Establishing a Doctrinal Taxonomy: A Hierarchy of Doctrinal Commitments 

Establishing a Doctrinal Taxonomy:
A Hierarchy of Doctrinal Commitments
 [1]

by
M. James Sawyer, Th.M. Ph.D.

Prefatory Remarks:The following essay is an early version which was later revised and published in The Survivor’s Guide to Theology which was published by Zondervan in 2006 . The purpose of the book is to explore the various aspects of Theological Introduction looking at the study of theology, from epistemological, methodological, and systematic perspective. My purpose in this section is to explore the idea of doctrinal taxonomy and look at the historic foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, not to expound my personal commitment to a particular tradition. Comments made about the various theological traditions and positions have reference to the official stated theology as embodied by the best of the traditions, as opposed to the popular piety. For example the popular piety of Roman Catholicism teaches that by being good enough and using the sacraments one can be saved. This is something very different from official Catholic doctrine about salvation. From the perspective of Calvinism, popular piety in some circles falls into a fatalism that is not reflected in the best of the theological expositions of the tradition. The fact that I place particular formulations of the doctrine of salvation on a second level of a taxonomy does not imply that I hold the Reformation understanding of justification sola fide as unimportant. Indeed, what can be seen at times only murkily in other traditions is brought into bold relief by the Reformers. That this truth was not clearly articulated until the Reformation should inform us that it is not necessary to cognitively understand forensic justification in order to be saved. Salvation involves faith in Jesus Christ as opposed to any particular formulation of doctrine. However, in this case a Protestant understanding of forensic justification may give a clarity to the proclamation of the gospel message and provide a firm foundation to living the Christian life that other traditions’ articulations of salvation cannot provide.

The ProblemAs the sociological, political, and philosophical climate of the church has changed in various eras, the church has been confronted with challenges to the doctrinal commitments held as truth. These challenges in turn have repeatedly provoked reactions in the church. In these reactions, different doctrines have been raised to a new level of prominence. The changing situations did not necessarily bring about further development of doctrine; rather in some cases doctrines which had up to this time been considered less important were raised in importance to meet a current challenge.

An example of this phenomenon can be seen in the status of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ and the doctrine of the inerrancy of the scriptures during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century. With the rise of liberalism, historic Christianity took a defensive posture and militantly reasserted the “fundamentals” of the faith. However, these “fundamentals” were not simply a restatement or a recasting of the content of the historic ecumenical creeds. The “fundamentals” of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy were often boiled down to five propositions.

The inerrancy of scripture

The deity of Jesus Christ

The virgin birth

Bodily resurrection of Christ

The personal return of Christ

Two out of these five “fundamentals,” the virgin birth and the inerrancy of scripture, are not echoes of the core of the historic faith, but rather demonstrate a raising of more historically minor doctrines to a primary level to fulfill an apologetic expediency. In the case of the virgin birth, the doctrine had always been contained in the Church’s understanding and creedal affirmation with reference to the means of the incarnation. But during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy the doctrine was elevated to a “touchstone” status. It became a test as to whether one believed in the supernatural activity of God in the world. The modernists denied the possibility of miracles in the sense of God breaking into history and violating the “laws of nature.” The apologetic rationale of the fundamentalists was that if one would admit the reality of as the virgin birth, he or she would not have a problem affirming the reality of “lesser” miracles. [3]

With reference to the doctrine of inerrancy, the church had always affirmed the utter truthfulness of the scriptures; as early as Augustine we find affirmations of the inerrancy of the scripture. Catholicism always held the truthfulness of scripture, but progressively throughout the medieval period tradition was elevated as a separate and equally valid source of revelation and authority. This position was formally creedalized at the Catholic counter-reformation Council of Trent. Protestants responded with the doctrine of sola scriptura. During the period of Protestant Scholasticism the doctrine and nature of divine inspiration was developed in new, more refined ways. There even arose a teaching among some of the Protestant scholastic theologians that the vowel points in the Hebrew text were inspired. [4] In opposition to Roman Catholic claims of the authority of tradition and the Pope, the authority of scripture was consciously raised during the Reformation and immediate post-reformation period in an attempt to rescue scripture from the captivity of the official Catholic magisterial interpretation that obscured the message of the Bible. But even in the great Protestant confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth century the doctrine of inerrancy is not explicit.

During the nineteenth century higher-critical theories arose and attacked the literary and historical integrity of the scriptures. In response conservative representatives of historic Protestantism asserted the doctrine of the inerrancy of the scriptures. As noted, the concept of inerrancy is at least as ancient as Augustine, but the nineteenth-century response to the literary criticism of the sacred text involved a refinement, sharpening, and extension of the older concept of scriptural infallibility/inerrancy. This sharpening arose in the heat of controversy and became an apologetic tool to defend the veracity of the Bible and with it the historic Christian faith. Inerrancy became a touchstone doctrine for fundamentalists and their successors, evangelicals. [5] Inerrancy has remained a touchstone for conservative evangelicalism to this day, [6] with the doctrine functioning as the basis of scholarly societies such as the Evangelical Theological Society and also as a foundational doctrine for numerous Evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges. In fact, from a practical perspective the doctrine is often deemed as more critical than matters of Christology or understandings of the person of God.

Another recent historical example illustrates this same tendency to elevate doctrines to a primary level that have never been so seen historically. Throughout the early and mid-20th century heated and acrimonious debates raged between covenant theologians who adopted an amillennial eschatology and dispensational theologians who adopted a futurist eschatology. Here the issue was not even over the authority of scripture; the issue was over a doctrine that had never been agreed to by the consensus of the church. Yet, within dispensationalism a particular eschatological understanding had on a practical level been raised to a fundamental of the faith. In the eyes of many dispensational teachers a denial of their particular understanding of the details surrounding the return of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom was a denial of the faith.

Scripture clearly indicates that belief is important, and that the content of the Christian faith is to be jealously guarded. An individual or group can not take “the faith once delivered to the saints,” and modify it either by addition, deletion, or by twisting the received truth. Paul admonishes Timothy, “The things you have heard from me, these teach to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” The whole concept of a Christian tradition arose out of the second century in the church’s encounter with Gnosticism. Gnosticism might be likened to a second century New Age Movement that appeared on the surface to be very similar to Christianity. It formed the first major theological challenge to the young church. It was in the context of confrontation that the concept of tradition arose. The idea itself means literally “that which has been handed down or over” and echoes Paul’s admonition to Timothy (2 Tim 2:2). The early Church leaders argued that the content of the apostolic kerygma had been faithfully preserved by the leadership of the Church and that that preaching was also preserved in the emerging canon of the New Testament. This stood in opposition to the Gnostics who, although they claimed to have a secret knowledge handed down from the apostles outside the church, merely invented their teaching while claiming that they were Christian.

Within the evangelical fold there is a precommitment to scripture and a desire to base all doctrines on scripture through solid exegesis. However, it must be recognized that from a historical perspective the church’s theology did not arise directly out of the New Testament. Historically it arose out of the apostolic kerygma, a kerygma that predated the rise of the New Testament and a kerygma that centered around the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is this to which Paul refers when he commands Timothy to contend earnestly for the faith. It is this focus–the person and work of Jesus Christ–that forms the heart of Christian Theology. Virtually all recognize intuitively that issues, for example, of church government are of a qualitatively different nature than issues surrounding the Person of God or of Christ. Yet, despite this implicit recognition there is still in many quarters a mindset that insists that since truth is of God all truth must be defended with equal vigor. Many are willing to “go to the wall for” fine points of eschatology or ecclesiology or even finely developed and nuanced points of doctrine concerning core issues. These individuals tend to be ‘theological maximists,” i.e., they believe that we must discover and systematize all truth and commit ourselves absolutely to those maximums. They believe that to admit degrees of importance of truth is somehow an affront to the whole concept of Truth.

The matter of TRUTH as opposed to a human grasp of truth is crucial to understand at the very outset of any discussion of establishing a relative hierarchy of significance and importance of doctrines.

The very nature of Christian Theology demands from its practitioners and adherents a commitment to the fact that truth exists and that it can in some measure be grasped. Among evangelicals at least there is a precommitment to the Reformation cry of “Sola Scriptura.” Scripture stands as the final authority above tradition and ecclesiastical authority. [7]

In practice among Protestants at least since the time of the post-reformation period of Protestant Scholasticism, there has been the tendency to view the systematized whole of Christian doctrine as TRUTH. The scholastic method takes this even one step further, seeing all truth as on the same level and seeing a denial of any part of the system as a denial of the whole system. The scholastic practice of building frameworks and then within those frameworks deducing what must be true from that which is known lent itself to this mentality. Scholastic method was from one vantage point a magnificent achievement. The method caused theologians to build “cathedrals of the mind” magnificent structures that attempted to incorporate all theological knowledge into one comprehensive system, showing the place of each part and interrelationship of all the various parts. The down side was that the system tended to become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, and there was a leveling of the importance of truth. The interrelatedness of doctrines led to the conclusion that to deny anything in the system was to deny the whole body of Christian doctrine and therefore the faith itself.

This methodology very naturally leads to a rigid doctrinaire mentality that sees for example, fine points of eschatology as on the same level of importance as the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union of humanity and deity in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. It further leads to the charge of heresy against anyone who does not hold the exact same formulation of doctrine as oneself. This mentality has over the centuries filtered its way down from the level of the theologians all the way to the educated layman in the pew. This is not a matter of knowledge; it is a matter of mindset.

Another negative side effect of the scholastic methodology and mindset is that it feeds an intellectual dishonesty because it places off limits study that could possibly threaten an existing systemic conclusion. With reference to this phenomenon it must again be stressed that theology is a human discipline and that theological systems and doctrines are human constructions which to a greater or lesser extent refract the truth of divine revelation. As human constructions they must by their very nature remain open to examination, criticism and correction because of the nature of human understanding. It remains finite, perspectival due to the historically bound nature of knowledge. Further it is twisted and warped due to the noetic effects of sin. Any time an individual or group places areas of investigation off limits because the “wrong” conclusions would threaten their orthodox understanding, that person or group has ceased to be a seeker of truth and understanding and theology becomes defensive and apologetic as opposed to a search for and verification of truth. Perhaps the best example of this mentality is seen in the great B.B. Warfield. Warfield has been called the greatest theologian seen in America after Jonathan Edwards. He is said to have had the theological mind of a Charles Hodge and a Wm G.T., Shedd rolled into one. Yet he never produced a systematic theology of his own. He believed that the Westminster Confession presented the apex of theology, and that Charles Hodge’s exposition of Reformed theology could not be improved upon. Any theological conclusion that challenged or threatened a conclusion of Westminster had to be discredited. Warfield’s collected works span ten sizable volumes, and the quality is superb. But the perspective is always critical and analytical not creative and probing. He took his stand on Westminster and never wavered from it. In fact his position at Princeton Seminary at the end of his life as Professor of Polemic theology!

To reiterate, in contrast to the scholastic methodology, we must recognize that beyond the basic apostolic kerygma, theologies and doctrines are human constructions which more or less adequately encapsulate, interpret and contextualize the teaching of scripture for later generations. Philip Schaff, the nineteenth century church historian, in describing the creedal commitments of the church observed that confessions are man’s answer to God’s word. [8] And in the best case any creed or confession is only “an approximate and relatively correct exposition of revealed truth, and may be improved by the progressive knowledge of the church.” [9] If we extend Schaff’s observation to theology generally the fallibility and limitedness of the human construction becomes more apparent since a theological system arises out of a single mind rather than the life of the church or a collection of minds.

Extending Schaff’s observations further, we must distinguish between the form of a doctrine and its substance. [10] This criterion recognizes that by virtue of the fact that we live in specific historical situations we will conceptualize and express our understanding of the truth in concrete historical forms that arise out of our own zeitgeist. An example may prove helpful: a building contractor in the south uses bricks to build a house while a contractor in the northwest uses wood or a contractor in California uses stucco. These houses constructed of different building materials look different on one level, but they bear a “family resemblance” on a deeper level and all accomplish the same purpose, and we are comfortable moving from one type of house to another. The contractor uses the building material at hand, rather than import foreign material from afar. Likewise, the fathers used the intellectual material at hand to express the truth of the trinity to their society rather than import Hebrew thought into a Greek speaking and thinking world. And it may be appropriate to re-express the truth of a given doctrine in a form that is appropriate to the concrete historical situation in which we live to aid in understanding. A good example of the recasting of a doctrine can be seen in Alister McGrath’s recasting the doctrine of justification by faith in the categories of existentialism and personalist theology. [11]

This alerts us to the ever-present danger of placing too much emphasis on particular words and not going past the words to the meaning expressed by those words. In point of fact, doctrinal statements and creedal affirmations can easily become verbal shibboleths that obscure meaning and foster division over words rather than meaning. On the other hand, doctrinal statements can and are reinterpreted by individuals to mean something entirely different than the creed was meant to express. W. Robertson Smith, the nineteenth century Scottish Old Testament scholar, when told that he was accused of denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, is said to have replied, “How can they accuse me of that? I have never denied the divinity of any man, let alone Jesus.” [12]

While we are to contend for the truth, all truth is not of the same order, despite the mentality of many theologians and teachers. We must recognize that there are theological truths that transcend local and temporary historical situations, while other “truths” are so affected by the Zeitgeist out of which they arise as to be idiosyncratic. An example of this idiosyncratic tendency would be the tendency of some denominations to enshrine the spiritual experience of the denomination’s founder in doctrinal terms that become normative and “distinctive” of the denomination. For example, the spiritual experience of A.B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, is reflected in the two distinctive doctrines of that denomination, healing in the atonement and post-conversion crisis sanctification. [13] This leads to the conclusion that some theological truths are more important than others. If this is the case, how are we to determine what are the criteria which upon decisions about the importance of a truth are to be made? What are the first order theological truths which must be maintained? What are the second order truths, etc.? And how are we to recognize them?

The ranking of theological truth affects not only the historical articulation of a doctrine and marginalization of that which is idiosyncratic, but also involves the ranking of truths arising out of scripture itself. In many cases the scriptural material is abundantly clear and the church has always clearly affirmed certain doctrines. In other cases the scriptural evidence is scanty or cloudy. In these cases any conclusions drawn must be held with a degree of tentativeness.

Millard Erickson has suggested the above ranking in theological statements in importance and authority. [14] This ranking is suggestive and helpful to get the student to think about the relative certainty of things believed. But from the perspective of formal theological affirmation, this hierarchy of authority is not totally adequate, especially if it is lifted from a context of further qualification of these levels of authority. For example, direct statements of scripture which may on the surface sound absolute may be qualified or relativized by other scriptural evidence. Erickson speaks of “direct statements of scripture.” While there is no hint that Erickson intends this, one might infer a theological method whereby a teaching is supported by a verse of scripture pulled out of its context and absolutized without reference to the larger biblical theological teaching on the subject. This was the rabbinical method of “pearl stringing” of scriptural references together without regard to their literary or historical context. This method was also adopted by the scholastic theological method and too often is seen even in contemporary popular theological method. “Direct statements” can be and are used as a theological “trump card” to clinch an argument. The authority of “direct statements of scripture” must be understood in the sense that the statement is interpreted accurately within its literary and historical context and not erroneously made to be a contextless abstract and global assertion.

On the second level of authority we must draw the distinction between necessary inference and logical inference. Erickson draws the distinction between direct implications and probable implications of scripture. These distinctions, while helpful, are not the same as the distinction between necessary and logical inferences from scripture. Necessary implications are those which either undergird an assertion and without which underpinning the assertion would fall, or they are implications that are from a logical perspective included in an assertion and need only the application of a syllogism to draw out the implicit information. A logical implication would be an inference that would be in harmony with the statement, but not necessarily drawn in syllogistic fashion from the statement.

Near the top of his hierarchy of authority Erickson places inductive conclusions drawn from scripture. Again this level of authority/certainty needs further qualification. The scientific method is by its very nature inductive and thus can never yield absolute certainty in its conclusions. However, inductive conclusions can approach the level of practical certainty if all the data have been examined and accurately interpreted. Thus the degree of certainty of inductive conclusions depends on the thoroughness of the inductive study.

Erickson is implicitly drawing a distinction between the teaching of scripture and the phenomena of scripture. This type of arrangement of authority is seen particularly in discussions of biblical authority. It is generally recognized within evangelicalism that if one begins with the teaching passages of scripture and once having established the teaching moves to the phenomena of scripture, he or she will ultimately emerge with a doctrine of scripture that embraces inerrancy. Whereas if an individual begins with the phenomena of scripture and from the phenomena proceeds to the explicit teaching passages, that individual will not embrace inerrancy. It is at this point that the question of method inserts itself into the whole equation. [15]

Erickson places conclusions from general revelation near the top of the pyramid and outright speculations as at the top as having no authority. His statements with reference to the authority of general revelation need serious qualification. General revelation, taken broadly, refers to the God-created order, and forms the larger context within which we must interpret the special revelation given in scripture. The failure within the more recent evangelical tradition of not giving general revelation its proper place in setting the bounds on some issues that have scientific answers has led to all sorts of intellectual and theological mischief in making the supposedly direct statements of scripture speak to issues far beyond the purposes for which they were given and globalizing the authority of the Bible beyond its purposes. To say that conclusions drawn from general revelation must be subject to the more clear statements of scripture, slavishly applied, could be used to “prove” a flat earth or a geocentric universe. There must be some kind of reciprocal process by which general revelation can inform special revelation and special revelation interprets general revelation.

A bit on the troubling side is that this whole presentation of levels of authority seems to be based upon a Baconian/common sense assumption that the facts are pre-theoretical and “out there” as objective information. As chapter two has shown this is an inadequate conception of the reality of the situation. All the while we are cognizant of the primarily narrative nature of the text and the difficulties that come in transforming narrative statements into theological assertions.

The Components of Doctrine/TheologyCharles Hodge defined theology as the arrangement and display of the facts of the Bible. This simple definition is still the operative cognitive definition among many evangelicals to this day. As we have seen in previous chapters, there is much more that goes into the construction of a doctrine or a theological system than simply the biblical text. There are in fact numerous preunderstandings of various types that shape the Gestalt of any theological expression. Alister McGrath in his 1990 Bampton Lectures [16] focused upon the elements of doctrinal construction and identified four elements that give shape to any articulation of doctrine.

Elements in Doctrine Doctrine as that which defines the communityMcGrath traces this aspect of doctrine from the early church down through the Reformation. A couple of illustrations will demonstrate how doctrine functions in this role. Justification by faith became the doctrine that demarcated Lutherans from Roman Catholics. Likewise the Lutheran understanding of the nature of the Eucharist (often referred to as consubstantiation) defined Lutheranism vis a vis Reformed Protestants. Doctrine gives the theological justification for a group’s existence. It is key in a group’s self-definition. Even the council of Trent focused on the self-definition of the Roman Catholic Church rather than a definition of the heretics. Key in doctrinal articulation is the element of social demarcation defining who is in and who is out.

A more contemporary illustration might be the doctrine/practice of glossalalia within the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave tradition. At the outbreak of Pentecostalism in 1906 the defining phenomenon was the practice and doctrine of tongues. Major Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God have to this day doctrinal statements which insist that tongues is the evidence of salvation, and that a lack of a glossalaliac experience is evidence that an individual is not saved. This experience/doctrine was that which identified Pentecostalism early on. It is interesting to note that as the tradition matured and moved trans-denominationally the emphasis on tongues was downplayed, and at one point in the 1980’s only about 35% of those who identified themselves as Charismatic spoke in tongues.

Doctrine as Interpretation of NarrativeDoctrine is generated by and subsequently interprets the Christian narrative. During the modern era the emphasis has been on the propositional nature of truth. This whole perspective is closely aligned with the Enlightenment concept of universal truth. The advent of postmodernism has brought a reassertion on the power of the narrative, and the priority of the story over the didactic. In this respect the new era has returned to the power of the story, a position more in harmony with the perspective of scripture itself.

Ultimately, Christianity is about narrative, a story, the story of God’s dealings with humanity culminating in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Christian community is derived from the story of Jesus of Nazareth. It is that story which gives the Christian community its identity. The New Testament itself adopts this perspective. It insists that the believers’ identity is found with Christ. Paul develops the concept of ejn Cristw’/ (in Christ). Jesus’ story becomes the believers’ story; he has been co-crucified with Christ, buried with Him, and become a participant in His resurrection. Jesus is the paradigm of existence.

Narratives are grounded in history; they are not universal abstractions. Even the church’s sacraments are rooted in the story of Christ; they focus upon his life and death.

But stories need to be interpreted to have meaning. They can be interpreted at many different levels, and may have various interpretive frameworks imposed upon them. It is at this point that we look to the scripture. The scripture contains the foundational texts of Christianity, its story. But story is not doctrine/theology. They two are of fundamentally different as types of genre. McGrath suggests that the story itself contains the fundamental structure, the nascent interpretive framework out of which doctrine is constructed.

During my first year as a college professor, as I was expounding the doctrine of the Trinity to college juniors, I made the comment that the church didn’t have a formal doctrine of the Trinity until Nicea, in A.D. 325. The hand of one of the students shot up. “What do you mean, they didn’t have a doctrine of the Trinity? I open my Bible and I find it everywhere!” What he did not realize that he was looking at those scriptures through the framework that had been worked out during those early centuries. He was at the center of the interpretive spiral, if you will. The interpretive spiral is a well-known phenomenon in the discipline of hermeneutics, the goal of which is a fusing of the horizon of the author and the reader. McGrath suggests, rightly, that there is a similar process in the generating of doctrine from the narrative. [17] The story contains a substructure of conceptual frameworks. These implicit frameworks serve as the starting point. They are the “hints” and “signposts” which guide the reader/interpreter/theologian in making initial doctrinal affirmations. Then the text is re-read in light of the initial doctrinal conclusions, and modifications and embellishments to the framework are made. There is a dynamic interplay, a dialectical interplay between the text and the doctrine.

In the process of constructing doctrine a transformation from narrative to propositional statements occurs. It must be realized that narrative, because it is given as story, is not to be approached deductively, but rather inferentially. The difference between the two methods of analysis is significant. All too often theologians have been guilty of treating the text as a series of premises from which conclusions could be deductively drawn. This is a serious methodological error. Rather, it is at this transformation point that we decisively shift genres and produce doctrines which are given in a form foreign to the scriptures and teach truths which the scripture does not necessarily explicitly expound.

The church has always had those that could be legitimately called theological primitivists, those who do not wish to step beyond the text. But the whole point of doctrine/theology is that simple reiteration of the statements of scripture is not enough. To return to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Apostolic Fathers simply repeat the baptismal formula without comment, affirming that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all God. But, if this is true, then there is a problem with the received doctrine of monotheism, which understood God as unity, not duality or tri-unity. The doctrine of the Trinity arose out of reflection on the nature of God as revealed in the text of scripture as an attempt to explain how the one God could also be three. It is not metaphysical speculation based on Greek philosophy, although those early theologians used philosophy in order to help them explain the concept. [18] The doctrine of the Trinity is rather an interpretation of the narrative. We might illustrate this with the concept of an acorn. The acorn is not the oak tree, but it contains the material from which a tree will grow. [19] In this sense it is legitimate to speak of the development of doctrine. We recognize that doctrine must be ultimately linked to the text of scripture as its primary source. As McGrath has noted: “The sola scriptura principle is ultimately an assertion of the primacy of the foundational scriptural narrative over any framework of conceptualities which it may generate” [20]

While the theologian may feel at liberty to explore other sources of potential interest, doctrine is historically linked with scripture on account of the historicity of its formulating communities. Christian communities of faith orientate and identify themselves with reference to authoritative sources which are either identical with or derived from scripture. [21]

Scripture’s primary function is not to give theological statements but to relate the story of God’s dealing with humanity, especially in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. “Scripture does not articulate a set of abstract principles, but points to a lived life.” [22] Whether approached directly or through a filter of creeds and traditions, scripture constitutes the foundational documents of the Christian faith. [23] These foundational documents provide the material from which theology is inferred and constructed.

Doctrine as an interpretation of ExperienceWhen attention is turned to the third of McGrath’s four components, doctrine interprets experience, those within the evangelical tradition tend to get very uncomfortable. Evangelicals heartily assert that genuine Christianity involves experience, yet at least from the time of the Princetonians, evangelicals have compartmentalized theology and life into two separate areas, not letting experience inform or shape theology, or theology necessarily inform experience. [24] Charles Hodge insisted that experience did not make a Christian; believing a set of facts about Jesus Christ did. [25] Following in the common-sense tradition of Hodge and Princeton, Evangelicals have seen truth as absolutely separate from the knower, as something that exists “out there.” [26] Additionally, experience has smacked of Schleiermacher and Liberalism on the one hand and the excesses of the Pentecostal tradition on the other. Yet, a closer examination of the scripture presupposes an experience, particularly an experience centered around the believing community.

McGrath’s appeal to experience is looking not at private religious experience, but at the communal experience of the Christian community. In particular, he notes that Christianity addresses the human experience of alienation. It is this experience which becomes a point of contact. Christianity “addresses such experiences in order to transform them, and to indicate what the shape of the experience of redemption through Jesus Christ might be like.” [27] It is at this point he contends that we encounter a problem: the adequacy or inadequacy of language to express experience. McGrath invokes Wittgenstein’s musing that words cannot communicate the aroma of a cup of coffee as an example of this unhappy phenomenon. While words cannot adequately express experience, they can point to experience as signposts.

He notes that while the experiential aspect of doctrine in most frequently associated with Romantic theologies, such as Schleiermacher, we find roots and even specific explications of this concept even as early as Augustine. [28] While McGrath does not explicitly draw the conclusion, it can be inferred that at the beginning of the Christian faith, experience preceded doctrine, i.e., the apostles experienced the risen Christ and that that experience led them (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) to write as they did. In so saying it must be noted that the experience could not have been a pre-linguistic mystic experience, but one that occurred within their existing framework of reality. [29]

The question of experience again raises the troubling question of the adequacy of human language. McGrath observes:

Underlying the profundity of human experience and encounter lies an unresolved tension—the tension between the wish to express an experience in words, and the inability of words to capture that experience in its fullness. Everything in human experience which is precious and significant is threatened with extinction, in that it is in some sense beyond words, and yet requires to be stated in words for it to become human knowledge. It is threatened with the spectre of solipsism, in that unless an experience can be communicated to another, it remains trapped within the private experiential world of the individual. Words can point to an experience, they can begin to sketch its outlines—but the total description of that experience remains beyond words. The words of John Woolman’s associate express this point: ‘I may tell you of it, but you cannot feel it as I do.’ Words point beyond themselves to something greater which eludes their grasp. Human words, and the categories they express, are stretched to their limits as they attempt to encapsulate, to communicate, something which tantalizingly refuses to be reduced to words. It is the sheer elusiveness of human experience, its obstinate refusal to be imprisoned within a verbal matrix, which underlies the need for poetry, symbolism and doctrine alike. [30]

C. S. Lewis has observed a similar tension on the aesthetic level:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things— the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of the worshippers. For they are not the thing in itself; they are only the scent of the flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. [31]

McGrath endorses a suggestion made nearly two centuries ago that “the function of doctrine is to effect a decisive transition within the language of the Christian community from the poetic and rhetorical to the ‘descriptive-didactic.’“ This means that poetic or rhetorical and doctrinal language are distinct, but related means of communication within the believing community. In fact, it is because rhetorical and poetic language are the primary language of the community that doctrine becomes necessary for responsible communication to the community in its primary language. [32]

Doctrine functions as the cognitive element within Christianity, the skeleton that supports and gives shape to the flesh of spiritual experience.

Concerning the relationship between poetic and religious language, C.S. Lewis has noted:

This is the most remarkable of the powers of Poetic language: to convey to us the quality of experiences we have not had, or perhaps can never have, to use factors within our experience so that they become pointers to something outside our experience—as two or more roads on a map show us where a town that is off the map must lie. Many of us have never had an experience like that which Wordsworth records near the end of Prelude XIII; but when he speaks of ‘the visionary dreariness,’ I think we get an inkling of it. [33]

The point here is that poetic language not only has the ability to communicate emotion but to arouse emotion in the hearer. Emotion can be communicated through words although it cannot be reduced to words.

In order for my experience to be expressed, communicated to or aroused by another, it demands statement in cognitive forms. That these cognitive forms fail to capture such an experience in its totality is self-evident, and hardly a matter for rhetorical exaggeration: it is one of the inevitable consequences of living in history and being obliged to communicate in historical forms. [34]

There is in doctrine an interplay between the cognitive and the experiential. T. S. Eliot expresses this interplay:

We had the experience but missed the meaning
An approach to the meaning restores the experience [35]

While the Enlightenment separated facts from interpretation and implicitly endorsed a view of knowledge that has been characterized as ‘brute empiricism’ it is now generally recognized that there is not such thing as bare, brute facts. [36] Experience is not pre-theoretical, but is already theory laden, arising within an interpretive framework, however tentative that framework may be. Prior belief plays a vital part in interpreting experience. [37]

To try to sum up this most difficult point: doctrine arises out of the poetic and rhetorical and narrative language of scripture, language that points beyond itself to the experience of God and redemption. It gives cognitive form to the experience referenced in that language and in so doing provides a framework, a skeleton to support the life of the believing community. It does more than this however. The doctrine, the meaning, creates and restores the original experience in the life of the hearer. “Doctrine opens the way to a new experience of the experience.” [38]

To reiterate, for the church today, experience is an inadequate foundation for doctrine, nor does contemporary experience legitimately generate doctrine but doctrine informs experience and thereby gives significant insight into the existential side of Christianity.

Doctrine as a Truth ClaimIn leaving this factor until last, some might infer that the truth claim of doctrine is of less than paramount importance. This is not the case. In fact, it is the truth claim of doctrine that underlies its importance and its fulfilling of the other functions. But this raises the question Pilate asked our Lord, “What is truth?”

Numerous definitions for truth have been propounded, and in answer to the question there is no universally accepted definition, Plato’s proclamation that the philosopher is the lover of truth notwithstanding. Disciplines have various criteria for truth, some explicit, some implicit. None universally agreed upon. One suggestion, traceable ultimately to Marx and Engels, is that truth is simply “correspondence with reality.” Truth is that which describes things as they actually are.

Classically there are several definitions of truth, all of which bear what Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance, despite their distinct but related emphases on the nature of truth. The Greek term ajlhvqeia carries the interpretation of truth as the “state of discoveredness or unhiddenness.” The term has primary reference to the thing itself and only secondarily to a statement about the thing. It is a description of how things are now, in the present moment. The Latin veritas by contrast carries a sense of precision of utterance or exactness. The truth is faithful and exact, without omission. It is complete. As opposed to ajlhvqeia , veritas has primary reference to past events, and is closely associated with history, or narrative. As Cicero said, “Who does not know the first law of history to be that an author must not dare to recount anything except the truth? And its second that he must endeavor to recount the whole truth.” [39] The Hebrew emunah contains a sense of personal reference: truth related to a sense of trust. Thus the true God is not simply the only one who exists, but the God who is trustworthy and faithful to his promises. So in everyday language, the false friend is not one who is non-existent, but one who cannot be trusted. Thus, emunah has a proleptic aspect as it points toward future faithfulness. Like veritas, emunah has past reference, but not simply for the sake of the past. Rather, the focus is a shaping of the present and future through predictive hope, and gives a paradigm for understanding the goal of history.

Christian doctrine relates to these ideas of truth in that it is rooted in history. Theologians speak of the “Christ-event.” While the terminology is not popular among evangelicals, it does serve to call attention to the fact that Christianity is rooted in history with all its contingencies, rather than in timeless truths. Brunner has gone so far as to say that truth is something that happens. Jesus is truth (Jn 14:6). God is not to be identified with sterile philosophical concepts but rather with reference to Jesus, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Truth is then grounded in history and reflection upon historical event, Spinoza and Lessing notwithstanding.

Doctrine involves interpretation, as McGrath has suggested above. But in any interpretation the question asked is at least as importance as the answer given. Thus in examining Christian doctrine we must not only look at the cognitive statements, but also the questions that led to those statements. Does Jesus Christ, the “Christ-event,” precipitate the questions to which doctrines are the answer. The Church has always answered this question with a resounding “Yes!” There is an essential continuity of the core doctrines of the Christian faith throughout the ages. While doctrine has ventured beyond Christology, we must not forget that Christ is the lens through which our understanding of other doctrines is mediated. For example, for the Christian to affirm “God is love” involves an implicit christological reference. The affirmation links a hitherto undefined concept, love, to its concrete demonstration in the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth, God incarnate.

The truth of doctrine also involves internal self-consistency. Indeed heresy has been defined as the adherence to teaching that is inconsistent with the central affirmations of Jesus Christ and the Redemption that he provides. Doctrine/theology is an integrated whole with one doctrine informing another. We may speak of a doctrine of Christ, a doctrine of man, a doctrine of God, or of sin, but we recognize that these doctrines in order to be true must be internally consistent and consistent with the foundational doctrines of the faith. There must be an intra-systemic unity of the truth expressed in doctrine. By way of example we could show how the person of Jesus Christ controls what have been labeled as the four natural heresies of Christianity, all relating to either the need of, or the possibility of, redemption. [40]

The truth of doctrine is not simply a reflection on the past or even the “Christ-event.” The truth of doctrine is not simply information. This is, I believe, a great failure in evangelical tradition. We have tended at least since the time of old Princeton to view all truth as of the same type. [41] Doctrine however must be orientated toward faith. It cannot be simple factual information. As Dorner contended, there is a personal demand upon the individual for facts to move from the realm of the abstract and theoretical to the realm of the vital. With this faith commitment arises a certainty that comes from personal encounter with the living God. This is the existential aspect of doctrine, associated with Kierkegaard, but implicit within the text itself. It was at this point that confessional faith failed in the Era of Protestant Scholasticism. This point also relates to the authority of experience. Doctrine involves an existential imperative that demands to be appropriated personally in one’s inner life.

Doctrine makes truth claims, but these claims are of necessity colored by the lenses of the theologian and the epistemology s/he employs. Hence it is necessary to be in conversation with past generations, the continuity of the Christian tradition. We all make mistakes, but we do not all make the same mistakes.

The Necessity of
Establishing a Doctrinal TaxonomyAs noted above, there is a general recognition that some doctrines are more important than others. Erickson speaks explicitly to this reality in his Christian Theology. [42] As such, certain doctrines are to be given more prominence in discussion. He adds a second important observation in that, for example, “eschatology is a major area of doctrinal investigation. Within that area, the Second Coming is a major belief. Rather less crucial (and considerably less clearly taught in Scripture) is the issue of whether the church will be removed from the world before or after the great tribulation.” [43] To unpack the significance of what Erickson says, there are certain doctrines that in and of themselves are major doctrines—we could say core doctrines—but finer developments of those doctrines are not to be considered of first order importance.

Establishing A Doctrinal Taxonomy HistoricallyA generation before the fundamentalist-modernist controversy Philip Schaff published The Creeds of Christendom; a few years later Charles Briggs published The Fundamental Christian Faith. In both of these works there is an explicit recognition that the doctrinal conclusions embodied in the creedal affirmations of the creeds of the ancient church represent the theological core of the Christian Faith. This perspective was also that of Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century. Vincent gave much thought to the issue of doctrine and concluded:

I have devoted considerable study and much attention to inquiring, from men of outstanding holiness and doctrinal correctness, in what way it might be possible for me to establish a kind of fixed and, as it were, general and guiding principle for distinguishing the truth of the Catholic faith from the depraved falsehoods of the heretics. . . . Holy Scripture, on account of its depth, is not accepted in a universal sense. The same statements are interpreted in one way by one person, in another by someone else, with the result that there seem to be as many opinions as there are people. . . . Therefore, on account of the number and variety of errors, there is a need for someone to lay down a rule for the interpretation of the prophets and the apostles in such a way that is directed by the rule of the Catholic Church. Now in the Catholic Church itself the greatest care is taken that we hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all people (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est). [44]

Vincent recognized the inadequacy in a simple appeal to the text of scripture in that the scripture was subject to a variety of interpretations. Something more was needed. He settled on the principle of the “consensus of the faithful.” In other words, there had to be universal recognition by the laity as well as the clergy. A doctrine could not be local. A doctrine could not be new. Another way to sum up this teaching is catholicity. The substance of Christian doctrine must be universal. This is in fact the presupposition of Tom Oden in his systematic theology. Oden has endeavored to write a consensual theology using as his method the vincentian canon, focusing upon what is common to all branches of Christianity.

In so saying we must distinguish between the form and the substance of a doctrine. One of the amazing phenomena of language is that it is possible to say the same thing in a variety of ways, and even in a variety of languages. This should alert us to the necessity to probe what linguists call deep structure, the universal meaning, rather than stumbling over surface structure, specific verbal articulations of theological conclusions.

Having said this, the question remains, “What specifically belongs at the core of our theological commitment?”

TrinitarianismFirst and foremost as noted above, the person and work of Jesus Christ belong at the heart of any theological taxonomy. These concepts involve a number of interconnected teachings and assumptions. As these were worked out historically the questions focused first upon the relationship of the pre-incarnate Son to God the Father. The early church struggled with finding adequate language to express the relationship between the Father and the Son, recognizing the deity of each without inadvertently falling into the trap of asserting two Gods. Early on several attempts were made to explain this relationship; these were adjudged to be inadequate. The crisis that precipitated the church’s formally declaring its understanding at the Council of Nicea was the teaching or Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, who taught that the Son was the first created creature who became the creator of the cosmos. Arius summed up his teaching with the phrase, “there was a time when the son was not.” The church responded at Nicea in the Nicean creed asserting that the Son was consubstantial with the Father. This statement was an assertion of the eternal divinity of the Son, as a full participant in the deity of the Father. The council of Nicea did not address the question of the Holy Spirit as such. The understanding of the Holy Spirit’s full participation in the Godhead came as a result of the work of the three great Cappodocian fathers, especially Basil, and was codified at the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381). This statement gave explicit form to the already existing practice of recognizing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as fully and equally divine.

As explanations of the nature of the Trinity developed, the Eastern and Western church developed different frameworks of understanding for the doctrine—frameworks which especially from the perspective of Eastern Theology are incompatible. So, in a taxonomy of doctrine the fact that God exists as Trinity stands at the very core of the Church’s faith, while explanations of a framework of trinitarian understanding would be ranked as second level theological reflection.

The Two Natures of ChristThe second major theological development of the ancient period was a precise articulation of nature of the incarnate person of Jesus Christ, specifically the doctrine of the two natures, deity and humanity, and the explanation as to how these two natures come together in one person (the hypostatic union). Since the birth of the church there had been an implicit recognition that Jesus was unique as both fully human and also fully divine. Early on, the church had simply repeated these assertions without trying to explain the nature of the incarnation or relate the divine and human together in the one historic person of Jesus Christ. As with the Arian controversy, the church’s understanding of the person of Christ also arose out of controversy. But in this case the understanding was refined in three successive controversies.

In order to understand the christological conclusions forged at Chalcedon, there must be an understanding of the theological climate of the ancient church in the fourth and fifth centuries. The question of the person of Christ was one that occupied the Greek-speaking church, a church which was divided into two theological schools. The first school, that of Alexandria, was heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy and was interested in spiritual realities. The tendency here was to emphasize the deity of Christ, often at the expense of his humanity. One of the staunch defenders of Nicene orthodoxy was Apollinarius, the Alexandrian theologian and friend of the great Athanasius, the architect of trinitarian orthodoxy. Apollinarius saw that one of Arius’ arguments was not properly trinitarian but focused upon the nature of the incarnation. Apollinarius responded with an explanation of the relationship of Christ’s deity to his humanity that in effect made Christ less than fully human. Apollinarius’ hypothesis was that in the incarnation Jesus Christ had a human body and soul, but the spirit (rational mind) had been replaced by the divine logos, the second person of the Trinity. The reaction against Apollinarius’ teaching was swift in coming, and his position was condemned as heretical by the council of Constantinople in A.D. 381.

Roughly a generation later, Nestorius was Patriarch of Constantinople and a representative of the other major theological school in the Greek-speaking east—Antioch. The Antiochean school was interested in historical interpretation of scripture and focused upon the true humanity of Christ. While not denying Christ’s deity their focus was upon Jesus’ humanity and the example he gave to his followers. Nestorius, as was typical of the school of Antioch, drew a sharp distinction between the humanity and the deity in the incarnate person of Jesus. So sharp was the distinction that he was understood to be teaching that Jesus was in reality two separate persons inhabiting a single body, Son of Mary and Son of God. This perception was exacerbated because of Nestorius’ opposition to the already popular designation of Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer). [45] Nestorius was himself an intractable individual, and when Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, challenged Nestorius’ position, he defiantly refused to back down and challenged the orthodoxy of Cyril. After a series of confrontations, the Emperor convened a council that met at Ephesus in A.D. 429. This council condemned Nestorius and his doctrine of “two sons.” While historical research has questioned whether Nestorius himself did in fact hold the doctrine that bears his name, Nestorianism as popularly understood undermined the doctrine of salvation with its failure to adequately integrate the two natures into the one historic person who was Jesus Christ. [46]

Twenty years later another christological crisis arose. This time the nexus of the controversy was Eutyches, a well respected elderly but unimaginative and poorly trained monk in Constantinople who reacted with disfavor to the Council of Ephesus’ insistence that Christ existed in two natures after the incarnation. Heavily influenced by Alexandrian theology and spirituality, Eutyches taught that after the incarnation Jesus had but one nature, the divine. He was variously understood to be teaching that Jesus’ humanity was absorbed by his deity, or that in the incarnation the two natures fused to become one more than human but less than divine, a tertium quid (third something). Eutyches’ heresy did not violate the dictum arising out of the Apollinarian controversy, (“that which he did not assume he did not heal”) but did ultimately fall into a docetic heresy and violated the anti-docetic dictum “Grace never destroys nature.” Eutyches’ heresy destroyed the humanity of Jesus after the incarnation and also fed into the dualistic temptation to flee from the flesh. After much political maneuvering and a council that declared Eutyches orthodox (the Robbers Synod of Ephesus in A.D. 449), he was finally condemned at Chalcedon in A.D. 451. [47]

Chalcedon produced the final creed of the ancient church. [48] Pronouncements since that time have been confessions. The Creed of Chalcedon addressed particularly the understanding of the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. However, a careful reading of the creed shows that the statements are apophatic rather than catophatic. It is a creed of negation rather than assertion. Rather than give a precise definition of the incarnate Christ, the creed draws parameters around what is allowed within orthodox christological theologizing. As later centuries proved, there was still much room for debate and discussion about particular emphases, but the boundaries were established. In looking taxonomically at the doctrine of the incarnate person of Christ, an affirmation of the truth of the creed arising out of Chalcedon is to be considered at the heart of the Christian faith. Further refinements and frameworks built within the boundaries, which from the very beginning accommodated Alexandrian and Antiochean emphases, are of second or third level importance.

The Nature of Divine GraceImplicitly the early church recognized the necessity of divine grace for salvation. From the immediate post-Apostolic period the church recognized the absolute necessity of divine grace for salvation and that, left to itself, humanity could not be saved. But the theological climate of Gnosticism kept the church from reflecting upon the nature of human depravity and the need of divine grace. During the fifth century a British monk, Pelagius, came to Rome and taught a gospel of moral reformation, stressing the full ability of humanity to obey God completely. At this time Augustine had already articulated his doctrine of human depravity and the accompanying spiritual inability to please God apart from a prior application of divine grace. The ensuing debate, the Pelagian controversy, brought into bold relief the issues concerning the nature of human depravity and divine grace. The church recognized the legitimacy and necessity of the concept of human depravity as being inexorably bound up in the nexus of the doctrine of salvation. It did not however unequivocally endorse Augustine’s doctrine of total depravity. Pelagianism was condemned at Ephesus and at a number of local synods, but it was not until the Reformation that the Augustinian doctrine was endorsed and incorporated into a formal theological matrix. Thus, it would be proper to say that an understanding of human depravity is at the center of the historic faith, but the historic faith does not endorse any particular articulation of depravity, whether it be Augustinian, Reformed, Semi-Augustinian, or even Semi-Pelagian. The doctrine of human depravity and its correlate doctrine, the necessity of salvation being of God and by grace belongs to the heart of the web of Christian proclamation; any particular articulation belongs at the most as a second level truth.

The Canon of the New TestamentAs we turn our attention to the rise of the New Testament canon, we must recognize that at this point we are not dealing with the foundational doctrines of the faith, rather we are dealing with the foundational documents of the faith. The early church adopted the Old Testament as its original scripture. Very early it recognized the canonicity of the gospels and the Pauline epistles. Gradually the rest of the New Testament writings were recognized as having divine imprimatur. However, with the text of the New Testament the process is qualitatively different than with the doctrinal controversies discussed above. Here the church never made a universal formal declaration of the extent of the New Testament. The lists that arose were associated with particular bishops, e.g., Athanasius in his festal letter of A.D. 369, and with local synods in Hippo and Carthage about 20 years later associated with the great Augustine. The canon of the New Testament was not imposed upon the church by ecclesiastical authority. Rather its authority arose by consensus. [49] As a result of the way the canon of the New Testament arose, it was not formally closed until the Reformation period, although from a practical perspective it was virtually closed in the sixth century. Again due to the historic consensus of the church the shape of the canon of the New Testament would be understood as at the center of the faith, although from an epistemological rather than a formal doctrinal perspective. Certainly there has never been a serious attempt within the church to add any more books to the received canon, and any questioning of the legitimacy of any of the books of the New Testament have focused upon the fringes as opposed to the books that preserve the heart of the inspired apostolic proclamation of Christ and his Word.

Establishing a theological taxonomy exegeticallyFor the theologian and the exegete there is a constant tension. [50] This tension arises out of contradictory expectations, expectations to preserve truth on the one hand and on the other hand to act as a scientist to test the validity of truth and to act as an explorer seeking new truth or a fuller grasp of truth. Along these lines, the theologian and exegete must wrestle with how we define orthodoxy and whether a simple pursuit of truth can be accomplished in light of the noetic effects of sin. Too many evangelicals do not nuance their theological convictions nor do they hold them up to critical examination. This smacks of a method that gives tradition an unqualified authority and is more in keeping with historic Roman Catholic method than having a Protestant spirit, for it regards the tradition (whatever that tradition may be) as unquestionable and undifferentiated. If we approach the question of the certainty of doctrine from an exegetical as opposed to a historical basis, the greatest certainty about doctrine comes from a two-pronged approach: empirical (solid exegesis, biblical theology, etc.) and pneumatological, i.e., the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit about certain truths, thus bringing home a greater degree of certainty about more central things. A taxonomy of doctrine is the result. To what does the Spirit bear witness? Essentially matters pertaining to Christology and soteriology. Practically, this tells us that rationalism and the Enlightenment cannot invade the Spirit’s territory; solid historical-critical exegesis cannot destroy one’s faith in the resurrection of the theanthropic Person because that faith though rooted in history is not based solely upon history. When it comes to less central issues, there needs to be a hierarchical order of certainty and a concomitant hierarchy of centrality as we develop a taxonomy of doctrine. Thus, for example, looking at issues of eschatology, the central truth of Christ’s bodily return is what unites believers. First John explicitly says that the Spirit bears witness to this fact. But when Christ comes is left to the church to hammer out on the basis of solid exegesis. Conviction in such issues dare not be as certain as convictions about the person and work of Christ. Otherwise, we succumb to the danger of “majoring on the minors,” of missing the central message of the Bible, and of suppressing the witness of the Spirit on the more crucial issues. There are, to be sure, less central issues of which we can have a very high degree of certainty—largely because any reasonable exegesis must come to such conclusions. But there are also topics on which one thinks that his views are Spirit-guided, but his own certainty of such matters is stated more humbly. It is intriguing to note in 1 Cor 7:40 that Paul uses this kind of language in his view of remarriage after the death of a spouse: “But if the husband dies, she is free to marry whom she will, provided the marriage is within the Lord’s fellowship. She is better off as she is; that is my opinion, and I believe that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 7:39b-40, REB). There seem to be degrees of certainty that the Spirit bears witness to. Issues of marriage and remarriage are not core doctrinal convictions, but must still be worked out in terms of sapiential preference and solid exegesis.

Thus, on the other hand, in those areas outside core theological commitments, we have both the freedom and the responsibility to do tough exegetical spadework and to follow where the evidence leads us.

As those who believe that God is truth, we must commit ourselves to pursue truth in our exegesis no matter the cost, as long as it is within the bounds of taxonomically core doctrinal commitments as defined by the Spirit’s witness and solid exegetical conclusions. This will by its very nature involve challenging (and maybe slaughtering) sacred cows. But it is the exegete’s and the theologian’s sacred responsibility to examine the text historically. Checks and balances are in place—both theologically and exegetically—via the witness of the Spirit, solid exegesis, and the fact that the theologian’s and the exegete’s labors are done in community with others who can evaluate and challenge conclusions.

A Theology of Minimums?In all that has been said, the question may arise, “Are we not forced to accept a theology of minimums rather than organizing and arranging truth and bringing all things under the Lordship of Christ?” To this the response is, not necessarily. What we are arguing is that there is a central core of truth that has established itself through the centuries and been agreed to by all who name the name of Christ, regardless of the communion or denomination of Christianity to which they belong. It is this core that is the starting point of our theological understanding. It is the minimums that identify us as Christian as opposed to something else. This core represents the minimum theological commitment of a Christian. But beyond that minimum there is within the theologian an inward push to organize all understanding and systematize it into a comprehensive whole. This compulsion, it could be argued, is an inward human compulsion. We at least in the West must see how things fit together. We must “dismantle the universe” whether it be physical or theological and learn how it works, and coax out its hidden secrets.

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Clues” the crew of the Enterprise awakens after having been rendered unconscious by an energy field apparently for a few seconds. The ship is apparently unharmed although it was hurled several light years from its location. However, several small anomalies and inconsistencies lead Captain Picard to believe that something more sinister has happened to the ship and that Commander Data is somehow complicit in the affair. As the mystery unravels it is discovered that the ship has encountered a xenophobic alien race and in order to survive Captain Picard had to agree to have all memories of the encounter wiped from the consciousness of the crewmembers and all physical evidence eliminated. When the discovery of what really happened is made, the alien race again threatens to eliminate the Enterprise. Picard pleads the case noting that the reason that the ruse was discovered was that clues were left behind and that humans are compelled to figure out mysteries. It is precisely this compulsion to figure out mystery that has compelled modern science to its advances. It is the same force that compels the theologian to make further discoveries and advance theological understanding.

At this point we fall under the model of the theologian as explorer/scientist. We test, probe, investigate, and extend our theological knowledge and build a comprehensive understanding, an understanding that we believe is right and accurate. As we work we operate within a paradigm of understanding. And we seek to extend the paradigm. As we learn we develop a full orbed system that tries to incorporate all truth about God and his universe from any and every source under its umbrella. But eventually for a number of possible reasons, that paradigm cannot accommodate new data and another paradigm is proposed. That proposal is inevitably met with stiff resistance and the charge of heresy is leveled against those who would change the status quo.

Theology deals by definition with revelation. The ultimate database from which it draws is the entirety of creation. The subset database is the Bible, special revelation. The subset of special revelation is the salvific message of redemption. It is this that composes the “theological core,” the sine qua non of the faith. The theological enterprise is broader than the core; it seeks to organize and make sense first of the rest of special revelation and beyond that the totality of general revelation. It is as we move beyond the core that the conclusions become more tentative and open to interpretation and debate.

But when we step back from this system we have built, a system of maximums, we must recognize that our system arose out of a particular set of assumptions and pre-understandings that were universalized in our understanding and thought patterns, but in reality were not universal. Rather they were local and historically conditioned. That is not to say that all that understanding was wrong; it was the best that could be done at that place and at that time with the data and methods available.

To approach this question from another perspective, we recognize the core of the faith as having the status of metanarrative. It expresses universal and transcultural realities, although these realities arose out of particular historical events. The expansion upon the basic metanarrative encapsulates the timeless metanarrative within what is essentially a local narrative.

When conditions change, the local narrative [51] may be challenged and even discarded, but this discarding is not a discarding of the metanarrative features encased in the local narrative. Rather it is the discarding of the local understandings/interpretations that have grown up around the core metanarrative, understandings that involve even the framework in which it has been encased.

The battle arises between those who have transformed the local narrative (be it Thomism, Lutheranism, Reformed, or whatever theology) into metanarrative and treat it as normative for all people, places, and times the minds of those who adhere to the systematization they equate it with metanarrative, and those who advocate a new (and as yet untested) paradigm that does not view the theological issues involved in the same manner or importance as does the old paradigm.

Ranking non-core issuesThe historic faith of the Church expresses that which is at its core, the sine qua non of Christianity. A denial of the essential truth of any of the core doctrines places one outside the faith from the perspective of its essential proclamation and involves one is heresy. Yet there are many more doctrines and perspectives than those expounded in the historic and ecumenical creeds of the church. The church is divided into three major communions, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. Within Protestantism there are numerous traditions, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, and Arminian as well as innumerable denominations. While Christians agree on the fundamental doctrines of the faith, [52] How are we to deal with the significant differences that exist between communions and narrower traditions? How are we to rank the authority of theological constructions that are narrower than those embodied in the ecumenical creeds?

The first reality that must be reiterated in this process is that all theological constructions are finite, limited approximations that represent, recontextualize, or redescribe the presentation of the scriptural material. Additionally, by virtue of the nature of language, there is a high degree of metaphor and figurative language in scripture and in the concepts there embodied. Grant Osborne has discussed the metaphorical nature of theological language with reference to hermeneutics and its implications for theological construction. [53] Osborne argues rightly that theological statements are at their core metaphorical. The consequence is that “doctrinal statements are figurative representations of theoretical constructs, and the accuracy or ‘truth’ of their portrayal is always a moot point.” [54] When added to the historical dimension this makes for a degree of tentativeness in the certainty of assumptions.

In Christian theology we are dealing with something analogous to what Thomas Kuhn would call “paradigm communities” in science. Those theological formulations which transcend the boundaries that separate the three major Christian communions must have the highest authority. Within particular communions, those doctrines that are common to the entire communion will be ranked next in level of authority. In actuality, this principle applies particularly within Protestantism since it, to a far higher degree than Catholicism or Orthodoxy, finds itself characterized by discrete traditions, sub-traditions and sub-sub traditions.

Within Protestantism we would look historically at such doctrines as:

  • justification sola fide, by faith apart from human works. This is the doctrine out of which Protestant was born.
  • an understanding of the sacraments as testimonies and reminders as opposed to sacerdotalism, which sees the sacraments as actually infusing divine grace into the recipient.
  • the centrality and the final authority of the scriptures, which ranks as a hallmark of Protestantism as opposed to Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
  • the extent of the canon as excluding the apocrypha.

These are all examples of what would be considered second level doctrines. They are important, maybe important enough to divide over, but not a part of the fundamental core of the apostolic kerygma, and hence not an explicit part of the historic faith.

Divisions also exist between Protestant traditions, particularly between the Reformed/Calvinist tradition and the Arminian and Wesleyan/Arminian tradition. Issues that separate these traditions focus particularly upon the understanding of the nature of human depravity and spiritual ability and the nature of divine grace. The battle between these two camps has often coalesced into heated and acrimonious debate over the issue of election/predestination. Often unrecognized is that in these doctrinal constructions there is a divergence in the theological methods by which the doctrines are established and defended. The Reformed camp particularly has committed itself to a scholastic theological method that Calvin himself would find objectionable. Conversely the Arminian camp has historically had no solid center around which it built its system and has tended to drift theologically in the direction of rationalism. While not denying that there are profound implications to the questions raised, looking taxonomically at the importance of these debates they must be ranked as third level. The doctrine of predestination did not die on the cross; Jesus did.

Many other questions beg to be addressed in this discussion. Questions about organizing principles, [55] philosophical systems employed by various systems and theologians, hermeneutics and the application of hermeneutics to various genre of scripture, and the implications for the development and articulation of doctrine are all-important questions that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, to address all of these questions is beyond the scope of this discussion. What this chapter has tried to demonstrate is that it is a fundamental error to view all our doctrines as on the same level of importance. Some doctrines are fundamental to the faith. These are the consensus doctrines spelled out in the ancient creeds. Interestingly these are not the doctrines that evangelicals get upset about when they are challenged. Looking taxonomically, the irony is that the doctrinal discussions that engender the most heat and least light are those doctrines that are historically and exegetically the least well established, but have been raised to touchstone level by particular denominations and traditions in a sectarian fashion.

It is in the realm of ranking doctrine that the reality of theological politics rears its ugly head. After all, everyone believes that his or her theological construction is the biblical one. Very, very few consciously recognize that factors other than the biblical text come into play in their theological belief structure. The commitment to the truth of God leads them to adopt a defensive posture and attack those who challenge their beliefs at any point. A commitment to pursue understanding and truth done within a dogmatic or confessional community must often be accomplished quietly and without challenging the powers that be, for such a challenge could well cost the individual his job or ministry. This is not hyperbole; it is a reality that I have seen happen on numerous occasions over issues as seemingly trivial as advocating dialogue with other denominations, of adopting a hermeneutical principle that is perceived to threaten the existing structure, of declaring that a denomination’s “denominational distinctives” are not cardinal doctrine.

There tends to be a fundamental insecurity among those who wield the power in denominations and schools that often cannot tolerate the mind that dares to ask questions. Reactions to new perspectives are often swift and “knee jerk.” While addressing primarily the evangelical community on this point, the same intolerance is seen on the left wing of the theological spectrum. Numerous conservative students have found their theses and dissertations rejected because they did not toe the line with politically correct exegesis or ride a theological hobbyhorse of the party line at more liberal institutions.

The raising of issues that properly are fourth or fifth level concerns in a taxonomy to touchstone level reveals a fundamental flaw in the way theology is approached. While we would not normally think in these terms, this mentality becomes schismatic and culpable before Christ because it takes the focus of reflection off Him and His work and introduces division into His body, the church.

As has been said elsewhere, systematic theology does not arise directly from the Bible, the claims of adherents to particular systems notwithstanding. It is a human enterprise. [56] Theological definition is a human response to God’s revelation, and the organizing principles are of human, not divine, origin. [57]

While God is truth, we are not God and only have an incomplete grasp of His truth. By recognizing the relative importance of the truths we hold, we are better able to maintain the bond in unity in love.

In essential things unity
In non-essential things tolerance
In all things charity

 


[1] This essay is a preliminary and unedited draft of a chapter in The Survivor’s Guide to Theology; see prefatory remarks for data.

[2] Theological Introduction or Prolegomena is a field of study akin in to OT Introduction and NT Introduction. In this case introduction does not mean easy, but rather preliminary issues that must be understood before looking at any system of doctrine.

[3] Millard Erickson explicitly recognizes this raising of the virgin birth to touchstone status as an apologetic ploy, and that the virgin birth is not absolutely necessary for maintaining the reality of the incarnation. It is in his understanding probably a second level doctrine, i.e. not necessary for salvation. Christian Theology 2nd ed, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 757-760, 772.

[4] These vowel points were not added until the medieval period by the Masoretes because Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language and there was a danger that the Jews would forget how to pronounce the text of the Hebrew scriptures .

[5] The point here is not to attack or defend the doctrine of inerrancy, but merely to show how and why it achieved its central position among American evangelicals.

[6] The 1970’s saw a renewal of the inerrancy controversy that had raged during the late 19th and early 20th century. The inerrancy controversy of the 1970’s and 80’s was an in-house fight among evangelicals who both asserted the characteristic essentials: “. . . conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorites that is the basis of Evangelicalism” (David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989], 3.) Traditionalists insisted upon the adequacy and authority of the formulations made in the late nineteenth century, while the opponents raised numerous objections to the doctrine based upon epistemology, linguistics, history, and the phenomena of the text.

[7] We recognize with the historic Protestant tradition that sola scriptura means that scripture is the ultimate authority, not the only authority, a position that Donald Bloesch labels nuda scriptura (Theology of Word and Spirit, [Downers Grove: IVP, 1992] 193).

[8] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom I, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977) 7.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Hubert Cunliffe-Jones (ed), A History of Christian Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 19-20.

[11] Alister McGrath, Studies in Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 408-436. McGrath is supremely concerned about the communication of doctrine to generations unfamiliar with the categories of scripture and of the Reformation.

[12] Cited by Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed., 758.

[13] To be sure these “truths” have been taught in other times and places, but the fact that Simpson experienced physical healing and had a crisis spiritual experience of the holiness variety that he identified as “sanctification” led to these doctrines being elevated to touchstone status in the denomination.

[14] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 83-34.

[15] See Chapter 00

[16] Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) 35-80.

[17] Ibid, 60.

[18] It is at this point particularly that we see the epistemological/philosophical substructure of the theologian affecting the Gestalt of the doctrine articulated.

[19] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 61.

[20] Ibid, 64.

[21] Ibid, 55.

[22] Ibid, 56.

[23] Ibid, 55.

[24] This stress on the objective nature of the Faith has led to the charge that Princeton was rationalistic in its approach to Christianity. Numerous historians and theologians have contended that the Princetonians compartmentalized faith and life. For example, C. R. Jeschke states of the Princetonians:

The strict compartmentalization of formal theology and the life of piety that came to prevail at Princeton reflected in part the growing irrelevance of traditional modes of thought and inherited statements of faith for the needs of the church in a rapidly changing world. The fact that Hodge and his colleagues, like most of their contemporaries, were unaware of the sickness in the theological body, only permitted the condi­tion to worsen, and heightened the reaction of the patient to the cure, when its true condition was finally diagnosed. (“The Briggs Case: The Focus of a Study in Nineteenth Century Presbyterian History” [Ph.D. dissertation, Uni­versity of Chicago, 1966], p. 56.)

Andrew Hoffecker has challenged this perception of the Princetonians, contending that those who make such assertions ignore the wealth of devotional material left by Alexander, Charles Hodge and Warfield (Piety and the Princeton Theologians, [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981]). Despite Hoffecker’s defense of the Princetonians themselves, it is not too much to say that many even among the Old School read only the theological material of the Princetonians. This fact contributed to a cold creedal orthodoxy among a significant contingent of the Old School with its stress on pure doctrine. Even the great Greek grammarian Basil Gildersleeve, himself a Princeton graduate, decried the “baleful influence of Princeton” stating that there was from there “very little hope of a generous vivifying force” (Letter from Gildersleeve to Charles Augustus Briggs, Briggs Transcripts 5:470 located at Union Seminary Library, New York)..

[25] Charles Hodge, as representative of the Princetonian position, displayed a great antipathy for any emphasis on the subjective nature of Christianity. At one point he stated: “The idea that Christianity is a form of feeling, a life, and not a system of doctrines is contrary to the faith of all Christians. Christianity always has a creed. A man who believes certain doctrines is a Christian.” (Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review29:693.)

[26] See chapter 2 for the inadequacies of this presumption.

[27] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 66.

[28] Ibid, 66.

[29] See Sue Patterson, Realist Christian Theology in a Post-modern Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 73-93. In this chapter entitled “The anatomy of language riddenness” she explores the way in which language actually creates and shapes our world.

[30] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 67-68.

[31] C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 4-5.

[32] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 69.

[33] C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 133..

[34] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine 70.

[35] Quoted by McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 70.

[36] See chapter 2, p. 00.

[37] See chapter 2 p. 00. Thomas Kuhn’s classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, deals at length with the interpretation of data and how that it is given meaning within a framework. Only when data accumulates over a period of time which will not fit the framework do new understandings arise.

[38] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 71.

[39] Ibid., 73.

[40] See Chapter 00 for a further discussion.

[41] See M. James Sawyer, Charles Augustus Briggs and Tensions in Late Nineteenth Century American Theology (Lewiston, New York: Mellen University Press, 1994), 27-33.

[42] Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed., 82-83.

[43] Ibid., 82.

[44] Vincent of Lerins, 000.

[45] While most evangelicals intuitively side with Nestorius on the question of Theotokos vs. Christotokos there are important theological issues here cutting to the very heart of the incarnation. Protestant theologians from the Reformers to the 20th century have insisted that Mary is indeed Theotokos . For example Zwingli declared: “the Virgin should be called the Mother of God, Theotokos.” (An Exposition of the Fait, LCC XXIV, 256) Luther too concurred with this opinion. Calvin takes a whole paragraph in the Institutes defending the doctrine of Mary as Theotokos (2:14:4). In the twentieth century Karl Barth noted that it is “a test of the proper understanding of the incarnation” that “we do not reject the description of Mary as ‘mother of God’“ (Barth, CD I/2:138). The logic of the Theotokos designation is given by John of Damascus: “For as he who is born of her is true God, so she is truly Mother of God.” (John of Damascus, OF III.12, FC 37, 292.) The Council of Ephesus affirmed that this designation as Mother of God was “according to his human nature” but not “according to the divine nature.” Oden has summarized the significance of the title: Theotokos “does not mean that the nature of the Word or of his divinity received the beginning of its existence from the Holy Virgin, but that since the holy body, animated by a rational soul, which the Word united to Himself according to the hypostasis, was born from her, the Word was born according to the flesh” (Tomas Oden, The Word of Life (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989), 157.

[46] For an excellent discussion of the implications of Nestorianism see C. FitzSimmons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy (Harrisburg, PA: Moorehouse Publishing, 1994) 119-138.

[47] See Appendix, p. 000 for the text of the creed.

[48] The difference between a creed and confession is significant in that a creed is affirmed by all of Christendom whereas a confession is limited to a particular tradition.

[49] See M. James Sawyer, “Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament” Grace Journal of Theology 11:1 (1990) 00.

[50] This section addresses the question of taxonomy from the perspective of the work of the exegete and is drawn from unpublished work done by Daniel B. Wallace. Grant Osborne, too, discusses this topic in The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991), 286-317.

[51] I am using the term postmodern term “local narrative” here not in the more conventional sense of geographically or culturally local, but in the sense of a theological system/tradition that conceptualizes Christianity in a peculiar fashion and which those within that tradition tend to globalize as the one right understanding.

[52] For the purposes of discussion, fringe groups and liberal Christianity are not in view here since both of these groups actively deny crucial elements of the historic faith. Even non-creedal groups such as the Baptists agree with the doctrines taught by the ecumenical creeds while not generally accepting the authority of the creeds themselves.

[53] Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991) 299-309.

[54] Ibid., 307.

[55] See here Vern Poythress, Symphonic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987) for an excellent discussion about issues surrounding the questions of system building and organizing principles.

[56] See Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, volume 1, p. 3-11. Schaff’s discussion focuses upon the development of creeds in the life of the church. Systematic theology in this sense is a further extention of the theologizing found in the creeds of the church.

[57] See B. B Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology.” In The Necessity of Systematic Theology, John Jefferson Davis (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978). Even as he insists on the objectivity of the facts of divine revelation, Warfield’s whole argument hinges upon the idea that theology is a science as geology or other natural sciences areas a sciences. It is the work of man to collect, to organize and to show the organic relationship of the data, integrating it into a concatenated whole. See also Vern Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), Poythress’ argument is for the perspectival nature of human knowledge a perspectivalism that extends even to biblical and theological study. Implicit in his argument is that human understanding is finite and limited, thus while there may be objective truth in the mind of God, humans cannot attain to it. Therefore no one system of theology can give us ultimate truth. All systems are partial and incomplete.

Constantine: The First Christian Emperor? Constantine : The First Christian Emperor?

Constantine : The First Christian Emperor?

Introduction

Constantine has remained an enigma and controversial figure to historians. This is due to the fact that analyses of him and his policies as emperor commonly intermingle two different questions: that of politics and that of theology. When this happens the result is a conclusion that tries to have it both ways. This is precisely the assumption that is employed in the Da Vinci Code and by various scholars of the early Church who see the heavy-handed imprimatur of Constantine on the council of Nicea as well as the formation of the canon of the New Testament. Contrary to the suggestion of Dan Brown, Constantine had no clear theological agenda. In fact, the emperor hardly seemed interested in the finer points of doctrine at all. Like the Roman emperors before him, Constantine saw religion as the glue that held his empire together. As long as unity was the outcome, he didn’t care which side won the theological battles. It is strange to twenty-first century Christians that, Constantine continued to feature the pagan deity the Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”) on coins after his conversion to Christianity. And he apparently rebuffed the pronouncement of Nicea by inviting the defeated Arians back into the fold and banishing the Nicene hero Athanasius. Constantine was and remained a layman who was not skilled in theological nuances. He was also a pragmatic emperor/politician who lacked the power that revisionists historians ascribe to him.

The Historical Setting:

Background Pagan Monotheism in the Third Century

Recent scholarship has called into question the view that there existed an implacability between paganism and Christianity during the fourth century. Paganism was not a static entity that had reached a fixed state of development. While fourth century paganism was indeed healthy, it was in a state of development. There was increased interest among pagans in a personal relationship with a single supreme deity. In other words there was an emerging “pagan monotheism.” Aspuleius’s The Golden Ass is put forth as one example of such change in religious sensibilities apart from Christianity. The pantheons were being replaced by a single high god who was known by various names. This was also in accord with the philosophers who pointed to a single unifying power to which the ascription god was not inappropriate.

Isis’s appearance to Lucius in The Golden Ass provides a vivid example of this phenomenon. She reveals herself as,

. . .  the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity, the queen of those in hell, the first among those in heaven, the uniform manifestation of all the gods and goddesses – I, who govern by my nod the crests of light in the sky, the purifying wafts of the ocean, and the lamentable silences of hell – I, whose single godhead is venerated all over the earth under manifold forms, varying rites, and changing names. [1]

Constantine’s father, Constantius Chlorus is recognized as a worshiper of Sol Invictus and seems himself to have been a “pagan monotheist” who believed in a supreme creator God who was known by many names and worshipped in different manifestations, in one place as the sky god, in another as the sun god. Constantine appears to have followed in his father’s footsteps in this matter until he saw his famous vision in the night sky. [2]

This movement toward monotheism helps make more sense of the developments during Constantine’s reign and to explain how Christianity which was also monotheistic and worshiped a creator god (who had also become incarnate to provide salvation) could take its place in the religious pluralism of the empire without causing mass disruption over religion in the body politic.

The Decian Persecution

From the late first century when Christianity lost its protective umbrella of legality because of its separation from Judaism, its status in the Roman Empire was that of a religio illicta, an illegal religion. As such, its adherents were subject to persecution. During the first two centuries the persecutions experienced by Christians were often severe. During the lifetime of the apostles the emperor Nero, in his persecution of Christians, covered them with pitch, bound then to poles and set them on fire to light his garden parties. In the early second century Ignatius, bishop of Antioch was arrested and transported to Rome where he was thrown to the lions in the Arena. About two decades later Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna was burned at the stake for his refusal to denounce Christ. Shortly after A.D. 200 there was a severe persecution in Lyons in southern Gaul (modern France), which claimed the life of Irenaeus, the great apologist and bishop of Lyons. During that persecution records tell of Christians being roasted alive on iron chairs. As gruesome as are these accounts, all these persecutions were local. Rome as a matter of public policy did not officially sanction persecution until the reign of Decius (emperor from 249-251). A devotee of the old Roman traditions, he required that all within the empire sacrifice to the emperor based upon his belief that the restoration of state cults was essential to the preservation of the empire. While Decius did not force Christians to renounce Christ, the Christian insistence that only Christ was to be worshiped brought the wrath of Rome down upon the Christians. The persecution became the most severe persecution that Christians had to date faced, and resulted in thousands of martyrdoms.

The Decian persecution was followed by fifty years of relative peace during which Christianity entered into an era of relative peace and prosperity. During this time churches were built, the numbers of adherents to the faith increased and many Christians were to be found in civil service employment of the government.

Diocletian and the Tetrarchy

During the period of the late empire Diocletian (c 243-316) changed the empire’s administrative structure from that of having a single emperor over the whole empire. He divided the empire into four parts each of which was ruled by a Caesar. Constantine’s father was Augustus over northern Europe and England. It is this administrative arrangement that sets the scene for Constantine’s rise to power.

Diocletian is often called the second founder of the empire. Like the first emperor Octavian Augustus Caesar, Diocletian was a problem solver whose goal was to bring stability after a time of civil war and to give legitimacy to his new position. While Augustus had looked to the Senate for his legitimacy Diocletian’s powerbase was the army, but the military as a legitimizing force for power was abhorrent to the Roman populace. As in the days of the late republic before Augustus was declared emperor, Diocletian looked to culture (including religion) to provide that legitimation. [3] As had been said of old, the responsibilities of the “good king” included military command, dispensation of justice and the cult of the gods.” [4] As an administrator he reorganized the imperial structure; changed the rules of succession; changed the relationship between the senate and the emperor; he exalted the emperor far above the traditional role as “first citizen.” Under Diocletian the standard form of address to the Emperor became “Lord.” [5] His reputation for the first 18 years of his rule was considered beneficent.

When Diocletian’s western counterpart Constantius Chlorus died at York in 306, his son Constantine was proclaimed emperor (Augustus) by his father’s troops. [6] From York Constantine moved his army southward to secure his position as Augustus against his western rival Maxentius.

Persecution of Christianity

Late during his reign Diocletian abruptly changed in his policy toward Christianity (and the newer Manicheanism, a dualistic Persian faith with strong ascetic tendencies) from one of tolerance to persecution. This change of policy has puzzled historians. It has been suggested that it was in fact the Manicheans’ aggressive proselytizing that may have been the basis for the persecution. Of them it was said “They commit many crimes. . . , disturb quiet populations and even work the greatest harm to whole cities. [7] The edict opens with the fundamental statement of belief that “established religion ought not to be criticized by a new one.” It further states: “It is indeed highly criminal to discuss doctrines once and for all settled and defined by our forefathers, and which have their recognized place and course in our system. Wherefore we are resolutely determined to punish the stubborn depravity of these worthless people.” [8] Other edicts of Diocletian reveal a belief that all opposition to imperial policy was treason.

Apparently in this situation there was a conspiracy hatched among both key Neoplatonic philosophers and the elites of the city of Miletus, enemies of Christianity, to instigate a persecution against the Christians as well. The means adopted was a false prophecy given to Diocletian by the oracle of Apollos at Miletus. As applied to the Christians Diocletian’s edict required that churches be demolished, Scriptures seized, clergy tortured, and Christian civil servants deprived of their citizenship and executed if they remained unrepentant of their “crimes.” While Manicheans were at this point a tiny but very vocal minority of the population, Christians represented more than ten percent of the total population of the empire. [9]

Enforcement of the persecution was not universal. Constantine’s father, Caesar Constantius Chlorus, Diocletian’s counterpart in the west failed to implement the persecution in the northern territories and only halfheartedly implemented it in the remainder of his territory. In the east there was widespread civil disobedience that overwhelmed the court system to the extent that there was no room for criminals. While Christians did indeed suffer horribly under this persecution the authorities ultimately recognized that the policy was a failure.

It was into this religious situation that Constantine stepped as he assumed his father’s position.

Constantine and Christianity His conversion: “In this sign conquer”Our knowledge of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity comes from two sources. Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote the emperor’s biography and includes an account recalled by Constantine related decades later, and Lactantius, who wrote a narrative of the event within three years of the event.

Constantine’s father had been a lifelong monotheist and devotee of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, indeed there had been growing a movement among many Romans that may be termed “pagan monotheism.” These Romans rejected the polytheism of the old paganism and recoiled against the blood sacrifice. While not recognizing the legitimacy of Christianity, they worshiped the “one Supreme God.” Indeed, it may be that this tendency toward pagan monotheism accounts for Christianity’s improved standing and growth in the latter half of the third century.

Eusebius relates that Constantine had resolved to follow his father’s god, “Accordingly he called on Him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties.” [10] In short, Constantine sought for a personal revelation. The result of this prayer was his famous vision of the cross. Even after this vision Constantine remained puzzled “and while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heaven, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.” [11] Yet Constantine was still puzzled and sent for “those who were acquainted with the mysteries of His doctrines.” At that point Constantine “first learned the significance of the cross to Christian belief and began a course in religious instruction.” [12]

Two things need to be observed here. First, the initial vision in the sky may have appeared as late as the night preceding the battle with Constantine’s rival Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge as is commonly thought. Or he may have seen the vision while he was still in Britain and the subsequent dream may have come as late as the night before the battle. The timing of the details of the story is impossible to ascertain, but there is a consistency from the two sources as to the essential data of the account. Second, while evangelicals see conversion as a single momentary event, e.g. “When did you receive Jesus as your savior?” Conversion has not been so viewed through a majority of the history of the Church. Salvation has been viewed more as a process than event, beginning with a lengthy process of instruction and discipline to make sure they cognitively understood the faith and that their conduct was in accord with their profession. When they had demonstrated the sincerity of their faith to their bishop the convert was then baptized into the faith. In the eyes of the Christians of the day one was not a counted as a Christian until one had undergone the rite of baptism. With this background it becomes easier to understand the descriptions of the events.

Constantine’s initial “conversion” reported by Lactanius and Eusebius may have amounted to little more than a primitive “battle of the gods.” Latourette suggests that Maxentius’ reputation for relying on pagan magic may have been part of Constantine’s motivation to find a more powerful deity to call upon to defeat his rival. [13] Whatever the initial motivation as subsequent events bear out, it was a conversion.

Despite his lack of official status in the Church and the fact that he never placed himself under Church discipline or tutelage, Constantine surrounded himself with Christian advisors, and various bishops formed part of his entourage. So much did he consider himself a Christian that he felt free to involve himself in the life of the Church as “bishop of bishops.”

Baptized late in life

Another issue that is frequently brought up by those who question the legitimacy of Constantine’s conversion, is the fact that he was not baptized until his deathbed. And that in his weakened condition that he was forced to accept baptism by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had been the leading Arian spokesman at the council of Nicea.

Constantine died on May 22, A.D. 337. Contemporary reports inform us that weeks before his death the emperor complained of a “slight bodily indisposition.” Around Easter his health took a turn for the worse. Unable to find a cure in Constantinople he crossed the Hellespont and went to Helenopolis (Drepanum) which was famous for its hot springs with their healing properties and was also the location of the grave of Lucian of Antioch whose relics were reputed to be spiritually powerful. There Constantine exhausted himself in prayer and supplication. Recognizing that he was dying he put back to sea but his health had so deteriorated he was forced to put to shore in Nicomedia. While on the outskirts of the city he summoned the bishops and requested the rite of baptism. While Constantine had professed Christianity and devotion to the Christian God for about twenty-five years he was still technically a pagan since he had never received Christian baptism. [14] “At the conclusion of the ceremony he arrayed himself in shining imperial vestments, brilliant as the light, and reclined on a couch of the purest white, refusing to clothe himself with the purple any more.” [15] “He then lifted his voice and poured forth a strain of thanksgiving to God; after which he added these words. “Now I know that I am truly blessed: now I feel assured that I am accounted worthy of immortality, and am made a partaker of Divine light.” [16] He died five weeks later.

While the question of baptism on one’s deathbed seems strange to contemporary Protestant ears, this was not an uncommon practice during this period. At this time it was already common practice to baptize infants to wash away the stain of original sin. But the situation with adult converts was different. The common belief of the Church was that baptism washed away all sins previously committed. Sins committed after baptism required penance. The churches enforced strict discipline upon their members who committed serious sins after baptism. It was not uncommon for the Church to allow only one post-baptismal repentance for mortal sin. With this strict requirement many adult converts postponed baptism until late in life so they could have the assurance that they would die with all their sins washed away.

In the case of an emperor as a political leader of a great empire Constantine often exercised his power in a way that could be deemed sinful as he administered his empire and sought to maintain peace and unity. Add to this court intrigues which included plots on the emperor’s life and were met with swift execution of the plotters. Particularly scandalous in the case of Constantine was his order of the death of his son Crispus whom he was grooming as his heir and of Fausta his second wife with whom his son was rumored to be having an affair.

This brings up the issue of the evaluation of historical figures and their actions. We tend to evaluate the actions of historical figures on the basis of our standards, which are of course the “right” ones. In fact, any event must be understood within its original context and the morality of the times. This standard is not employed to “give a pass” to behavior, activities and attitudes that we might find abhorrent, or to relativize the standards of God. Rather it recognizes that we all perceive reality from our own context, and that before we pass judgment on another, particularly another who lives in a very different culture than our own we must “walk a mile in their moccasins.” God judges by the heart intention and takes into account all the mitigating factors in his judgment. We do not have access to heart motivations, but we can at least attempt to take into account mitigating factors in our evaluations.

Constantine and the Canon?

Despite the bold charge made by the A&E documentary and repeated in a sensationalized form in the Da Vinci Code concerning Constantine and the formation of the canon there is no evidence that he had influence on the canon.  The four canonical gospels were already well ensconced by the mid-second century and that by the time of Constantine the only books that were still debated were those on the “fringe” of the canon, i.e. those books that were not widely circulated. The first canonical list that contains all and only the twenty-seven New Testament books dates from A.D. 367 thirty years after Constantine’s death. Official councilior pronouncements date from a decade later.

The only evidence that Constantine had anything to do with the production of the Bible is a letter written from the emperor to Eusebius of Caesarea commissioning the production of 50 copies of the text of scripture for use in the Church.

Victor Constantinus, Maximus Augustus, to Eusebius.

It happens, through the favoring providence of God our Savior, that great numbers have united themselves to the most holy church in the city which is called by my name. It seems, therefore, highly requisite, since that city is rapidly advancing in prosperity in all other respects, that the number of churches should also be increased. Do you, therefore, receive with all readiness my determination on this behalf. I have thought it expedient to instruct your Prudence to order fifty copies of the sacred Scriptures, the provision and use of which you know to be most needful for the instruction of the Church, to be written on prepared parchment in a legible manner, and in a convenient, portable form, by professional transcribers thoroughly practiced in their art. The catholicus of the diocese has also received instructions by letter from our Clemency to be careful to furnish all things necessary for the preparation of such copies; and it will be for you to take special care that they be completed with as little delay as possible. You have authority also, in virtue of this letter, to use two of the public carriages for their conveyance, by which arrangement the copies when fairly written will most easily be forwarded for my personal inspection; and one of the deacons of your church may be intrusted (sic) with this service, who, on his arrival here, shall experience my liberality. God preserve you, beloved brother! [17]

Eusebius continues telling of the fulfillment of the commission.

Such were the emperor’s commands, which were followed by the immediate execution of the work itself, which we sent him in magnificent and elaborately bound volumes of a threefold and fourfold form. This fact is attested by another letter, which the emperor wrote in acknowledgment, in which, having heard that the city Constantia in our country, the inhabitants of which had been more than commonly devoted to superstition, had been impelled by a sense of religion to abandon their past idolatry, he testified his joy, and approval of their conduct. [18]

Beyond this testimony there is no evidence to or any involvement by Constantine in the development of the canon or in the production of texts. The evidence we have from later in Constantine’s reign suggests that he did not have the power to control the Church in the fashion suggested, even had he wanted to.

Constantine, Christianity and Politics

While the evidence gleaned from Constantine’s actions point in the direction of a sincere belief in Christ, the fact that he was not baptized meant that he was not technically a Christian. This put him in an ambiguous religious situation. This technicality may well be evidence of the calculation of a shrewd politician who by virtue of the fact that he ruled over an empire whose population was still about 90% pagan was as emperor required to fulfill obligations that a baptized Christian could not participate in. The bishops while looking askance at Constantine’s religious and moral deviations as the unfortunate actions of one who was inclined to become a Christian but was not under their direction, they interpreted his policies and edicts as the actions of one who was friendly or even inclined to become a Christian. [19]

Over time Constantine’s favor toward Christianity became more and more obvious. Historians have debated whether this favor arose from political expediency or devout belief. The way the issue is framed reveals a modern western assumption of separation of Church and state as well as a correlate assumption that faith and politics are mutually exclusive. The idea of the separation of Church and state is a thoroughly modern concept. Before the founding of the United States in A.D. 1789 the concept was unheard of. Religion and politics have always been inexorably intertwined.

Constantine’s favor toward the Church can be seen in the fact that he granted the clergy exemption from all contributions to the state, a privilege previously granted to all other officially recognized religions. Wills in favor of the Church were permitted. Sunday, recognized as the Christian day of worship since the late first century was granted the same status as pagan feast days. [20] Feast days in honor of the martyrs as well as festivals were to be honored by provincial governors. Manumission of slaves in the presence of bishops or clergy was legalized. Litigation brought in the courts of the bishops was recognized as legally binding before the secular authorities. As he moved his capital to Constantinople he built many churches while prohibiting the repair of ruined pagan temples and shrines as well as the erecting of any new images of the pagan gods. He also outlawed any attempt to force Christians to participate in pagan worship. [21]

These changes in policy did not happen overnight. He pursued a policy of gradualism, a slow but constant move toward a public policy that favored Christianity but did not alienate the pagan majority of the populace. It appears that he was both a political realist and one whose theological understanding was maturing. His first act was to put an end to the persecution and thereafter declare Christianity a legal religion. Shortly thereafter he showed favor to the Church by giving bishops traveling to the Synod of Arles in A.D. 314 public conveyance to and from their destination. Yet while visibly shifting his allegiance he was careful not to antagonize the followers of the pagan religions whose political power base in the Senate was especially strong. [22]

Ultimately Constantine challenged his eastern counterpart Licinius whom he defeated in A.D. 324. After he consolidated his power Constantine appointed numerous Christians to high government positions. His move to establish his powerbase in the East rather than continue with the capital in Rome was due in no small measure to the fact that the Christian presence in the East was much stronger and paganism was reasserting itself in the West especially in the Senate. The “New Rome” diminished the powerbase of the mostly pagan Senate. Likewise he dealt another blow to paganism by raiding their temples for the statues of the pagan gods and employing them as objects of art in Constantinople. In so doing he deprived the pagans of their ancient objects of worship at their shrines. At the same time he built beautiful churches for the Christians. [23]

Legalization of Christianity

While it is common to assert that Constantine was the first individual responsible for legalizing Christianity in the empire, the facts are a bit more complicated. The general public did not meet Christianity with the hostility of Diocletian. The public sympathies lay with the Christians. [24] Christians rightly attributed their victory to the martyrs, but we must recognize the sympathy of the pagan public for the injustice being done to them. It is significant that on his deathbed Galerius, Diocletian’s successor, issued an edict of toleration acknowledging the failure of the policy of persecution. [25] However Galerius’s subordinates often ignored the emperor’s edict and continued to harass and persecute Christians.

It is true that Constantine ended the persecution of the Christians as soon as he came to power, but so did his rival Maxentius. Maxentius had even intervened in internal Church disagreements in Rome in order to keep the peace. Eusebius reports that while Maxentius had had a history of cruel persecution of Christians, late in his struggle with Constantine he “feigned Christianity” in order to win the support of the people of Rome. Proof of this charade is a secret treaty between the now supposedly “Christian” Maxentius and the Church’s most ardent persecutor Maximin Daza discovered in Maxentius’s papers in Rome after his defeat at the hands of Constantine. This treaty is cited as the reason that the Christians forsook support of Maxentius and rallied to Constantine. What began as a battle for the throne of the empire was quickly transformed into a religious battle with Constantine emerging as the champion of Christianity while Maxentius was relegated to the role of a deceptive pretender who has not without reason been demonized by later historians. Schaff has called him “the heathen tyrant” and “the cruel pagan” “cruel, dissolute tyrant, hated by heathens and Christians alike” [26]

In ancient pagan religions the gods dealt with communities, not individuals. In this way Christianity cut against the grain of society at its most basic level. Judgment was not something reserved for the last days. If offended the gods would express their wrath not with moral judgment and eternal condemnation by physical ruin via natural disaster. Earthquakes, plagues, drought, floods, and famines were all signs of the gods’ displeasure. When such events occurred the citizens would seek to learn how they had angered the gods. [27] The responsibility of the community was to give the gods their proper worship to assure the continued blessing of the gods expressed in fecundity, bountiful harvests, peace and/or victory over enemies.

The Roman state was organized around pagan gods and rituals. For this reason public events which contemporary Christians would not hesitate to participate in were off limits to ancient Christians. Even in the law courts justice was administered in the name of the gods. (This may in fact be one reason that Christians are confronted by the apostle for their recourse to the courts.) Even the meat bought at the butcher’s shop had likely been sacrificed to idols. Because of this intertwining of the state and religion, Christians generally refused to participate in the culture. The authorities viewed this refusal seditious and a danger to the community and empire. With the significant number of Christians in the empire the problem was more acute.

In the pre-Constantinian period the Roman priesthood was the same group that held public office and were of the same social class that characterized any who held position in society. There was no priestly caste. The state was a ultimately a religious institution that existed to please the gods. This became the primary reason for public official. The conceptual vocabulary for the concept of a distinction between Church and state did not even exist. The emperor himself held the highest priestly office in the community—pontifex maximus, head of the Roman state religion. (see below)

At the time Constantine ascended the throne, the Church was not a monolithic structure. Those who read the later medieval hierarchical structure back into the early Church seriously misunderstand and misrepresent the reality. The power of the Church lay not in an established hierarchy but in the bishops as the virtual monarchs of their local communities. The bishop maintained his local community and also represented his community to other communities. The rise and consolidation of the authority of the bishop was tied directly to the persecution the early Church suffered. This focused their role as guardians of their flock in a new way. In the Roman world, pagan priests were chosen for priestly office because of “personal worth,” i.e. station in life, birth or both. While Christian bishops and priests could be well educated and wealthy, their position was not due to either. More basic were personal qualifications of faith and piety of character. [28] Because of their unique position the bishops were the glue that held Christianity together.

By the late third century the Church had become a potential political threat to the Roman civil structure. As opposed to pagan priesthood which stood at the emperor’s beck and call. The Roman political establishment had no say in selecting the leadership in the Church, which meant that the Church was potentially a rival power structure.

The failure of the persecutions made Christianity a force to be reckoned with. Thanks to the apologists it had engaged the dominant culture. Thanks to the martyrs it had maintained its identity, and its message had not been compromised. The Church developed strong internal ties to maintain its communal identity while developing a flexibility that allowed it to attract converts. [29]

Constantine as a shrewd politician as well as one who became convinced of the truth of Christianity purposefully involved Christianity in the political hierarchy of maintaining the civil structure of the empire and thus successfully integrated this powerful social group into the larger body politic.

Did not persecute other religionsConstantine is often seen as the source of Christian intolerance that ultimately led to the persecution of paganism and other religions, but the story is much more complicated. He saw himself as one who would bring unity to the empire. This involved bringing both halves of the empire under a single ruler, but it also involved bringing Christians together in the public square, and finally establishing peace. [30] He publicly announced that he sought “a common harmony of sentiment” [31] that would be concurrent “with desires of them all.” [32] This was a risky agenda politically but Constantine proved himself to be a skillful politician in successfully pursing this agenda.

The emperor himself held a view toward belief that is strangely modern. He in his edicts explicitly recognize that it is impossible to compel belief by force, and ordered both Christians and pagans to refrain from the use of force and to pursue interaction that consciously avoided all confrontation. More pointedly he says in the context of personally rejecting pagan rituals “. . . it is one thing voluntarily to undertake the conflict for immortality, another to compel others to do so from the fear of punishment.” [33] H.A. Drake notes that Constatine’s political theology involved a “sophisticated religious policy of pluralism and toleration.” [34]

As a Christian politician as well as in his relationship with the Church, Constantine was a centrist. He recognized the militant wing within the Church and the strength of belief that produced the martyrs. Christianity was not a unified movement but one that was composed of several constituencies, some of whom needed to be reigned in. Constantine’s great political and rhetorical skill was used within the context of the Church to neutralize the extremists by employing rhetoric anchored in the core teaching of Jesus that marginalized those who would use force to compel faith. [35]

Sol Invictus, Pontificus Maximus

Historians often point to the image of Constantine on coins minted a few years after his victory over Maxentius, picturing him with Apollo in the Roman coinage. This some contend reveals the political expediency of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. While there are many ways that this issue could be approached, one often ignored is the way that Christian apologists of the second and third century contended with the pagan opponents of Christianity in order to make their case.

In his work Against the Christians, Jeffery Hargis has argued that the winning strategy adopted by these apologists revolved around the question that asked “Who owns the intellectual furniture of the dominant culture?” [36] The pagans argued against the Christians contending that their own culture was older and had a great and proud history. Beginning in the second century with the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr, Christian apologists studied the pagan thought and philosophy in order to see similarities in order to find a way to frame the message of Christianity that the pagans would understand (contextualizing the message [37] ).

While this strategy was formerly adopted in the second century, we find the roots of it in scripture. The apostle in John 1:1 presents the preincarnate Christ as the logos, a philosophical concept well known and used in Greek philosophical circles as the rational faculty that bridged the gap between God and man. While the gospel writer does not develop this thought, this is precisely the bridge that the early apologists exploit in their argument with the philosophers. Drake observes that the logos “principle had long ago become personified into the Logos, a philosophical intermediary between the infinite perfection and the limited senses of humans. Christian apologists speaking in this medium could readily identify Jesus with this philosophical Logos.” [38] The Logos became the common ground adopted by the apologists to answer pagan objections while remaining true to the gospel.

Likewise the apologists drew parallels between the sun god Sol or Helios and the “Sun of Righteousness” and the “Sun of Salvation” in the OT. This parallel was also particularly effective since the OT was more ancient than any of the Greek philosophers. As a result of this process there arose “a large vocabulary of shared symbolism” [39] Drake observes that “unless their origins in a common context are remembered, words like Logos and Supreme God, or even Father and Savior, can signal more to the modern reader than their ancient author ever intended.” [40]

In this context of contextualization and shared symbolism it becomes easier to understand the pre-Constantinian mosaic that has been called “Christus-Helios” by art historians. The mosaic depicts Christ in the place of the sun god driving the solar chariot with the rays of the sun radiating in the shape of the cross. [41] The idea of a sacred kingship was shared by both Christians and pagans and in the late imperial period the divine connection was a key to the legitimacy of the emperor’s power. It should be noted that even in the Old Testament we find numerous examples of pagan imagery which do not imply an endorsement of the theology behind the imagery. [42]

The early coins of Constantine’s era recalled the Sol-Invictus symbol which had been a symbol of Emperors power depicted on the imperial coinage. Shortly he shed this symbolism in favor of the older images designed to evoke the memory of Augustus and Trajan.

Pontifex maximus: leader to of the state worship cult
Any examination of Constantine must take into account the fact that as emperor he inherited the title Pontifex maximus and responsibilities of presiding over the Roman state worship cult. Constantine maintained his status as Pontifex maximus until his baptism five weeks before his death.

The main responsibility of the Pontifex maximus was to maintain the pax deorum, the “peace with the gods.” The chief public duty of Pontifex maximus was to preside at state ceremonies. Other duties included the oversight of the calendar and the choice of the vestal virgins, as well as some members of the various priesthoods over whom, he also possessed powers of discipline. [43] He was also responsible to write down heavenly signs and portents and other omens as well as chronicle the events that followed the portents to enable future generations to better determine the will of the gods. [44]

These duties would seem to place any Christian in an impossible situation. Seventy-five years before Constantine, the great North African theologian-apologist, Tertullian, had flatly declared that no man could become emperor and remain a Christian. Yet the imperial office was so bound up with imperial religion that had Constantine abolished the office he would have stripped himself of a vast degree of prestige and authority, while to have transferred this authority to another would have been a virtual abdication of his imperial powers. [45] Indeed for the next six decades the succession of Christian Emperors retained and exercised the supreme headship of the Pagan Cults.

As Pontifex Maximus, Constantine instituted numerous reforms— secret divination henceforth was forbidden, as were certain abuses in magical rites. Early in his reign, he was as emperor religiously impartial in both language and actions. After his defeat of his pagan western rival, and as the power and influence of the Church grew in society, he was free to express his personal sentiments. And as the years progressed his hostility to paganism is more pronounced in his public proclamations as well as in his actions. While in A.D. 313 he gives no hint of criticism of paganism a decade later he feels free to speak of Pagan “obstinacy,” of their “misguided rites and ceremonies,” of their “temples of lying” which contrast so strikingly with “the splendours of the home of truth.” [46] He likewise tells the bishops of the East that he believes that he takes up the government of his new State “full of faith in the grace which has confided to me this holy duty.” [47] Even after his victory over Lactinius the Latin speaking west remained predominantly pagan for nearly another century. However his new capital city Constantinople was founded as a Christian city and pagans were even forbidden from repairing their temples. Nevertheless even as Constantine expresses his contempt for paganism he still carefully distributed political offices to both Christians and pagans and scrupulously maintained the equality of both religions before the law. [48]

The Council of Nicea
The Church had convened numerous councils in the three centuries prior to Nicea. Nicea marked a turning point in the development of the Church and the position of councils. Heretofore the only “universal” council of the Church was convened in Jerusalem during the lifetime of the apostles (recorded in Acts 15) and dealt with the question of the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. From that time forward all the councils had been local and their decisions were not binding on the whole Church.

Authority of councils
Twenty-first century individuals who look at the early Church with its bishops and councils often make the anachronistic error of reading back into history the later hierarchical structure of authority developed in the medieval era. Drake observes that the Church of this era bore little structural resemblance to the later medieval hierarchy with its top down authority structure headed by the pope.

“The bishops, not ‘Christianity,’ an ideology; not ‘the church,’ an abstract monolith, but a collection of local leaders with local power based over the course of three centuries had developed mechanisms for working with and against one another to promote mutual concerns and to present a collective authority that usually was capable of controlling the peculiarly volatile and anarchistic potential of their movement.”[49]

The power of the Church lay in the bishops (plural) not in a hierarchical structure. This structure arises after Constantine and in part in reaction to it.

The missionary strategy employed first by the apostle Paul and followed by his successors was one that planted churches and then turned over the leadership of those newly established churches/communities. We might think of each individual church as a “franchise” that was locally controlled but which looked to the wisdom of those older in the faith for guidance. When members moved to new areas and established churches, in succeeding generations the new churches kept close contact with the original communities. For example when the church of Lyons was undergoing severe persecution during the late second century they wrote to Smyrna in Asia Minor about their suffering rather than to the (relatively) local church at Marseilles or even Rome. In short, the early Church was constructed on a vast interconnected network of communities rather than having a hierarchical power structure. Within this structure the bishop was appointed by the community and attained the role of virtual monarch with a power base that civic officials could not easily approach. But two factors, the rise of persecution and of heresy turned the bishops into the guardians of the Church. [50] The rise of heresy is of special importance here because the New Testament itself focuses attention on the belief in core truths, e.g. the humanity of Christ, his resurrection from the dead, his special relationship to the Father, that identify one as being in the faith or not. Heresy threatened not only the well being of the community but also the ultimate salvation of its members. Apologetic concern for the purity of the apostolic faith increasingly demanded specialist tools such as a mastery of classical philosophy as well as gathering with bishops of other locations where they would participate in debate. It was out of these gatherings that the hierarchy evolved. Synods and councils were generally held in the capital city of a province. This in turn gave the bishop of the capital cities more prominence.

The Occasion of the Council
In A.D. 325, the twentieth year of his reign, Constantine found himself confronted by Arianism, the controversy surrounding which was so serious that it threatened to rend the Church’s unity. In an earlier controversy with the Donatists [51] he had ordered mediation. He had expected that the same strategy would prevail in this instance. To that end he dispatched his advisor in ecclesiastical matters, Bishop Hosius (Ossius) of Cordova to mediate a settlement. However much to Constantine’s dismay Hosius reported that mediation would not be possible in this instance. At this point he decided to follow a plan he had been considering for some time. He resolved to convene an assembly of the bishops of the empire. There were matters of procedural disagreement among churches throughout the empire that had convinced Constantine of the need for standardization of policies and practices. The question of Arianism made a universal council imperative. Originally proposed for Ancrya, when Constantine suspected that there might be political maneuvering afoot to leverage the location of the council to the advantage of Alexander and his party he promptly changed the venue to Nicea a more neutral location in order to “level the playing field.” [52] To this end he summoned the bishops of the empire by a letter of invitation, to a council to be held at Nicea, a town about twenty miles from the imperial residence of Nicomedia. He went so far as to foot the bill for the attendees and their officially invited entourage of two presbyters and three servants. Many bishops saw this as an occasion to bring their private disputes before the emperor. These were disappointed because Constantine responded to these appeals by having the documents documenting the grievances burned without reading them and exhorted the parties to adopt a posture of reconciliation and harmony. [53] More than 300 bishops, one sixth of the total number in the entire empire attended. Most were victims of the persecutions and many were physically maimed due to the tortures to which they had been subjected. To meet under imperial summons and protection was for them nothing short of a miracle.

Constantine’s role in the council
The agenda: unity
Although Constantine was as yet unbaptized and technically not a Christian, he considered himself Bishop of all the bishops” [54] Constantine was a layman and unskilled in theology. As a policy he was a consensus builder and looked for those who would be “team players.” In his opening address to the council Constantine both identifies with the bishops and puts his agenda on the table.

“It was once my chief desire, dearest friends, to enjoy the spectacle of your united presence; and now that this desire is fulfilled, I feel myself bound to render thanks to God the universal King, because, in addition to all his other benefits, he has granted me a blessing higher than all the rest, in permitting me to see you not only all assembled together, but all united in a common harmony of sentiment. [55]

The theological issue of Arianism was one which the majority of the bishops did not understand. This group tended to be centrist and interested in the peace of the Church. It was particularly to this group that Constantine appealed,

Delay not, then, dear friends: delay not, ye ministers of God, and faithful servants of him who is our common Lord and Savior: begin from this moment to discard the causes of that disunion which has existed among you, and remove the perplexities of controversy by embracing the principles of peace. For by such conduct you will at the same time be acting in a manner most pleasing to the supreme God, and you will confer an exceeding favor on me who am your fellow-servant . [56]

Constantine’s appeal for moderation set the tone of the council and held in check those bishops who were thirsty for blood.

Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea had earlier been indicted on a charge of heresy by a local council in Antioch. Eusebius appealed to the emperor producing the creed of his native Caesarea and as a result was declared to be orthodox by Constantine. After this prelude the real business of the council began.

There was a request for a reading of the position of Arius so the bishops could better understand the issues under debate. Eusebius of Nicomedia, the unofficial leader of the Arian contingent of 28 bishops, sensed no strong support for the position espoused by Alexander, and evidently falling victim to thinking “if they are not with him they will be with me” he read a statement of the Arian position in its most extreme form. He blatantly and unequivocally denied the deity of the Son, insisting that he was a creature unequal with the Father in any sense. The bishops were scandalized. Some held their hands over their ears. Others shouted that the blasphemies be stopped. One bishop near Eusebius tore the manuscript out of his hand and stomped it on the floor. In short a riot broke out among the bishops that was quelled by the emperor’s guards.

While there was still little sympathy for Alexander’s position there was nearly unanimous agreement that the Arian position was indeed heresy. The issue became finding an adequate solution. After debate the solution adopted was a compulsory creed. The emperor, whose concern was unity more than fine points of theology, agreed. The emperor’s chaplain Hosius began work in constructing such a creed. The Arians argued that only scriptural terminology should be used, but this demand was rejected because it would leave room for the Arians to interpret the words of scripture to their advantage. The point was to write a creed that was explicitly anti-Arian, clearly spelling out the eternal unity of the Son with the Father. The record shows that it was Constantine himself that proposed the term homoousios (consubstantial, one substance, one being) [57] although it may have been Hosius that suggested it to him.

This raises the question as to why the emperor as one whose chief interest was unity would introduce a term that was intended to divide by isolating the Arians. The result of the council may itself give the answer. When all was said and done only three bishops failed to sign the Nicean Creed. On the surface it would seem that peace was achieved. Apparently only a few stubborn die-hards were unsatisfied and forced into exile. The subsequent history however reveals that beneath the surface the real story was quite different.

Beyond NiceaThe sequence of events that unfolds during the next decade is almost unfathomable when viewed through the lens of theology. Using this lens Constantine’s interaction with Christianity over the next decade must be seen as Machiavellian or inept. [58]

Constantine appeared to emerge from Nicea the with a victory for his agenda—a unified Church from which the few troublemakers had been removed. But this unity began to unravel within months. Two bishops including the host bishop of Nicea (Theoginis) and bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, the city of the imperial residence, were both exiled for their willingness to communicate with the exiled Arius and his followers. Over the next two years the Arian party proved themselves to be consummate politicians. In a letter to Constantine that sidestepped the underlying theological issue even Arius signaled that he could accept the Nicene solution. Eusebius whose crime was not theological, but communicating with Arius whom he did not believe was guilty of the crimes for which he had been exiled was allowed to return since Arius had now been adjudged to be orthodox by the emperor.

Once he was restored to his see in Nicomedia Eusebius organized with his supporters to have two of the chief defenders of the Nicean creed deposed along with their supporters. In the midst of this political move against the supporters of the Nicean creed, bishop Alexander of Alexandria, whose excommunication of Arius had touched off the controversy that led to Nicea, died. His assistant Athanasius was chosen in his stead. Athanasius was a man as unbending as was Arius. Despite orders from the emperor he refused to submit to readmitting a schismatic sect of Alexandria back into the church. This gave Eusebius the excuse to accuse Athanasius before the emperor. Athanasius won the initial skirmish and Constantine again turned against Arius. Two years later Athanasius was charged with murder of Arsenius, a priest and called to Constantinople to answer the charges. Constantine dismissed the charges when the priest showed up alive with both arms intact (it was charged that Athanasius had ordered his arms cut off). But in A.D. 334 Constantine ordered Athanasius to stand trial in Caesarea. Athanasius went into self-imposed exile in Upper Egypt to avoid the trial. Constantine was outraged and ordered Athanasius to Tyre the following year to stand before a council, with the warning that should he not appear exile would follow.

Constantine when evaluated by theological standards appears vacillating. Supporting first the Niceans (in the person of Athanasius) and then the Arians (Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia). However the apparent inconsistency in Constantine’s behavior disappears if Constantine was following his own agenda and not one that involved promoting orthodoxy and suppressing heresy. Eusebius of Caesarea himself hints that Constantine’s agenda as one of establishing “one faith, and one understanding among you, one united judgment in reference to God.” [59] To put it another way, Constantine recognized that the key term homoousias was capable of more than one interpretation. He was not interested in what to him were the finer points of theology, but in harmony and unity. His agenda was consensus politics. The winners are players who are willing to compromise. The losers are players, like Arius on one side and Athanasius on the other who are inflexible and unwilling to compromise for the team. Constantine wanted team players. He was not interested in then “secret custody of [their]” own minds and thoughts. Lip service was sufficient. [60]

Eusebius of Nicomedia, the consummate politician figured out Constantine’s game once he had run afoul of the Emperor. He would not allow himself to make the same mistake twice. He marshaled his considerable skills to maneuver Athanasius into a situation whereby he would be viewed in Constantine’s eyes as an obstructionist rather than a team player and thus neutralize him. Constantine’s threshold definition of Christianity was too low for the partisans on either side of the debate to accept. The fact that Athanasius dug his heels and kept the attention on himself allowed Eusebius to position himself as one who cooperated with the emperor’s agenda. [61]

The result: imperial involvement in Church PoliticsFor the Church the interest that Constantine took in the Church was not an unmixed blessing. His convening of the Council of Nicea and his active role in its course set a dangerous precedent whose consequences would haunt the Church for centuries. What was established was de facto caesaropapism, Caesar is the pope. [62] From this point forward until the emperors ceased to hold sway in the East (A.D. 1451) the Church could and did appeal to imperial power to arbitrate theological disputes and enforce councilor decrees with political and military force. In the west the situation was somewhat muted since the fall of the western empire placed the western church outside the purview of the emperor’s political power.

The premature appeal to imperial power to settle disputes robbed the Church of full discussion of issues that needed to be resolved theologically rather than trumped by political power.

Bishops seize the agenda late in Constantine’s reign
Constantine emerged from the Council of Nicea firmly in control of the agenda for the Church. Unity was to be the watchword. The bishops, too, bought into the necessity of unity. However their understanding of “unity” was far different than that of the emperor. For Constantine unity involved not just unity in the Church but also the wider politics of empire. He evidently hoped that the unity of the Church as the true kingdom of God would lead the way, at least by example, whereby both pagan and Christian would embrace some concept of a Supreme God and be united religiously in some vague overarching sense. We might liken Constantine’s larger civil/political agenda to American civil religion which recognizes a supreme creator deity whose presence and blessing is invoked at public events like the Indianapolis 500. Such overarching unity would contribute to the common identity of larger body politic. The bishops’ idea of unity was far more circumscribed—the unity of the body of Christ and focused purity of belief. It focused on the limits of the faith and the bishop’s commitment to monotheism involved raising the bar to eliminate even alternate forms of Christianity (in this case Arianism) which compromised the received understanding.

Constantine’s goal involved the traditional imperial goal of peace and unity through divine favor. His was an inclusive unity. The bishops did not see inclusiveness as an ends but a means for the promotion of the divine kingdom of the saints. They understood divine favor as rooted in right belief rather than numerical growth. Belief, uncoerced belief, as such involved an exclusive element. While the goals were closely matched they did not mesh perfectly. This mismatch in goals became a cause of friction between the emperor and the bishops. [63]

Constantine clearly expressed his agenda for the Church: that there be “one faith and one understanding among you, one united judgment in reference to God.” [64] Beyond this the bishops were to work out the details. Drake observes that at this point he “forgot a cardinal rule of politics: the power to define is the power to redefine.” [65] In turning over this power he allowed the bishops to advance their agenda even at the expense of his own.

Why did Christians turn to coercion?
Many popular works glibly state the “fact” that Constantine made Christianity the official Roman state religion and undertook a policy of suppression and persecution of a similar type that the Christians had endured. As we have seen, this is patently false. It is true that Constantine personally supported Christianity and early in his reign put it on an equal footing with other religions. As his reign progressed he publicly favored Christianity giving Christian clergy status under the law that was not enjoyed by pagan priests. He also built churches while letting pagan temples fall into ruin. In short, while Christianity achieved a favored status under Constantine, it did not triumph over paganism and become the persecuting religion in one fell swoop.

As a result of Constantine’s policies Christianity’s place in society changed. As a religion Christianity was a mass social movement. Such movements must find a way to maintain their identity (what sets the Christian apart from the non-christian), while allowing differences on non-central issue. At the same time it must have enough in common with the dominant culture to attract new members. The community must have boundaries that are rigid enough to identify its members but porous enough for growth. [66] In Constantine’s day there was not need for suppression of pagans and no need for persecution. “The Constantinian consensus, with its emphasis on patience and nonc-oercion, remained a legitimate and defensible Christian position long after coercive measures first began to be taken against non-Christian belief.” [67]

Christianity did not become the official state religion until almost half a century after Constantine’s death. However, we do see the momentum gaining steam shortly after Constantius II came to the throne. In A.D. 341 he ordered the abolition of the “madness of sacrifice.” [68] Shortly thereafter Constantius and his brother Constans went on the offensive against paganism proclaiming “the law of the Supreme Deity enjoins on you that your severity should be visited in every way on the crime of idolatry.” [69] About twenty-five years later the Emperor Gratian (367-383) ordered Augustus’s Altar of Victory torn down setting off a decade long struggle with the Senate. He also renounced the title of pontifex maximus, which all his prior Christian successors had employed. In 392 an Imperial edict forbade all public forms of sacrifice and divination, even in the temples as well as the veneration of household idols. [70]

What was the reason for the movement toward intolerance and coercion? The answer is sociological not theological. An exclusive community can be less inclined to persecute because it removes the opportunity for intermingling out of which persecution arises. Exclusivism is characteristic of monotheistic belief as opposed to polytheism while intolerance can be characteristic of either group. Drake has suggested that the militancy that polarized pagans and Christians during the late fourth century and later arose from two sides. On the Christian side there was an influx of new members into the Church as well as increasing internal conflicts (often theological) that destabilized the movement. From the pagan side the rabidly anti-Christian agenda of Constantine’s nephew the emperor Julian the Apostate rekindled the fear of state-sponsored persecution that polarized the opinions in new and dangerous ways. [71]

Constantine, the Church and Christianity: an evaluation
Eusebius hails Constantine in his iconic biography as the model of a Christian emperor and an example for his successors to follow. Others have seen him as a shrewd calculating politician who used the Church for his own political ends, particularly to consolidate his political power. Evangelical theologian Roger Olson evaluates Constantine saying, “Constantine lived as a pagan and died as an Arian. Hardly an admirable curriculum vitae for “the first Christian emperor.” [72]

I am less skeptical than Olson . Although he accepted the pagan priestly title “pontifex maximus,” he did not offer sacrifice, and as long as he lived he did not permit himself to be regarded as a god, as his recent predecessors had done. He did have episcopal advisers. And delaying baptism was a fairly common practice. Moreover, he went out of his way to support the Church and its bishops. Most radically, he gave ecclesiastical courts jurisdiction in civil litigation.

Constantine’s Christian credentials while not unmixed are impressive. He brought a humanity to the criminal justice system in the empire which had heretofore been harsh and cruel. He abolished the centuries old practice of crucifixion. He also brought to an end the practice of branding criminals on the face. Prisoners who had heretofore been kept in dark holes were permitted to come out of their cells at least one time per day to allow them to see the sun.

He built churches while he let pagan shrines and temples fall to ruin. He gave the clergy a favored status and even allowed them tax exemptions. He made Sunday, the Christian day of worship since the first century, a public holiday. Both courts and markets were closed on this day. He outlawed any attempt to force Christians to participate in pagan worship. As his reign progressed he progressively shed pagan symbolism surrounding the emperor. As noted he changed the coinage that pictured him with the Sol Invictus symbolism.

He personally believed that faith could not be forced and so he exercised tolerance where possible. This freedom of conscience is a remarkably enlightened perspective. This may also explain his leniency toward paganism. While he clearly supported Christians he enacted no laws against the pagans.

That he had a political agenda that stood alongside his Christian belief is unquestionable. But as noted, the idea of separation of Church and state is a peculiarly modern notion. While clearly a Christian in belief and in perspective (although unbaptized) he was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. When one looks beneath the apparent inconsistency of supporting variously Athanasius on one occasion and Athanasius’ the sworn theological enemies Eusebius and Arius on other occasions, we find that he is utterly consistent in his actions following a principle of consensus. He was working to establish and maintain a Church that was inclusive and flexible. A Church that by design would be like the Elizabeth I’s Anglican Church a via media. He envisioned a broad umbrella organization that would include any who were willing to play by the rules and not ask too many questions. [73]

It is a supremely ironic twist of history that following his death his three Christian sons who succeeded him did not thwart the move in the Roman Senate to have Constantine declared a god. Constantine who had actively worked to weaken paganism and strengthen Christianity became a god in Rome’s pagan pantheon.


[1] Apuleius, The Golden Ass (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960), 237. Drake gives his own translation of this passage as follows: “Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are…. Though I am worshiped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me.” Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 137.

[2] H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 189.

[3] H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 63.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] K.S. Latourette, The History of Christianity I (revised edition) (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1999), 93.

[7] Drake, Constantine and the Bishops, 143.

[8] Ibid., 143.

[9] Ibid., 73. This population numbered more than six million people.

[10] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1.26.

[11] Ibid.1.29.

[12] Ibid.1.32.

[13] K.S. Latourette, The History of Christianity I (revised edition) (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1999), 91.

[14] The evidence from Constantine’s life suggests that while he did participate in pagan ceremonies in his capacity of Pontifex Maximus, he also worked diligently to break the power of paganism. He removed idols from their temples and used them as artwork to adorn his new capital in Constantinople. The very creation of Constantinople as the “New Rome” struck a blow at paganism.

[15] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Book 4, Ch 62, Church Fathers, Early Church Fathers – Nicene/Post Nicene Part 2, (Garland, TX: Galaxie Software) 1999.

[16] Ibid., 4:63.

[17] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 4.36, Early Church Fathers – Nicene/Post Nicene Part 2, (Garland, TX: Galaxie Software) 1999. (Italics added.) Bruce Metzger develops Eusebius’ report further with data known about our ancient NT Greek Texts:

The Greek text of the concluding clause ( en poleutelwj hskhmenoij teucesin trissa kai tetrassa diapemyqntwn hmwn ) is difficult to interpret, and the words, trissa kai tetrassa, have been taken in widely different senses. Thus it has been suggested that the words refer to codices which were composed of quires of three or four double leaves; that they were polyglot Bibles in three or four languages; that they were harmonies of three or four Gospels; that copies were sent off to Constantine three or four at a time; that each Bible was in three or four parts; or that the pages had three or four columns of script. Each of these interpretations involves more or less serious difficulties; perhaps the least unsatisfactory interpretation is the one mentioned last. For discussions of the problems involved, see Kirsopp Lake, ‘The Sinaitic and Vatican Manuscripts and the Copies sent by Eusebius to Constantinople’, Harvard Theological Review, xi (1918), PP. 32‑35; J. H. Ropes, The Text of Acts (= The Beginnings of Christianity, part I, vol. iii; London, 1926), pp. xxxvi ff.; Carl Wendel, ‘Der Bibel‑Auftrag Kaiser Konstantins’, Zentralblatt far Bibliothekswesen, Ivi (1939), pp. 165‑75and T. C. Skeat, ‘The Use of Dictation in Ancient Book­Production’, Proceedings of the British Academy, x1ii (1956), pp. 196 f.

Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 7.

[18] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 4.37, Early Church Fathers – Nicene/Post Nicene Part 2, (Garland, TX: Galaxie Software) 1999.

[19] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 121.

[20] While it is true that Sunday was also the day of Sol Invictus, it had never been accorded the status of a holy day. In A.D. 324 Constantine issued an edict ordering all soldiers to worship the Supreme God on the first day of the week, the day of Christian worship. But it was also the day of the Unconquered Sun, and therefore pagans saw no reason to oppose such an edict. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 123.

[21] K.S. Latourette, The History of Christianity I (revised edition) (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1999), 91-93.

[22] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 123.

[23] Ibid, 123.

[24] H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 151.

[25] When finally our order was published that they should betake themselves to the practices of the ancients, many were subjected to danger, many too were struck down. Very many, however, persisted in their determination and we saw that these same people were neither offering worship and due religious observance to the gods nor practising the worship of the god of the Christians. Bearing in mind therefore our own most gentle clemency and our perpetual habit of showing indulgent pardon to all men, we have taken the view that in the case of these people too we should extend our speediest indulgence, so that once more they may be Christians and put together their meeting places, provided they do nothing to disturb good order…. Consequently, in accordance with this indulgence of ours, it will be their duty to pray to their god for our safety and for that of the state and themselves, so that from every side the state may be kept unharmed and they may be able to live free of care in their own homes. (Lact. Deaths of the Persecutors 34, 3-5.)

[26] Philip Schaff,, History of the Christian Church, 3.1.2 (Garland Tx: Galaxie Software)

[27] H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 92.

[28] Ibid., 107.

[29] Ibid., 107., 110.

[30] Ibid., 107. 286.

[31] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 2.65,.

[32] Ibid.2.65.

[33] Ibid., , 2.60.

[34] Drake 298. See Drake’s discussion 298-305.

[35] Drake 306.

[36] Jeffery W. Hargis, Against The Christians (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 5.

[37] For a fuller discussion of the concept of contextualization see M. James Sawyer, The Survivor’s Guide to Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) chapter 2.

[38] Drake, Constantine and the Bishops, 96.

[39] Ibid., 97.

[40] Ibid.,

[41] Ibid.,, 132.

[42] Bruce K. Waltke, Creation & Chaos (Portland:Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1974) 13-15.

[43] http://www.roman-empire.net/republic/rep-offices.html

[44] http://www.livius.org/pn-po/pontifex/maximus.html

[45] http://www.netacc.net/~mafg/book/v1c6s2.htm

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Drake, 30.

[50] Ibid., 106.

[51] onatism was a schismatic movement which broke out in North Africa c. 313 and named for Donatus, whom the schismatics elected as Bishop of Carthage in 313.

The root cause of the controversy was religious and theological. The Donatists opposed the “lax” policy

[54] Roger Olson, The Story of Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), 238.

[55] Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3.12.

[56] Ibid.

[57] The term is close in meaning to Tertullian’s Latin phrase una substantia put forth over a century earlier to describe the relation between the Father and the Son.

[58] Drake, 258.

[59] Ibid., 264.

[60] Ibid., 266.

[61] Ibid., 267.

[62] Roger Olson, The Story of Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), 238.

[63] Drake, 320.

[64] Eusebius, VC 2.71.

[65] Drake, 351.

[66] Nearly two centuries before this time the epistle to Diognetus had described these very conditions of central belief and porousness of boundaries that existed in the immediate post-apostolic church.

The Manners Of The Christians

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Church Fathers, Early Church Fathers – Ante-Nicene, (Garland, TX: Galaxie Software) 1999.

[67] Drake,408.

[68] H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 403

[69] Firmacus Maternus The Error of the Pagan Religions (New York: Ancient Christian Writers, 1970), 29.1 quoted by Drake, 403.

[70] Drake, 403-04.

[71] Ibid., 408.

[72] Roger Olson, The Story of Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999) 164.

[73] Drake, 271.

THE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTIANITY

THE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTIANITY

Posted on Wednesday, February 8, 2012 at 06:31 PM   

 

THE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTIANITY

by

Rodney Stark

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

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.

 

 


[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

The Virgin Birth: Why is it important?

The Virgin Birth: Why is it important?

Posted on Saturday, December 24, 2011 at 11:39AM  

The Virgin Birth: Why is it important?

The reality of the Virgin Birth has been affirmed by the church at least since the writing of the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  It is affirmed in the Church’s earliest creedal affirmation: The Old Roman Symbol  (or the Roman Baptismal Creed) dating from no later than the second century during which time it is cited by both Tertullian and Irenaeus.[1]

The fact of the virgin birth is key in understanding the importance afforded Mary in both the Catholic and Orthodox communions. The Catholic Church has taught the immaculate conception of Mary (that she was born without original sin) to further theologically guard the sinlessness of Jesus, i.e. that he was born into unfallen Adamic humanity.  While Protestants have eschewed the Immaculate Conception, they too have asserted Jesus inherited unfallen humanity from his mother.

In general[2]  only pagan critics of Christianity and rationalists have throughout the centuries denied that Jesus was born of Mary without a human father.  Discussions of the virgin birth over the past two centuries have fallen largely in the realm of apologetic defenses of its reality.[3]

For example, Charles Briggs (who in 1893 had been convicted by the Northern Presbyterian Church of denying inerrancy) saw the virgin birth as a touchstone doctrine the denial of which put one on the proverbial “slippery slope” of theological apostasy.

It is not merely the virgin birth that is in ques­tion, in the interest of the more complete hu­manity of our Lord, it is also the doctrine of original sin and the sinlessness of Jesus; it is also his bodily resurrec­tion and ascension. . . .  It is moreover the whole nature of the atonement and Christian salvation with the doc­trine of sacrifice and propitiation.  All these doc­trines are trembling in the balance in those very minds which doubt or deny the virgin birth.  Those who give up the virgin birth will be compelled by logical and irresistible im­pulse eventually to give up all of these[4]

 

Indeed Briggs desired  to have A. C. McGiffert, his former student and later President of Union Seminary New York, fired from his post at Union for denying the Virgin Birth.[5]

During the 1930s, J. Gresham Machen published his magisterial The Virgin Birth of Christ,  a volume that has never been equaled in comprehensiveness and scholarship on the topic. It too was apologetic in nature.

During the era of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy the Virgin Birth attained a quasi-official touchstone perspective as being one of the five fundamentals of the faith.  The rationale was that the virgin birth was a quick and easy test to see if someone believed in miracles.

Surprisingly, despite its professed importance as being foundational to the Christian faith, relatively little profound theological reflection has taken place around the virgin birth.  In fact, prominent evangelical theologian Millard Erickson, (who does accept the truth of the virgin birth) denies its necessity as does Wayne Grudem (who also accepts the doctrine) to name just two. Erickson says

But, we must ask, is not the virgin birth important in some more specific way? Some have argued that the doctrine is indispensable to the incarnation. Without the virgin birth there would have been no union of God and man.38 [6]If Jesus had been simply the product of a normal sexual union of man and woman, he would have been only a human being, not a God-man. But is this really true? Could he not have been God and a man if he had had two human parents, or none? Just as Adam was created directly by God, so Jesus could also have been a direct special creation. And accordingly, it should have been possible for Jesus to have two human parents and to have been fully the God-man nonetheless. To insist that having a human male parent would have excluded the possibility of deity smacks of Apollinarianism, according to which the divine Logos took the place of one of the normal components of human nature (the soul). But Jesus was fully human, including everything that both a male and a female parent would ordinarily contribute. In addition, there was the element of deity. What God did was to supply, by a special creation, both the human component ordinarily contributed by the male (and thus we have the virgin birth) and, in addition, a divine factor (and thus we have the incarnation). The virgin birth requires only that a normal human being was brought into existence without a human male parent. This could have occurred without an incarnation, and there could have been an incarnation without a virgin birth. Some have called the latter concept “instant adoptionism,” since presumably the human involved would have existed on his own apart from the addition of the divine nature. The point here, however is that, with the incarnation occurring at the moment of conception or birth, there would never have been a moment when Jesus was not both fully human and fully divine. In other words, his being both divine and human did not depend on the virgin birth[7]

Clearly, the virgin birth is not a central part of the apostolic proclamation, but I find the lack of theological reflection on the virgin birth to be remarkable. In checking several conservative systematic theologies, I found one, Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, which for half a century was the standard, didn’t even mention the virgin birth!

I also tend to react to the type of argumentation that Erickson and Grudem put forth as being specious and pointless at best, since the issue is not what God might have done, it is what He has revealed that he has done,  and dangerous at worst since it involves ripping the doctrine out of its larger Christological context.

Biblical Evidence

T. F. Torrance, the premier English speaking theologian of the late 20th century, in his posthumously published Incarnation, The Person and Life of Jesus Christ[8] stands as one who breaks the pattern.  Torrance argues that while the virgin birth is indeed only mentioned by Matthew and Luke, if we take the time to look more closely we find the virgin birth, lurking beneath the surface in Mark, John and Paul.

For example, while Luke speaks of Jesus as the son of Joseph, Mark in relating the same event refrains from this identification, and instead identifies Jesus in a very non-Jewish way: as the “son of Mary”[9] Luke has already established the virgin birth whereas Mark has not mentioned it.  It appears that Mark is deliberately avoiding any reference to Joseph. Likewise Mark (along with Matthew and Luke) quotes Jesus as saying of the Messiah, “David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” “How can Jesus be Lord and son of David—that is, how can a divine Christ be born of human stock?”[10]

Moving on to John, 1:13 which has historically been translated: “Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (KJV, ESV, NASB, ASV, etc.) but has more recently been translated “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God”( NIV, NET, etc.).   According to normal Greek usage the recent translation is more accurate, because the term used by John is andros, i.e. male or husband as opposed to anthropos, i.e man(kind), humanity. But this raises the question: What in the world does this mean? As the text is translated it seems to make no sense.

There is also a textual problem in the verse: should the “who” be singular or plural. Without going into too much detail, the early church fathers all cited this “who” as being singular.  In fact, Tertullian, the late 2ndearly 3rd century theologian and apologist tells us that the gnostic teacher Valentinius corrupted the text at this point changing the singular to a plural.[11]  Such a change was theologically motivated to get away from the idea of the virgin birth! If indeed the text is to be read as a singular rather than a plural, then it makes much more sense. The  “who” refers to The Word /Jesus, “who was born . . . by God.”  T. F. Torrance says, “If the text is to be read in the singular, then we have in the fourth Gospel quite explicit direct reference to the virgin birth of Jesus.”[12]

Turning our attention to Paul, we again find the virgin birth behind his language in Romans 5 with his Adam-Christ parallel.   In discussing the origin of both Adam and Jesus, Paul uses the term γίνομαι (to become, or come into existence).  He does not use the normal Greek terminology for human birth: γεννάω.  Like Adam, Jesus comes into existence: he is not generated.  But while the first Adam came into existence from earth, the second Adam’s existence is from heaven, “sent of God, he came into existence of woman, but from heaven.”[13]

In Galatians 4 we see the same sharp distinction.  Three times in this chapter Paul uses the term γεννάω speaking of human birth. [14] But when he speaks of Jesus’s earthly origin he eschews the uses of γεννάω and opts again for γίνομαι.[15] This would appear to be a conscious effort on the part of the Apostle to clearly distinguish the method of Jesus’ origin/birth from that of all other humans born since Adam’s  “coming into existence.”  While Bloesch suggests that Paul does not know of the virgin birth, it seems far more likely that in the closely reasoned passages of Romans 5 and Galatians 4 that explicit mention of what seems assumed by the very wording Paul adopts would add topic that is on the surface extraneous to his argument.

 

The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth[16]

Preliminaries

·         The Virgin Birth is not a theory of explanation

We do not think of the virgin birth properly if we understand it to be a theory explaining the incarnation. It is rather an historical fact indicating what happened. We recognize that the source of the virgin birth is an act of creative divine grace that took place within our human existence. We must draw the distinction between apprehending the reality of the work of God in the birth of Christ and comprehending it.

The virgin birth has two sides to it, one side visible and the other invisible: Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit. This presents us with two questions: What? and How? It is at this point we see clearly that there is no natural understanding of the how that corresponds to the what. The how: the work of the Holy Spirit is an in-breaking of God into our human nature.

In a very real sense the virgin birth is related to God’s creative activity of Genesis. By means of his creative act the creator himself has stepped into his creation and is re-creating fallen humanity.

When confronted with the issue of the virgin birth we as Westerners who think in scientific categories immediately ask questions that are biological in nature seeking a scientific explanation.  I have in my younger years engaged many times in these kinds of discussions/debates:

 

  • Procreation requires both a male and a female.”
  • “Scientists can manipulate an egg to start the process of development.”
  • “That may be true, but then the egg always develops into a female because there is no Y-chromosome.”
    • “But the Holy Spirit must have somehow supplied the X-chromosome.”
    • And so goes the conversation. Another variant on these types of debates is as follows:
    • “Jesus had no human father. He was born through a special work of the Holy Spirit and God is his father.”
    • “So Jesus is both God and man? Doesn’t that mean that he is some kind of a demigod like the children of the gods in Greek mythology?– That he is half man and half God?”
    • “Christianity has always insisted, on the basis of what the Bible says that he was fully God and fully man.”
    • “100% God and 100% man and we have just one man?  That is really bad math!”

    Again, so goes the conversation. The problem is that in focusing on the mechanism of the virgin birth and trying to understand how the Holy Spirit accomplished it, we lose sight of the theological reality because biological questions yield only biological answers or in this case non-answers.

    In the case of the virgin birth this is a unique event in which God chose to act and take on our humanity, our creatureliness and although he was not a creature he voluntarily bound himself for eternity to our created fleshly state.

    It is a new creative act, but unlike the original creation this creation does not take place out of nothing (ex nihilo) but from within our human existence.

    • ·         Virgin Birth is not to be separated from the mystery of Christ

    The Virgin Birth cannot be understood alone and apart from the mystery of the union of deity and humanity in the one person of Jesus Christ. It is a sign that God is doing something . . .  something that is mysterious, something that can be apprehended but not comprehended. It is a sign of the union of deity and humanity and of God’s radical identification with the crown of his creation.

    • ·         The Virgin Birth is not to be separated from the resurrection

    The Virgin Birth must be seen in conjunction with the Resurrection as concrete signs bracketing these 33 years of history in which God himself has acted in incomprehensible  solidarity with us, sharing with us on this earth a common humanity  while  at the same time sharing it  in such a way that by his sharing in our humanity we are liberated from the bondage, decay,  corruption and  sin, and as a result freed us to life from the bondage of that common humanity and now participate in the new humanity of Jesus Christ, the last Adam.

    As Thomas Torrance has said:

    •  

      The birth of Jesus tells us that God acts in Jesus Christ in such a way that his birth does not fall under the power of man, under the arbitrary forces in human history, or under the causal determinisms of this world, but that in his birth God the son freely and sovereignly enters into them from without. The resurrection tells us that the life and person of Jesus are not held under the tyrant forces of this world, that though he was born of a woman and made under the law, Jesus Christ was not dominated and mastered by our fallen flesh in its judgment, but is triumphant over all, in achieving his redeeming purpose of reconciling our humanity to fellowship with God.[17]

      The virgin birth acts as a pointer to the mystery of God’s self-revelation within the life of fallen humanity, and that this revelation veils itself in our humanity.

      The resurrection of Christ points to the fact that God unveils himself, reveals himself within human life.

      Positive teaching

      • ·         The reality of Jesus’ humanity

      As 21st century Western Christians we often think of the virgin birth as a sign of Jesus deity. From the perspective of the biblical writers in the early church it signified something very different – his true humanity. Even within the lifetime of the apostles we find professing Christians denying the humanity of Jesus. This is one of the key reasons for the writing of John’s first epistle: members of the church were denying that Christ had “come in the flesh.” As the church moved out of its early Jewish worldview and confronted the Greco Roman world steeped in dualism particularly a dualism that saw the spiritual in stark opposition to the physical and who scoffed at the idea that God become man, the virgin birth was truly offensive to the point that it had to be rejected. The apostle calls this rejection “the spirit of antichrist.”

      Jesus did not appear on the scene full-grown and out of nowhere. Even a cursory reading of the Gospels makes clear that he was a Jew, from Nazareth, one whose parentage and relatives were well-known. The explicit accounts of the virgin birth given by both Matthew and Luke make it clear that he is the son of Mary. His birth is unique, but he is human.

      The addition of the words born of the Virgin Mary to the earliest creeds were in direct opposition to the claims of the docetic teachers (prevalent during the late first and second century) who argued that Christ only appeared (dokew) to be human while in reality he was a spiritual being without physical substance. On the other hand the virgin birth also testifies to the fact in uniting himself with humanity the second person of the Trinity did not simply come upon an already existent man — that is God did not simply adopt a human, who then became the “Son of God” but rather vitally united himself with humanity. The virgin birth also gives the lie to any teaching that would make God and man co-equal partners in redemption. God joined himself with true and complete humanity by his own sovereign decision. Of course humanity is involved, that is the contribution of Mary but as has been said humanity “is the predicate not the subject, not Lord of the event.”[18]

      • ·         Disqualification of human capabilities

      The virgin birth is an act of divine grace coming into humanity but in such a way that it denies any possibility of an approach of man to God beginning inside humanity itself.

      The virgin birth signals a move from God to man not man to God. Human powers and abilities are not in play. The fact that Mary was a virgin disqualifies her from active participation in the even the conception of Jesus. The incarnation is not a cooperative effort between God and man. It is in no sense a product of human activity. With this in mind John’s statement in chapter 1 verse 13 of his gospel makes sense. The birth of Jesus the Messiah marks a unique entry of eternity into time.  As such the virgin birth marks off this supernatural event is utterly unique. The virgin birth is a signal of an internal unconditional act of pure grace on the part of God apart from any human activity.

      • ·         A re-creation out of the old creation

      The virgin birth is a creative act of God which is in a real sense parallel to the original creation.  But this creative act has a specific focus. It is not a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) as was the original creation; it was a creation ex virgine and signifies both a new creation in one sense but a re-creation in another.  It is the fountainhead of a new humanity out of the old humanity and a humanity that now participates in the very life of the triune God.

      Western Christendom has from its early centuries insisted that the human nature of Jesus was unfallen, because only as a person with an unfallen human nature as well as being a person who had actually  never sinned could he have been the perfect sacrifice. Over the past century numerous New Testament scholars and theologians have challenged this assumption on both exegetical and  theological grounds.   Exegetically we find in Luke, in Paul and particularly in Hebrews language that asserts that Jesus’ humanity was like ours in all ways, but that he never sinned.  Theologically if Jesus’ humanity was unfallen, he certainly was qualified to be the perfect sacrifice, but his humanity did not touch our humanity in its fallen condition.  The patristic dictum “that which he did not assume, he did not heal” expresses the ancient faith of the church—that Jesus assumed a humanity like our own and sanctified it from within through his divine union with it.  Luke says that he grew (prokoptw– the Greek term here  speaks of hammering hot iron on an anvil) in favor with God and man. This sanctification of fallen humanity  involved a lifelong struggle of beating back, blow by blow the fallen condition which was twisted and in opposition to God and required a constant reliance upon the Father through the Spirit throughout his life.

      The result of this process was that Jesus became the Last Adam who put to death Adamic humanity reconciling it from within in his death and was raised the progenitor of a recreated humanity. This  recreated humanity participates in this new humanity of Christ.

       

      • ·         The setting aside of human autonomy

      We have mentioned this above but to reiterate.  The virgin birth is a sovereign act of Almighty God which bypasses all human autonomy. Had Joseph been Jesus’ human father, Jesus would have indeed been born of a husband’s will, but Joseph was in fact left  “sitting on the bench,” so to speak. He is not consulted until after the divine work has begun. His only part is to provide human care for Jesus and his mother. He excercises no autonomy, he like Mary adopts the role of a servant in the great drama of the incarnation.

      The necessity of the virgin birth does not put any stigma on marriage, human sexuality and birth. The entry of God incarnate into the human condition sanctifies human nature and joins it to God in his purity.  Mary herself was not immaculately conceived but she too was sanctified through her calling as the mother of our Lord.

      • ·         The Virgin Birth, the pattern for grace, the model of faith

      The virgin birth is a sign (semion) of the gracious act of God, which becomes a pattern for understanding God’s working in grace.  It is God who takes the initiative through the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Mary announcing to her that she has been elected by God in his grace for this unique task. She receives the word, the announcement and believes. But this belief is not of herself but of the strength given by the Lord—and for that she is blessed (not because of her virginity).[19]

      Mary becomes the pattern for our faith:

      …it is not of our self-will or free will that we are born from above,  ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.’ Here there is a ‘become’ dependent on the  ‘become’ of the Word become flesh.’, grounded in it and derivative from it..  What happened once and for all, in utter uniqueness in Jesus Christ happens in every instance if rebirth into Christ. . . . Just as in the birth of Jesus there was no preceding action on our part, or human co-operation, such as the co-operation  between a human father and human mother. Just as there was no prior human activity there, so in our salvation and our knowledge of God . . .[there is] no human presupposition, no Pelagian, semi-Pelagian or synergistic activity.[20]

      • ·         Demonstration of the virgin birth only through the Spirit

      The virgin birth like its twin doctrine, the resurrection, is not demonstrable by the rationalistic canons of historiography. These canons rule out a priori the possibility of the in-breaking of God into the created order to work miracles. The only demonstration possible is through the work of the Holy Spirit (see 1Cor 2:1).

      The virgin birth has archetypal importance for all other acts of grace. While it is true that the reality of the virgin birth is not an explicit part of the apostolic proclamation, it forms a vital place in the substructure upon which the apostolic proclamation and all other Christian doctrines stand.

      • ·         The necessity and importance of the virgin birth

      While even some evangelical theologians seem to relativize the importance of the virgin birth (see above), it is vital to note that denials of the virgin birth (and/or the resurrection)  have historically inevitably been accompanied by heresies that undercut an orthodox understanding of the person of the incarnate Christ. In other words the sign of the virgin birth cannot be separated from the thing signified, a true incarnation of God in human flesh.  Attempts to do so empty the Incarnation of its content and with it the possibility of salvation which is anchored fully in the grace of God.

       


      [1] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, Longman, 1972, esp. 100-130.

      [2] Several authors of the last two generations who have affirmed the deity of Christ, have nevertheless  rejected the virgin birth as mythological.  These authors are generally those who are deeply committed to critical historical methodology such as Wolfhart Pannenberg.

      [3] Donald Bloesch provides a very helpful survey of  the discussions of the virgin birth over the past two centuries in his Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 80-131.

      [4] C.A. Briggs,  “The Virgin Birth of Our Lord,” American Journal Of Theology 12 (1908) 210.

      [5] M. James  Sawyer, Charles Augustus Briggs and Tensions in Late Nineteenth Century American Theology (Lewiston, NY: Mellen University Press, 1992), 92.

       [6] This was the argument of Tertullian in the early 3rd century, Adversus Marcionem 4.10.

      [7] M. J Erickson,. (). Christian Theology (2nd ed.) (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998),772.  See also Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 529-532.

      [8] T.  F. Torrance, Incarnation, The Person and Life of Jesus Christ (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008).

      [9] Mark 6:3, Luke 4:22, Torrance, ibid., 89.

      [10] Ibid.

      [11] Tertullian, “On the Flesh of Christ”, Ch 19, Ante Nicene Fathers 3 (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans),357.

      What, then, is the meaning of this passage, “Born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God?” I shall make more use of this passage after I have confuted those who have tampered with it.  They maintain that it was written thus (in the plural. “Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God,” as if designating those who were before mentioned as “believing in His name,” in order to point out the existence of that mysterious seed of the elect and spiritual which they appropriate to themselves. But how can this be, when all who believe in the name of the Lord are, by reason of the common principle of the human race, born of blood, and of the will of the flesh, and of man, as indeed is Valentinus himself? The expression is in the singular number, as referring to the Lord, “He was born of God.”  And very properly, because Christ is the Word of God, and with the Word the Spirit of God, and by the Spirit the Power of God, and whatsoever else appertains to God. As flesh, however, He is not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of man, because it was by the will of God that the Word was made flesh.  To the flesh, indeed, and not to the Word, accrues the denial of the nativity which is natural to us all as men.

      [12] Torrrance, 91.

      [13] Ibid ., 93.

      [14] Galatians 4:23, 24, 29.

      [15] Galatians 4:4.

      [16] This entire section is a summary of Torrance’s theological exposition of the virgin birth.

      [17] Torrance, 97.

      [18] Torrance, Incarnation, 99.

      [19] Torrance, 101.

      [20] Ibid, 102.

    • ·         The Virgin Birth and empty tomb as pointers to the mystery of Christ

 

A Hole in Our Gospel

A Hole in Our Gospel

Posted on Monday, July 11, 2011 at 08:56PM

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 (s)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.

 

 


[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

Copyright © 2007, M. James Sawyer. All rights reserved.

Home Again from Bulgaria

 

Bulgaria Update

Posted on Saturday, October 6, 2007 at 02:17PM

Well, our trip to Bulgaria has turned out to be quite different than we were expecting. After we got here we found out that we were leaving for Istanbul on Sunday (rather than Tuesday) and that our trip thru Greece would be more extensive than previously indicated. But more on that later.

Jim’s class has gone very well. The students were all very diligent and really enjoyed the class. Some of them travel quite a distance to the college so on the first day they all decided to go 8 hours a day per class and just go for 5 days instead of 6. So they all put their noses to the grindstone and got through the material in a more intensive way than planned. Jim was exhausted each day by the time 5:00 came around. He would take a rest for a couple of hours then we would go to dinner with some friends from the college.

On Wednesday this week as Jim was taking his rest after class, Kay opened her email to check it for the day. There was an email from her Mom in Texas bearing the devastating news that Kelsey, Kay’s 16 yr old niece had been killed in an auto accident. She had died just 3 hours before we got the email. Needless to say, Jim did not get his rest. He set up Skype on the computer and we called family and emailed our sons with the news of their cousin. We were interrupted when some friends from the College arrived to take us to dinner. The next two hours were utterly surreal. We were out with friends at a restaurant halfway around the world from home. Getting to know them better, while the same time, somewhere living in this twilight zone of unreality, our hearts were in Texas with Kay’s brother and his family.

The next day Kay shared with Jim’s Bulgarian class what had happened, they all gathered around Kay, put their hands on her and with tears streaming down their faces poured their hearts out to God for her brother and his whole family. Even though we could not understand a word they were praying, we could understand their hearts and the Father they were praying to.

Kay had been studying Psalm 23 all week, preparing a devotional for a young mothers group on Saturday. How just like our Father to minister to our own hearts before we minister to others! She had a wonderful time with 9 young mothers this morning, talking and sharing about families and learning from Psalm 23 what a wonderful Shepherd we have that comforts, gently corrects and provides for us, and how we can then pass that on to our children. The hostess of the group pulled out a beautiful hand tooled leather Bible and told me the story that it had been in her family for several generations. Her father and grandfather had hidden it during the communist domination, and had to be very careful about pulling it out to read. Now they are so thankful that they can read it freely. It is a treasure for their family.

Tomorrow we leave for Istanbul and Greece. The college here decided to make full use of the trip (two friends from the college are going with us, to guide and drive). They will be doing some videography for a promotional project for the college. We will be providing most of the funds for the trip, through your generous gifts. This will be a great help to the college and will help them in their fund raising efforts. So once again, our plans give way to the better plans of our Father!!

Thank you all again for your prayers and your support of God’s work in Bulgaria.

Jim & Kay

Home Again!

Posted on Friday, October 19, 2007 at 02:19PM by 

 

It was a long trip, full of jarring contrasts, emotional highs and lows, wonder at viewing and touching things from before the time of Christ, joy of new friendships and of God’s intimate comfort, grieving and weeping with family. We were exhausted by the time we got home.

After preaching the day after we arrived in Stara Zagora and then squeezing what would normally have been seven days of teaching into five (Jim), and ministering interpersonally to women through personal counseling and teaching (Kay) we left Bulgaria. Driving with Bulgarian friends from Stara Zagora to Istanbul, Turkey and through Greece we were in for more culture shock than was comfortable at times. For one thing European driving etiquette is quite different from American (on a two-lane road you can pass at any time, expecting that on-coming traffic will move over onto the shoulder). Then there is the method of planning a trip and finding the location of our hotel…When we reached Istanbul (population 17 million) we drove into about the middle of the city on a beautiful 5-lanes-each-direction highway, then pulled over to ask some construction workers if they knew where this hotel was. The construction workers spoke only Turkish, our Bulgarian friends spoke Bulgarian and some English. Not much luck there. Next we pulled over at an accident scene to ask the policeman. The policeman knew what area of the city the address was, so that got us a little closer. Then we began stopping and asking cab drivers or people beside us on the street where this particular address was. After 8 or so such stops –voilá—we arrived at our hotel! It was Ramadan and the city was crowded. We went into the hotel and asked if they had two double rooms (no reservations). Amazingly they did have rooms available. And so it went for the entire trip. (This method of trip planning and getting directions drove Jim crazy!)

After settling into our rooms and having some dinner, the 4 of us, Stefko, Pavel, Jim and Kay set out on foot to see something of Istanbul. We ended up discovering The Grand Bazaar (established in 1461), the university (established in 1453) and Suleiman mosque. As the sun was setting, the call for prayer that marked the end of fasting for t he day came over the loudspeakers in the minarets of the 2000 mosques all over the city. What an eerie sound! Then the streets got very crowded as people came out to have their evening meal at a restaurant, at one of the tents set up by a mosque, or with friends on the street corner.

The reason we had come to Istanbul was to see Hagia Sofia. When we got to the gates on Monday morning, we found that it is closed on Mondays. Our plans for the week changed then and there. We would have to leave Istanbul Tuesday noon rather than first thing Tuesday morning. Pavel was carrying the professional video camera and got some great footage of the outside of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque (see picture above) just across the park. We had lunch at McDonalds, Pavel’s favorite place, and had a “McTurko.” We spent the afternoon absorbing the history of the city which dates back to Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman Emperor who founded the city just after AD 300 as the capitol of his empire, and who actively supported Christianity by the building of Christian churches to replace those destroyed in the persecution of Diocletian (303-311).

Hagia Sofia opened at 9:00 and we were there. The church was built in only 5 years (AD 532-537) and served as the center of Eastern Christianity and the largest Christian church in the world for 1000 years. So magnificent was it when it was completed that the Emperor Justinian exclaimed “Solomon I have outdone thee!” The beauty of the Cathedral was so great that it was directly responsible for the conversion of the Russians to Christianity in the 10th century. The account sent back by the Russian Prince Vladimir’s emissaries of the worship at Hagia Sofia reads:

The Greeks led us to the buildings where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty and we are at a loss to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men and their ceremonies are fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.

Then in AD 1453 the Turks invaded Constantinople, renamed the city Istanbul and turned the church into a mosque. Interestingly we learned that the architecture of the great Muslim mosques is derived from that of Hagia Sofia—The Church of the Holy Wisdom.

 

Driving down the coast of Greece along the Aegean Sea with miles of olive orchards, vineyards and cotton fields, the countryside reminded us of southern California. In Thessaloniki we got some general directions from the hotel, boarded a bus for the center of town and started walking. We found a church built in the 300’s surrounded by modern 10-story apartment buildings, an arch from Roman times and an old orthodox church with beautiful intricately carved wood furniture.

Then we were off to Athens . . . another 5 or 6 hours in the car, watching the road signs for Philipi, Korinth and other familiar sounding places go by. In the countryside it was easy to image the apostle Paul walking from his ship up the hills to these cities. In the huge city of Athens it was a little harder. There we saw the marketplace where Paul had walked and the thoroughfare lined with the pedestals on which the idols of gods had been placed every few meters. This street was built in such a way that you were facing the acropolis (with the temples of Athena and other gods – 6th century BC) as you walked up the street. At the end of the road is the Areopagus a huge rock out cropping (overlooking the marketplace and in the shadow of the acropolis) where Paul spoke with the philosophers about the altar to the “unknown god” in Acts 17. We sat on the rock for awhile taking it all in. Pavel got lots of good footage for the college and is now hard at work putting it all together.

We flew to Dallas the next day and were met at the airport by Kay’s brother and sister-in-law. Many tears were shed the next couple of days as we talked of Kelsey  and comforted each other. Please pray especially for Preston (21) and Mitchell (19), Kelsey’s two older brothers as they struggle with the loss of their little sister.

Our time was fruitful, rewarding and challenging. We saw more of the Bulgarian church and its vigor—God is working there in a marvelous way in very difficult circumstances. We got a glimpse of God’s work in breaking down racial prejudice between the Bulgarians and the Gypsy (Roma) people incarnated in the birth of Raina & Gopi’s daughter (see picture below). When we were there a year and a half ago Raina was still hesitant to marry Gopi (a Roma) because of her family’s opposition. About a year ago they married anyway and while Raina’s parents had not spoken to Gopi since the wedding, on the day of the birth of her granddaughter Raina’s mother actually called Gopi on the phone.

The level of dedication of those at the school and associated ministries is phenomenal. They labor as unto the Lord on salaries averaging less than $200/month, while their currency has been devalued by more than 1/3 over the past year. Jakup, one of my students from last year has finished his B.A. and is ministering full time in the church where I preached in Parvomay. He plans to enter the University in Sofia for further training in the fall. The students were engaged and eager—and sorry that the class couldn’t go even longer! (even though they had to learn through a translator). For a professor this reaction from students is close to heaven.

Dinko, the college president wants us to come every year. And in light of the relationships that we are developing there we would love to do this.

For me (Jim), attention now turns to getting ready to go to Singapore early next year. I have been asked to teach a seminar on the Relationship between Theology and Science. This topic has been one of special interest to me for several years. I will be immersing myself in the topic for the next three months and condensing the material into concentrated form to give some fresh perspectives on a topic that has generated more heat than light and has been a stumbling block to many Christians for decades.

Liberalism

Liberalism

by

M. James Sawyer, Th.M. Ph.D 

Key Ideas

  • The Fatherhood Of God
  • The Brotherhood Of Man
  • The Infinite Value Of The Human Soul
  • The Example Of Jesus, The Perfectly God-Conscious Man,
  • The Establishment Of The Moral-Ethical Kingdom Of God On Earth

Liberalism is a term that is much used and little understood. It is used in the political, religious, social, and intellectual arenas, often without definition. In a practical sense many individuals of a conservative bent would identify a Liberal as anyone more open-minded than they are. In fact, religious Liberalism involved a commitment to a central set of theological and religious propositions. These propositions, when worked out gave birth, in fact, to a new religion which retained orthodox terminology but radically redefined those terms to give them new meaning. For example, nineteenth century Scottish Old Testament scholar and theologian, W. Robertson Smith when told that he had been accused of denying the divinity of Christ, Smith responded by asking, “How can they accuse me of that? I’ve never denied the divinity of any man, let alone Jesus.”

Liberalism as a theological system did not arise in a vacuum, nor was its aim to destroy historic Christianity. Liberalism can only be understood in the historical and philosophical context out of which it arose. In a very real sense Liberalism as a system was trying to salvage something of Christianity from the ashes of the fire of the Enlightenment. B.B. Warfield observed of Liberalism near the turn of the century that it was Rationalism. But a Rationalism that was not the direct result of unbelief. Rather, it sprang from men who would hold to their Christian convictions in the face of a rising onslaught of unbelief which they perceive they were powerless to withstand. It was a movement arising from within the church and characterized by an effort to retain the essence of Christianity by surrendering the accretions and features that were no longer considered defensible in the modern world. [1] The rising tide of unbelief that confronted the founders of Liberalism was the Enlightenment.

The Roots of Liberalism The Effects of the Enlightenment: (The Age of Reason; The Aufklärung)

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement during the eighteenth century which elevated human reason to near divine status and ascribed to it the ability to discern truth of all types without appeal to supernatural divine revelation. The movement has been termed as The Modern Paganism [2]

The Enlightenment gave birth to much that we still see today as part of the modern mind. These features include:

  • The beginning of scientific history
  • Any truth must justify itself before the bar of reason
  • Nature is the primary source of answers to the fundamental questions of human existence
  • Freedom is necessary to advance progress and human welfare
  • Literary and historical criticism are necessary to determine the legitimacy of our historical legacy
  • The need for critical philosophy
  • Ethics as separate and independent from the authority of religion and theology.
  • A suspicion of and hostility to all truth claiming to be grounded in some kind of authority other than reason, e.g. tradition or divine revelation
  • Raising to the value of science as the avenue by which man can find truth.
  • Toleration as the highest value in matters of religion
  • A self-conscious continuation and expansion of the humanism first developed during the Renaissance [3]

Philosophically during the Enlightenment man saw it as possible for him to reason his way to God. In a real sense this was the modern tower of Babel with all the hubris that implies.

During this age there arose a group of scholars who have come to be known as the Neologians (or Innovators). It was they who pioneered the work in biblical criticism, attacking the doctrine of biblical inspiration as it had been precisely articulated during the late Reformation period. The Neologians specifically assaulted traditional Protestant doctrines generally and Lutheran doctrines specifically. They attacked the supernaturalism of historic Christianity in general and such doctrines as the trinity, the deity of Christ, the atonement, the virgin birth, the resurrection, Chalcedonian Christology and the existence of Satan.

On another front this age saw the rise of Deism, which asserted while that God was indeed the creator, He had created a clockwork image universe which operated by natural law. God himself would not interfere with his creation, hence miracles became impossible because they would violate the inviolable laws of nature. Works appeared such as Christianity as Old as Time, arguing that Christianity merely republished the revelation of God which was available to man in nature. God himself was transcendent, separated, above and uninvolved in creation.

 

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant marks the watershed between the Enlightenment and the Romantic period which followed. In a very real sense Kant is the last of the Enlightenment philosophers. But as an enlightenment philosopher his Critique of Pure Reason destroyed the hubris of the Enlightenment program of seeking all knowledge through the use of reason. Kant so revolutionized the way modern humanity thinks that philosophers still refer to “Kant’s Copernican Revolution.” As Copernicus changed the way scientists thought about the solar system, Kant revolutionized the way that modern man understands reality. Before Kant, philosophical epistemology had generally been divided into two camps, the idealists who saw ultimate reality in the mind (ratioalists) and the empiricists who said ultimate reality in the physical universe. Enlightenment philosophers debated the status of human knowledge empiricists arguing on the one hand that all knowledge came into the brain from the outside, with rationalists contending that knowledge arose out of the mind itself.

Kant asserted that neither side of the debate was right. Instead human knowledge arose from the interplay of incoming sensory data (absorbed through the five senses) and innate categories built into the human mind which processed that data and in turn made it “knowledge.” He further held that reality was to be divided into two realms, the phenomenal (the created order in which we live and which is open for us to experience) and the noumnenal (spiritual, metaphysical reality). According to Kant’s theory of knowledge the human mind is divided into categories. These includedQuantity (unity, plurality, totality), Quality (Reality, limitation, negation), Relation (Inherence and subsistence, causality and dependence, community), Modality (possibility-impossibility, existence-non-existence, necessity-contingency). These are the only categories possessed by the mind and thus the only categories by which to interpret data. Significantly, in Kant’s system there were no categories by which to receive data from the spiritual (noumenal) world. In this way, humanity is like the blind man. He has no organ to receive the light which surrounds him. He believes that light exists and things are there to be seen, but he has no faculty by which to perceive it. Since he is blind to noumenal reality of all types, man cannot know “the thing in itself.” All that can be known is things as they are experienced.

The Enlightenment Philosophers attempt to know God as he is in himself by reasoning up to Him. was, according to Kant, a vain attempt doomed from the outset. God inhabited the noumenal realm and thus could not be experienced by man. Kant did not entertain the possibility that God could break into the realm of history (the phenomenal realm) and reveal himself.

But Kant was not an atheist. He postulated the existence of God, but denied the possibility of any cognitive knowledge of him. It was man’s conscience that testified of God’s existence, and He was to be known through the realm of morality. Kant published another work Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone which set forth his conception that religion was to be reduced to the sphere of morality. For Kant this meant living by the categorical imperative-which he summarized in two maxims:

“Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

“Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.”

In other words, every action of humanity should be regulated in such a way that it would be morally profitable for humanity if were elevated to the status of law. In one sense this can be seen as a secularization of the Golden Rule.

Kant as a philosopher made no claims to being a Christian. Throughout his adult life was never known to utter the name of Jesus Christ, nor would he enter a Christian Church. When called upon to attend academic functions at the chapel of the University of Koenigsberg where he taught, he would march in his academic robes to the door of the chapel, then slip out of line and go home rather than enter the church.

Hegel: the philosopher of the nineteenth century

G.F.W. Hegel, a contemporary of Schleiermacher gave the dominant shape to idealistic philosophy during the nineteenth century. A philosopher of history and religion Hegel proposed that all of reality is the outworking of Spirit/Mind (Geist). History is the objectification of Spirit, i.e. Spirit/Mind is working itself out in the historical process and as such history carries its own meaning. From this it follows that there is a continual upward progress in history. History is undergoing a continual cultural and rational (although not biological) evolution, being pushed and pulled forcing culture upward toward its final form by means of thedialectic. Hegel saw historical evolution in terms of a pendulum swing between opposites (thesis-antithesis) which resolved themselves (synthesis) in a position that was higher than either of the opposites. The synthesis then became a new thesis in the upward pull of the historical process.

Whereas philosophy had traditionally been occupied with the concept of BEING Hegel substituted the process of BECOMING. Because all of history was seen as the process of the objectification of Spirit, and human beings were a part of the historical process, all human knowledge was said to be Absolute Spirit thinking through human minds.

An example of how Hegel saw this dialectic working itself out can be seen in his philosophy of history. The original thesis was the Despotism of the ancient period. The antithesis to Despotism was seen as the democracy of ancient Greece. The higher synthesis of these opposing forces was understood as Aristocracy. Aristocracy in turn became the new thesis which was opposed by Monarchy.

Hegel cast his long shadow over the entire 19th century giving it an optimistic cast which dogmatically asserted the progress in history and the perfectibility of humanity. Barth comments , “. . .it was precisely when it (the nineteenth century) was utterly ruled and completely ruled by Hegel that the new age best understood itself, and it was then at all events that it best knew what it wanted.” [4] According to Barth, Hegel held sway until the catastrophe of 1914, World War I. His philosophy of history gave the structure adopted by the emerging schools of biblical criticism, as well as the mental cast to the entire century.

Hegel’s philosophy is the philosophy of self-confidence. [5] The optimistic slogan that characterized the late nineteenth century Liberalism, “Every day in every way we are getting better and better,” reflects that optimism.

Schleiermacher: Father of Liberal Theology 

Friederich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, the Father of Modern (Liberal) Theology and arguably the greatest theologian to live between the time of Calvin and Barth, was born into the intellectual ferment of the enlightenment and Kant’s criticism of its program. The son of a Reformed chaplain in the Prussian army, Shleiermacher was educated in the Pietism of the Moravians. From their fervent piety with its emphasis on the life in community and commitment to traditional Lutheran doctrine he received his early religious experiences. While studying with the Moravians he first read the Neologians’ critique of historic Protestant orthodoxy. He was so impressed by their arguments that he left the Moravians and enrolled at Halle, a center of Neologian teaching. The young Friederich accepted the Neologians’ criticism of Lutheran orthodoxy, but rejected their rationalistic and moralistic substitute. About this time Schleiermacher was drawn into the Romantic movement which arose in reaction to the sterile critical and analytical rationalism of the eighteenth century. Romanticism stressed the intuitive and synthetic nature of human reason insisting that truth was to be gained by grasping the whole rather than by an abstract analysis of the parts.

Schleiermacher’s theological program proceeded under three premises (1) The validity of the Enlightenment criticism of dogmatic Protestant Orthodoxy, (2) Romantic Idealistic philosophy gives a better soil in which to ground the Christian faith than the shallow moralistic rationalism of the Enlightenment, (3) Christian theology can be interpreted in terms of romantic idealism and thus allow mankind to be both Christian and modern while being intellectually honest.

In viewing the Neologians’ critique of orthodoxy as correct and in light of Kant’s perceived destruction of the possibility of a rational knowledge of God, Schleiermacher influenced by Romanticism, found a new seat for religion and theology, one that could not be touched by enlightenment criticism–the Gefuhl (the feeling). This feeling is not to be understood as mere emotion. It is the deep inner sense of man that he exists in a relationship of absolute dependence upon God. It is his “god-consciousness” This is the center of religion and piety.

§3. The piety which forms the basis of all ecclesiastical communions is, considered purely in itself, neither a knowing or a Doing, but a modification of feeling, or of immediate self-consciousness

§4. The common element in all howsoever diverse expressions of piety, by which these are conjointly distinguished from all other feelings, or, in other words, the self-identical essence of piety, is this: the consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the same thing, of being in relation with God.

In taking this route, Schleiermacher turned the traditional theological method on its head. Rather than starting with any objective revelation, religion was seen at its core as subjective. Experience was seen as giving rise to doctrine rather than doctrine to experience. Theological statements no longer were perceived as describing objective reality, but rather as reflecting the way that the feeling of absolute dependence is related to God. It is this experience which is seen as the final authority in religion rather than the objective revelation of an inerrant Scripture. He says “Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech..”

Despite having the potential for God-consciousness, humans are by their nature in a state of “god-forgetfulness” from which they are unable to save themselves. Redemption is found through the experience of Christ through the corporate life of the church. Redemption is “mystical, “centered in the personal communion of the believer with the fully god-conscious man Jesus Christ.

For Scheleiermacher, Jesus Christ was unique. Not that he was the God-man of historic orthodoxy, but rather in that he demonstrated in his life a perfect and uninterrupted God-consciousness,. He displayed the “veritable existence of God in him.” This was the redemption which Jesus accomplished. and brought to mankind. In this understanding the cross is not in a sacrificial atonement, but rather it is an example of Jesus’ willingness to enter into ‘sympathy with misery.’ Redemption was then the inner transformation of the individual from the state of God-forgetfulness to the state of God-consciousness. To put it another way, redemption is that state in which god-consciousness predominates over all else in life. Thus his theology was utterly Christocentric in that it was concerned with the example of Jesus as the perfectly god-conscious one.

Ritschl: Theological Agnosticism

The second major stream in classic Liberalism (which synonomous with Liberalism in its later form) was established by Albrect Ritschl. Whereas Schleiermacher was mystic, seeing the center of religion in the feeling, Ritschl was more closely tied to Kant and saw religion in terms of morality and personal effort in establishing the Kingdom of God (a moral ethical Kingdom). According to Ritschl,

Christianity is the monotheistic, completely spiritual and ethical religion., which, on the basis of the life of its Founder as redeeming and establishing the kingdom of God, consists in the freedom of the children of God, includes the impulse to conduct form the motive of live, the intention of which is the moral organization of mankind, and the filial relation to God as well as in the kingdom of God lays the foundation of blessedness. (Justification and Reconciliation, III., ET 1900, 13)

Religious truth in the Ritschlian conception became different in kind from all other knowledge; it involved moral-ethical judgments which were subjectively determined by the individual. The system surrendered rational knowledge of God and things divine. In its place it substituted, as the essence of Christianity, a subjectively verified personal theism, a devotion to the Man Jesus Christ as the revealer of God and His kingdom, and a subjection to His moral-ethical principles.

Employing the epistemology of Kant (as modified by Lotze) as a foundation, Ritschlianism sought to separate religion and theology from philosophy and metaphysics, founding religion strictly upon phenomenological experience. Kant had asserted that the only knowledge available to mankind was that of experience, the phenomenological. With this proposition the Ritschlians agreed. “Theology without metaphysics” became the watchword of the entire school. [6] Following in the Kantian tradition, the Ritschlians asserted that human knowledge was strictly limited to the world of the phenomena, a world which included the realm of verifiable history and the realm of personal experience. Knowledge of God as He was in Himself, His essence and attributes fell outside the possibility of human experience, so, no positive assertions concerning His nature could be made. This was how Ritschlianism represented a “theological agnosticism.” [7] Ritschl himself asserted (with Kant) that man could not know things “in themselves” but only on their phenomenological relations. [8] Since man had no categories by which to perceive God in the world, knowledge of Him fell outside the realm of the “theoretic” (scientific/empirical). Since Ritschlianism was strictly empirical, the value of historical study was elevated as a means by which one could discover God’s revelation in history: the person of Jesus Christ. [9]

Revelation of God and certainty in religion for the Ritschlians took place when one was confronted with the historic person of Jesus Christ [10] . The truth communicated in this revelation was not “theoretic” (scientific) but “religious.” Such a distinction divorced faith from reason. According to the Ritschlians the two realms had to be kept entirely separate. [11] Religious truth was no longer to be found in objective, verifiable propositions but in the realm of the subjective experience, in “value judgments“. These “value judgments” were of a different nature than scientific knowledge. They gave no definite objective propositional knowledge, rather they set forth their subjective value for the individual. [12] For example, the existence of God could not be rationally demonstrated. But since man needed Him, that was proof that He existed. [13]However, nothing could be inferred concerning His nature, attributes, or His relationship to the world. [14] The God of the Chris­tian might be Jesus Christ, ” . . or he may believe in one or another kind of God. His God may not be Christian at all. It may be Jewish, as Jesus’ God was. It may be neo-Platonic. It may be Stoic or Hindu. It may be Deistic.” [15] One could not communicate objective truth about God from his revelation in Jesus Christ; the most one could say was that in Jesus Christ one received the impression that God was present and active before him. [16] Thus, religious knowl­edge (in the objective sense) became the common shared exper­ience of God. [17]

The whole enterprise was one of religious positivism. It began with the data of experience, the experience which the individual had with the historic Christ. That experience included the freedom and deliverance He imparted to the individual by virtue of His life and teachings. This deliverance could not be denied since it was within the realm of the individual’s experience. But the enterprise also ended there. Although it professed to meet Christ in the pages of Scripture, it denied any knowledge of His preexistence, His atoning death, or second coming. Although Jesus was afforded the title “Son of God” and had divinity ascribed to Him, these were but titles of honor, communicating no ontological reality. Such knowledge was beyond the realm of experience. [18]

Ritschl believes Christ to be God because in Him he is conscious of a power lifting him above himself, into a new world of peace and strength. Why this should be he cannot tell, nor can he give an answer to the man who asks him for an explanation of the fact of his exper­ience. Enough that he point to Christ as the one through whom he has received deliverance, leaving it to the other to make the test, try the experiment for himself. [19]

Since knowledge in the system was limited to phenomena, Ritschlianism was adamantly anti-mystic. It denied the soul any direct access to God. [20] From the perspective of Ritschlianism the aim of mysticism was,

. . . ontologically unsound in that it involves getting back of phenomena to the noumenal. That one may assume a noumenon back of phenomena is of course true but that one can hold valid communion with it–that one can press back beyond phenomena and come into direct touch with it is a delusion. [21]

God was seen as personal yet unknowable in any real sense. Knowledge of God was mediated through the person of Jesus Christ as He appeared in history. [22] Looking back of Christ to God was a vain proposition. Communion with Him involved, not mystic rapture, but moral effort on behalf of His kingdom.

To commune with God is to enter into his purpose as revealed in Christ–to make them our own and to fulfill them increasingly and to gain the inspiration and the power which come from knowing that they are God’s will. . . . Genuine communion with God to the Christian is the conscious and glad fulfilling of God’s purposes. [23]

Comparative Religions/History of Religions School Background

Another development which took place within the context of Liberalism was the birth of the study of comparative religions. Two factors underlie this new discipline which proved to be another threat to the distinctiveness of Christianity. The first was Romanticism. Romantic philosophy led to a curiosity about and appreciation for other peoples’ religions as authentic ways of expressing the human experience. The second factor was the i ncrease of knowledge which came as a result of the colonization of the world by the Western European powers. Vast amounts of new knowledge about the world and competing cultures and their native religions became available. The burgeoning science of archaeology opened the past and now allowed for the Bible to be studied against its cultural milieu in a way that had not heretofore been possible.

These two factors combined to form a new area of scientific study, comparative religions. All religions were seen in their most basic form to lead to one truth (God) and to promote a common ethic of love for one’s neighbor. In Germany, comparative religions took the form of the History of Religions school which studied the religions of the nations surrounding Israel and concluded that Israelite religion had taken elements of the surrounding pagan beliefs and placed these within a structure of monotheism. For example, Israel’s tradition of creation and the flood were said to have been borrowed from the Babylonian Genesis and the epic of Gilgamesh.

The History of Religions school was hostile to Ritschlianism for Ritschl’s lack of sensitivity to the historical background of both Christianity and Judaism. It held that Biblical faith in both its Old and New Testament expressions was not distinct and a result of supernatural revelation, but represented humanity’s evolving conceptions about God and religion.

Adolf von Harnack

Harnack represents the apex of Liberal theology. He was the greatest historian of Christianity of the generation and his work has set a standard for scholarship for the succeeding century. His History of Dogma has been the definitive work on the subject since its publication. Harnack operated totally within the framework of Liberalism, seeing the pristine purity of the gospel as having been corrupted even within the New Testament era, transforming Christianity from the religion of Jesus to the religion about Jesus. Further corruption took place in the succeeding centuries as Christianity moved out of its Jewish background and confronted the Hellenistic world. Controversies over the trinity and the two natures of the incarnate Christ hopelessly confused the Gospel message in Hellenistic philosophy. He argued that the task of the theologian was to get back to the kernel of the gospel by stripping away the husks of Hellenism to find what was real and permanent.

Specifically, the Gospel was seen as having nothing to do with the Person of the Son. It dealt with the Father only. [24] In this understanding, Jesus’ preaching demanded “no other belief in his person and no other attachments to it than is contained in the keeping of his commandments.” [25] Any doctrine of the Person of Christ was totally foreign to His ideas. Such doctrine lay not in the teachings of Christ Himself, but in the modifications introduced by His followers, especially Paul.

Harnack held that it was through the work of Paul that the man Jesus Christ was first seen to have more than human stature. It was he who was seen to have introduced modifications to Christianity by which the simple gospel of Jesus was ultimately replaced by adherence to doctrines relating to the Person of Christ. Moreover, Paul was seen as having been the one who first invested the death and resurrection of Christ with redemp­tive significance.

If redemption is to be traced to Christ’s person and work, everything would seem to depend on a right understanding of this person together with what he accomplished. The formation of a correct theory of and about Christ threatens to assume the position of chief importance, and to pervert the majesty and simplicity of the Gospel. [26]

In his brief but important work, What is Christianity?, Harnack distilled the essence of Christianity as, The Fatherhood of God, The Brotherhood of Man and the infinite value of the human soul. The kingdom he contended was an internal affair of the heart.

Social Gospel

The Social Gospel was the Liberal Protestant attempt to apply biblical principles to the problems associated with emerging urbanizationKey is that it saw the Kingdom as a social/political entity

Late nineteenth century America underwent profound sociological upheaval. The industrial revolution had thrust the problems of urban society upon a nation that had heretofore been primarily rural. As the problems of dynamic sociological revolution manifested themselves in the slums and work houses, the individualistic gospel of revivalism had little to say to the problems that faced the urban dwellers every day. Walter Rauschenbusch spent eleven years in the “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York city ministering among the German speaking immigrants. Here he saw poverty, injustice and oppression. This led him to rethink the implications of the gospel and articulate A Theology of the Social Gospel. His premise was that

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 tot 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 out 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. [27]

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

Major Theological Propositions of Liberalism

God:

God is the loving immanent Father in constant communion with his creation and working within it rather than upon it to bring it to the perfection for which it is destined. God is the loving father who corrects his children but is not retributive in His punishment. “. . . The idea of an immanent God, which is the God of evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker who is the God of an old theology.” [28]Such a position breached the traditional barrier between the natural and the supernatural. “Miracle is only the religious name for an event. Every event, even the most natural and common, is a miracle if it lends itself to a controlingly religious interpretation. To me all is miracle” [29]

Man:

No longer was man seen as radically sinful and in need of redemption. Rather he is in some sense in communion with God.. There was no infinite qualitative distinction between God and man. God was even to be known in measure and by analogy through study of the human personality. Emphasis was placed upon human freedom and ability to do all that God required, and eternity was interpreted as immortality of the spirit rather than the resurrection of the body.

Christ:

Liberal Protestantism rediscovered the humanity of Christ, a truth that had been in practice ignored in previous generations. But, Liberalism went beyond a rediscovery of Christ’s humanity to a denial of his ontological deity. Instead of the incarnate God-man, Jesus Christ became the perfect man who has attained divine status because of his perfect piety (god-consciousness). Jesus is the supreme example of God indwelling man. There is no qualitative distinction between Jesus and the rest of humanity. The distinction is quantitative; He is more full of God that other humans.

Religious authority:

Whereas previous generations had seen the Bible as the ultimate practical authority for the Christian, Liberalism made authority wholly subjective based on individual spiritual experience. Ultimate authority was not to be found in any external source, Bible, Church, or tradition, but on the individual’s reason, conscience and intuition. The Bible became the record of man’s evolving religious conceptions. The New Testament was normative only in the teachings of Jesus. The rest of the New Testament falls victim to changing the focus of the gospel from the religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus.

Salvation:

Man is confronted with salvation in the person of Jesus. By following his teachings and the example of his life one enters into communion with him.

The Kingdom:

This is a moral kingdom with God ruling in the hearts of humans. The kingdom is also manifested in society by the establishment of justice and righteousness in the political sphere. It will be finally established as God works through man in the historical process.

Principles:

The guiding principles of were distilled by Harnack in his What is Christianity? These were:

  • Universal Fatherhood of God
  • Universal Brotherhood of Man
  • Infinite value of the individual human soul

Additionally, Jesus Christ served as the Supreme example, the man who was perfectly God-conscious at all times, in whom God was perfectly immanent. HE lived his life by a “higher righteousness” governed by the law of love, independent of religious worship & technical observance. He lived out in his life the perfect example of which we may all become.

Modernism:

The term modernism was first used of a movement within Roman Catholicism and pointed to a mentality that was similar to Liberal Protestantism. However, in the United States the term came to be applied to the radical edge of liberal theology (beginning c.1910) . Whereas earlier liberalism was a kind of pathetic salvage movement trying to save the essence of Christianity from the ashes of the Enlightenment, Modernism posed a direct challenge to evangelical Protestantism and fostered a full scale response in the form of Fundamentalism. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the American religious scene was wracked with the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Progressively effected were Congregationalism, Episcopalianism Northern Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist bodies so that by about 1930 many of these bodies were seen to have been “taken over.” This pitted those defenders of historic Christianity against the rising tide of a new “theology” that rejected the normative status of the Bible and even of Jesus Christ . In this Modernism signaled a step beyond Liberalism.

As a movement Modernism embraced the Enlightenment, an optimistic view of history based on the radical immanentism of God which saw the Holy Spirit as operative within both nature and culture perfecting them. This concept marked a direct dependence on Hegel’s philosophy history. The division between secular culture and the sacred were seen as invalid because the Holy Spirit was seen as operative in both realms making “the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Modernism emphasized autonomous human reason focusing on humanity’s freedom and self determination and it gave a religious authorization to modern efforts of man to improve his lot by relying on his own inherent goodness. The radical power of sin and evil were minimized to the level of inconvenience. Truth was seen in the latest findings of science rather than in any supernatural revelation or in any historic person. In this Modernism represented a step beyond Liberalism.

In the U.S. Modernism as a movement found its impetus from Shailer Matthews and the Chicago School (University of Chicago). Matthews used a sociohistorical approach to religion arguing that religion is functional in that it helps people to make sense of the environment in which they find themselves and that theology is “transcendantlaized politics” arising out of the church’s interaction with its particular culture. This meant that Christianity had to be “modernized” in every age in order to remain a live option for each new generation.. As a movement Modernism went into decline in the 1930s under the attacks of Neo-Orthodoxy but key ideas found revival during the radicalism of the 1960s.

Critique

Immanentism: loss of personality of God: radical immanentanism that became panentheism; denied miracles

Christianity had historically asserted the doctrine of God’s omnipresence, i.e. that he was present everywhere in the created order while remaining separate form it. The new stress on divine immanence in the world did not represent a return to the classical doctrine of omnipresence. Omnipresence as it had been traditionally understood emphasized the distinction between God and the world, whereas immanence implied an “intimate relationship, that the universe and God are in some sense truly one.” [30] Thus, a thoroughgoing doctrine of immanence led to a denial of the supernatural as traditionally understood. There were not two realms, a natural and a supernatural, but one. Nor were there miracles in the sense of God breaking into the natural order for God was not perceived as being “out there” to break in; rather, all was miraculous for God was in all.

Lack of a doctrine of sin:

Coupled with this loss of divine transcendence there was an accom­panying elevation of the position of man. No longer was he viewed as de­praved and separated from God. Rather there was a blending of the dis­tinction between God and man, a blending which emphasized not human sinfulness but human perfectibility. It was a view of man which Machen called “essentially pagan.” [31]

The catch phrase of liberalism: “Every day in Every way we are getting better and better.” gives clear evidence that the doctrine of man propounded by Liberalism was a return to the Pelagianism of the fourth century. Sin was treated as a minor peccadillo rather than a radical evil which necessitated the incarnation and atonement.

Lack of need for conversion/moralistic salvation: redemption as mystical communion with Christ in the community of the church or in establishing the kingdom of God on earth

Lack of an authoritative Bible: The rise of Biblical criticism

The rise of Biblical criticism in the mid to late nineteenth century represented a wholesale attack on the Sola Scriptura foundation of the Protestant faith and the theology of the post-Reformation period which had articulated a precisely defined doctrine of inerrancy. In some of these explanations the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy was extended even to the vowel pointing of the Hebrew text. The biblical critics blasted such doctrines. The rise of textual criticism shook the confidence of many as to the accurate transmission and preservation of the text. Literary (Higher) higher criticism applied to the Bible the methods of literary analysis used in secular documents. However the critics looked at the books of the Bible itself and concluded from their anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions for example that Moses did not write the Pentateuch. In the New Testament, the work of Strauss, Baur and others purported to demonstrate that much of the New Testament was to be dated from the second century, rather than arising from the hands of the apostles writing as Jesus’ authorized representatives. This all served to undermine the unique character and authority of the Bible both in the scholarly as well as in the worshipping community. No longer was it possible to proclaim “Thus saith the Lord.” This destroyed the possibility of the rational certainty of the faith.

Loss of uniqueness of Christ: The quest of the historical (merely human) Jesus

The identity and status of Jesus during the nineteenth century underwent continual revision. David F. Strauss first attacked the supernatural in the NT as mere myth. This launched the 19th century quest of the historical Jesus; which has been described as Liberalism “looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness [and seeing] only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face . . . at the bottom of a deep well.”

The Jesus of Liberalism, bore little resemblance to the Church’s historic understanding of Jesus Christ as having both human and divine natures joined organically in one person. This was largely due to the radical empiricism that the Liberal school applied to the area of religious truth. This empiricism eliminated all but phenomenological data from any truth claim. As this method was applied to Christological doctrine a great reduction transpired. Rather than affirm the historic formulations, a “form of the dynamic Monarchianism of Paul of Samosota [was] revived by Harnack and his followers.” [32]

Any metaphysical speculation about the two natures of Christ was seen as nonsense. A history of Christological doctrine could not rid one “of the impression that the whole fabric of ecclesiastical Christology [was] a thing absolutely outside the concrete personality of Jesus Christ.” [33] The starting place had to be the historical Christ, the “person” Jesus. [34] Any assertion that Jesus was not limited by His cultural milieu and environment as any other individual was limited by his own cultural peculiarities, would be to assert that He was a “specter”. [35] In their eyes, to be a human implied a complete human body, soul and human personality. [36] That Jesus was fully human but only human became the sine qua non upon which the Ritschlian understanding of Christ was built. This man Jesus was the One who was to be found in the pages of the gospels.

Jesus became the great example. He was the founder of a religion who embodied in His own life what He taught concerning God. [37] In contrast to the majority of mankind, who came to a knowledge of God through some sort of crisis experience, this God-knowledge was in Jesus from the beginning, flowing naturally from Him “as though it could not do otherwise, like a spring from the depths of the earth, clear and unchecked in its flow.” [38] The means by which Jesus achieved this God-consciousness and His resulting mission to spread the kingdom of God among mankind was beyond human comprehension; it was “his secret, and no psychology will ever fathom it.” [39]

“Knowledge of God” . . . marks the sphere of Divine Sonship. It is in this knowledge that he came to know the sacred Being who rules the heaven and earth as Father, as his Father. The consciousness which he possessed of being the Son of God is, therefore, nothing but the practical consequence of knowing God as the Father and as his Father. Rightly understood, the name of Son means nothing but the knowledge of God.[40]

In Jesus’ own understanding, His God-knowledge was unique. He knew God “in a way in which no one ever knew Him before.” [41] It was this unique God-knowledge which constituted Him the Son of God. It was also from this knowledge that his vocation flowed. Jesus knew that it was “his vocation to communicate this knowledge of God to others by word and by deed–and with it the knowledge that men are God’s children.”[42]

Whether we shall call Christ divine depends on what we mean by God. If God is substance then Christ is not divine for there is no evidence of divine substance in him. If God is purpose then this does make Christ divine for there is nothing higher than his purpose. Christ’s divinity is a conclusion not a presupposition. Yet it is not immaterial whether we call him divine or not. Such an interpretation has importance as showing our concep­tion of God. It does not hurt Christ to not be called divine. If we recognize his supremacy that is enough. But if we do not call him divine it is because we have another and unchristian idea of God. We seek in God something not found in Christ. We get God elsewhere than from Christ. This procedure is due to the unfortu­nate fact that our theology is not christ­ianized. [43]

Activity is society centered ignoring personal spirituality

As Liberalism developed in America it took on a decidedly activist cast. The social Gospel sought to right social injustice, but at the expense of a recognition of personal sin and emphasis upon personal piety. The church was the Public Church but it ignored the personal aspects of the gospel and faith. This led to a natural blending of the message of the church with the agenda of secularly dominated political systems, making the agendas often indistinguishable.

Conclusion

J. Gresham Machen denied that Liberalism was Christianity. Whereas Christianity was rooted in supernaturalism, Liberalism was rooted in naturalism. Liberalism as a religious system, was “the chief modern rival of Christianity” which was at every point opposed to historic Christianity. [44]

“A God without wrath,
led men without sin,
into a kingdom without judgment
through the ministrations of
a Christ without a cross.”

H. Richard Neibuhr

Bibliography

C. Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith.

A. von Harnack, What is Christianity?

J. Dillenberger & C. Welch, Protestant Christianity Interpreted Through Its Development.

K. Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism.

L. Averill, American Theology in the Liberal Tradition.

W. R. Hutchinson, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism.

D. E. Miller; The Case for Liberal Christianity.

 


[1] B. B. Warfield, “The Latest Phase of Historical Rationalism,” Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), p. 591.

[2] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977).

[3] Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983) 4-5.

[4] Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, (Valley Forge:Judson Press), 386.

[5] Ibid., 391.

[6] James Orr, The Ritschlian Theology and The Evangelical Faith (New York: Thomas Whittaker, n.d.), p. 57.

[7] A.B. Bruce noted that this agnosticism was not absolute, but a severe restriction of the knowledge of God attainable to man. (AJT 1:1-2.) Cf. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (New York: Oxford, 1976), pp. 122-132.

[8] Albrecht Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Jus­tification and Reconciliation, [eds.] H. R. Mackintosh and A. B. Macaulay (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1900), pp. 18-20

[9] It is not without significance that both Harnack and McGiffert were primarily historians, who undertook to clear away the accretions of Greek metaphysical speculations from Christianity in order to discover the pristine gospel taught by Christ apart from philosophical considerations.

[10] McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, pp. 172-178. By the “historic” person of Christ was understood the record of the life and teachings as presented in the pages of Scripture. The record of Scripture was seen as only historical, it was not divinely inspired and authoritative (see McGiffert, Apostolic Age, pp. 15-35; 116-121). Furthermore, the strict empiricism of the Ritschlians led them to deny the reality of miracles. Historical criticism became a matter of indifference since faith in Christ did not rest on any particular facet of Christ’s life and teaching, but rather the “total impression of His person.” Therefore criticism could not affect the fact that the individual had experienced Christ. (William Adams Brown, Essence of Christianity, p. 261.)

[11] Ritschl, Doctrine of Justification, p. 207.

[12] Ritschl, Doctrine of Justification, pp. 207, 225.

[13] J. H. W. Stuckenberg, “The Theology of Albrecht Ritschl,” AJT 2 (1899):276.

[14] Bruce, “Theological Agnosticism,” p. 4.

[15] A. C. McGiffert, Christianity As History and Faith (New York: Scribner’s, 1934), p. 145.

[16] William Adams Brown, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Scribner’s, 1902), p. 257.

[17] Orr, Expository Essays, p. 8.

[18] Adolf Harnack, What is Christianity? (New York: Putnam, 1902), p. 131.

[19] W. A. Brown, Essence of Christianity, pp. 260- 261.

[20] Orr, Expository Essays, p. 63.

[21] McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, p. 176.

[22] The restriction of religious knowledge to the Person of Jesus Christ was arbitrary. No attempt was made to show how or why Jesus had received a special knowledge of God. Rather it was an a priori assumption. (Sutckenberg, “The Theology of Ritschl,” pp. 276-277.)

[23] McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, pp. 177-178.

[24] Ibid., p. 147.

[25] Ibid., p. 129. Cf. McGiffert, p. 120. “But again when we assert our faith in the Lordship of Jesus, we declare that his moral standards and principles are the highest known to us, and we believe that they are the moral standards and principles of God himself. . . This was Jesus’ ethical message to the world: ‘Ye are all brethren,’ ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.'”

[26] Harnack, p. 186. (Italics original.)

[27] Walter Rauchenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York, 1917) 5.

[28] Henry Drummond, Ascent of Man (New York, 1894), 334.

[29] F. Schleiermacher, On Religion, 88.

[30] Ibid. p. 202. This insistence on the unity of God and creation led to a panentheism which at times became out and out pantheism. (Bernard Ramm, “The Fortunes of Theology from Schleiermacher to Barth,” Tensions in Contemporary Theology, Eds. Stanley N. Gundry and Alan F. Johnson [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976], p. 19

[31] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p. 65.

[32] Charles A. Briggs, The Fundamental Christian Faith, (New York: Scribner’s, 1913), p. 267.

[33] Adolf von Harnack, What is Christianity? (London: Williams and Norgate, 1904), p. 234.

[34] A. C. McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith (New York: Scribner’s, 1934), p. 107.

[35] Harnack, What is Christianity?, p. 12.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., p. 11

[38] Ibid., p. 34.

[39] Ibid. p. 132. McGiffert asserted of Jesus’ kingdom mission: “The secret of Christ’s permanent hold upon the world is largely this, that he saw visions loftier, more compelling and more enduring than those seen by other men before or since. . . . Jesus brought the vision of a divine Father who careth even for the meanest.” (p. 235.)

[40] Harnack, p. 131. (Italics original.)

[41] Ibid., p. 131.

[42] Ibid. Cf. McGiffert, pp. 118, 306-307.

[43] McGiffert, p. 111.

[44] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977 reprint), p. 2.

Copyright © 2007, M. James Sawyer. All rights reserved.

 

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Scriptures?

Note: The following article is one that I originally gave at Evangelical Theological Society Far West in May 2003 and was later published in Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? which I co-edited with Dan Wallace and is available from Biblical Studes Foundation (bible.org)

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Scriptures?

By:

M. James Sawyer, Th.M., Ph.D

While the Evangelical tradition has its roots in the Reformation, the tradition associated with mainstream American evangelicalism has been heavily influenced by the Enlightenment through its employment of Common Sense Epistemology. It has often become so thoroughly rationalistic that the existential presence of the Holy Spirit has been all but denied. This essay traces the history of this rationalism within evangelicalism, and contemporary challenges by major evangelical thinkers as to the inadequacy of this rationalism and the need to return to a recognition of the full-orbed existential ministry of the Spirit in the life of the believer.

While the title for this chapter is a bit tongue-in-cheek, it highlights a continuing problem in the mainstream evangelical academic/theological community: an ongoing rationalism that seeks ultimate certainty and assurance of its knowledge in the objective “facts” of the scripture rather than formally recognizing the existential dynamic of the Holy Spirit in the life the believer. While in our piety we stress the necessity of personal conversion and a “personal relationship” with Christ, this stress on objectivity has effectively locked God into the pages of scripture, often reducing knowledge of divine truth to bare assensus, effectively cutting off (and at points even denying) the believer the personal relationship with God and the witness of the Spirit even in the realm of salvation. The reasons for this propensity are several: a visceral reaction to Pentecostal excesses, a fear factor to the lack of control mechanisms that is associated with the ministry of the Spirit, and the historic epistemological reliance of American Evangelicalism on Scottish Common Sense to frame our outlook on reality.

This study surveys briefly the first two reasons and then 1) focuses on our conservative tendency toward rationalism using both historic and contemporary examples; 2) surveys the underlying reasons that contribute to this rationalism; and 3) concludes with some personal observations. My purpose is to raise for further discussion the question as to whether we need to reconceptualize the way we theologize about the work of the Spirit so that our evangelical academic theologizing reflects more accurately (but not uncritically) the dynamic way the Spirit has been experienced throughout the centuries by the people of God. Or to put it another way, we are seeking an approach from a theological perspective to incorporate the “mysticism of the Spirit” into both the evangelical psyche and its theological matrix in a meaningful way.

The Practical Eschewing of the Spirit by Evangelicalism

The Rise of Pentecostalism

The Azusa Street Revival of 1906 unleashed a new movement in Protestantism, Pentecostalism, which has spread around the globe in the past century and become the dominant form of Protestantism in much of the third world. This dynamic is seen vividly in Latin America. Philip Yancey has quipped that in “Latin America, while the Catholics preached God’s ‘preferential option for the poor,’ the poor embraced Pentecostalism.”1 The Fundamentalist, and later Evangelical, reaction to Pentecostalism was swift and decisive. Pentecostalism insisted on the continuing validity of the “gifts of the Spirit,” specifically, tongues, miracles, and prophecy. Many insisted that if one had not received the gift of tongues one was not in fact born again. Pentecostal services stressed the sensational, many of their healings were suspect. Often their “revelations” were so generic as to be meaningless while others contradicted explicit teaching of scripture. Moreover, their prophecies frequently, if not usually, did not come true. Nevertheless old line Pentecostalism found fertile soil and flourished, fostering new denominations like the Assemblies of God, UPC, The Church of God, Cleveland and the like, whose constituency tended to be poor and uneducated.

In 1960 the Charismatic movement was born in Van Nuys California at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church through the ministry of Dennis Bennett. This event has been called a “shot heard round the world”2 ultimately bringing the “gifts of the Spirit” to mainstream denominations and even into Roman Catholicism. In the 1980’s the Vineyard Movement or the Third Wave of the Spirit crossed even more traditional boundaries gaining adherents among highly visible mainstream evangelicals.

In 1918 B. B. Warfield attacked the Pentecostal movement in his Counterfeit Miracles arguing that the sign gifts had passed out of existence at the end of the apostolic age. Evangelicals have relied on Warfield’s work for generations as the foundation for their continuing opposition to the Pentecostal insistence on the continuing validity of the charismata. Over the decades a closely reasoned “cessationist” theology was constructed. That articulation was so associated with Dallas Seminary that many identified opposition to the charismata with dispensationalism.

The characterization of the charismatics and the charismata ranged from skepticism, ad hoc exegetical arguments demonstrating the supposed teaching of the text of scripture that the sign gifts had ceased, historical surveys following Warfield that associated periodic historical outbreaks of charismatic type gifts with heterodoxy, to the identification of tongues with demonic inspiration. The reaction among mainstream evangelicals was to focus on the objective authority of the word and to deny the validity of the subjective and unverifiable “gifts” of the Spirit.

Fear and the Dynamic Freedom of the Spirit

In opposition to the anthropotheism of the 19th century, Karl Barth thundered “Let God be God!” He insisted upon the freedom of God. While evangelicals have not (unlike the nineteenth century liberals) sought to find God in cultural progress or philosophical speculation, in our tradition we have often effectively locked God into the pages of the text of scripture. He was free to speak there and then, but not free to speak now. For him to say anything beyond scripture has been understood as a denial of the finality of its message.

There are today some within the evangelical tradition who have recognized this reductionistic rationalism of mainstream evangelicalism and are trying to counteract it without embracing the excesses seen in the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition. For example one evangelical pastor recently acknowledged to his congregation that while the Spirit is sovereign and free, that fact causes many of us, including him, not just anxiety but outright fear—fear of loss of control.

Our neo-Pentecostal brethren do have a great phrase we must hold on to: “you must be open to the Spirit”… And that is true. We are too much like good Presbyterians, well-educated people who wear our hair nicely and dress very nicely and are called the frozen chosen… We need to have things properly done. It needs to fit our mold or we have issues. I’m like that. But I need to learn that great phrase “To be open to the Spirit.” Why is that so hard for me? You know why? I have a fear of freedom.3

I am convinced that if we peel away the veneer and rhetoric a major problem that we in ministry have is fear, the fear of the loss of control. Jacques Ellul in The Subversion of Christianity asserted that in every generation the Church exchanges the gospel of grace and the freedom of the Spirit for that which is its polar opposite.4 The outward form of that opposite may be legalism, moralism, or the like. But when one looks beneath the surface the issue is control. The gospel of grace and the ministry of the Spirit produce freedom. The gospel of grace is meant to produce freedom, freedom from the letter that produces death. But we who are in ministry all too often fear freedom. Even the apostle Paul recognized the scandal of grace. In Romans, his objector cries out, “What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase?” As Philip Yancey observes, there is a “scent of scandal” surrounding grace.5 Grace and the freedom of the Spirit go hand in hand.

The Fact of Evangelical Rationalism

“…[O]ne of the banes of modern evangelicalism is rationalism.”6 So says evangelical elder statesman Donald Bloesch. Ultimately the evangelical tradition has its roots in the Reformation, and it continues to preserve that tradition as opposed to the liberalism that grew out of the rationalistic anti-supernaturalism of the Enlightenment. Yet the picture is in fact more complicated than is usually perceived. What is usually not realized is that while liberalism “capitulated to the Enlightenment and lost its message,”7 conservative evangelicalism was not unaffected by the Enlightenment. We normally trace the development of Enlightenment rationalism as a direct line from Descartes to Locke and Hume who were followed by Immanuel Kant. Kant is recognized as the father of modern thought epistemologically, achieving in the areas of philosophy and epistemology a revolution as profound as the one Copernicus achieved in astronomy. While Copernicus changed the way western civilization thought of the heavens and astronomy, Kant changed the way men thought—period. He introduced phenomenalism as an epistemology. The implications of phenomenalism had tremendous implications for the development of the modern mind.8 In fact, the origin of the modern mind is often traced to Kant.

The Problem of History: How History and Truth Relate

A key element of the Enlightenment heritage was an identification of truth with that which was absolute and non-contingent. In other words, for something to be considered truth it had to be true at all times for all people in all places. The Enlightenment project involved, as it were, distilling off all contingencies of any so-called truth until only that which was universal and absolute was left. Such a method in practice deified reason and rational processes and relegated history to the level of a problem, rather than being a source of truth. Gotthold Lessing encapsulated the Enlightenment understanding in his maxim, “The accidental truths of history can never become the proof of the necessary truths of reason.”9 Like Decartes, Lessing was a mathematician who sought for absolute certainty in the mathematical sense. Since history could not provide first order certainty it could not provide the basis of any systematic thought. Lessing contended that between the certainty of mathematical formulation and the certainty of historical formulations there was an “ugly, broad ditch” across which he (and presumably others) could not jump.10 The implication for traditional Christianity, based upon the person and work of Jesus Christ in history, was devastating. Enlightenment thinkers understood the truth of religion (Christianity in particular) to be found in its moral teaching—adjudged by reason to be true and able to be immediately experienced—rather than in history from which it arose.

In recent years the whole Enlightenment approach has been challenged particularly with reference to the nature of historical knowledge as opposed to the “necessary truths of reason.” Key in this challenge is the emergence of the discipline of the Sociology of Knowledge. This “is the study of the way in which the production of knowledge is shaped by the social context of thinkers.”11 While not spoken in precisely these terms, there has long been an implicit recognition of the legitimacy of this concept in the historical disciplines. The question “Do the times make the man or does the man make the times?” reflects at least an awareness of the issue of the larger social context out of which great individuals arise. The theological disciplines have been far slower in recognizing the validity of these insights, but as the observations of Stanley Gundry and J. J. Davis12 demonstrate, even among evangelicals this is a growing awareness. Likewise, Alister McGrath has observed:

The exegete brings to the text questions which he or she has been conditioned to ask through his or her experience, social position, political conviction, gender and so forth. The recognition that human thought—whether sociology, theology, ethics, or metaphysics—arises in a specific social context is of fundamental importance to the sociology of knowledge. All social movements, whether religious or secular, including the literature which they produce, involve implicit or explicit ideological perspectives and strategies by which personal experience and social reality may be interpreted and collective needs and interests may be defined and legitimated.13

Common Sense: Evangelicalism’s Enlightenment Legacy

Nancey Murphy has observed that from an epistemological perspective conservative as well as liberal theology fell under the influence of Enlightenment ways of thinking, although for the conservatives the route was not via Kant but via Scottish Common Sense.14 What makes this stream more difficult to recognize as Enlightenment thought is that the theology associated with Common Sense Realism is conservative historic orthodox Christianity, and the worldview is decidedly non-philosophical and non-speculative. Common Sense or Scottish Common Sense is given little attention in the surveys of philosophy, despite the fact that it was the dominant philosophy that held together the very fabric of American society for nearly a century.

Scottish Common Sense Realism was popularized in America by John Witherspoon, the sixth President of Princeton University, where he used it as a weapon to vanquish the continuing influence of the idealism of Jonathan Edwards.15 From Princeton University, the philosophy spread swiftly throughout the land through the higher educational system. The swiftness of its acceptance was due to the fact that Scottish Realism “…contained an immediate conviction of right and wrong, of the reality of the external world, freedom… about which there was no need or warrant for debate or doubt, while its discussion of association, will, and feeling, was lucidity itself, and fitted for our practical country.”16

There were several key assumptions involved in Common Sense Realism. Among these was the objective tangibility of the world as understood by Newtonian physics. Thomas Reid himself had contended that without this key assumption man was cut off from certain knowledge that could be gained by the inductive method.17 The ultimate result of this severance would be hopeless skepticism. Secondly, Common Sense posited the reliability of the senses in perceiving reality.18 By means of one’s senses the individual was able to know “the thing in itself.” Thirdly, there was a strict subject-object dichotomy. From this distinction flowed the characteristic methodology of Common Sense: empiricism. Truth was to be discovered strictly through the inductive method. The empiricism of the method did not, however, belie a materialism. Common Sense saw the universe ruled by natural law, a law that included moral precepts.19 The method assumed that there was objective truth available to man and that such truth was unchanging.20

Common Sense Realism was self-consciously employed by the Princeton theologians as they contributed what has come to be recognized as a uniquely American expression of classic Reformed theology. This bent can be seen particularly in the rationalistic apologetics of B. B. Warfield who saw the task of apologetics not as the culmination of the theological disciplines defending conclusions, but as functioning as the establishing of truth.21

The strict subject-object dichotomy of Common Sense also gave rise to an anti-mystical approach to theology and life, which viewed with suspicion all claims to certainty in matters of faith not grounded in rational processes.

While many examples of Common Sense rationalism could be adduced, four specific examples illustrate the phenomenon.

Common Sense Rationalism & the American Evangelical Community

John Nevin, Philip Schaff, and the Nature of the Eucharist

One historic example of the rationalism within our tradition can be seen in the debate about the nature of the Eucharist during the 1840’s. Philip Schaff, a recent emigrant from his native Switzerland to the United States together with American John Nevin became proponents of what became known as “Mercersburg Theology,” an articulation of Reformed thought that was then current on the continent.22 A part of Nevin’s and Schaff’s theological articulation included an understanding of the Eucharist that followed Calvin, insisting that there was a dynamic personal presence of the Spirit present at the Lord’s Supper. Astonishingly this doctrine drew fire from all corners of American Protestantism, including Lutherans! At this point in the nation’s history, American Protestants of all stripes operating under the assumptions of a worldview informed by Scottish Common Sense were universally committed to a Zwinglian understanding of the Eucharist as strictly a memorial. Charles Hodge went so far at to associate the Mercersburg doctrine with Roman Catholicism.23

The Lordship Salvation Debate

A contemporary issue that demonstrates the underlying rationalism of Evangelicalism is the so-called “Lordship Salvation Debate.” This controversy has raged over the past two decades and even spawned a theological society and a journal dedicated to the concept of “free grace,” as opposed to Lordship Salvation.

The chief architect of the “free grace” position is Zane Hodges who has articulated his position in two works, The Hungry Inherit and The Gospel Under Siege. In Hodges and in those who follow him there is an explicit disavowal of the concept of the witness of the Spirit in the life of the believer.24 As with the Princetonians one finds a decidedly “anti-mystical” tendency that, in effect, strips the Christian life of its relational qualities in order to raise the authority of the scripture as that to which the individual can cling for assurance. In so doing faith is reduced to something close to bare mental assent. The late S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. noted that Hodges “never carefully defines faith.”25 However, in his discussions of faith, his working definition seems often to have reference to notitia, and possibly assensus but without fiducia26 an assent to facts rather than trust in a person.27 As his position is worked out he insists that faith can exist without commitment.28 If pressed, there is a danger of reducing salvation to a kind of magical incantation, or an ex opere operato, whereby, for example, the individual repeats the prayer at the end of the Four Laws, with the barest assent to the gospel, and then is considered to be eternally saved, assured by the promises in the scripture.

Canon Rationale For Evangelicals

In about 1988 I had just completed my first article for publication, an examination of the evangelical rationale for the canon of the New Testament.29 During my research I had discovered, much to my amazement, that the virtually unanimous position of American evangelical theologians and exegetes was that our assurance for the shape of the canon of the New Testament rested ultimately either on the authority of the Church or on the “assured results of higher criticism.” This stands in sharp contrast to the heritage flowing from the Reformation that asserts the “witness of the Spirit” as the basis for the final assurance of the canon. I gave a copy of the article to a friend who was then completing his doctoral study. His reaction to my insistence that we return to the Reformer’s canon apologetic was, “How is this any different from the Mormon’s burning in the bosom?”

The apologetic for the shape of the canon, especially the canon of the New Testament, has been often explored. In the mid-1980’s Christianity Today devoted a featured series of articles on the subject. That series of articles adopted the classical defense of canon articulated by the Princetonians over a century ago.

The Princetonian explanation of the canon-determination process was made in the context of the Roman Catholic claim that the Church had determined the canon. In this they mirrored the concerns of the Reformers. In contrast to Rome, Charles Hodge contended that the principle for canon-determination in the Old Testament was that those books, and only those, which Christ and his apostles recognized as the written word of God, were entitled to be regarded as canonical.30 When it came to the canonicity of the New Testament books, the scriptures offer no such christological endorsement. Here echoing the sentiment of the early church, the issue became the primacy of apostolicity in canon-determination.31 Warfield argued that apostolicity was a somewhat wider concept than strictly apostolic authorship, although in the early church these two issues were often confounded.32 “The principle of canonicity was not apostolic authorship,” contended Warfield, “but imposition by the apostles as law.”33 The practical effect of this subtle distinction is to allow for the inclusion of books such as Mark, Luke, James, Jude, and Hebrews which were not actually penned by the apostles, but were, according to tradition, written under apostolic sanction. Warfield asserted that the canon of scripture was complete when the last book of the New Testament was penned by the apostle John c. A.D. 95. From the divine standpoint the canon of scripture was complete. However, human acceptance of an individual book of that canon hinged upon “authenticating proof of its apostolicity.”34

Elsewhere he concluded:

We rest our acceptance of the New Testament Scriptures as authoritative thus, not on the fact that they are the product of the revelation-age of the church, for so are many other books which we do not thus accept; but on the fact that God’s authoritative agents in founding the church gave them as authoritative to the church which they founded…. It is clear that prophetic and apostolic origin is the very essence of the authority of the Scriptures.35

In yet another place, Warfield explicitly denied that the witness of the Spirit was in any sense direct and supra-rational, insisting that the Spirit works in giving assurance only through rational evidence. Any concept of direct supra-rational assurance was dismissed as “mystic.” In so doing he reduced the concept of the witness of the Spirit to a sanctified rationalism.36

To demonstrate the logic of canonicity, Warfield took as a test-case the epistle of Second Peter, a book whose canonicity had been repeatedly doubted over the centuries, and proceeded to investigate the provenance of the epistle to prove its canonicity.

Warfield’s argument is closely reasoned and rationally convincing. He incisively demolished the arguments of his opponents showing their inadequate basis and contradictory presuppositions. However, even his colleague and friend at Princeton, Francis Landy Patton, in eulogizing Warfield, noted that the rationalism of Warfield’s system of logic was built upon probability which precluded the absolute certainty of his conclusions.37

In contrast to the Princetonians, Charles Briggs made the classic Reformed doctrine of the Witness of the Spirit the centerpiece of his apologetic for canon.38 The Princetonians, however, remained unimpressed by Briggs’ arguments. C. W. Hodge’s reaction to Briggs’ position is illustrative of the Princetonian perspective on the necessity of rational certainty in the establishment of the authority of the Bible as divine authority: “…that the canon is determined subjectively by the Christian feeling of the Church, & and not by history, & that it is illogical to prove first Canonicity, & then Inspiration, …then you have given away the whole historical side of the argument of the Apostolic origin of the Books & of Christianity itself.”39 Certainty of validity of the canon as the word of God, for the Princeton theologians, was established by rational and historical proofs without recourse to the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit in any vital way.40

Decision Making and the Will of God

From the perspective of the ordinary individual believer, the question of discovering the will of God for one’s life has been viewed mystically and even superstitiously. Interpretation of events for divine messages, asking for signs, setting out fleeces and the like have all been a part of the popular evangelical piety. Over twenty years ago Garry Friesen published his Decision Making and the Will of God based upon his Th.D. dissertation research. In this work he boldly challenged the popular piety with sound exegesis and logic and placed explicit scriptural revelation over “impressions” and “leading” and circumstances. Friesen instead put forth a “wisdom” model for determining the will of God for the individual’s life, whether the subject be career, school, or marriage. His work has served as a helpful corrective for much of the teaching that was predominantly mystical and confusing. While I believe Friesen has done us a great service and I regularly recommend his book to those struggling with questions regarding the will of God for their lives, I do detect an underlying rationalism communicated as much by what is not said as by what is said. Many have noted that they came away from his presentation with a great disquiet, a disquiet that arises from a tone that implicitly denies that existential dynamic of the Spirit in the life of the believer and substitutes instead a formula (albeit a thoroughly biblical formula) for determining legitimate options in any situation.

J. I. Packer has noted that more foundational to discerning the will of God for the individual is the renewing of the mind taught by Paul:

But without this renewal, no matter how much thinking we do, and however correct our theological formulations, personal discernment of the will of God will not take place. For the will of God covers not only what we do outwardly as performers, but also how and why we do it from the standpoint of our motives and purposes, and if these inner aspects of action are not as they should be we fall short of the perfect (that is, in the Greek, the fully-fashioned and complete) will of God, as did the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.41

While Friesen is clear that God is more interested in who we are than what we do, his lack of development of the foundational theme to which Packer points implicitly contributes to a rationalistic mindset.

The Quest for Certainty of Assurance

Within the evangelical community there remains to this day a quest for absolute rational certainty with reference to our beliefs. This reality is vividly illustrated by some of the assertions coming from the Grace Evangelical Society. In his preoccupation with the ability to demonstrate with absolute certainty that an individual possesses salvation, for example, society founder Bob Wilkin has tried to demonstrate that a believer can have “100% certainty” that he is saved, without any doubt.42 This concern reflects a key assertion of Zane Hodges. In this concern one hears the echoes of Calvin who states that faith “requires full and fixed certainty, such as men are wont to have from things experienced and proved.”43 While Wilkin and Hodges reflect the Reformers’ perspective that assurance of salvation is the birthright of believers, and is of the essence of faith, they fall far short of endorsing Calvin’s insistence that such assurance comes from things “experienced and proved.”

Seeing all certainty as of the same type, Wilkin indicates that the level of assurance which the believer may have is akin to the certainty he may have that 2+2=4, mathematical certainty, or the certainty that the sun is shining. That certainty is based on the objective testimony of the word of God.44 Such a view is at best simplistic. Certainty falls into several categories. (1) Mathematical certainty: In the abstract theoretical and ideal world, we can know things with absolute certainty. There are no contingencies to qualify a reality, thus, there can be certain knowledge in the truest sense. (2) Empirical certainty: This is demonstrated by the scientific method in the real world, as opposed to the ideal world of mathematics. (3) Legal certainty: This involves proof by evidence, given by witnesses. It, however, admits the possibility of error depending upon the truthfulness and credibility of the witnesses. (4) Moral certainty: This is the realm of psychological certainty.45 It is obvious that nearly all human knowledge outside the realm of mathematics fails the test of absolute certainty. Likewise, salvation is not something that can be analyzed in the test tube; thus it does not fall in the realm of scientific certainty. Salvation falls in the realm of contingent reality, the variety of which cannot be tested. Thus, it is impossible from a psychological perspective to achieve the mathematical level of certainty for which Wilkin seeks. Rightly, he posits the ground of certainty outside the individual, on the basis of the objective word of God. But he neglects the means of certainty, which must take into account the subjective psychological factors of human existence. He posits objectively certain assurance of salvation without recourse to psychological realities—ideal mathematical certainty for an internal psychological reality.

On the other side of the debate we find again a quest for certainty that one is saved. John MacArthur, reacting to the implicit antinomianism of the free grace position adopts a radically different means of assurance of salvation that is ironically as rationalistic as that adopted by the free grace position.

The dynamic of assurance espoused by MacArthur has its roots deep in the tradition of the Puritans and the Scottish Calvinists. The Scots referred to this process as the Practical Syllogism. The Puritans called it the reflex action.46 By whatever name, the process is the same. The believer is denied direct access to the Savior for assurance. Instead he must look inside and complete the syllogism. “The Scripture tells me that he who believes shall be saved. If upon examining myself I find fruits of righteousness in my life, I may then complete the syllogism ‘But I believe, therefore I shall be saved’.”47 However, such a doctrine lays the ground of assurance solely within ourselves as opposed to relying in any way on the dynamic of a vital relationship with the Holy Spirit “causing the believer to rely more on his own works for assurance, than on the work of Christ on our behalf.”48

This rationalistic search for certainty is endemic to the evangelical mind and traceable to its Enlightenment roots. The discussions in the latter part of the 20th century have become more sophisticated, and there have been many in our community who have explicitly adopted a “hard foundationalism” as the basis of epistemological certainty.

While many in the mainstream of the evangelical tradition are loathe to acknowledge the crucial role of experience in our theological understanding and even its formulation, in the past two decades a number of evangelical theologians and exegetes in this tradition have broken with its rationalism and embraced the Vineyard movement. Among these are Wayne Grudem, Sam Storms, and Jack Deere. Deere has directly challenged conservative evangelicalism on the point of rationalism. In his Surprised by the Power of the Spirit49 Deere surveys and critiques his own former understanding regarding the cessation of the charismata. He says:

There is one basic reason why Bible-believing Christians do not believe in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit today. It is simply this: they have not seen them. Their tradition, of course, supports their lack of belief, but their tradition would have no chance of success if it were not coupled with their lack of experience of the miraculous. Let me repeat: Christians do not disbelieve in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit because the Scriptures teach these gifts have passed away. Rather they disbelieve in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit because they have not experienced them.

No Cessationist writer that I am aware of tries to make his case on Scripture alone. All of these writers appeal both to Scripture and to either present or past history to support their case. It often goes unnoticed that this appeal to history either past or present is actually an argument from experience, or better, an argument from the lack of experience.50

My point here is not to argue for the continuation of the charismata; rather, it is to look critically at our own apologetic for the cessationist rationale within the evangelical tradition.

Isaac Dorner, reflecting Calvin, argued that spiritual truth made a demand on the soul if certainty were to be attained. Thus, certainty and assurance of spiritual truth were qualitatively different in nature than certainty of all other knowledge. Faith became the principium cognescendi. This faith was a product of the personal experience of the presence of God and the medium of his presence. “…Faith has a knowledge of being known by God, and of its existence because of God, and in such a way that it knows God as the one self-verifying and self-subsisting fact…”51 Thus faith offers a divinely assured certainty since it involves a genuine reciprocal divine communion attested in the human soul. This is not mysticism in the classic sense of the term since this experience of God retains the subject-object dichotomy. The individual does not lose personal identity in the experience of the divine. Rather God, as a person, reaches out to directly touch the soul of the individual and give certain knowledge of himself.

Likewise Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper insisted that the “mysticism of the Spirit is necessary for the theologian.”52 He broadened the basis of the means by which the Holy Spirit might operate from the narrow conception that the scripture alone was the divine authority in the construction of theology, noting: “Coordinated under one head, one might say that the Holy Spirit guarantees this organic articulation through the agencies of the Holy Scripture, the Church, and the personal enlightenment of the theologian.”53

Rationalism, Reality, Truth, and Certainty

Hand in hand with our heritage of rationalism the evangelical tradition has held firmly to the Protestant Scholastic idea that the truth of scripture is communicated in timeless propositions “During that time revelation came to be identified strictly as propositional in nature and timeless/universal in expression. Particularly the historical nature of divine revelation slipped into the background.”54 This period also saw also a “tendency to identify these ‘revealed truths’ (often rationally deduced via a scholastic theological method) with an expression of the divine mind. And the Spirit was merely an aid to the will in acknowledging that which can be shown as truth on the basis of historical probability.”55 Thomas Torrance observed that theologizing from this time forward succumbed to the “Latin Heresy,” i.e., a one-to-one identification with the deposit of faith with a fixed formula handed down from one generation to the next consisting of “irreformable truths” whose verbal expression was seen as identical to the reality rather than pointers to a reality beyond themselves.56

Likewise, while they continued to affirm the Reformers’ doctrine, the mindset shifted to an Enlightenment framework. God was no longer understood as “utterly different from us. God’s omniscience, omnipotence and infinite goodness are the same sorts of qualities we have, differing only in degree.”57

Key in inculcating this mindset among 20th century evangelical scholars was Gordon Clark. In an age when fundamentalists fled from scholarship, eschewed the laws of logic, and promoted a superpietistic irrationalism, Clark insisted that faith and reason are not antithetical and in so doing laid the foundation for contemporary evangelical scholarship.58 In his articulation he defended the central role of special revelation in giving the Christian worldview its content.59 Central in the assertion of special revelation was the propositional nature not only of revelation but also ultimately of reality. During his tenure at Wheaton College, Clark influenced a generation of scholars for intellectual engagement with contemporary assaults on Christianity. Among this group of future scholars were many of the future luminaries of Evangelicalism including Carl Henry, E. J. Carnell, Paul K. Jewett, Edmund Clowney and Billy Graham.

Carl Henry has endorsed with approval his mentor’s position that propositional revelation is a fundamental category and that “the word truth can only be used metaphorically or incorrectly when applied to anything other than a proposition.”60 Ultimately for Clark only propositions are reality. As Hoover has observed:

Knowledge is always knowledge of the truth and truth, in Clark’s view, is a quality of only propositions—that is, only propositions are the sort of thing that can be true (or false). Hence only propositions can be known. But since the range of the real and the range of the knowable coincide—or, alternatively put, since the set of all real objects and the set of all knowables is the same set—then given the doctrine of immediate apprehension, the character of reality itself is propositional, Even God is a proposition because He is thoroughly known to Himself! Hence only propositions exist and Clark’s Idealism is a thoroughgoing rationalistic Idealism. No mental entity can be accommodated that is not a proposition.

And fourth, if all reality is propositional, we come to understand Clark’s view of how one reality relates to another, Propositions, it would seem, relate only by logic. Propositions are not spatio-temporal objects. They are not facts or events. Unlike spatio-temporal objects, propositions do not occupy space or take up time. Unlike facts, they may be false. And unlike events, propositions do not occur and befall objects. Thus, propositions do not interact causally: they do not affect one another by gravity or electromagnetism, they cannot bump into one another, fall off shelves, or shatter. Clark’s propositions, rather, relate by logical implication, and they form, presumably, the one coherent system of truth. As such, Clark’s world of “men and things” is held together (sustained) by logic.61

This insistence on the propositional nature of all knowledge is seen in Clark’s endorsement of an alternate translation of John 1:1: “In the beginning was the logic.”62 Henry posits that the logos of John 1:1 guarantees a universal rational epistemology.63 The net effect is to reduce the second person of the Trinity to a philosophical principle the contemplation of which grants salvation.

I would insist that salvation comes not from a rational principle but by the historical person of Jesus Christ. While the neo-orthodox reduce revelation to only the personal, the evangelical tradition has adopted a reductionistic view of revelation as simply rational/propositional. Erickson has recognized this impasse concerning the nature of revelation as a false dichotomy and argues instead that revelation is both propositional and personal.64

This discussion raises the issue of the historical nature of divine revelation. The concept of revelation communicated by Clark and Henry seems to reflect an Enlightenment concept of truth as absolute and unconditioned with all contingencies distilled off. Yet that which sets Christianity apart from other religions and philosophy is a “rootedness” in historical events that are by definition contingent.

Challenges to the Status Quo

With the rise of postmodernism there has been an increasing and explicit tendency by many, particularly in ETS, to rely upon a hard epistemological foundationalism as the bedrock upon which we can build genuine knowledge.65 Timothy Phillips in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation concluded that most advocates of inerrancy assume an “epistemological foundationalism,” seeing “genuine knowledge” obtainable only from a “foundation of apodictic certitudes.” This position is, says Phillips, indefensible—exegetically, theologically, and philosophically.66 Developing Phillips’ idea further Donald Dayton observes:

…clearly something like this is at work when the Evangelical Theological Society maintains discipline by requiring annual subscription to only one article of faith: “the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” The point is not so much the statement itself as the way it functions in a larger worldview—one that is being increasingly called into question.67

Donald Bloesch has undertaken a sustained critique of the idea that revelation is exclusively propositional.

A proposition… is a truth that is expressed in declarative statements that clearly affirm or deny what is at issue. A narration is a truth that is expressed in the telling of a story and may take the form of poetry as well as prose. Its truth is gleaned through an existential participation in the drama being depicted, so it is more experiential than strictly logical. A propositional truth is immediately accessible to reason whereas a narrational truth can be grasped only by a heightened imagination. Propositional revelation entails the communication of clear and distinct ideas (à la Decartes). Narrational revelation is the conveyance of insights that can be assimilated only through the obedience of faith. Propositional revelation carries the implication that revelation is exhaustively rational. Narrational revelation presupposes that revelation is polydimemsional—appealing to the will and the affections as well as to reason and logic. Propositional revelation imparts notional knowledge; narrational revelation imparts affectional knowledge.68

He is clear that he does not reject propositions.69 Rather he insists that “Revelation can be expressed in semi-conceptional as well as mythopoetic or narrational language, but in both cases the language is incomplete and awaits further illumination by the Spirit.”70 Likewise in opposition to Clark, Henry, and their followers, he draws a crucial distinction between truth of being and truth of statements, insisting, “The truth of being takes precedence over the truth of statements, but the latter can transmit the former through the power of the Spirit.”71

In opposition to the reductionistic tendency of rationalism Bloesch formally invokes the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Propositions can be gleaned from revelation, but they always point beyond themselves to mysteries that can only be dimly grasped by the enlightened human mind. I affirm both the necessity and the inadequacy of propositions in communicating revelatory truth. Propositions can serve but not exhaust the truth. They can elucidate the truth of the gospel but not secure this truth. Faith terminates not in propositions but in the reality to which they point.72

To put it another way, certainty of knowledge cannot ultimately be built on propositional revelation. That certainty must come through the Spirit. Bloesch refers to his understanding as “biblical personalism” which faithfully reproduces the message that resounds in the salvific events and in the scriptural text. “This message, however, does not inhere in the words but must be always spoken anew by the Spirit of God as he reaches out to both struggling saints and lost sinners with the word of life.”73

“The smell of a cup of coffee” and the Limits of Language

The nature of language to communicate accurately and adequately has in the past century been challenged on two fronts, one theological and the other philosophical. Neo-orthodoxy asserted the personal nature of truth as opposed to the abstract, the timeless and the propositional. On the philosophical front, Wittgenstein’s musings about the inability of language to communicate the smell of a cup of coffee powerfully illustrate the fact that language is at best an imperfect vehicle for communication. Wittgenstein further advanced the understanding of the working of language in the communication process with his observations about “language games.” While he had early in his career taught a “picture theory of meaning” contending that language always related to the world in the same way, later in his career he repudiated this understanding74 and instead argued that the use of language is different in different contexts. The utterance “Murder the guy in blue,” means something very different in a bank than it does at a baseball game.

This limitation of language has begun to be recognized among evangelicals. In his Symphonic Theology Vern Poythress lists “12 Maxims of Symphonic Theology.” The first maxim on the list is “Language is not transparent to the world.”75 While we think of language as simply giving us an accurate and adequate means to communicate with others our experience of the world, the actual process is much more complex than we normally realize.

Natural human languages are not simply perfect, invisible glass windows that have no influence on what we see in the world. Nor is there a perfect language available that would be such a perfect window. In particular, no language will enable us to state facts without making any assumptions or without the statements being related to who we are as persons. No special language can free us from having to make crucial judgments on the basis of partial analogies or similarities. No special language can immediately make visible to us the ultimate structure of categories of the universe.

Positively, natural languages are adequate vehicles for human communication and for communication between God and human beings. Some of the features that might be supposed to be imperfections are in fact positive assets. In the Bible, God uses ordinary human language rather than a technically precise jargon. He does not include all the technical, pedantic details that would interest a scholar. By doing so, he speaks clearly to ordinary people, not merely to scholars with advanced technical knowledge.76

While there is absolute truth, human grasp of that truth is always partial and perspectivally bound. The discipline of sociology of knowledge has convincingly demonstrated that the human knower is limited in space and time and culture. We might liken TRUTH to a flawless diamond that refracts the light from each of its many facets. However, we can only view the light from a single facet, or a single facet at a time. We recognize truth as it is refracted through the facet at which we gaze, but we err if we globalize that refracted ray of light from one facet in such a way that we deny the validity of the refraction from other facets. Regarding this insight Poythress has stated:

Among theists, at least, I suppose that no one would deny that human knowledge is relative in these respects… Nevertheless, I do not think that we have always appreciated the consequences of this relativity of our knowledge. We know that truth is absolute—in particular, the truths of the Bible. We allow ourselves, however, to slip over into excessive presumption with regard to our human knowledge. We do not reckon with the fact that our interpretation of the Bible is always fallible. Or if we know a piece of truth, we may erroneously suppose that we know it precisely and exhaustively. The Pharisees doubtless thought that they understood the Sabbath commandment exactly. Therefore they knew that Jesus was breaking the Sabbath. The Pharisees were drawing their boundaries very precisely. They knew, for example, exactly how far they could travel on a Sabbath day without “taking a journey” (i.e., working). But at this point the Pharisees were overconfident and presumptuous. They did not really understand the Old Testament. But let us apply this example to ourselves. We may erroneously suppose that we, in our knowledge, do not really need a background of other, related truths in order to make sense of a certain teaching. We make one truth the basis for a long chain of syllogisms, without considering its context.77

Personhood & Relationship

As I mentioned earlier there is a strange dynamic within the evangelical community. A key defining feature of evangelicalism is the insistence that Christianity involves a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Another key defining element is the final authority of scripture. Within our tradition these are often (perhaps unwittingly) pitted against one another. We must personally trust Christ for salvation, but we learn of God only through scripture.

In asserting the unique authority of the scriptures evangelicals not infrequently stand in danger of denying the validity of experience altogether. Over a century ago Charles Hodge declared that belief of the facts of Christianity, not an experience, made one a Christian.78 More recently Gordon Clark explicitly disavowed the relational/experiential aspect of Christianity as contributing to the knowledge of God or things divine: “Here I wish particularly to oppose Dr. MacKay’s statement, ‘The Christian gospel itself invites the test of daily experience in essentially the same spirit of openness to evidence that animates the enquiring scientist.’ This reduction of Christian doctrine to the level of allegedly uninterpreted observation is utterly anti-Christian. Christianity is not based on experience; it is based on a propositional divine revelation, the Holy Scriptures.”79 Likewise John Warwick Montgomery has labeled the hymnist’s assertion “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart” as the evangelical heresy.

The temptation of the Church to gravitate toward propositions over relationship is not new. In Rev 2 the apostle John recounts the words of the glorified Christ, while commending the Ephesians’ steadfast adherence to truth insists that this is not enough. Following commendation, he issues words of rebuke and warning: “But I have this against you: You have departed from your first love! Therefore, remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—that is, if you do not repent” (Rev 2:4–5).

According to 17th century Anglican divine Jeremy Taylor a purely rational theology understands “by reason,” while a spiritual theology understands “by love.” In the case of the spiritual theology the theologian “does not only understand the sermons of the spirit, and perceives their meaning; but he pierces deeper, and knows the meaning of the meaning; that is the secret of the Spirit, that which is spiritually discerned, that which gives life to the proposition, and activity to the soul.”80 Or to put it another way, “Our assurance of God’s favor toward us lies in our being known by God (1 Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9) not in the certainty of human perception in logic.”81

Concluding Thoughts

Ironically this essay decrying evangelical rationalism has developed in a thoroughly rationalistic manner. In looking at the context of the development of the evangelical mind we have, I believe, seen that in this essay’s tongue-in-cheek title there is more truth than most of us would like to admit. American Evangelicalism has for a variety of reasons been thoroughly rationalistic from the nineteenth century onward. This is all the more amazing when we look just a bit further back historically at our Puritan forefathers and at the dynamic working of the Spirit in the First Great Awakening. In his book The Log College,82 Archibald Alexander, the first professor of Princeton Seminary recounts without even a hint of doubt about their veracity, numerous instances of what would be today considered revelation and miracles. Yet if we hear similar accounts today, many of us may nod condescendingly, sure that we in our theological wisdom know better, or try to persuade those who have seen such incidents that they are mistaken or naïve. Even I, who have wrestled with these issues for years, fall into this category.

A couple, friends from my home church (a non-charismatic Presbyterian Church), Zeus and Charlotte, recently shared such an experience with me. They had gone to Macedonia on a mission trip delivering relief supplies. They carried with them clothing, food, and Bibles. As they distributed supplies one elderly woman was particularly moved. Later as my friends spoke with her in her tent she related that the previous night she had received a revelation from God. She had been visited by an angel who told her that she would shortly be receiving her lifelong dream, a Bible in her language. “Touched by an Angel” notwithstanding, my cessationist mind viscerally rebels against such accounts. Yet over the years I have heard far too many such accounts by those whose integrity I trust implicitly. These have caused me to question the hard cessationism in which I was raised.

Certainly, God has told us that scripture gives us a finality of normative revelation. It is not to be added to or subtracted from. Yet may it not be legitimate to make a distinction between normative revelation and divine communication that is ad hoc for a specific immediate situation or intimate communion?

I believe that we in the cessationist tradition need to reconceptualize the work of the Spirit in far broader terms than we have in the past. I wonder if we have not become like the dwarfs in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, so blinded by their own presuppositions that they could not recognize Aslan and his gifts to his children, with the result that they treated them as dung.

I am not arguing here for what we would normally call a non-cessationist position on the charismata. The way this debate has been framed has, I believe, polarized the discussion and obscured critical issues. Among these are the implications of a personal relationship with God, indwelling by the Spirit, the promise of our Lord that he will never leave us or forsake us. Our hymns and devotional literature are filled with testimonies of and exhortations to the personal and the intimate. While admittedly poetic, one well-known hymn still sung by evangelicals proclaims, “He walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I am his own.”

As noted in endnote 78, the Princetonians drove a wedge between theology and piety while not dismissing either. But even in their own day those who read their theological works had a tendency to reduce the faith to the merely propositional. Years ago during my Ph.D. dissertation research I read the correspondence of many of the Northern Presbyterian pastors trained at Princeton. What I found generally was a faith that was reduced to a belief system. We would not call it “dead orthodoxy” for it was a belief system passionately held rather than one to which mere mental assent was given. But it was a form of conservative theology that was cold, hard, defensive, and condemning based upon propositional (theological) truth. It fell far short of the intimate personal relationship described by the authors of the New Testament.

The modern world saw truth only in terms of presuppositions and logic. The result has been a spiritual vacuum not only in the hearts of unbelievers but of many believers as well. The postmodern world has rejected the modern approach to reality and truth and has turned its attention to the “spiritual.” Our rhetoric, as noted above has indeed recognized that God desires a personal relationship with us. But in fact that personal relationship has been reduced to a “love letter” from God to us. As important as a love letter may be to those who are separated, it cannot replace the personal give and take, and the intimate sharing of personal presence.

While my wife and I were engaged she spent two months in South America. This was before the days of the Internet and cheap international phone calls. We corresponded nearly every day. As wonderful as it was to get letters from her, that did not begin to compare to the joy it was to meet her at the airport, hold her in my arms and talk face to face with her, and to whisper words of love in her ear.

Barth thundered “Let God be God!” Might we not need to take to heart his rebuke and “Let the Holy Spirit be God!”—a God who is free to act in ways of his choosing as opposed to the boundaries we establish?

1 . Philip Yancey, “Would Jesus Worship Here?” Christianity Today, February 7, 2000. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/002/38.152.html )

2 . Dennis J. Bennett In Touch and Emotionally Free, http://www.emotionallyfree.org/dennis.htm.

3 . Ed Blake, sermon preached to San Ramon (Evangelical) Presbyterian Church, January 26, 2003.

4 . Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986). Chapter 2 (19-51) particularly surveys these exchanges from an historical perspective.

5 . Philip Yancey, What is so Amazing about Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 139.

6 . Donald Bloesch, The Holy Spirit: Works and Gifts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000) 34.

7 . Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983) 15-20.

8 . For and introductory discussion of these developments see Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1995) 23-70.

9 . Gotthold Lessing, Lessing’s Theological Writings, tr. H. Chadwick, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957) 53.

10 . Ibid., 55.

11 . “The early sociology of knowledge (M. Kearl) was dominated by the ideas of Karl Marx and Karl Mannheim, who defined the subject as the relation between knowledge and a social base. Branches of the sociology of knowledge include the sociology of literature and science. How do social institutions influence literary forms or writers? How do scientists decide what counts as knowledge? To what extent are different types of Knowledge socially constructed?

Different types of knowledge (e.g., religious, scientific, political, everyday) are understood to grow differentially within varying social environments. Are there cultural differences in rationality? How does social power, especially when embodied in institutional practices, shape knowledge?

The sociology of knowledge examines how types of social organization make the ordering of knowledge possible. There is less focus on the differing social locations and interests of individuals or groups. How do different social and cultural environments produce different knowledge systems? The social modification of knowledge may occur through processes such as knowledge production, knowledge encoding, knowledge transmission, decoding, storage of knowledge, and decision making and combinations of the previous. This causal connection between knowledge and society is seen as reciprocal—society affects knowledge and knowledge affects society” (description of the discipline of Sociology of Knowledge posted by the sociology department of the University of Texas San Antonio: http://colfa.utsa.edu/Sociology/masters/ topics.html#Sociology%20of%20Knowledge)

12 . Stanley Gundry, in his presidential address to the Evangelical Theological Society (“Evangelical Theology, Where Should We Be Going?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22 [1979] 11), stated:

I wonder if we recognize that all theology represents a contextualization, even our own theology? We speak of Latin American liberation theology, black theology, or feminist theology; but without the slightest second thought we will assume that our own theology is simply theology, undoubted, in its purest form. Do we recognize that the versions of evangelical theology held to by most of the people in this room are in fact North American, white and male and that they reflect and/or address those values and concerns?

Likewise John Jefferson Davis (“Contextualization and the Nature of Theology” in The Necessity of Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., J. J. Davis, ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978] 177) has noted:

…if systematic theology is essentially a “biblical theology” that merely repeats and arranges the statements and categories of Scripture, then which biblical theology is the really biblical one? The Lutheran? The Reformed? The Wesleyan? The dispensational? The very variety of theological systems within the evangelical tradition alone, all claiming an equally high regard for the authority of Scripture, is in itself an indication that there are factors beyond the text itself which shape the Gestalt of the system. In no case does the exegete or theologian come to the text completely free of presuppositions. We can to a degree become more critically aware of our presuppositions, but we cannot eliminate them entirely. There is an inescapable element of personal judgment which shapes the theologian’s vision, just as it does the artist’s or scientist’s.

13 . Alister McGrath, Genesis of Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) 89-90.

14 . Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism (Valley Forge: Trinity, 1996) 4-7.

15 . Stephen Douglas Bennett, “Thomas Reid and the Scottish School of Common Sense Philosophy: Historically and Philosophically Considered” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1980) 47-50.

16 . G. Stanley Hall, “On the History of American College Textbooks and Teaching in Logic, Ethics, Psychology and Allied Subjects,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, n.s., 9 (1893-94) 158. Quoted by Martin Terrance, The Instructed Vision, Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and The Origins of American Fiction (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1961) 3.

17 . See Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (London: Macmillan, 1941) 389-91.

18 . Ibid., 186.

19 . Reid balanced his empiricism with an emphasis on intuition that gave his epistemology a dualistic bent. In addition, he was adamant about the limits of empirical inquiry; induction could not answer ultimate questions concerning first causes (Bennett, “Thomas Reid,” 62; cf. Reid, Essays, 399-400).

20 . Reid, Essays, 338-39; 384-86. Cf. Daryl G. Hart, “The Princeton Mind in the Modern World,” Westminster Theological Journal 46 (1984) 4.

21 . B. B. Warfield, “Apologetics,” Studies In Theology (reprint ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981) 3. He viewed the primary task of apologetics, not as “the defense, not even the vindication, but the establishment… of that knowledge of God which Christianity professes to embody and seeks to make efficient in the world…” (italics added.)

22 . The Mercersburg Theology admittedly incorporated elements of romanticism and idealism, then current on the continent.

23 . “In time, the Reformed rationalism and sacramental theology of Turretin permeated the ranks of much of American Presbyterianism. However, at Columbia Theological Seminary in South Carolina, the Professor of Theology, James Henley Thornwell, and the Professor of Church History and Polity, John B. Adger, employed Calvin’s Institutes as the text for theology and ecclesiology with the result that many Southern ministers were Calvinistic in their sacramental theology.

“These two strains of Reformed sacramental theology came into conflict when John Nevin published his controversial The Mystical Presence in June 1846. Nevin, professor of theology of the seminary of the German Reformed Church at Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, had been much influenced by German philosophy, especially that of Hegel, and also by the High Church movement of the nineteenth century. Nevin had been a student of Charles Hodge at Princeton but later repudiated Hodge’s sacramental theology. He sought to demonstrate the historical decline of the doctrine of the Supper that had occurred in the Reformed churches and also to revive Calvin’s doctrine which had been codified in the Belgic Confession, one of the symbols of the German Reformed Church. Hodge responded to Nevin’s volume in 1848 in a long article in the Princeton Review. (Charles Hodge, “Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper”, The Biblical Repertory and the Princeton Review, 20 [April 1848]: 227-77.)

“First, he tried to demonstrate that the symbols of the Reformed churches did not contain the high doctrine of the Supper that was set forth by Calvin in the Institutes. Next, he made the incredible assertion that Calvin’s true opinion, pertaining to the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper, was to be found not in the Institutes but in the Consensus Tigurinus, a symbol that was framed for the purpose of uniting the Swiss churches. He implied that the view set forth in the Institutes was intended by Calvin to be a mediating position in order to conciliate the Lutherans. Finally, he refuted Nevin’s theory of the Supper with its Hegelian overtones” (Brian Nicholson, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper,” Antithesis 2.2 (May/June 1991) (© Covenant Community Church [OPC] of Orange County, 1991) (http://www.reformed.org/webfiles/antithesis/v2n2/ant_v2n2_presence.html)

24 . Rom 8:16. The central passage upon which the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit is built is said by some to refer to the fact that the Spirit bears witness with our spirit to God, not that the Spirit bears witness to our spirit in any sort of experiential way. Although I am not aware of whether Hodges has put this in print, Dr. Bob Wilkin, President of the Grace Evangelical Society, made this very point in the interaction after his paper, “Assurance: That You May Know” delivered at the National ETS meetings in New Orleans, November, 1990. See Daniel B. Wallace’s essay in this volume, “Romans 8:16 and the Witness of the Spirit.”

25 . S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “How Faith Works,” Christianity Today, September 22, 1989, 23.

26 . Notitia refers to factual knowledge; assensus is assent to facts; fiducia is personal trust.

27 . For example, he states of the woman at the well that she “received this saving truth in faith” (Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989] 42). The point here is that he describes faith as trust in facts, rather than trust in a person who was in fact in her presence. Concerning faith, Millard Erickson has noted: “…the type of faith necessary for salvation involves both believing that and believing in, or assenting to facts and trusting in a person. It is vital to keep these two together. Sometimes in the history of Christian thought one of the aspects of faith has been so strongly emphasized as to make the other seem insignificant” (Christian Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989] 940).

28 . See, for example, The Gospel Under Siege, 14.

29 . M. James Sawyer, “Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament,” Grace Theological Journal 11.1 (1990) 29-52.

30 . Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (reprint ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 1.152.

31 . F. F. Bruce discusses surveys the concept of apostolicity in the early church and documents numerous mentions of this factor as being a primary criterion in canon determination. He also mentions other issues related to apostolicity which were mentioned by some patristic writers as offering evidence that a book was indeed canonical (The Canon of Scripture [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988], 256-269, especially 256-258). R. Laird Harris, surveying the same material, insists that the sole criterion was apostolic authorship (Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957, 1969], 219-245, especially 244-245).

32 . B. B. Warfield, “The Formation of the Canon of The New Testament,” The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (reprint ed.; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970) 415.

33 . Ibid.

34 . Ibid. (italics added).

35 . B. B. Warfield, “Review of A. W. Deickhoff, Das Gepredigte Wort und die Heilige Schrift and Das Wort Gottes,” The Presbyterian Review 10.506 (1889) (italics added).

36 . See The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931) 212.

37 . F. L. Patton, “Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield,” The Princeton Theological Review 19 (1921) 369-91.

Norman Kraus (The Principle of Authority in the Theology of B. B. Warfield, William Adams Brown, and Gerald Birney Smith [Ph.D. dissertation, Drew University, 1961] 270) rightly observes concerning Warfield’s use of reason:

His “evidence,” on his own admission, did not amount to demonstration, and yet he sought to escape the logical consequences of this admission by claiming that “probable” evidence though different in kind from “demonstrable evidence” is nonetheless objective, rational, and capable of establishing certainty of conviction. Thus he claimed that the probable evidence which he had produced was of such a quantity and quality as to overwhelmingly establish the rational ground for and force mental assent to the message and authority of Scripture. But in the final analysis, he was unable to close the gap between probability and absolute certainty with a rational demonstration of mathematical quality… And as long as the gap between probability and demonstration remains, there also remains the necessity of a subjective and volitional response to the appeal of truth before there can be certainty [italics added].

38 . See M. J. Sawyer, “Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament,” Grace Theological Journal 11:1 (Spring 1990) 29-52

39 . C. W. Hodge to A. A. Hodge, July 6, 1881, Hodge Papers (Princeton University). (Italics added.)

40 . With reference to the Westminster Confession doctrine of the witness of the Spirit Warfield stated:

“…the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”

This beautiful statement of the Confession has sometimes of late been strangely misunderstood…. A man needs a preparation of the spirit [sic], as well as an exhibition of the evidences, in order to be persuaded and enabled to yield faith and obedience. If this be not true the whole Reformed system falls with it. It is then neither to be misunderstood as mysticism, on the one hand, as if the “testimony of the Holy Spirit” were expected to work faith in the Word apart from or even against evidences (Warfield, Westminster Assembly, 212. [italics added]).

41 . J. I. Packer, “The Ministry of The Spirit In Discerning the Will of God,” in this volume.

42 . Bob Wilkin, “Assurance: That You May Know,” delivered at the national Evangelical Theological Society meeting in New Orleans, November, 1990.

43 . Calvin, Institutes 3.2.15.

44 . He bases this position on texts such as 1 John 5:11-13: “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know [eijdh’te] that you have eternal life.”

45 . “Psychological certainty may be justified or unjustified, as in the belief that the moon reflects light or is made of green cheese. Propositional certainty is never justified or unjustified; it simply obtains or does not obtain, someone must have made sure or become justifiably certain of the proposition. Thus certainty of propositions requires psychological certainty plus its justification” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy [New York: Macmillian, 1967] 2.67. See also Thomas C. Oden, The Living God [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987] 382-404, and Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988] 195-198).

46 . Contrast this to Calvin who states unequivocally that we know that we are saved by a direct act of faith, rather than a reflex act! Cf., e.g., John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (London: James Clark, 1961) 130-131.

47 . Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology, 82. Bell, summarizing Calvin, notes: “If we look to ourselves, we encounter doubt, which leads to despair, and finally our faith is battered down and blotted out. Arguing that our assurance rests in our union with Christ, Calvin stresses that contemplation of Christ brings assurance of salvation, but self-contemplation is ‘sure damnation.’ For this reason, then, our safest course is to distrust self and look at Christ” (28).

48 . Ibid., 98.

49 . Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993).

50 . Ibid., 55-56.

51 . Isaac August Dorner, A System of Christian Doctrine (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1897) 2.175.

52 . Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology (reprint ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980) 624.

53 . Ibid.

54 . Donald Bloesch, The Holy Spirit, 36.

55 . Bloesch, The Holy Spirit, 36. Note above the Princetonians’ apologetic for canon.

56 . Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990) 221-222. See also Bloesch, The Holy Spirit, 36, and C. Fitzsimmons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse) 20.

57 . William Placher, The Domestication of Divine Transcendence (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1996) 87.

58 . Ronald Nash, “Gordon H. Clark,” in Handbook of Evangelical Theologians, Walter A. Elwell ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993) 182-83.

59 . Ibid., 183-84.

60 . Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (Waco: Word, 1979) 3.429.

61 . David P. Hoover, “Gordon Clark’s Extraordinary View of Men & Things,” IBRI Research Report No. 22, 1984 (posted at: http://ibri.org/22gordonclark1.html).

Similarly McDowell comments of Clark’s work, “The trouble primarily is caused by the fact that Clark imagines truth and meaning, or knowledge, in propositional terms, and therefore fails to comprehend performative utterance…. ‘Knowledge and meaning always have the form of a proposition’” [149; cf. 150] John C. McDowell, “Review: Karl Barth’s Theological Method, 2nd ed (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1997).” Posted on John McDowell’s Theology and Philosophy Page: http://www.geocities.com/johnnymcdowell/ Review_Clark.htm.

62 . P. Andrew Sandlin, “A Conflict of Apologetic Visions,” The Chalcedon Report, December 2000 (http://www.chalcedon.edu/report/2000dec/sandlin_conflict.shtml).

God’s revelation to man is religiously holistic, not reductionistically rational. We are not saved by ideas; we are saved by union with Christ communicated, to be sure, in the propositional ideas of the Bible.

63 . Ibid.

64 . Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983) 1.196.

65 . See Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism (Valley Forge: Trinity, 1996) 15-19.

66 . Timothy Phillips, “The Argument for Inerrancy: An Analysis,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation vol 31 (June, 1979) 80-88
(http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1979/JASA6-79Phillips.html).

67 . Donald Dayton, “‘The Battle for the Bible’ Rages On” Theology Today 37 (April 1980) 82 (http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1980/v37-1-article6.htm).

68 . Bloesch, Holy Spirit, 39-40.

69 . Ibid., 40

70 . Ibid., 40: “…Although truth is not a property of propositions, propositions can attest truth.”

71 . Ibid., 44.

72 . Ibid.

73 . Ibid., 46-47.

74 . With reference to the concept of language games Wittgenstein argued that if one actually looks to see how language is used, the variety of linguistic usage becomes clear. “Words are like tools, and just as tools serve different functions, so linguistic expressions serve many functions. Although some propositions are used to picture facts, others are used to command, question, pray, thank, curse, and so on. This recognition of linguistic flexibility and variety led to Wittgenstein’s concept of a language game and to the conclusion that people play different language games. The scientist, for example, is involved in a different language game than the theologian. Moreover, the meaning of a proposition must be understood in terms of its context, that is, in terms of the rules of the game of which that proposition is a part. The key to the resolution of philosophical puzzles is the therapeutic process of examining and describing language in use” (Microsoft Encarta, s.v. “Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann,” http://encarta.msn.com /encyclopedia_761565894/Wittgenstein.html).

75 . Vern Poythress, Symphonic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987) 69.

76 . Ibid.

77 . Ibid., 46-47.

78 . Charles Hodge, as representative of the Princetonian position, displayed a great antipathy for any emphasis on the subjective nature of Christianity. At one point he stated: “The idea that Christianity is a form of feeling, a life, and not a system of doctrines is contrary to the faith of all Christians. Christianity always has a creed. A man who believes certain doctrines is a Christian” (Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 29 [1857] 693). C. R. Jeschke states of the Princetonians (“The Briggs Case: The Focus of a Study in Nineteenth Century Presbyterian History,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1967,” 56):

The strict compartmentalization of formal theology and the life of piety that came to prevail at Princeton reflected in part the growing irrelevance of traditional modes of thought and inherited statements of faith for the needs of the church in a rapidly changing world. The fact that Hodge and his colleagues, like most of their contemporaries, were unaware of the sickness in the theological body, only permitted the condition to worsen, and heightened the reaction of the patient to the cure, when its true condition was finally diagnosed.

Andrew Hoffecker has challenged this perception of the Princetonians, contending that those who make such assertions ignore the wealth of devotional material left by Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Warfield (Piety and the Princeton Theologians [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981]). Despite Hoffecker’s defense of the Princetonians themselves, it is not too much to say that many even among the Old School read only the theological material of the Princetonians. This fact contributed to a cold creedal orthodoxy among a significant contingent of the Old School with its stress on pure doctrine. Even the great Greek grammarian Basil L. Gildersleeve, himself a Princeton graduate, decried the “baleful influence of Princeton” stating that there was from there “very little hope of a generous vivifying force” (Letter from Gildersleeve to Charles Augustus Briggs, Briggs Transcripts, 5.470 (Twelve ledger books hand-copied by Emilie Grace Briggs comprising a transcription of Charles Briggs’ personal correspondence, Union Theological Seminary Library).

79 . Gordon H. Clark “Behaviorism & Christianity,” This article has been taken from Against the World: The Trinity Review, 1978–1988, Copyright © 1996 John W. Robbins. It is published by The Trinity Foundation, P.O. Box 68, Unicoi, TN 37692. (http://www.cfcnb.org/1999wia/aug1999.htm )

80 . Jeremy Taylor, Selected Works, ed. Thomas K. Carroll (New York: Paulist, 1990) 374, 371.

81 . Bloesch, Holy Spirit, 47.

82 . Archibald Alexander, The Log College (reprint ed., London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968).

 

The Theology of Ecclesiastes

The Theology of Ecclesiastes

By:

M. James Sawyer, Th.M., Ph.D.

Since man is not able to discover the key to life by exploration, Qoheleth counsels him rather to enjoy life as a gift, in fear of the good and sovereign God.

Part 1: The Hebel World

“. . . Qoheleth deliberately chose a word with a calculated ambiguity; he skillfully employed it in a variety of contexts so that several associated meanings could be communicated without the use of synonyms. . . It must be emphasized that Qoheleth nowhere uses hebel pejoratively or with morally negative connotations. For Qoheleth hebel is a neutral term expressing brilliantly in its figurative nuances, the limitations of human activity and human wisdom” (R. Cover, “Hebel in Ecclesiastes,” Th.M thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1978, p.76.)

The Meaning of Hebel

Qoheleth consistently uses hebel with the nuance of “transient” of “fleeting” when he uses the term to describe man’s life (11:10; 6:12; 7:12; 9:9; 3:19).

Qoheleth uses hebel with the nuance of “perplexing” or “enigmatic” if occurrences upon earth which contradict the established moral order (6:2; 8:10; 8:14).

Qoheleth employs hebel often with the nuance of “futile,” “fruitless,” “unbeneficial.”

With reference to pleasure and wisdom, Qoheleth employs the hebel with the nuance of “profitless” (2:1; 2:15)

  • With reference to events under the sun generally, to the laughter of fools and to bequesting one’s estate to an heir, Qoheleth employs hebel with the nuance of “profitless/futile” (1:2; 12:8; 2:19, 21, 23, 7:6).
  • With reference to a stillborn child and to death, Qoheleth employs hebel in the sense of obscure or “unknown” (6:14; 11:8)

Qoheleth employs hebel in conjunction with re’uth ruach or ra’ayon ruach to denote a futile effort [(cf. Jn 3:8) 1:14; 2:11,17,26; 4:4, 16; 6:9]

. . . Here is the connection of hebel with Qoheleth’s characteristic formula re’uth ruach or ra’ayon ruach (1:14), which is to be rendered “feeding on wind” (Heb.) or “striving after wind” (Aram.). For in this combination hebel has its basic figurative meaning in the central passages, as in the royal statement of 1:12ff., with which the book originally opened. Prominence is thus given to the more intensive thought of breathing or striving for air, which symbolically undergirds statements about “vanity” (TDOT v3, p. 310).

Qoheleth employs hebel in contradistinction to yithron (profit) and tobh (good) and other terms which heighten the vividness of hebel.

  • The absence of yithron for activity is “profitless.”
  • The lack of tobh in activity is “unbeneficial.”

    Among the words used in antithesis to hebhelyithron, “profit, advantage, gain” plays a dominant role as a term meaning “that which counts or matters,” “that which results or issues from all our work.” It forces upon hebhel the special sense “that which does not count or matter, “null,” “vain,” “that which yields no results.” Along the same lines, we find other antithetical terms such as cheleq, “part, portion,” (2:10) . . . tobh, “good” (2:3, 6:9), yether, “profit, advantage” (6:11). On the other side the parallel words tsel, “shadow,” and ruach, “wind” (5:15, 16) emphasize the aspect of fleetingness or transitoriness, while the additional terms choli, “affliction” (6:2), and ra’ah, “evil” (2:12) make the meaning of hebhel even clearer. (TDOT, v3, p. 319)

    Qoheleth’s goal is to find what is lastingly tobh (good) or gives abiding yithron (profit, advantage). However, in his quest he finds nothing permanent in man’s experience, hence his verdict—hebel. (E.g. 1:3, 2:3, 11, 3:19, 5:6)

    Qoheleth’s observations about the hebel nature of existence fall into two categories: Those things concerning creation and the present order which confront him on every hand and cause him to perceive the hebel condition of the world, and all human endeavors by which a man seeks for “profit and good” but which ultimately mock his attempts.

    Qoheleth reflects upon creation and the present order which cause men to realize their hebel nature. (H. Baker sees these observations as “the causes of futility.” However, the ultimate cause is found in the fall of man as recorded in Genesis 3 and the fact that God has subjected the creation to vanity as Paul observes in Romans 8:20. The observations of Qoheleth drive home to man vividly, the fallen state of creation, but they are not properly causes of futility.)

    Qoheleth observes the cyclical patterns in nature and concludes that the meaning to life cannot be found in the created order (1:5-8).

    Qoheleth then looks at man for progress in history and technology as possibly giving the key to life, but concludes that any apparent progress is only illusionary, and that this does not held the key to life (1:9-11).

    Qoheleth ponders the fact that the righteous and the wicked both suffer the fate of death, and concludes that this is another example of hebel (2:14, cf. 8:14).

    Qoheleth observes the common fate of man and beast as another example of hebel (3:19).

    Qoheleth sees that the reordering of the present order is beyond man’s control (1:15, 7:13).

    Qoheleth sees prevalent injustice in the world as another example of hebel (3:16, 4:1, 5:7, 8, 7:15).

    Qoheleth also sees the moral order overturned in his experience and concludes that this is hebel (8:14).

    Qoheleth laments that the profit from his labor will be left to another and is hence hebel (2:18).

    Qoheleth sees the fact that the future after death is unknown (11:8).

    Qoheleth observes all human endeavors by which a man seeks “profit” and “good” to give meaning to life, and concludes that they are all hebel (1:14, 12:8).

    Qoheleth concludes that toil is hebel because it is motivated by greed, does not yield happiness, and is impermanent.

        • Toil is hebel because it is motivated by the competitive desire of one man to get ahead of another. In trying to outstrip one’s neighbor, one forfeits rest and enjoyment of life (4:4-6).
        • Toil is hebel because it is motivated by greed. A rich man continues to amass riches with no thought as to the reason why and consequently deprives himself of the enjoyment of them (4:8).
        • The result of toil does not yield satisfaction, but days filled with pain and nights without sleep, due to worry (2:23, cf. 2:11), and is hence hebel.
        • The fruit of a man’s labor cannot be enjoyed by him but must rather be left to another who did not labor for them and who may be undeserving. Hence, toil is hebel (2:18, 21).
        • A minimum of effort to meet life’s basic needs is superior to advancement through toil (4:4-6).

Qoheleth concludes that wealth is hebel because it does not satisfy nor bring enjoyment, but rather brings anxiety (2:4-10, 4:17, 5:9).

      • Wealth is hebel because it brings anxiety rather than fulfillment (5:10-11).
      • Wealth is hebel because it can be easily lost through a rash vow, through oppression or through a bad investment (5:1-6, 5:8-9, 5:14).
      • Wealth is hebel because rather than give satisfaction, it demands increased vigilance to keep it (5:12).
      • Wealth is hebel because it brings misery (5:6).
      • Wealth is hebel because a man may not enjoy it (2:26, 4:8).
      • Wealth is hebel because it does not satisfy (5:9).

Qoheleth concludes that wisdom is hebel since, rather than give meaning to life, it gives only a temporary advantage.

      • The pursuit of wisdom yields grief and is thus hebel (1:18).
      • Wisdom is hebel because its advantages are seen in this life only (2:15).
      • Wisdom doesn’t guarantee success since its advantage can be vitiated by various means. It is thus hebel (10:10).
      • Wisdom’s advantage can be thwarted by unpredicted misfortune (9:11).
      • Wisdom’s advantage can be thwarted by sin and folly (9:18, 10:5-7).
      • Wisdom’s advantage can be thwarted by improper timing (10)8-11).
      • Yet wisdom is not valueless. It has great relative advantage in this life.
      • Wisdom is superior to folly since it illumines a man (2:14, cf. 8:1).
      • Wisdom is superior to strength in that it can bring victory even against seemingly impossible odds (9:16, 18).
      • Wisdom is superior to fame because fame is so fleeting (4:10-14).
      • Wisdom has an advantage in averting calamity (9:14-18, 8:1-9).
      • Wisdom has an advantage as a protection and in preserving life (7:12).

Qoheleth concludes that pleasure-seeking in its various forms is hebel because it ultimately accomplishes nothing (2:2).

      • Sensual gratification, while pleasing for the moment, yields no lasting benefit (2:3, 8, 11).
      • The pleasure derived from the accomplishment of ambitious undertakings is only temporary (2:4-6, 11).
      • The pleasure derived from great wealth brings no lasting satisfaction (4:4-10,11).
      • The pleasure derived by fools is of the briefest nature (7:6).
      • Pleasure is hebel since it yields no yithron (profit, advantage) (2:11).

Qoheleth concludes that fame is hebel since it is short-lived, depending on the masses who have only the briefest memory (4:13-16).

SUMMARY. Qoheleth’s verdict on life, beginning to end, is that it is all hebel (1:2, 12:8). “But is this verdict true? This is what Koheleth examines for us, turning life over and over in his hands so that we see it from every angle. And he forces us to admit that it is vanity, emptiness, futility; yet not in the sense that it is not worth living. Koheleth’s use of the term ‘vanity’ describes something vastly greater than that. All life is vanity in this sense, that it is unable to give us the key to itself. The book is a record of a search for the key to life. It is an endeavor to give meaning to live, to see it as a whole and there is no key under the sun. Life has lost the key to itself. ‘Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.’ If you want the key you must go to the locksmith who made the lock. ‘God holds the key to all the unknown.’ And He will not give it to you. Since, then, you cannot get the key, you must trust the locksmith to open the doors.” (J. Stafford Wright, “The Interpretation of Ecclesiastes” in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, Baker, 1972, p.140)

Part II:
A Good and Sovereign God

The Name of God

Elohim

Qoheleth uses the term Elohim to refer to God 40 times in the book. The use of this name for God looks at his role as the sovereign creator who is transcendent over his creation. Elohim is employed particularly to drive home the point of God’s universal providence and sovereignty over all creation, who is thus to be feared and worshipped.

YHWH

The personal name of Israel’s covenant-keeping God does not appear in Ecclesiastes, not because, as some have suggested, that Israel had passed beyond the need for a narrow nationalistic deity, nor because Qoheleth was estranged from an intimate relationship with YHWH (Yahweh), but because of the universal nature of his subject (“all,” “under the sun”). With a subject of common application to all mankind, the use of God’s name YHWH in his special covenant role with Israel, is inappropriate. This same preference for Elohim over YHWH can be seen in other wisdom literature as well.

The Attributes of God

Qoheleth, contrary to the opinions of many of his interpreters, has a theology proper which is totally orthodox. He is neither cynic nor skeptic. His concept of God falls well within the bounds of Old Testament orthodoxy.

Qoheleth sees as basic to God’s nature, the fact that he is good. That is, that which disposes him to be kind, cordial, benevolent and full of good will toward men.

      • Eating and drinking with enjoyment and seeing good in one’s labor are gifts from God (2:24-25, 3:13, 5:17, 18).
      • Wisdom, knowledge and joy are gifts of God (2:26).
      • Wealth and riches are God’s gifts (5:17,18).
      • The enablement to enjoy riches is God’s gift (5:18,19)
      • Life itself is a gift from God (5:17,18).
      • Problematical is the sense of eternity which God has places in man’s heart. The fact that there is a further purpose in God placing this sense of eternity in man, probably means that it should not be seen as a free gift and an expression of God’s goodness (3:11).

Qoheleth sees God as the total sovereign over all of creation. By sovereignty of God it is meant that as creator of all things visible and invisible, God is the owner of all; and he, therefore, has absolute right to rule over all.

Qoheleth sees God as sovereign over time, in the sense that he foreordains a time for every event (3:1-14).

Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over eternity since he places the longing for it is man (3:11).

Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over all men whether wise, righteous, or sinner, and is recognized as such.

      • The events concerning men are in the hand of God (9:1,2:26).
      • Men recognize God as sovereign (5:1-3).

Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over wealth and enjoyment (6:1-2,2:26).

Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over both prosperity and adversity (7:14).

Qoheleth believes God is sovereign over all events (7:13,1:15, 3:1-14).

Qoheleth sees God a just and righteous.

      • God rewards men on an ethical basis for both good and evil (8:12,13).
      • God will judge men’s deeds (11:9,12:14, 3:16-18).
      • God’s righteousness is seen in the fact that he created men morally upright (7:29).
      • God punishes irreverence (5:4-6).

Qoheleth believes that God is eternal, since he places a sense of eternity in man, and that he judges all deeds (3:11, 12:14).

      • God placed eternity in men’s hearts (3:11).
      • The fact that God will judge all, implies that he is eternal (12:14).

Qoheleth understands that God is wise; that is, he attains his ends in a way that glorifies him most.

      • He gives wisdom to men as a gift (2:26).
      • He sovereignly appoints a time for everything (3:1-14).
      • God’s works are beyond man’s comprehension (7:14, 8:17).

Qoheleth believes that God is immutable, his being and perfections are unchanging. He sees the results of God’s activities as immutable. The necessary inference is the, that God’s character is unchanging.

      • God’s works are forever unchangeable in that nothing can be added or taken away from them (3:14).
      • The world system is closed and has fixed, immutable order that man is unable to alter (7:13, cf. 1:15).

Qoheleth believes that God is omniscient.

      • God has decreed all that has happened and will happen (3:11).
      • He is the source of knowledge (2:26).
      • God knows all things, whereas man does not (11:5).
      • The fact that God will judge every work, implies omniscience (12:14).

Qoheleth sees that God is omnipotent. This attribute is closely tied with sovereignty and is also reflected by Qoheleth’s consistent use of Elohim.

      • The use of ‘asah (made) reflects His power.
      • God made everything appropriate (3:11)
      • God made men upright (7:29).
      • God is said to have made all things (11:5).
        • The use of ma’eseh also reflects His power.
        • Man is not able to alter the work of God (7:13).
        • Man cannot discover the work of God (8:17).

Qoheleth believes God is transcendent. God is in heaven (5:1).

Qoheleth believes that God is inscrutable. Man cannot discover the work of God (3:11, 8:17).

The Works of God

God is seen by Qoheleth at work in creation

Qoheleth has a highly developed theology of creation, reflecting the opening chapters of Genesis (cf. Kaiser, p.36).

He speaks of man as being made of dust (Ecc.3:20, cf. Gen. 3:19).

Qoheleth sees God as the creator of man (Ecc. 12:1, 7:29).

Qoheleth sees God as the creator of all things (11:5).

God’s continuing work in the world is seen in providence

      • God has ordained all men’s affairs (3:10-11).
      • The years of a man’s life are from God’s providence (5:18).
      • Adversity and prosperity are both from God’s providence (7:14).
      • Enjoyment of life is due to God’s providence (2:24, 3:13, 5:19, 9:9).

God is seen at work in the world in judgment

      • God will judge man according to His own time schedule (3:17, 11:9, 12:13-14).
      • God will judge men on account of broken vows (5:6).
      • God will judge every act of man (11:9, 12:14).
      • God will judge sinners who deny God’s retribution (8:11-13). The fact of God’s judgment becomes the basis for Qoheleth’s exhortation to fear God.

Part III:
Man Under the Sun

The terms for man

Adam (49 times) Qoheleth uses Adam generically for mankind. The term is universal and encompasses both male and female.

Ish (10 times) The term Ish is used specifically denoting an individual or man in contrast to a woman. (For a contrast in Qoheleth’s use of these two terms see 9:15).

The nature of man

The material aspect of man is termed basar (flesh).

Qoheleth uses the term basar as the practical equivalent of the body.

      • The “flesh” experiences sensual pleasure in the stimulation of wine (2:3).
      • The flesh is wearied by much study (12:12).

Qoheleth uses basar to refer to the person as a whole.

      • A man’s speech can cause the “flesh” to sin, i.e. body or person as a whole—metonymy part for whole (5:5,6).
      • It is the “flesh” which experiences pain. Again, here probably a metonymy is involved (11:10).
      • Problematical is Ecc. 4:5, “the fool folds his hands and consumes his flesh.” Due to contextual considerations, this use of “flesh” should probably be understood in the sense of “meat,” rather than his own body.

The immaterial aspect of man is referred to as “spirit,” “soul” and “heart.”

Qoheleth’s use of ruach, “spirit,” and nephesh, “soul,” appear to overlap.

Nephesh is what results when basar is animated by ruach. This last comes from without, only Yahweh possess it in its fullness, since occasionally he can be identified with it. . . .Ruach ceases to be a power lent to man and becomes a psychological reality residing in man in a permanent manner, and like nephesh able to be the seat of faculties and desire. . . .In the latest texts there is a tendency to identify the two terms with ruach predominating. . . .In spite of the tendency to merge, there remains a perceptible difference. . . “the spirit is the motive power of the soul.” It does not mean the centre of the soul, but the strength emanating from it and in its turn reacting upon it. (Jacob, O.T. Theology, p. 161-162)

Qoheleth uses ruach (spirit) in both the sense of the seat of emotion, and the “breath of life.”

      • Ruach (spirit) is used as a near synonym for nephesh.
      • The spirit can be either patient or proud (7:8).
      • The spirit is the place of violent emotion, particularly anger (7:9, 10:4).
      • Ruach (spirit) is used as the animating life principle.
      • Men are unable to discern a difference in the fate of the breath of a beast and breath of a man (3:19, 21).
      • The ruach (spirit) is that which is given by God and returns to Him at death (12:7).

Problematical is whether Qoheleth believes in an afterlife. The fact that he even raises the question in 3:19-21 seems to indicate that he believes that man is not merely the highest of the beasts. The fact that he states explicitly that God will bring every deed into judgment, coupled with the fact that he explicitly denies that every deed is judged during this life, indicates that he believes in some kind of an afterlife, although he nowhere speculates upon its nature.

Qoheleth uses nephesh as a near synonym for ruach, yet the nephesh seems to be joined more closely with the flesh than it the ruach.

      • Nephesh (soul) is used of the seat of the intellect; a man tells his soul that his labor is good. (2:24)
      • Nephesh (soul) is used of the intellectual faculty of man which seeks an explanation to a question (7:28).
      • Nephesh (soul) is used of the appetital desires which can either be satisfied or suffer privation (6:2, 3, 7, 9).

Qoheleth uses heart as the seat of the intellect and the emotions.

      • “Nephesh is the soul in the sum of its totality, such as it appears; the heart is the soul in its inner value. . . . The Israelites were able to observe that impressions and emotions coming from outside influenced the heart, retarding or accelerating its movement. They were also able to prove that life depended as much upon the heart as on the breath and thus were led to make the heart the source of life (Prov. 4:23). From that double assertion they made the heart. . .an organ both receptive and active, an idea which is perfectly suitable for the seat of knowledge.” (Jacob, O.T. Theology, p. 164)
      • Heart is used in the sense of the organ of intellectual understanding as that which seeks, explores, investigates, applies itself to learn, know (1:13, 2:3, 22, 7:25, 8:6, 16, 9:1).
      • Heart is used as the seat of emotions particularly joy (7:3, 9:7), and desire (11:9).
      • The heart is used as the intellectual faculty which chooses good and evil. Specifically it denies retribution and thus makes the choice for moral evil (8:11, 9:3).

The condition of man “under the sun”

Qoheleth affirms the universality of sin among men (7:20, 7:29).

      • The hearts of men are full of evil (9:3).
      • The soul of man is avaricious (6:3).
      • The mouth of men curses other men (7:22).
      • A man may prolong his life by evil deeds (8:12,7:15).
      • Evil deeds abound because of a lack of swift retribution (8:10).
      • The sinner destroys much good (9:18).
      • Man does have a moral choice about participating in evil (8:3, 11:10).

Qoheleth sees man as ignorant.

      • He is ignorant of the work and plan of God (8:17, 3:11).
      • He is ignorant of the life processes (11:5).
      • He is ignorant of the future both in this life and after death (6:12, 7:14, 11:5, 3:20).

Qoheleth sees a man’s life as transient (1:4, 2:3, 6:12, 11:10).

Qoheleth concludes that man is compelled to seek for an answer to the meaning of life. It is a task which wearies him and causes him grief and is doomed to ultimate failure. The failure of the search seems to be designed by God to bring men to a point of trust. As Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and the heart of man is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

      • Man’s fate is the same as the beasts (3:19).

Man’s destiny

      • Death is the common fate of all men (2:12-17).
      • Death is a fate shared by man and beast (3:18-20).
      • Death is the cessation of opportunities with regard to this life (9:5-6).
      • The memory of the dead is forgotten (9:5).

Qoheleth does not express explicitly a belief in a hereafter. However, he hints that he does believe in some form of afterlife without making any comment upon its nature (cf. II. A. 3. above).

Man’s responsibility

Qoheleth repeatedly admonishes men to “fear God” (3:14, 5:6, 8:12, 12:13). While not commanding a naked feeling of terror, the Old Testament admonition to fear God presupposed a sense of the awesome majesty of God and his holiness. The fear of the Lord involves a reverence and respect for God because of his greatness and an ordering of one’s life in light of this knowledge. (cf. ZPBE, sv. “fear,” and Payne, Theology of the Older Testament)

      • One demonstrates his fear of God by obeying Him (12:13, 12:1).
      • Fear of God produces reticence before Him (4:17-5:1).
      • Fear of God impels one to fulfill vows to Him (5:3).

Qoheleth urges men to enjoy life as a gift from the hand of a good God rather than futilely pursue the key to life.

      • Man cannot discover lasting “good” or “profit” (1:3, 2:3, 3:11).
      • He should enjoy life as a gift from God (2:24, 3:12, 3:22, 5:17, 9:7-9).
      • He should remember that enjoyment is a gift from God (3:25, 5:18,19).
      • He should remember that failure to enjoy life is worse than never having lived (6:3).

Qoheleth’s advice to mankind is to order his life according to relative good.

      • He should choose wisdom over folly (2:13).
      • He should be satisfied rather than greedy (4:4-8).
      • He should seek companionship over solitude (4:9-12)
      • He should seek wisdom over fame (4:13-16).

Qoheleth expounds other “good” by which man should order his life (7:1-12).

Summary

Because man’s existence is perforated with puzzles, the pieces of which he can never assemble, his only recourse is to attain a posture of faith toward his life under the sun and to live it to the hilt knowing that someday the puzzle will be assembled by the One who created it and who will judge every deed.” (Howard Baker, “Theology of Ecclesiastes”)