naive and simplistic. Since he is a layman, without formal biblical and theological training I am willing to grant him a bit of slack here.  Because of this I resist the temptation to take him to task for his many misuses of scripture and unjustified and wrongheaded theological innuendo to shore up his argument.

He is one who has come face to face with the radically desperate issues of poverty in the world and sees that the resources are available.  He rightly sees that even those of us who are lower middle class are richer than kings of past.  He rightly summons us to examine our own priorities to see if indeed they are in harmony with the heart of Jesus and in line with the Kingdom, or whether we are smug, arrogant and self-satisfied. In short, does the American evangelical church self-sufficiently rely on its wealth and become spiritually complacent and self-satisfied in a sense that it deserves the rebuke of the Lord to the church of Laodicea in Rev. 3.

My chief concern as I reflect on the book as a whole concerns his use of rhetoric especially early and late in the book.  He is so passionate about the implications of the gospel (and I largely agree with the implications he sets forth) that his rhetoric implies that failure to live up to Christ’s example imperils one’s salvation.

Any time someone speaks of what God expects of us he is in dangerous territory.  The language of expectation steps into legalism which is spiritually deadening. The believer must be secure in his or her relationship with God before repentance (I am using the term “repentance”  in its proper sense—a radical change of perspective that is seen in a change in life).  As Calvin states: “A man cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God. But no one is truly persuaded that he belongs to God unless he has first recognized God’s grace.”[3]  This recognition is not merely cognitive it is something that is felt deep in the soul. If we view God as a loving father who has unconditionally and freely accepted us, has embraced us as his children and who is disciplining (not punishing) us to bring us to maturity.  If we lack this prior assurance, calls to repentance will produce the fear of punishment, rejection and possible cutting off of relationship (loss of salvation).

The question here is one of law/rules vs. love and relationship.  So much of the teaching on our relationship to God is based upon performance rather than relationship. What is communicated is the lie that God grades us on our performance.  Such a mentality undermines the unconditional freeness of the gospel and ultimately makes salvation to be of works rather than grace.  Such an understanding is a one way ticket to defeat, self-condemnation and fear because it assumes punishment for failure.  Yet this flies directly in the face of  Paul’s unequivocal proclamation:  “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus!”

 

 


[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Macmillan, 1917), 5.

[2] D. A. Carson, Editorial, Themelios 34.1 (2009): 1-2

[3] Calvin. Institutes III.3.2

 

On Being a Learner

On Being a Learner

 

Last week Kay and I went to the memorial service for Brian Klemmer. A model of health and amazing activity, Brian died suddenly on April 7 at a very young 61 years of age. His company Klemmer and Associates, which he founded almost 20 years ago, is one of the world leaders in personal transformational training. Throughout his career Brian has touched millions of people, tens of thousands directly through the seminars, and millions through his books. His biggest seller was The Compassionate Samurai which was, for several months, number one on the New York Times business book bestseller list. He was a man driven by his passionate commitment first to Jesus Christ, and a mission: “To Create a World that Works for Everyone with No One Left Behind.” The key to accomplishing his mission: leadership by character rather than technique.  This is the message of the Compassionate Samurai.

As I arrived home I had a question about some detail of Brian’s life (nothing big- I can’t even remember what it was.) I went online and Googled  “Brian Klemmer.”  Just below the top three or four websites which were associated with Brian and Klemmer and Associates, there were a host of sites claiming that Brian and his organization were Scientologists.  As someone who knew Brian as an acquaintance for several years, and someone who has read his books and listened to him speak, I shook my head in disbelief.  Brian was an individual who was personally sold out to Jesus Christ.  But he was one of those rare believers who could work with people who did not share his commitments.  He was not afraid of the world outside professing Christendom.

He was aware of how stuck we are in our own structures of understanding, our own belief systems, and how these structures, these preunderstandings, warp our reality and even obscure the truth from us.as it did for those who made ridiculous charges about Brian being a Scientologist.

This is a theme that is often mentioned but seldom grasped.

C.S. Lewis, and the Dwarves in The Last Battle.

I was first introduced to the Chronicles of Narnia in an English literature course when I was in college. Before that time I had only known Lewis through his work Mere Christianity. Several years later I purchased a boxed copy of the entire set of the Chronicles of Narnia and over a period of several weeks read all seven volumes. I was utterly captivated. Although billed as children’s stories, Narnia captured my imagination as a young adult. (And it has continued to capture the imagination of many adults throughout the succeeding decades. In fact many Lewis scholars see the Narnia tales as a crucial part if not the key to the understanding of the Lewis canon.) In The Last Battle, the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia, we see the final battle between good and evil, between the forces of Aslan and those of the demon god Tash and the end of Narnia. In the middle of the battle the Dwarfs (note: Lewis spelled it Dwarfs—Tolkien loudly protested insisting that it should be dwarves, but to no avail) come to recognize that they have been deceived. As a result they become cynical and distrusting anything unfamiliar to them. They refused to take sides in this great battle between good and evil. Their mantra: “the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.” As things develop we find that this is more than a slogan. It becomes a way of seeing.

In the last battle the Dwarfs refuse to choose sides. Neither do they remain neutral. They become the third Army which wars with both the Narnians and the invading army from Calormen. The Dwarfs are captured by Calormen soldiers, bound and thrown through the door to the stable beyond which is thought to lay the angry Calormen god, Tash whose presence means certain death.

Later in the battle the heroes too are captured and cast into the stable. But through the stable door they find not Tash, not a filthy stable; but green grass, bright blue sky and delicious fruit on the trees. The stable door is the door into Aslan’s country. And here our heroes, the Kings and Queens of Narnia, find the Dwarfs not wandering around in wonder at the beauty of Aslan’s country. Rather,

They were sitting very close together in a little circle facing one another. They never looked round or took any notice of the humans Lucy and Tirian and were almost near enough to touch them. Then the dwarfs all cocked their heads as if they couldn’t see anyone but were listening hard and trying to guess by the sound what was happening.

“Look out!” said one of them in a surly voice. “Mind where you’re going. Don’t walk into our faces!”

“All right!” said Eustace indignantly. “We’re not blind. We’ve got eyes in our heads.”

“They must be darned good ones if you can see in here,” said the same Dwarf whose name was Diggle.

“In where?” asked Edmund.

“Why you bonehead, in here of course,” said Diggle. “In the pitch black, pokey, smelly little hole of a stable.”

“Are you blind?” said Tirian.

“Ain’t we all blind in the dark!” said Diggle.

“But it isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs,” said Lucy. “Can’t you see? Look up! Look around! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and flowers? Can’t you see me?”

“How in the name of all Humbug can I see what is there? And how can I see you anymore than you can see me in this pitch blackness?”

“But I can see you,” said Lucy. . . .

“Oh those poor things! This is dreadful,” said Lucy. Then she had an idea. She stooped and picked some wildflowers. “Listen Dwarf,” she said. Even if your eyes are wrong, perhaps your nose is all right: can you smell that?” She leaned across and held the fresh damp flowers to Diggle’s ugly nose. But she had to jump back quickly in order to avoid a blow from his hard little fist.

“None of that!” He shouted. “How dare you! What do you mean by shoving a lot of filthy stable litter in my face? There was a thistle in it too. . . “

Shortly hereafter Aslan comes on the scene.

“Aslan,” said Lucy. . . “could you— will you — do something for these poor Dwarfs?”

“Dearest,” said Aslan, “I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do.” He came close to the Dwarves and gave a low growl: low but it set all the air shaking. But the Dwarfs said to one another, “Hear that? That’s the gang at the other end of the stable. Trying to frighten us. They do it with a machine of some kind. Don’t take any notice. They won’t take us in again.

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the dwarfs knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in the stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of turnip and a third said he found a raw cabbage leaf. They raised  goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a  donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” . . .

“Well at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.

“You see,” said Aslan “they will not let us help them.  They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. . . ”[1]

Lewis clearly saw that in addition to what we have been taught, we can and do choose what we believe based on fears, our reactions to disappointments and betrayal, our own group interests, or even our own self-interests.  To put it another way our reality is not based solely upon objective “truth” but also on our heart condition and commitments.  This has profound implications in every area of our lives. But in this discussion I want to focus on our theological understandings.

Theologian Michael Bauman, addressing the idea of theological paradox develops the idea of “the fortress mentality” in theology, mirroring from a bit different perspective the point Lewis has made in the section quoted above…

Theological paradox is a mirage. When we see it—or think we do—we may be assured that somewhere along the theological path we have taken at least one wrong turn. Things theological begin to look like things paradoxical only because we have led ourselves into a hall of mirrors.

We have a very good excuse for our distorted perceptions: we ourselves are distorted. (italics and bolding added) When a theologian tells me that certain theological propositions appear paradoxical to us because we operate with a fallen intellect, that theologian is right. In that light the theologian, not theology itself, leads us into the cul-de-sac. And the theologian had better get us out, or at least try. Therefore, I admire those theologians who, once they reach a dead end, back up the bus and try another route. Those theologians may find themselves in a dead end once again, or they may find the one route that leads out of the maze. That route does exist. God, at any rate, seems to have found it. While it may be that we never will, we ought to continue to try. Some theologians, however, being either unable or unwilling to pursue their quarry any further, become entrenched in paradox. They learn to tolerate unremedied paradox when unremedied paradox should be shunned. Perhaps they do so because to them the prospect of going back (perhaps even to the beginning) is too unsettling and too daunting. Rather than striking out in a new direction, or pioneering uncharted territories in search of the doctrinal Northwest Passage, they hunker down and plant settlements in comfortable valleys, having decided at last that they will never reach the sea, or even continue to try. They have forgotten that, in this case, it is better to travel hopefully and never to arrive than to settle prematurely. To that extent, then, their theological settlements are a failure of nerve. Fatigue and uncertainty have made it seem more desirable to plant roots than to look around one more doctrinal bend or to climb up and peer over one more theological hill. The spirit of pioneering thus gives way to the spirit of dogmatism.

Once a pioneer becomes a settler, he starts to build fences. Fences are soon replaced by walls and walls by forts. The pilgrimage has become a settlement, and those within the walls become suspicious of those without. Outsiders think differently, talk differently, act differently. To justify their suspicions, settlement theologians begin to think that they belong in doctrinal fortresses. They develop what I call the “Ebenezer doctrine.” “Was it not the map of God—our Bibles—that led us here?” they ask. In one sense, of course, they are right. The Bible did in fact lead them this far. But not the Bible only. (italics and bolding added) Their misreading of it is what led them into the valley of paradox. Their lack of strength and their insecurity led them to settle there and to build a fort. In despair of ever finding their way to the sea, and discouraged by the prospect of going back, they traded their theological tents for creedal tenements and their doctrinal backpacks for dogmatic bungalows. Traveling mercies were exchanged for staying mercies. That is because fortress theologians interpret the intellectual security they have erected for themselves as the blessing of God. The perceived blessing of God becomes to them the perceived will of God. “Hitherto the Lord has led us” becomes not only their reason for staying, but also for fighting. They become the victims of a besieged mentality nurtured on autointoxication. Those who settle elsewhere or not at all are perceived to militate against the truth of God. They must be stopped, the fortress dwellers believe. If the settlers had their way, none of us would reach the golden sea. Only there, on that distant shore, should we plant our flag, with an entire continent of theological exploration behind us and the ocean of infinity throwing waves at our feet. Only after we’ve seen the sun setting beyond a watery horizon, only after we’ve awoken to the smell of salt air and the sight and sound of sea otters playing on wet rocks, can we cease our theological quest. Lewis and Clark did not gain fame for quitting in St. Louis. Columbus did not turn back at the Canary Islands. Theologians who settle in the valley of paradox do not deserve acclaim.

Nor ought they to be dogmatic. Any theology that lives comfortably with paradox cannot be labeled “the whole counsel of God.” Those that advertise their systems in this way—I could cite examples—give evidence by doing so that they are settlers now, and pioneers no longer.

I believe such theological premature closure is due not only to the emotional weaknesses to which we theologians are subject as fallen people, but also to the systems of thought we adopt. Before I say anything else, I want to say that although I am aware that every theological traveler must proceed according to some method, or some system, I am wary of systems. They are necessary for controlled navigation. In that way they are good. But theological systems also tend not to accommodate the unexpected, the exceptional, and the untimely-things that can be crucial to our continued theological progress. That is, rather than facing an odd fact in all its rigid wildness, they domesticate it; they tame it; they shave it down and plant it foursquare in the middle of their mental settlement. By assimilating an odd and unruly fact in this deplorable fashion, these systems have made that fact something other than itself. Theologically speaking, one of the worst possible things that could happen has happened: the road signs have been changed to fit the route as it exists in the head of the traveler, rather than vice versa. Mental maps ought to be shaped by the landscape, not the other way round. By such “faith” some systematicians have been saying to this mountain, “Be thou removed, and be thou tossed into the sea,” and it has been done, all by divine promise, they flatter themselves to think. But such a topographical rearrangement of the theological terrain was not included in the divine intention that we should have dominion over the earth and subdue it. We ought to abandon our theological earth movers, get out our compasses once again, and rediscover magnetic north.

Fortress theologians are dangerous because they are trying to do the inadvisable, if not the impossible. They are trying to reduce the multifarious complexities of God and his universe to the truncated confines of their own mental paradigm, despite the fact that the world and its Architect resolutely resist that sort of reduction. Fortress theologians want to be mapmakers before they have truly been explorers. Nevertheless, exploration precedes cartography. Cartographers need to know the lay of the land before they try to reduce it to scale for drawing. In the same way, exegesis precedes systematics. In that light, fortress theologians offer a prefabricated structure in which to place one’s theological beliefs, but they offer no viable method whereby one could actually do good theology. Their pedagogy says that about them. So long as they reduce training in doctrine to indoctrination they shall remain, and continue to produce, fortress theologians who are unable to extend the frontiers of theological truth. In the meantime, theological endeavor suffers because we do not need more or stronger doctrinal fortresses; we need more viable theological procedures.

Put another way, I fear the theological system that has a life and mind of its own. No theological system ought to be allowed to do the work of exegesis, for example. But they do. Hard data are not explained, just explained away. (italics and bolding added) Rather than the theologian having a theology, the theology has him. Such systems, rather than being supple and pliable, become omnivorous. They do not take the shape of the data’s mold into which they ought to fit. Rather, in what looks like a feeding frenzy of cognitive dissonance, they devour every uncomfortable bit of external opposition. They beat them, grind them, and soften them until they are sufficiently palatable, and then they eat them. Theological systems, if they are not kept perpetually humble, will become incurably expansionistic. Theological systems, if not held in check, if not continually made receptive and teachable, will become imperialistic. They will colonize every fact, compatible or not, that presents itself. Left uncontrolled, they operate like cancer.

The surest sign that a theology is out of control occurs when that theological system itself becomes the theological method, which is the hallmark of fortress theology. In such cases, that system usurps many prerogatives not rightly its own. That system not only colonizes biblical exegesis, it becomes its own measure of truth. What does not fit cannot be fact. If it does not fit and fortress theologians want it to fit, they make it fit. I say it fearfully: the worst thing about such theological methods is that they are almost always implemented unwittingly. Few theologians, if any, would either admit to the practice or endorse it. Most theologians, however, if not all, do it—me included. When we do so we fail. We must not allow our theology to be turned into a hermeneutic. We have things exactly backwards when we make external reality subject to our own particular brand of theology. [2]

Bauman suggests wisely that rather than conceive of our theology as a fortress, it should be likened to a backpack (I would add coupled with a compass) to nourish and guide us on our journeys and explorations.

Our precommitments, our systems, our paradigms of understanding on the one hand give order and sense to our world, but on the other hand limit our growth and discovery of anything new, anything beyond our mental categories.  They also give us a false sense of safety and security.  This is a phenomenon that I, having  grown up in the fundamental and evangelical community, have both experienced and witnessed firsthand.

I recently read an essay by the late evangelical theologian Bernard Ramm (d. 1992) in the book How Karl Barth Changed My Mind. He too, addresses this same issue from a more personal perspective. He speaks of becoming a Christian in the latter years of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies that characterize American Protestantism during most of the first half of the 20th century. Contemporary evangelicalism arose out of fundamentalism beginning in the 1950s. But it continued to carry the baggage of fundamentalism: particularly being defensive, and protective of its received theology and suspicious of any deviation. Ramm confesses that he too held these attitudes “I did fear open-doors and open windows. It was a great temptation to live one’s theological life within the confines of a very small fort with very high walls.” (Bernard Ramm, “Helps from Karl Barth.” How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, ed. Donald McKim [Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998], 121.) Ramm tells us that despite this fear and defensiveness he spent the academic year of 1957 – 1958 in Basel, Switzerland listening to Karl Barth lecture. One day Barth made an offhanded comment saying that “if we truly believe that we had the truth of God in the Holy Scripture we should be fearless and opening any doors or any window in pursuit of our theological craft.”

I never had the opportunity to study under Ramm, but, one of my most respected seminary professors also spent a year studying under Barth about the same time as did Ramm. It was something that he believed he had to do, but it was also something which frightened him greatly. He was afraid that going to Basel and studying under Barth would make him a liberal. And he requested several of his fellow professors to pray for him that he would remain true to the faith even when studying from someone of a very different perspective than his own. The tradition in which he and Ramm were trained, and which I was trained was one of the “fortress mentality.” It produced an “all or nothing” mentality.  It is a mentality that breeds a spirit of conflict with those who do not agree with us on all points and discourages further exploration and discovery. This spirit of exploration and learning is I am convinced a key aspect of the theologian’s job description.  To say or imply otherwise is to imply that we have transcended our finitude and fully comprehended the not only created reality but the mind of God as well.

As I have stated elsewhere:

Theologians/explorers discover new territory and relate it to the known world. They begin with the backpack of received truth and strike out beyond the pale with a burning desire to extend their horizons in search of new knowledge. They will discover fantastic new things that have to be incorporated into their structure of reality. They may even change the world. While they remain close to home, their discoveries will generally be of the curiosity variety, the “Oh, isn’t that interesting?” type of discovery that adds color and depth to their intellectual and spiritual world. But as they venture into areas uncharted by their community, as they “boldly go where no one has gone before,” their vision of reality itself will go through radical readjustment. The old vision of what reality was cannot contain what has been discovered. This is the phenomenon of paradigm shift articulated by Thomas Kuhn in his landmark work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Explorers are going beyond the theological and ecclesiastical fortress out into the world of broader general revelation, a world their discipline and training in exegesis has often left them unprepared to meet and incorporate into their understanding of reality.

A telling example of this phenomenon was a series of articles in Christianity Today during the mid-1980s on how quantum physics was revolutionizing the concept of the nature of reality. To those with no previous exposure, the subject of the discussion was in some cases quite unnerving. The telling point here is not primarily in the articles themselves, but in the reactions that appeared in the letters to the editor in the following issues. One pastor wrote: “Mass that exists, then becomes non-existent in transit, then exists again according to our will? I don’t have to listen to this! Beam me up, Lord!” A layman complained: “How do the three articles discussing the New Physics apply to evangelical conviction? I wonder how many subscribers put their magazine down with disappointment and dismay because they lacked the knowledge and interest to cope with the far-out ideas.”

But perhaps most disturbing was the example the author of the original article cited in his opening paragraph: “A few weeks ago an acquaintance of ours, a theologian, remarked in the course of a stimulating dinner conversation that he considered quantum mechanics the greatest contemporary threat to Christianity. In fact, he said if some of the results of this theory were really true, his own personal faith in God would be shattered.” Those responding to the new ideas reacted strongly to having their view of creation challenged with the new paradigm because, I suspect, their own faith and understanding of God himself were tied in an almost absolute way to their view of the nature of the created order, the physical world. To assent to the truth of quantum physics would be to destroy God himself. These reactions did not just come from lay people. They came from pastors and theologians as well, and therein lies the problem.[3]

 

I am convinced that in a very real sense many individuals, particularly within the fundamentalist/ evangelical tradition believe at a gut level that if they give up the absolute certainty of their beliefs that reality itself will come unglued.  To put it another way: it is our beliefs that hold reality together. If we dare to admit that even a small piece of our understanding of reality is not true, we can have no knowledge at all.

On one level we might ask, Is not this a sort of intellectual/spiritual megalomania, a substituting of my understanding of reality for reality itself? On another level it looks like an attitude grounded in deep-seated fear and insecurity.

The Enlightenment mentality, of which we are heirs, saw truth as objective and the same for all people at all times.  It denied historical contingency or the validity of multiple perspectives. As heirs of the Enlightenment we have forced reality to into two dimensional grids.  While these grids may be helpful and even a necessary starting point their very nature precludes understanding or even the validity of information that does not conform to the grid.

This perspective made certainty an idol.  However we define it, if some purported truth does not measure up to our standard of certainty the purported truth is rejected in toto.

This mentality operates on the formal theological level and is passed down to the semi-academic and the lay level. Witness the proliferation of extreme theological partisanship among wannabe theologians. The attitude here seems to be “take no prisoners.”

If we look at the gospels we see numerous instances of theological precommitments overriding evidence and causing individuals (particularly the scribes and Pharisees and other religious leaders) to reject out of hand the person of Jesus as Messiah and the message of the kingdom. Even in the face of miracles which they could not deny, they would not believe. They locked themselves in the filthy stables of their mind rather than even examining the possibility that they might have misunderstood something.

“Jesus casts out demons? It must be through the power of Satan.” “He raises the dead? Let’s kill him.”

When it comes to the ministry of the apostle Paul we see the same reactions. He comes to the Jews to their synagogues and the reaction is persecution, imprisonment, and even stoning. Reactions to his teaching incited riots. The one exception is among the Bereans. Rather than driving out the messenger, they went home and searched the Scriptures to see if Paul’s message was indeed to be found there.

For us today the issue is similar.  It involves as Bauman suggests not allowing our theological system (pre-understandings) to become our theological method.  Only in this way can we remain open to learn and grow.

The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force (May 1997)

For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Let to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Aug 2004)

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Sept 2006)

Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (Oct 2007)

God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (Nov 2010)

The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (Oct 2011

 


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Harper Collins, 1984) 164-169. Bold and italics added.

[2] Michael C. Bauman, Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 21-23. Italics and bolding added.

[3] M. James Sawyer, The Survivor’s Guide to Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 52-53