Theology: General News
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In every generation, the church is commanded to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” That is no easy task, and it is complicated by the multiple attacks upon Christian truth that mark our contemporary age. Assaults upon the Christian faith are no longer directed only at isolated doctrines. The entire structure of Christian truth is now under attack by those who would subvert Christianity’s theological integrity.
Today’s Christian faces the daunting task of strategizing which Christian doctrines and theological issues are to be given highest priority in terms of our contemporary context. This applies both to the public defense of Christianity in face of the secular challenge and the internal responsibility of dealing with doctrinal disagreements. Neither is an easy task, but theological seriousness and maturity demand that we consider doctrinal issues in terms of their relative importance. God’s truth is to be defended at every point and in every detail, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis.
A trip to the local hospital Emergency Room some years ago alerted me to an intellectual tool that is most helpful in fulfilling our theological responsibility. In recent years, emergency medical personnel have practiced a discipline known as triage—a process that allows trained personnel to make a quick evaluation of relative medical urgency. Given the chaos of an Emergency Room reception area, someone must be armed with the medical expertise to make an immediate determination of medical priority. Which patients should be rushed into surgery? Which patients can wait for a less urgent examination? Medical personnel cannot flinch from asking these questions, and from taking responsibility to give the patients with the most critical needs top priority in terms of treatment.
The word triage comes from the French word trier, which means “to sort.” Thus, the triage officer in the medical context is the front-line agent for deciding which patients need the most urgent treatment. Without such a process, the scraped knee would receive the same urgency of consideration as a gunshot wound to the chest. The same discipline that brings order to the hectic arena of the Emergency Room can also offer great assistance to Christians defending truth in the present age.
A discipline of theological triage would require Christians to determine a scale of theological urgency that would correspond to the medical world’s framework for medical priority. With this in mind, I would suggest three different levels of theological urgency, each corresponding to a set of issues and theological priorities found in current doctrinal debates.
First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith. Included among these most crucial doctrines would be doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.
In the earliest centuries of the Christian movement, heretics directed their most dangerous attacks upon the church’s understanding of who Jesus is, and in what sense He is the very Son of God. Other crucial debates concerned the question of how the Son is related to the Father and the Holy Spirit. The earliest creeds and councils of the church were, in essence, emergency measures taken to protect the central core of Christian doctrine. At historic turning-points such as the councils at Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon, orthodoxy was vindicated and heresy was condemned—and these councils dealt with doctrines of unquestionable first-order importance. Christianity stands or falls on the affirmation that Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God.
The church quickly moved to affirm that the full deity and full humanity of Jesus Christ are absolutely necessary to the Christian faith. Any denial of what has become known as Nicaean-Chalcedonian Christology is, by definition, condemned as a heresy. The essential truths of the incarnation include the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who deny these revealed truths are, by definition, not Christians.
The same is true with the doctrine of the Trinity. The early church clarified and codified its understanding of the one true and living God by affirming the full deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—while insisting that the Bible reveals one God in three persons.
In addition to the Christological and Trinitarian doctrines, the doctrine of justification by faith must also be included among these first-order truths. Without this doctrine, we are left with a denial of the Gospel itself, and salvation is transformed into some structure of human righteousness. The truthfulness and authority of the Holy Scriptures must also rank as a first-order doctrine, for without an affirmation of the Bible as the very Word of God, we are left without any adequate authority for distinguishing truth from error.
These first-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.
The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident.
Second-order issues would include the meaning and mode of baptism. Baptists and Presbyterians, for example, fervently disagree over the most basic understanding of Christian baptism. The practice of infant baptism is inconceivable to the Baptist mind, while Presbyterians trace infant baptism to their most basic understanding of the covenant. Standing together on the first-order doctrines, Baptists and Presbyterians eagerly recognize each other as believing Christians, but recognize that disagreement on issues of this importance will prevent fellowship within the same congregation or denomination.
Christians across a vast denominational range can stand together on the first-order doctrines and recognize each other as authentic Christians, while understanding that the existence of second-order disagreements prevents the closeness of fellowship we would otherwise enjoy. A church either will recognize infant baptism, or it will not. That choice immediately creates a second-order conflict with those who take the other position by conviction.
In recent years, the issue of women serving as pastors has emerged as another second-order issue. Again, a church or denomination either will ordain women to the pastorate, or it will not. Second-order issues resist easy settlement by those who would prefer an either/or approach. Many of the most heated disagreements among serious believers take place at the second-order level, for these issues frame our understanding of the church and its ordering by the Word of God.
Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. I would put most of the debates over eschatology, for example, in this category. Christians who affirm the bodily, historical, and victorious return of the Lord Jesus Christ may differ over timetable and sequence without rupturing the fellowship of the church. Christians may find themselves in disagreement over any number of issues related to the interpretation of difficult texts or the understanding of matters of common disagreement. Nevertheless, standing together on issues of more urgent importance, believers are able to accept one another without compromise when third-order issues are in question.
A structure of theological triage does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth with less than full seriousness. We are charged to embrace and to teach the comprehensive truthfulness of the Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. There are no insignificant doctrines revealed in the Bible, but there is an essential foundation of truth that undergirds the entire system of biblical truth.
This structure of theological triage may also help to explain how confusion can often occur in the midst of doctrinal debate. If the relative urgency of these truths is not taken into account, the debate can quickly become unhelpful. The error of theological liberalism is evident in a basic disrespect for biblical authority and the church’s treasury of truth. The mark of true liberalism is the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist. Liberals treat first-order doctrines as if they were merely third-order in importance, and doctrinal ambiguity is the inevitable result.
Fundamentalism, on the other hand, tends toward the opposite error. The misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines. Thus, third-order issues are raised to a first-order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.
Living in an age of widespread doctrinal denial and intense theological confusion, thinking Christians must rise to the challenge of Christian maturity, even in the midst of a theological emergency. We must sort the issues with a trained mind and a humble heart, in order to protect what the Apostle Paul called the “treasure” that has been entrusted to us. Given the urgency of this challenge, a lesson from the Emergency Room just might help.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Philip Gulley and James Mulholland are at it again. In 2003, the duo released If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, and the book quickly found its way to major trade bookstores and entered the publicity cycle.
Now, Gulley and Mulholland have written If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World, and the new book is presented as the next chapter in their unfolding account of their evolving theology. Make no mistake—these authors intend to remake Christianity in their own image. In If Grace Is True, the authors presented a glittering and glandular argument for the heresy of universalism—the claim that all persons will eventually be saved because God will not send anyone to Hell. Their approach was cleverly packaged and presented in simple language. They simply rejected one of Christianity’s most central teachings and replaced it with something far more attractive to postmodern Americans. At the affective and emotional levels, the authors urged their readers to shift toward a view of God that was more emotionally satisfying in terms of contemporary concepts of acceptance and love. The deity they present is infinitely nonjudgmental, eternally tolerant, and bears virtually no resemblance to the God of the Bible. That doesn’t stop them from claiming that their new theology is just Christianity reformed. This is a free country, and citizens are free to establish whatever religion they may wish and devise. From Mary Baker Eddy and Joseph Smith to Reverend Moon and Deepak Chopra, Americans—native and naturalized—have been inventing new religions as a national pastime. America has become a marketplace of religious confusions and competing spiritualities. Start a new religion if you are so inclined—just have the integrity not to call what you devise “Christianity.”
In the first book, Gulley and Mulholland jettisoned the entire structure of Christian conviction. Sin makes no sense in a theological structure that excludes judgment. God must be reconceived so that He is no longer a God of justice concerned with righteousness but is instead an agent of personal transformation among His human creatures, calling out the very best in every person and every situation. No one is beyond His salvific purpose, and even Satan will eventually be reconciled to God and will take his place in the great harmonic age to come.
Salvation must be reconceptualized so as to remove any atoning work accomplished by Jesus Christ and reduce the entire scheme of salvation to something like a self-help program that produces and evolves spiritual consciousness.
As I mentioned in my review of If Grace Is True, the authors are to be congratulated at at least one point. They do admit that their reformulation of Christianity requires that the Bible be discarded as an infallible and authoritative guide. In arguing for a universal salvation, the Bible is an insurmountable obstacle. Can a Christian believe that God will save everyone? “Obviously, if a Christian must believe that the Bible is the ‘infallible words of God,’ the answer is no. There are too many verses about judgment, Hell, and the eternal punishment of the wicked to make such optimism reasonable.”
The authors press their argument to a new level in If God Is Love, now arguing that Christianity must be transformed from a religion of fear and reward to a “gracious” faith of unconditional acceptance. They urge the church to move from a “theology of fear” to a “theology of grace” that would completely transform Christianity, the church, and religion itself.
As in their first book, the authors write in the singular first person, combining their personal and autobiographical references into one voice. This is a bit eccentric, to say the least, and it makes for an awkward reading experience. Nevertheless, these authors do get their argument across, and in less than subtle terms.
They begin by relating an account of an experience one of the authors endured as pastor of a small congregation. Asked by an elderly woman if he believed in Satan and Hell, the pastor, “eager to prove my theological sophistication,” told her that he did not believe in Satan nor “in a place where people were endlessly tormented.” As he explains, “This was before I learned that answering theological questions directly and honestly is generally a bad idea, and that ministers go to seminary precisely so we can master the theological language necessary to bewilder people when pressed to provide answers they might not like.” That indictment certainly fits some theological seminaries, who train their graduates to speak in theological “double-speak” that sounds conservative but masks a subterfuge of the faith.
Ejected from that pulpit, the pastor quickly found himself in a new church where his liberal theology was much more appreciated. For the remainder of the book, the authors flesh out what this liberal “gracious” religion would look like, and they try to present their product as a reformulated version of Christianity.
The heart of their argument is that classical, biblical Christianity is a “dualistic” theology. Accordingly, “everyone is either under divine control (saved) or in rebellion (unsaved).” Such a dualistic understanding requires the existence of both Heaven and Hell, and generally results in hierarchical systems of religious authority that “see God as severe, rigid, judgmental, intolerant, jealous, and condemning.” As they explain, “The problem with dualistic theologies is that God’s desire is to separate the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the saved from the damned.”
Gulley and Mulholland admit that the Bible is filled with such dualistic teaching and that traditional Christianity has recognized this as the very structure of the faith. Nevertheless, they reject classical Christianity as an intolerant faith that simply does not fit the needs of modern times. In their first book, they argued for the principle of universal salvation. In this second book, they sketch out what shape this new form of Christianity would take, and how it would be applied to many areas of life.
Turning from fear to grace would mean, they argue, leaving behind outdated concepts of sin and God’s judgment. Fear would be replaced with an unconditional acceptance of our acceptance by God. They look back at the Gospel as it was taught to them as children and remember, “every Sunday we were reminded of how Jesus paid it all, how He loved us so much He died for us. The descriptions of His crucifixion were not of a religious reformer killed by the authorities, but of a friend laying down His life for us.” They now see this understanding of Jesus’ life and death as unhealthy, both mentally and spiritually.
When they discuss moving from a “theology of fear” to a theology of grace, they mean abandoning the very structure of reward and punishment, divine justice and atonement, and, of course, the idea of Hell. “Human transformation comes when love casts out fear,” they argue, “assuring us we’ll never be disowned, abandoned, or destroyed. Only in the rich soil of unconditional love can we truly grow. Believing in God’s desire to save every person calms our fears of death and destruction. It assures us of God’s acceptance. Grace gives us the freedom to live boldly.”
Since fear and love are “incompatible,” according to these authors, fear must be discarded as an inappropriate impulse. Even though Jesus warned that we should fear Hell and the wrath of God, these authors simply pick and choose among biblical passages to find a foundation for redefining the faith.
But, if fear of Hell is an inadequate concern for their new religion, so is the hope of Heaven. “Religion focused on escaping hell’s flames is ugly, but appeals based on entering heaven’s gates are equally flawed,” they assert. In other words, we should not love and obey God out of hope of Heaven, but simply for what will come to us in this world through reaching harmony and satisfaction here on earth. “If fear-based theology justifies a God who can be abusive, reward-earning theology creates religious gold diggers—people in relationship for the wrong reasons. Belonging in God’s desire to save every person challenged my need to compete with sinners for some heavenly prize. It allowed me to approach God with gratitude rather than greed. Grace allowed me to move beyond punishment and reward.”
Throughout the book, the authors provide ample evidence of what it takes to transform Christianity into a structure more to their liking. They are honest in rejecting the truthfulness of many biblical passages. Discussing the death of Uzzah as recorded in 2 Samuel 6:7, they acknowledge that the Bible claims that the Lord killed Uzzah because he violated the command not to touch the Ark of the Covenant. This passage reveals a God that punishes wrongdoing, the authors acknowledge. Nevertheless, “I don’t believe that story any longer. I am convinced our heavenly Parent not only expects our indiscretions, but sees them as opportunities not to destroy us, but to encourage and teach us.”
In a similar vein, the authors reject the truthfulness of Ephesians 5:22-23, acknowledging that this passage affirms the authority of husbands in marriage. “Unfortunately, such scriptures, rather than reflecting God’s hope for relationships, reflect the influence of a patriarchal and hierarchical society in which power and control rather than grace held sway.”
In If God Is Love, the authors present a complete rejection of classical Christianity and put in its place a postmodern mixture of wishful thinking and theological invention. In their view of a “gracious life,” religion would lead all persons to reject patterns of hierarchical authority, move into an unprecedented age of cooperation and “graciousness,” and recognize that all human beings share the same basic concerns and are assured of the same eventual destiny.
Accordingly, the church of this new religion would reject pastoral authority and would take as its message the universal love of God applied to everyday life. The authors are clearly concerned with maintaining some form and structure of morality, but they offer no insight into how human beings are even to understand what morality would require. In such a structure, where do we gain any understanding of right and wrong?
Interestingly, the authors are unwilling to dispense with these categories altogether. They are certain that the death penalty is wrong and that the church must move to embrace same-gender marriage. Nevertheless, they concede that abortion “is often an ungracious act.” Not that they want to ban abortion altogether, they simply want a world in which abortion would be rare “and always the lesser of two evils.”
Even though this new book is largely a rehash of arguments already presented in If Grace Is True, If God Is Love does take the reader into new territory. The authors offer various insights on matters ranging from economics to international politics and the roots of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
They do not underestimate the revolutionary character of their arguments. “Becoming gracious will require a reformation that will make Luther’s look like redecorating. It will require us to abandon our claim to be favored children. We’ll have to surrender the Bible as our ace in the hole and Jesus as a backstage pass. The Church will have to serve, rather than dominate, the world. Christianity will need to reclaim its most distinctive doctrine—the universal grace of God. Hell and damnation will no longer be tools of the trade. We’ll need to identify Christians not by what they believe about Jesus, but by their willingness to be like Him.”
Gulley and Mulholland acknowledge that not all will receive their message with acceptance [they even acknowledge my criticism of If Grace Is True, commenting, “Not everyone is a fan.”].
These authors have obviously tapped into popular interest and the desire of many postmodern persons to find any spiritual substitute for authentic Christianity. They have every right to devise their own religion and come up with whatever structure of theology and belief they would offer. They have every right to present their case before the world, to organize their own congregations and institutions, ordain their own clergy (if any), and call for converts.
Nevertheless, those who would redefine Christianity and eviscerate the central doctrines of the faith should at least have sufficient integrity not to call their new product Christianity. Liberated from concern for biblical authority, Gulley and Mulholland simply pick and choose among biblical texts, constructing a concept of Jesus that fits their new religion. This has been tried before, and it will be tried again.
Grace is indeed true and God is indeed love, but what Gulley and Mulholland present in these books is simply not Christianity.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
[KH: Conservative thologians believe that virgin birth is a good test stone for orthodoxy.]
In his recent column in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof pointed to belief in the Virgin Birth as evidence that conservative Christians are “less intellectual.” [see this week’s WebLog entries] Are we saddled with an untenable doctrine? Is belief in the Virgin Birth really necessary?
Kristof is absolutely aghast that so many Americans believe in the Virgin Birth. “The faith in the Virgin Birth reflects the way American Christianity is becoming less intellectual and more mystical over time,” he explains, and the percentage of Americans who believe in the Virgin Birth “actually rose five points in the latest poll.” Yikes! Is this evidence of secular backsliding?
“The Virgin Mary is an interesting prism through which to examine America’s emphasis on faith,” Kristof argues, “because most Biblical scholars regard the evidence for the Virgin Birth ... as so shaky that it pretty much has to be a leap of faith.” [see Kristof article] Here’s a little hint: Anytime you hear a claim about what “most Biblical scholars” believe, check on just who these illustrious scholars really are. In Kristof’s case, he is only concerned about liberal scholars like Hans Kung, whose credentials as a Catholic theologian were revoked by the Vatican.
The list of what Hans Kung does not believe would fill a book [just look at his books!], and citing him as an authority in this area betrays Kristof’s determination to stack the evidence, or his utter ignorance that many theologians and biblical scholars vehemently disagree with Kung. Kung is the anti-Catholic’s favorite Catholic, and that is the real reason he is so loved by the liberal media.
Kristof also cites “the great Yale historian and theologian” Jaroslav Pelikan as an authority against the Virgin Birth, but this is both unfair and untenable. In Mary Through the Centuries, Pelikan does not reject the Virgin Birth, but does trace the development of the doctrine.
What are we to do with the Virgin Birth? The doctrine was among the first to be questioned and then rejected after the rise of historical criticism and the undermining of biblical authority that inevitably follwed. Critics claimed that since the doctrine is taught in “only” two of the four Gospels, it must be elective. The Apostle Paul, they argued, did not mention it in his sermons in Acts, so he must not have believed it. Besides, the liberal critics argued, the doctrine is just so supernatural. Modern heretics like retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong argue that the doctrine was just evidence of the early church’s over-claiming of Christ’s deity. It is, Spong tells us, the “entrance myth” to go with the resurrection, the “exit myth.” If only Spong were a myth.
Now, even some revisionist evangelicals claim that belief in the Virgin Birth is unnecessary. The meaning of the miracle is enduring, they argue, but the historical truth of the doctrine is not really important.
Must one believe in the Virgin Birth to be a Christian? This is not a hard question to answer. It is conceivable that someone might come to Christ and trust Christ as Savior without yet learning that the Bible teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin. A new believer is not yet aware of the full structure of Christian truth. The real question is this: Can a Christian, once aware of the Bible’s teaching, reject the Virgin Birth? The answer must be no.
Nicholas Kristof pointed to his grandfather as a “devout” Presbyterian elder who believed that the Virgin Birth is a “pious legend.” Follow his example, Kristof encourages, and join the modern age. But we must face the hard fact that Kristof’s grandfather denied the faith. This is a very strange and perverse definition of “devout.”
Matthew tells us that before Mary and Joseph “came together,” Mary “was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” [Matthew 1:18] This, Matthew explains, fulfilled what Isaiah promised: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name ‘Immanuel,’ which translated means ‘God with Us’.” [Matthew 1:23, Isaiah 9:6-7]
Luke provides even greater detail, revealing that Mary was visited by an angel who explained that she, though a virgin, would bear the divine child: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy child shall be called the Son of God.” [Luke 1:35]
Even if the Virgin Birth was taught by only one biblical passage, that would be sufficient to obligate all Christians to the belief. We have no right to weigh the relative truthfulness of biblical teachings by their repetition in Scripture. We cannot claim to believe that the Bible is the Word of God and then turn around and cast suspicion on its teaching.
Millard Erickson states this well: “If we do not hold to the virgin birth despite the fact that the Bible asserts it, then we have compromised the authority of the Bible and there is in principle no reason why we should hold to its other teachings. Thus, rejecting the virgin birth has implications reaching far beyond the doctrine itself.”
Implications, indeed. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, who was His father? There is no answer that will leave the Gospel intact. The Virgin Birth explains how Christ could be both God and man, how He was without sin, and that the entire work of salvation is God’s gracious act. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, He had a human father. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, the Bible teaches a lie.
Carl F. H. Henry, the dean of evangelical theologians, argues that the Virgin Birth is the “essential, historical indication of the Incarnation, bearing not only an analogy to the divine and human natures of the Incarnate, but also bringing out the nature, purpose, and bearing of this work of God to salvation.” Well said, and well believed.
Nicholas Kristof and his secularist friends may find belief in the Virgin Birth to be evidence of intellectual backwardness among American Christians. But this is the faith of the Church, established in God’s perfect Word, and cherished by the true Church throughout the ages. Kristof’s grandfather, we are told, believed that the Virgin Birth is a “pious legend.” The fact that he could hold such beliefs and serve as an elder in his church is evidence of that church’s doctrinal and spiritual laxity — or worse. Those who deny the Virgin Birth affirm other doctrines only by force of whim, for they have already surrendered the authority of Scripture. They have undermined Christ’s nature and nullified the incarnation.
This much we know: All those who find salvation will be saved by the atoning work of Jesus the Christ — the virgin-born Savior. Anything less than this is just not Christianity, whatever it may call itself. A true Christian will not deny the Virgin Birth.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
The photographs and images are now seared into our consciousness. One of the most troubling aspects of the disaster in Southeast Asia is the death of infants and young children. Moving at the speed of a jetliner, the walls of water fell on the young and the old alike—and so many of the youngest were simply swept away.
The death of the little ones poses anguished questions that reach to the depth of Christian faith. What happened to these young victims after death? Did they go to Heaven or to Hell?
That question is too pastorally loaded to be left hanging, only to be found at the end of this article. I am convinced that those who die in infancy and early childhood—along with the severely cognitively impaired—go to Heaven when they die. That is quite a claim, but it stands within the mainstream of orthodox Christian theology throughout the centuries, and I believe it is biblically and theologically sustainable.
In fact, I am hard pressed to imagine how any other answer can be given.
This is a question of emotional urgency for grieving parents, and it is a stone of stumbling for some who jump to hasty theological conclusions. The scope of the problem is huge, for untold millions of human beings have died at the earliest ages. Infant mortality still stands at several million babies a year. In the developing world, disease, famine, and abandonment take a heavy toll. Even in the most highly developed nations, armed with the latest medical technologies, thousands of infants die each year.
The best estimates out of Indonesia and Sri Lanka indicate that young children make up a disproportionate number of the victims of the tsunamis. Like Rachel in the Old Testament, anguished mothers weep for their children.
What is our answer to the question of the eternal destiny awaiting those children? My argument that these children are safe in the presence of Jesus Christ is based upon biblical evidence and theological reasoning. I cannot accept the glib and superficial assertions put forth by those who would simply offer assurance without adequate argument.
These infants are in Heaven, but not because they were not sinners. The Bible teaches that we are all conceived in sin and born in sin, and each of us is a sinner from the moment we draw our first breath. The doctrines of original sin and total depravity do not spring from some speculative theological imagination, but from the clear teaching of Scripture. There is no state of innocence, and these babies cannot enter Heaven unless the penalty for their sin is provided by the atonement of Jesus Christ.
These infants are in Heaven, but not because everyone is in Heaven. The Bible presents us with a stark picture of two destinies for humankind. Those who are in Christ, who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, will be in Heaven. Those who are apart from Christ will be in Hell. Hell may be a despised concept—rejected by the theological modernizers—but it will not disappear, and its horrors await those who die without Christ. Jesus warned sinners to fear Hell, and the Bible warns that we must flee the wrath that is to come. Universalism is just not an option for any Christian who believes the Bible. Those who deny Hell deny the authority of Christ.
These infants are in heaven, but not because any of them were baptized. The practice of infant baptism has led to multiple theological confusions, and the death of infants is often one of the points of greatest bewilderment. Most of the early church fathers simply assumed that baptized infants who die in infancy go to Heaven, while unbaptized infants do not. These significant Christian leaders and thinkers, including figures such as Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo, taught the doctrine of baptismal regeneration—a belief still held by the Roman Catholic Church and most Eastern Orthodox churches. Among Protestants, Lutherans hold to a form of baptismal regeneration and some sacramentalists in other denominations also lean in that direction. According to this logic, infants are saved because they have been baptized and have thus received the gift of salvation. There is simply not a shred of biblical support for this argument. What these churches call infant baptism cannot help us in framing our argument. There is no biblical foundation for arguing for the salvation of infants from baptism, or for positing the existence of “Limbo” as a place of eternal suspension for unbaptized infants.
So, how can we frame an argument that is true to Scripture and consistent with the Gospel? Before turning to Heaven, perhaps we should take a closer look at Hell. According to the Bible, Hell is a place of punishment for sins consciously committed during our earthly lives. We are told that we will be judged according to our deeds committed “in the body.” [2 Corinthians 5:10] Adam’s sin and guilt, imputed to every single human being, explains why we are born as sinners and why we cannot not sin, but the Bible clearly teaches that every person will be judged for his or her own sins, not for Adam’s sin. The judgment of sinners that will take place at the great white throne [Revelation 20:11-12] will be “according to their deeds.” Have those who died in infancy committed such deeds? I believe not, for they have not yet developed the capacity to know good from evil. No biblical text refers to the presence of small children or infants in Hell—not one.
Theologians have long debated an “age of accountability.” The Bible does not reveal an “age” at which moral accountability arrives, but we do know by observation and experience that maturing human beings do develop a capacity for moral reasoning at some point. Dismissing the idea of an “age” of accountability, John MacArthur refers to a “condition” of accountability. I most often speak of a point or capacity of moral accountability. At this point of moral development, the maturing child knows the difference between good and evil—and willingly chooses to sin.
The Bible offers a fascinating portrait of this truth in the first chapter of Deuteronomy. In response to Israel’s sin and rebellion, God condemns that generation of adults to death in the wilderness, never to see the land of promise. “Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land which I swore to give to your fathers.” [Deuteronomy 1:35]. But God specifically exempted young children and infants from this condemnation—and He even explained why He did so: “Moreover, your little ones who you said would become prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good and evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it.” [Deuteronomy 1:39] These little ones were not punished for their parents’ sins, but were accepted by God into the Promised Land. I believe that this offers a sound basis for our confidence that God deals with young children differently than He deals with those who are capable of deliberate and conscious sin.
Based on these arguments, I believe that we can have confidence that God receives all infants into Heaven.
Salvation is all of grace, and God remains forever sovereign in the entire process of our salvation. The Bible clearly teaches the doctrine of election, but it nowhere suggests that all those who die in infancy are not among the elect. Even the Westminster Confession, the most authoritative Reformed confession, states the matter only in the positive sense, affirming that all elect infants are received into Heaven. It does not require belief in the existence of any non-elect infants. Those who insist that all we can say is that elect infants are saved while non-elect infants are not, confuse the issue by assuming or presuming the existence of non-elect infants and leaving the matter there.
We must remember that God is both omnipotent and omniscient. He gave these little ones life, knowing before the creation of the world that they would die before reaching moral maturity and thus the ability to sin by intention and choice. Did He bring these infants—who would never consciously sin—into the world merely as the objects of His wrath?
The great Princeton theologians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield certainly did not think so. These defenders of Reformed orthodoxy taught that those who die in infancy die in Christ. Hodge pointed to the example of Jesus: “The conduct and language of our Lord in reference to children are not to be regarded as matters of sentiment, or simply expressive of kindly feeling. He evidently looked upon them as lambs of the flock for which, as the Good Shepherd, He laid down his life, and of whom He said they shall never perish, and no man could pluck them out of his hands. Of such He tells us is the kingdom of Heaven, as though Heaven was, in good measure, composed of the souls of redeemed infants.”
Charles Spurgeon, the great evangelical preacher of Victorian England, and John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” added pastoral urgency to this affirmation. Spurgeon was frustrated with preachers who claimed to have no answer to this question, and he hurled judgment on anyone who would claim that infants would populate Hell.
In the end, we must affirm the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the full authority of Scripture. We trust the goodness, mercy, justice, and love of God. Whatever He does is right. Salvation is all of grace, and there is no salvation apart from Christ. All are born sinners, and those who reach the point of accountability and consciously sin against God will be judged and punished for their sins in Hell—unless they have come by grace to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
B. B. Warfield may have expressed it best when he beautifully affirmed, “If all that die in infancy are saved, it can only be through the almighty operation of Holy Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases, through whose ineffable grace the Father gathers these little ones to the home He has prepared for them.”
Keep those words firmly in mind as you contemplate this great and often troubling question. The little ones are safe with Jesus.
[Editor’s Note—Every year, the secular left uses the Christmas season as an opportunity to take aim at Christian beliefs. Especially incomprehensible to them is the Bible’s teaching that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. Case in point—the two major news magazines which have run cover stories in just the past few weeks on the doctrine. In the summer of 2003, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote an editorial claiming that belief in the Virgin Birth of Christ was inherently unintellectual. Dr. Albert Mohler answered Kristof in a series of three articles. This week, we are republishing those articles as a reminder of just how crucial the Virgin Birth is to the Christian faith.]
Nicholas Kristof must be a very smart man — but a very slow learner. A columnist for The New York Times, Kristof is a Harvard graduate and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. But when it comes to something as significant as the nature of Christianity, Kristof and his columns are dumb and dumber.
Back in March , Kristof wrote a very strange column suggesting that his liberal media colleagues ought to give evangelical Christians a closer look. [see my article in WORLD] Not that they would like what they saw, mind you, but that the rising public influence of the evangelicals demanded media attention.
His argument came down to this: Evangelicals are strange people with radical religious beliefs that will do great harm to the nation, but they mean well and so let’s be nicer in opposing them to the death.
An exaggeration? Kristof acknowledged that he tends to disagree with evangelicals on almost everything. And he intends to oppose evangelical influence at every turn, because, “I see no problem with aggressively pointing out the dismal consequences of this increasing religious influence.”
On the other hand, Kristof called upon his liberal colleagues to drop their “sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself.” If only he had taken his own advice.
This past Friday [August 18, 2003], The New York Times ran another Kristof piece in its editorial section, and it’s a wonder to behold: Perhaps the worst opinion piece to run in that paper in years — and that’s really saying something. [see Kristof’s article]
In his new column, Kristof points to “the most fundamental divide between America and the rest of the industrialized world: faith.” Unlike the rest of the industrialized world (with the exception of South Korea), America is resolutely religious. Europe is overwhelmingly secular, with low church attendance and very little Christian influence in public life or politics. In America, on the other hand, more persons attend church than public sporting events, and both major political parties court the religious vote — just in different sectors.
This is not news, at least to anyone even moderately informed about the national character of the United States. One would have to have been locked in a monastery for the last thirty years to have missed the religious dynamic of America’s culture war, and even the most casual visitor to western or northern Europe would note its secularity. But the divide between Europe and America is not Kristof’s real concern. It’s the divide between “intellectual” and “religious” America.
Got that? Intellectual and religious are now opposing terms? What Kristof really means is a divide between secularist/liberal America and Americans who are conservative Christians. As “Exhibit A” for his case, Kristof chose the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus.
“The faith in the Virgin Birth reflects the way American Christianity is becoming less intellectual and more mystical over time,” he wrote. More mystical? Less intellectual?
According to Kristof’s reasoning, no intellectually credible person could believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. As authorities on this he cites the likes of Hans Kung, a German theologian barred by the Vatican from teaching Catholic theology. Kung is a notorious liberal, who has called the Gospel narratives a “collection of largely uncertain, mutually contradictory, strongly legendary,” stories. Kristof is obviously unaware of the huge body of scholarship in support of the Virgin Birth. But, in all likelihood, he wouldn’t care anyway. Quoting Hans Kung on the Virgin Birth is like identifying Hugh Hefner as a spokesman for chastity.
Kristof cannot believe that so many Christians [he cites 91-percent] take the Virgin Birth to be true, “despite the lack of scientific or historical evidence.” Is he demanding an ultrasound?
There are several important divides in American life today, and Kristof inadvertently pointed to one closer than he thinks: the divide between the secular media elites and believing Christians. The media elite is tenaciously committed to a worldview steeped in anti-supernaturalism. Miracles are out, along with the whole idea that modern people should be bound in any way by a 2,000-year-old book.
This is the most important American divide. One the one side are secularists who honestly cannot believe that intelligent people can believe Christianity to be true. One the other side are those who have staked their lives — including their intellectual energies — on the truthfulness and authority of the Bible.
It’s too bad Nicholas Kristof didn’t take his own advice. Instead, he offered up a caricature so ludicrous that it’s hard to take it seriously. Have all the editors at The New York Times gone away on vacation? In the end, this sad column tells us all we need to know about the real worldview of the media elite. It’s not like we didn’t know already.
“It takes one to know one,” quipped historian Eugene Genovese, then an atheist and Marxist. He was referring to liberal Protestant theologians, whom he believed to be closet atheists. As Genovese observed, “When I read much Protestant theology and religious history today, I have the warm feeling that I am in the company of fellow nonbelievers.”
Genovese’s comment rang prophetic when Gerd Ludemann, a prominent German theologian, declared a few years ago, “I no longer describe myself as a Christian.” A professor of New Testament and director of the Institute of Early Christian Studies at Gottingen University in Germany, Ludemann has provoked the faithful and denied essential Christian doctrines for many years.
With amazing directness, Ludemann has denied the resurrection of Jesus, the virgin birth, and eventually the totality of the Gospel. Claiming to practice theology as a “scientific discipline,” Ludemann (who taught for several years at the Vanderbilt Divinity School) has sought to debunk or discredit the Bible as an authoritative source for Christian theology.
In his influential book Heretics (1995), Ludemann sought to demonstrate that the heretics were right all along, and that the Christian church had conjured a supernatural Jesus to further its own cause. In What Really Happened to Jesus (1995) he argued, “We can no longer take the statements about the resurrection of Jesus literally.” Lest anyone miss his point, Ludemann continued, “So let us say quite specifically: the tomb of Jesus was not empty but full, and his body did not disappear, but rotted away.”
Nevertheless, Ludemann argued that Christianity could be rescued from its naive supernaturalism by focusing on the moral teachings of Jesus. Later, Ludemann gave an interview to the German magazine Evangelische Kommentare in which he stated that the Bible’s portrayal of Jesus is a “fairy-tale world which we cannot enter.”
In that same interview he denied the sinlessness of Jesus, explaining that, if Jesus was truly human, “we must grant that he was neither sinless or without error.” The church, he argued, must give up its faith in the “risen Lord” and settle for Jesus as a mere human being, but one from whom much can be learned.
In later writings, Ludemann argued that Jesus was conceived as the product of a rape, and stated clearly that he could no longer “take my stand on the Apostles’ Creed” or any other historic confession of faith. He continued, however, to teach as an official member of the theology faculty—a post which requires the certification of the Lutheran church in Germany.
Gerd Ludemann’s theological search-and-destroy mission eventually ran him down a blind alley. As he told the Swiss Protestant news agency Reformierter Pressedienst, he has come to a new realization. “A Christian is someone who prays to Christ and believes in what is promised by Christian doctrine. So I asked myself: ‘Do I pray to Jesus? Do I pray to the God of the Bible?’ And I don’t do that. Quite the reverse.”
Having come face to face with his unbelief, Ludemann has now turned his guns on church bureaucrats and liberal theologians. Many church officials, Ludemann claims, no longer believe in the creeds, but simply “interpret” the words into meaninglessness. Liberal theologians, he asserts, try to reformulate Christian doctrine into something they can believe, and still claim to be Christians. He now describes liberal theology as “contemptible.”
Looking back on the whole project of liberal theology, Professor Ludemann offered an amazing reflection: “I don’t think Christians know what they mean when they proclaim Jesus as Lord of the world. That is a massive claim. If you took that seriously, you would probably have to be a fundamentalist. If you can’t be a fundamentalist, then you should give up Christianity for the sake of honesty.”
Professor Gerd Ludemann reveals much about the true state of modern liberal theology. One core doctrine after another has fallen by liberal denial—all in the name of salvaging the faith in the modern age. The game is now reaching its end stage. Having denied virtually every essential doctrine, the liberals are holding an empty bag. As Ludemann suggests, they should give up their claim on Christianity for the sake of honesty.
Professor Ludemann is now a formidable foe of liberal theology, but he is also one of its victims. He said that he plans to pick up his teaching career from a “post-Christian” perspective, now that he knows “what I am and what I am not.” Should his liberal colleagues attempt to remove him from the theology faculty as a “post-Christian,” Ludemann may respond with Genovese’s quip: “It takes one to know one.”
ROME (Reuter) — Pope John Paul II said Sunday that because God formed an alliance with man after the Great Flood at the time of Noah, God would never destroy the world again.
The pope made his comments while preaching at a Rome parish before heading to the Vatican for a week-long Lenten spiritual retreat during which he will make no public appearances.
In his homily the pope said that after the Great Flood, which the Book of Genesis says was inflicted as punishment for widespread sin in the world, God forged an alliance with Noah.
Noah and his family were the only humans allowed to survive because of their goodness, the Bible says.
“From the words of alliance between God and Noah, it is understood that now no sin could bring God to destroy the world he created,” the pope said.
Addressing thousands of pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter’s Square later, the pope asked Catholics to pray, fast and give to the poor during Lent. The 40-day penitential season began last Wednesday and ends Easter Sunday.
During the week-long spiritual retreat, the pope and Vatican officials will suspend most official activity while they take part in a program of prayer and reflection.
[KH: The pope forgot 2Pe 3:10. The promise of no destruction after the Flood was only for non-destruction by the flood only.]
CLERGY and worshippers at St Paul’s Cathedral are puzzled why an unauthorised, “politically correct” version of the creed, the universal statement of Christian belief, has been inserted into services without their knowledge or consent.
Surprised churchgoers at 11am Holy Communion found themselves saying the new creed, in which the word “men” was omitted and the description of Christ’s conception altered.
The Dean, John Moses, admitted yesterday that an error had been made and said that the creed, last used on Sunday, would appear in services no more. “It appears that, on this occasion, we have made a small mistake,” he said.
Canon Stephen Oliver, the precentor in charge of liturgy at St Paul’s and a member of the General Synod’s liturgical commission, decided to test the creed to discern any problems before it is debated again in the synod in November. Although the Dean was aware of his plans, St Paul’s Chapter was not consulted. The issue was debated by the chapter yesterday, when the canons agreed that it had been a “valuable experiment”.
Canon Oliver said: “We learnt valuable lessons from it. There are actually bigger issues around at the moment than this.” Canon Michael Saward said: “We don’t want to cause any trouble and we will go back to Rite A from the Alternative Service Book. The experiment was reckoned not to be the best thing for us to do. It was an entirely amicable debate.”
One worshipper, who asked not to be named, said he was surprised that an unauthorised change was made to a particularly sensitive feature of the liturgy in a cathedral regarded as the flagship of the Church of England. “It is a politically correct creed,” he said. “We were all most surprised to see it there.”
The creed is a modified version of the Nicene Creed, issued by the Council of Constantinople in 381. The new version is being examined by the General Synod of the Church of England for inclusion in a service book that will succeed the much-derided 1980 Alternative Service Book at the millennium.
The word “men” is omitted from the line “for us men and for our salvation”. Christ is said to become incarnate “of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary”, instead of by the power of the Holy Spirit “of the Virgin Mary”.
In the Church of England, any change to the liturgy must, under the law of the land, be thoroughly approved by church members through their elected General Synod before it can be used.
One of the catheral’s clergy said: “It is more of a confusion than a punch-up. Some of us are concerned to know what is going on. One or two members of the congregation have raised questions about it with me. They came up after the service and asked whether there wasn’t something funny about it.”
We believe in one God,the Father, the almighty... For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man...
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.
Nicene Creed from the 1980 Alternative Service Book Rite A.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty... For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man... We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
Nicene Creed used in St Paul’s, taken from Praying Together, prepared by the English Language Liturgical Consultation, 1988.
A LEADING biblical archaeologist claimed yesterday that new evidence had been uncovered which requires a drastic rewriting of the Easter week timetable to show that Jesus and his disciples shared the Last Supper three days -and not just a matter of hours -before his Crucifixion.
Father Bargil Pixner said the new theory explained the riddle that has long eluded Bible scholars as to why Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the Last Supper as a Passover meal, while John says that Jesus was crucified “just before” Passover.
Speaking yards from the spot where many Christians believe the meal was eaten in a large upper room (in a guest house long since destroyed) Father Pixner said: “Both timings were correct because they were based on different feast-day calendars.”
The Benedictine prior of the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion bases his theory on excavations which he claims show there was an Essene community there whose inhabitants went by a solar calendar, which would have had the Passover meal eaten on the Tuesday of Passion Week in AD30, the year it is said that Christ died, rather than the Friday . “By recognising that Jesus shared that meal by the Essene date and not the temple priests’ or lunar date, we can properly understand the sequence of events,” he said.
If Jesus was arrested in the early hours of Wednesday, and died on Friday, then the trial against him lasted three days.” Father Pixner said that this “would make a great deal more sense of all the things that were supposed to have happened before he was crucified “at the third hour” -that is, around 9am on the Friday.
The Essenes, authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were Jewish purists who reacted against what they saw as the corruption of the high priests, and until recently were assumed to have lived mostly in small rural communities close to the Dead Sea.
In the face of scepticism from some rival scholars who have denied the Essene presence in the Holy City, Father Pixner has used radar and sonar studies to support his theory since it was first raised in his book, With Jesus in Jerusalem, and has applied to the Greek Orthodox Church for permission to excavate in a spot which he says will provide “definitive proof”.
PRAYERS for exorcism and healing are to be introduced into the Church of England’s liturgy. The charismatic-evangelical revival in the established Church has led to widespread use of healing services and church authorities are anxious to regulate them.
A new liturgy of “wholeness and healing” will be debated by the General Synod in York next month. The new services will include provision for healing the sick, with a laying-on of hands where the priest prays for a sufferer to “receive Christ’s healing touch to make you whole”.
Prayers “for protection and deliverance” from “the enemy” (the Devil), however, are likely to prove more controversial. At present, the Church’s official ministry for deliverance, a term used to refer to exorcism, is carried out by priests authorised by a bishop. The conditions under which a house or a person can be exorcised are strictly controlled, and special permission must be obtained from the diocesan bishop.
The new liturgy states that permission must still be granted by a bishop, but for the first time it includes prayers “where it would be pastorally helpful to pray with those suffering from a sense of disturbance or unrest”.
For the deliverance of a place or building, the liturgy states: “Visit, Lord, we pray, this place and drive far from it all the snares of the enemy.” For a disturbed person before sleep, it pleads for protection from the Cross, “which is mightier than all the hosts of Satan”, from evildoers, evil spirits, foes visible and invisible and “from the snares of the Devil”.
The liturgy also includes three rites of healing, for use at a mass diocesan event, at a parish church and with individuals. According to the introduction, an individual’s physical, social, emotional and spiritual well-being are closely connected. “The gospels use the term healing for physical healing and for the broader salvation that Jesus brings,” it states. The liturgy rejects any link between sickness and sin, and also urges that prayers for healing should not involve any rejection of conventional medicine.
The services are part of the new liturgies being debated by the synod and which will replace the 1980 Alternative Service Book at the millennium. New versions of the Lord’s Prayer, the eucharist, the marriage, initiation and funeral services will also be hotly debated.
Thomas Hargrove and Guido H. Stempel III, Scripps Howard News Service
Who was Jesus?
Americans, for the most part, believe in the historical reality of the itinerate Jewish rabbi who nearly 2,000 years ago proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God to his friends and neighbors in Judean towns along the Sea of Galilee.
A survey of 1,054 adult residents of the United States conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that 75 percent “absolutely believe” that Jesus was a real person. Sixteen percent said they “mostly believe” in his historical reality, 5 percent “do not believe” and 4 percent were uncertain.
But what Americans accept about Jesus is much more complex.
Nearly 20 percent don’t believe that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary, one of the central points in the traditional story but the most disputed idea in the survey. Sixty percent said they “absolutely believe” Jesus was born to a virgin, 16 percent mostly believe and 5 percent are uncertain.
Americans have slightly more confidence that Jesus “died and physically rose from the dead,” with 63 percent saying they “absolutely believe” this central theme of the Easter story. But, surprisingly, adults in the poll were more likely to conclude that “Jesus was the son of God” and that “Jesus was divine” — for which absolute belief was at 69 percent and 67 percent, respectively — than to believe the biblical accounts of his birth and death.
The survey results prompted deep disagreement among prominent U.S. theologians.
“This shows a glaring inconsistency in the American mind to hold that Jesus was divine but that he did not rise from the dead or was born of a virgin,” said the Rev. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
“Americans are growing increasingly comfortable with a cafeteria-line-style spirituality in which they pick and choose whatever doctrines seem pleasing and leave those that seem distasteful,” Mohler said. “The denial of the virgin birth eventually comes as a part of a wholesale denial of orthodox Christianity itself.”
Marcus Borg — distinguished professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and author of the bestseller, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” — said the poll shows that many Americans are reevaluating past, literal interpretations of Jesus. Borg, an Episcopalian, believes Jesus is the revelation and incarnation of God, but does not believe in the virgin birth or physical resurrection.
“There are a growing number of Christians who understand the story of Jesus’ birth and resurrection as metaphoric and symbolic,” said Borg. “There are millions of Christians and former Christians who simply can’t be biblical literalists or absolutists. They want to take the Bible seriously, but not literally.”
The study found that belief in the virgin birth varied considerably among different groups. Men were significantly less likely to believe this than were women, and residents of Southern and Midwestern states embraced the doctrine of virgin birth at a higher rate than residents of the Northeast or West.
Despite the Roman Catholic Church’s historical emphasis on the theological importance of Mary, Catholics in the poll were somewhat less likely than Protestants to believe in the virgin birth. Theologians attributed this to the doctrine in many Protestant churches that the Bible must be accepted as literal truth.
Adults with children were much more likely to believe in the virgin birth than were adults who have never been parents. This reflects a well-documented trend in which adults resume churchgoing habits of their youth when raising their own children.
Although many Americans discount some of the claims about Jesus, both liberal and conservative theologians point to the overall finding in the poll that most Americans still believe in Christianity’s core traditions: that Jesus was the physical incarnation of God and that he experienced bodily resurrection following his crucifixion. Fifty-one percent said they believed all five attributes of Jesus tested in the study.
“Putting all of this in context, even in this secular age, a great percentage of Americans get it right when they reveal their most fundamental understanding of who Jesus is,” Mohler said.
But liberal and conservative theologians also noted that a significant number do not strictly adhere to the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith first adopted by Christian bishops in 325 A.D. Most Americans have recited that famous creed beginning with: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and Earth. . . .”
Few theologians dispute that Jesus himself believed that he was “the son of God” and told his followers that he had a divine revelation of this following his baptism by John in the Jordan River. But it took nearly three centuries for the church to conclude that Jesus was “God from God . . . of one being with the father” — the words of the Nicene Creed.
The survey was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from Oct. 20 through Nov. 4 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Foundation.
The overall poll has a 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey.
[Editor’s Note: The Evangelical Theological Society is meeting this week in San Antonio, Texas. The following article was first published last year during the ETS meeting, when the main topic of concern was how to deal with a theological movement known as “Open Theism.” One year later, this issue is no less important.]
Theology will be front and center at this week’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, Georgia. This is not a year for business as usual, for the society will be confronting charges brought against two of its members. Given the nature of the charges, one or both of these individuals may be removed from membership in the society. Why? The answer to that question points to one of the most significant controversies facing contemporary evangelicals.
The theologians in question, Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, are both proponents of a theological movement known as “Open Theism.” In sum, open theists argue for a new model of understanding God’s knowledge—a model that insists that true human freedom requires that God cannot know human decisions in advance.
Actually, open theists deny God’s omniscience in matters that go beyond human decisions. The worldview promoted by open theists is based in a high degree of confidence that God will be able to direct the future in a general way, but open theists deny that God can possess infallible and comprehensive knowledge of the future. In essence, God is waiting with the rest of us to know how any number of issues will turn out.
Promoted by Pinnock and Sanders, along with other popular theologians such as Gregory Boyd, the open theists present a more user-friendly deity, less offensive to many moderns. This new model of God, based in something like what Clark Pinnock calls “creative love theism,” redefines the God of the Bible and denies the classical understanding of God’s sovereignty, knowledge, and power.
Bruce Ware, a careful critic of open theism, summarizes the movement in this way: “This movement takes its name from the fact that its adherents view much of the future as ‘open’ rather than closed, even to God. Much of the future, that is, is yet undecided, and hence it is unknown to God. God knows all that can be known, open theists assure us. But future free choices and actions, because they haven’t happened yet, do not exist, and so God (even God) cannot know them.”
As Ware explains, “God cannot know what does not exist, they claim, and since the future does not now exist, God cannot know it.” Most importantly, open theists argue that God cannot know what free creatures will choose or do in the future. Thus, “God learns moment-by-moment what we do, when we do it, and His plans must constantly be adjusted to what actually happens, in so far as this is different than what He anticipated.”
In two important books, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism and Their God is Too Small [both from Crossway Books], Ware provides a responsible and careful analysis of the open theists’ arguments. Ware takes these thinkers seriously, and judges their argument by the Bible. In so doing, he concludes that the open view of God “poses a challenge to the evangelical church that is unparalleled in this generation.”
The doctrine of God is the central organizing principal of Christian theology, and it establishes the foundation of all other theological principles. Evangelical Christians believe in the unity of truth. Therefore a shift in the doctrine of God—much less of this consequence—necessarily implies shifts and transformations in all other doctrines.
The open theists point to biblical passages that speak of God repenting or changing His mind. Rather than interpreting those passages in keeping with the explicit statements of Scripture that God knows the future perfectly, the open theists turn the theological system on its head, and interpret the clear teaching of Scripture through the narratives—rather than the other way round.
They also counsel that their “open” view of God is more helpful than classical Christian theism. After all, they advise, it allows God “off the hook” when things do not go as we had hoped.
In a now notorious example, Greg Boyd tells of a woman whose plans for missionary service were ruined by the adultery of her husband and subsequent divorce. This woman, Boyd relates, went to her pastor for counsel, asking him how God could have led her to have married this young man, only to see the marriage end in adultery and disaster. This pastor [presumably Boyd himself?] assured the woman that God shared her surprise and disappointment in how the young man turned out.
Most evangelicals would be shocked to meet this updated model of God face to face. Nevertheless, subtle shifts in evangelical conviction have been undermining Christianity’s biblical concept of God.
Belief in God’s absolute knowledge has united theologians in the evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. Denials of divine omniscience have been limited to heretical movements like the Socinians. Even where Calvinists and Arminians have differed on the relationship between the divine will and foreknowledge, they have stood united in affirming God’s absolute, comprehensive, and unconditional knowledge of the future.
Several years ago, a major study of religious belief revealed just how radically our culture has compromised the doctrine of God. Sociologists asked the question, “Do you believe in a God that can change the course of events on earth?” One answer, which became the title of the study, was “No, just the ordinary one.” That is to say, modern men and women seem to feel no need to believe in a God who can change the course of events on earth—just an “ordinary God” who is an innocent bystander observing human events.
Measured against the biblical revelation, this is not God at all. The God of the Bible is not a bystander in human events. Throughout the Scriptures, God speaks of His own unlimited power, sovereign will, and perfect knowledge.
This model of divine sovereignty is explicitly denied by the open theists. As Clark Pinnock explains, “God is sovereign according to the Bible in the sense of having the power to exist in himself and the power to call forth the universe out of nothing by his Word. But God’s sovereignty does not have to mean what some theists and atheists claim, namely, the power to determine each detail in the history of the world.”
The obvious question to ask at this point is this: Just which details does God choose to determine? Pinnock’s “creative love theism” is, regardless of his intentions, a way of taking theism out of theology. This God is so redefined that He bears little resemblance to the God of the Bible.
Pinnock and his colleagues argue that evangelicals must transform our understanding of God into a model that is more “culturally compelling.” Where does this end? The culture gets to define our model of God?
Open theism does not stand alone. Acceptance of this model will require a complete transformation of evangelical conviction. A redefinition of the doctrine of God leads immediately to the redefinition of the Gospel. A reformulation of our understanding of God’s knowledge leads inescapably to a reformulation of how God relates to the world.
Indeed, some have gone so far as to call for an “evangelical mega-shift,” that would completely transform evangelical conviction for a new generation. Even granting the open theist the highest motivations, the result of their theological transformation would be unmitigated disaster for the church.
The late B.B. Warfield remarked that God could be removed altogether from some systematic theologies without any material impact on the other doctrines in the system. My fear is that this indictment can be generalized of much contemporary evangelical theology. As the culture draws to a close, evangelicals are not arguing over the denominational issues that marked the debate of the twentieth century’s early years. The issues are now far more serious.
Sadly, evangelicals are now debating the central doctrine of Christian theism. The question is whether evangelicals will affirm and worship the sovereign and purposeful God of the Bible, or shift their allegiance to the limited God of the modern mega-shift.
At stake is not only the future of the Evangelical Theological Society, but of evangelical theology itself. Regardless of how the votes go in Atlanta, this issue is likely to remain on the front burner of evangelical attention for years to come.
The debate over open theism is another reminder that theology is too important to be left to the theologians. Open theism must be a matter of concern for the whole church. This much is certain—God is not waiting to see how this vote turns out.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. For more articles and resources by Dr. Mohler, and for information on The Albert Mohler Program, a daily national radio program broadcast on the Salem Radio Network, go to www.albertmohler.com. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to www.sbts.edu. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. Original copy from Crosswalk.com.
When Bill Moyers asked his youngest son why he had seen Star Wars at least a dozen times, he responded: “For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all your life.” As Moyers explained, “He was in a new world of myth.”
That new world of myth has been a topic of debate and interest ever since 1977, when Star Wars first warped itself into our national consciousness. The release of the blockbuster Star Wars trilogy on DVD will introduce a new generation to this myth cycle that once dominated the big screen—but will these new viewers understand the worldview issues at stake?
Producer George Lucas has offered different and contradictory messages about his own agenda in the making of the Star Wars series. Explaining the blockbusting success of the first movie, Lucas insisted that his only purpose was to make a “fun” escapist movie, “whose only purpose was to give pleasure.”
Nevertheless, the mythological elements in these movies are hard to deny, and Lucas has more recently claimed a higher purpose than entertainment in his movie making. “I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct-that there is a greater mystery out there,” he told a fascinated Bill Moyers, who interviewed Lucas for TIME.
The Moyers interview reveals a great deal about himself as well as his subject, for both Moyers and Lucas seem absolutely agog over the power of myth and convinced that modern secular Americans need new myths to replace the tired old “myths” of religion, including Christianity. “Religion is basically a container for faith. And faith in our culture . . . what one might describe as a supernatural, or the things we can’t explain-is a very important part of what allows us to remain stable, remain balanced.”
Lucas reveals that he believes that “all religions are true,” though we cannot know who or what God is. In writing Star Wars, Lucas “had to come up with a whole cosmology,” and chose to imitate an existing belief system rather than to invent a new religion. In the process he borrowed freely from ancient Gnosticism, Buddhism, and certain elements of Christianity. “I wanted to express it all,” he explained.
The mythological structure of Star Wars is primarily indebted to the Eastern religions, though Americans are more likely to recognize that now than they were in 1977. Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies are now staples of America’s polytheistic popular culture. Bookstore sections on “Spirituality” feature hundreds of books in the “Buddhism for the Masses” genre, and the even less serious “New Age” materials.
In the years since 1977 Americans have become primary consumers of Eastern philosophies and ancient mythologies-dumbed down for popular consumption and dressed up for a media age. Interest in pagan mythologies may have peaked in the 1980s with the late Joseph Campbell’s television series (hosted by—guess who—Bill Moyers). Through books and television series, Campbell introduced a generation of secularized and confused Americans to the world of ancient and modern myths.
Campbell and Lucas had a mutual admiration society for several years. At a tribute for Campbell, Lucas described him as “my Yoda,” recalling a spiritual guide from Star Wars. Campbell offered that he was “proud that something I did helped him define his own truth.”
The mythological elements in the Star Wars series became, in fact, the justifying purpose behind a mammoth exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, beginning in 1997. “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” celebrated the movie and its story of intergalactic conflict. The museum also sponsored a major book project with the same title, written by the project’s curator, Mary Henderson.
Identifying Star Wars as “one of the great myths of our time,” Henderson explained the power of the movies: “When the first film in the Star Wars trilogy appeared in 1977, the ancient myths no longer seemed relevant for many people in this culture; pressing problems absorbed our attention, and hope itself was in short supply.” Evidently, the movie came just in time. The title of the first film—”A New Hope.” It sounds like more than a little escapism.
The book and the exhibit detailed the mythological elements in the Star Wars movies, from the influence of Zoroastrian dualism of good and evil to the Zen elements of “The Force.” Lucas borrowed from several different mythological traditions to create his “whole cosmology” and pseudo-religion.
Conspicuously absent from Lucas’s cosmology is anything connected to biblical Christianity. Though oblique references to faith abound in the film, the central religious motif is “the Force,” explained by the Smithsonian guide as a combination of “the basic principles of several different major religions.” Further, “it most embodies what all of them have in common: an unerring faith in a spiritual power.” Lucas explained “the Force” as “a nothingness that can accomplish miracles.” This is, the Smithsonian’s Henderson asserts, “reminiscent of Zen Buddhism.”
“The Force” is not analogous to Christian faith, but is a form of personal enlightenment and empowerment. Faith in “the Force” is simply faith in mystery and some higher power-mostly within. As Lucas instructs: “Ultimately the Force is the larger mystery of the universe. And to trust your feelings is your way into that.” The last thing Americans need to be told is to trust their own feelings.
The mythology of Star Wars is perfectly adapted to the spiritual confusion of postmodern America. “Go with the Force” is about all many citizens can muster as spirituality. When Christianity ceases to be the dominant worldview of a culture, paganism is quick to fill the void.
Some theologians have welcomed the mythological message of Star Wars as a relief from arid secularism. Theologian Robert Jewett of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary went so far as to claim “a compelling gospel in this film, one that deserves to be compared with Paul’s words in Romans.” Lutheran Robert E. A. Lee claimed that “the Force” combines “the mysticism of ESP and the New Testament doctrine of the Holy Spirit.” These folks have been sitting in the cinema too long.
Luke Skywalker and company are a form of simple escapism for many moviegoers, and a source of spiritual “insight” for others. Christians will be amazed at the special effects, but should be wary of any spiritual effect. As Carl F. H. Henry reminded us all, “Judeo-Christian revelation has nothing in common with the category of myth.” We must not confuse Christian faith with “the Force.”
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. For more articles and resources by Dr. Mohler, and for information on The Albert Mohler Program, a daily national radio program broadcast on the Salem Radio Network, go to www.albertmohler.com. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to www.sbts.edu. Send feedback to email@example.com. Original copy from Crosswalk.com.
The nation’s great divide between secularists and Christians is growing, not shrinking. This divide determines many, if not most, of our national controversies. Debates over education, abortion, environmentalism, homosexuality, and a host of other issues are really debates about whether morality is relative or revealed.
Each side of this divide has a hard time understanding the other. These worldviews are incompatible, and few persons on either side look very carefully at the real thought processes of their counterparts.
Secularists start with a basic commitment to a naturalistic universe. Humans are thus an evolved species who must find some way to organize themselves into meaningful units, limit their behavior, direct their energies, and pass the world on to the next generation. Marriage and the family unit were developed by human social evolution over time, and are therefore negotiable. Morality is a product of human experience, and will thus change over time. Human beings are autonomous individuals who have a right to define themselves and determine their own destiny. Limitations on individual freedom must be very few, and authorities are necessary evils that must always be questioned.
Christians, on the other hand, are committed to a supernatural worldview, which starts with the purposeful creation of the universe by God. Human beings are a special creation of God, made in His own image, and are granted important privileges, responsibilities, and gifts which are to be used to God’s glory. Morality is determined by the divine Lawgiver, who has addressed His human creatures with His Word and command. God created institutions such as marriage for our good, and the institutions are not negotiable or to be subjected to human social engineering. Human beings are granted rare freedoms by God, but among these is no freedom to determine our own destiny or existence. We are limited in the exercise of our freedoms by God’s intention and command. God, the ultimate Authority, has also instituted human authorities for our common good. Morality is not merely a human product, but the revelation of God. Truth never changes, and morality is not relative.
These two worldviews represent two different conceptions of basic reality, much less opposing sides in the abortion debate. Conflict over individual issues is not the cause, but the evidence, of this divide.
Liberal and conservative Christianity represent two different responses to this great conflict. The rise of the modern world and the secular worldview prompted some Christians to find some way of accommodating the secularist worldview. Liberal theology is one massive attempt to erase the chasm between the naturalistic and supernaturalistic worldviews. In the end, Christianity redefined without any of its essential teachings intact. Doctrines like the Virgin Birth, miracles, revelation, creation, and the resurrection are first “redefined” and then discarded. All that is left is a vague non-historical “spirituality.” And this is virtually all that is left in liberal Protestantism.
Nicholas Kristof accidentally offers evidence of this in his column in last Friday’s issue of The New York Times. [see Kristof’s column] “My grandfather was fairly typical of his generation. A devout and active Presbyterian elder, he nonetheless believed firmly in evolution and regarded the Virgin Birth as a pious legend.” This is Nicholas Kristof’s kind of Christian: One who takes the doctrine of his church as “pious legend,” but nonetheless serves as a “devout” Presbyterian elder.
The most important of the historic Presbyterian creeds is the Westminster Confession, which states that Jesus Christ was “conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary.” Any room for doubt, there? Let’s face it: Kristof’s “devout” grandfather served as an elder in his church while denying a major doctrine of the faith. Kristof does not understand why evangelical Christians will not play along, and follow his grandfather’s example.
Worse still, Kristof complains that “the great intellectual traditions of Catholic and Protestant churches alike are withering, leaving the scholarly and religious worlds increasingly antagonistic.” He opposes scholarly and religious with no embarrassment. He identifies “the great intellectual traditions” of Christianity with those who deny the faith and teach heresy. Liberal theologians like Hans Kung are his heroes, and conservative Christians just must be anti-intellectual, since no thoughtful person could believe something like the Virgin Birth of Christ.
Kristof is scared to death. He reports that “Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28 percent).” Alert the media! Call in Hans Kung! To the barricades! Wake up and smell the coffee.
“I do think we’re in the middle of another Great Awakening,” writes Kristof, and this will mean “a growing polarization within our society.” He’s probably right about that. Quite unintentionally, Nicholas Kristof has revealed the real nature of the challenge evangelical Christians “and all those committed to classical Christianity” now face.
The price required to be considered “intellectual” in Kristof’s world is the denial of truths revealed in the Bible. To hold these truths as the faith of the church is simply unthinkable in the modern world, he assures. Just ask his grandfather.
TIME Magazine released its list of The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America as a special feature to its Feb. 7 issue.
TIME Magazine released its list of The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America as a special feature to its Feb. 7 issue. The feature, which is prominently displayed on the magazine’s front cover, focuses on “those whose influence is on the rise or who have carved out a singular role,” according to TIME.
Topping the list of 25 was Rick Warren, who TIME dubbed as “America’s New People’s Pastor.” Warren, who pastors the 22,000-member Saddleback mega church in Lake Forest, Calif., is best known for his book ‘The Purpose Driven Life,’ which has sold more than 20 million copies over the past two years and is the best-selling hardback in U.S. history.
When 600 senior pastors were asked to name the people they thought had the greatest influence on church affairs in the country, Warren’s name came in second only to Billy Graham’s. “Although Franklin Graham is heir to the throne of the Billy Graham organization, many believe that Warren, 51, is the successor to the elder Graham for the role of America’s minister,” the TIME added.
Also included in TIME’s list of 25 were prominent Christian figures such as Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries and “one of evangelicalism’s more thoughtful public voices,” according to TIME; James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Billy and Franklin Graham, dubbed by TIME as the “Father and Son In the Spirit”; Ted Haggard, who as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, represents 30 million conservative Christians spread over 45,000 churches from 52 diverse denominations; and Richard Land, “the Southern Baptist Convention’s main man in Washington,” according to TIME.
The following is TIME’s List of “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” along with their TIME-dubbed titles, as they appear in the Feb. 7 issue:
1. Rick Warren: America’s New People’s Pastor
2. Howard & Roberta Ahmanson: The Financiers
3. David Barton: The Lesson Planner
4. Doug Coe: The Stealth Persuader
5. Chuck Colson: Reborn and Rehabilitated
6. Luis Cortès: Bringing Latinos To the Table
7. James Dobson: The Culture Warrior
8. Stuart Epperson: A High-Fidelity Messenger
9. Michael Gerson : The President’s Spiritual Scribe
10. Billy & Franklin Graham: Father and Son In the Spirit
11. Ted Haggard: Opening Up the Umbrella Group
12. Bill Hybels: Pioneering Mass Appeal
13. T.D. Jakes: The Pentecostal Media Mogul
14. Diane Knippers: A Think Tank With Firepower
15. Tim & Beverly LaHaye: The Christian Power Couple
16. Richard Land: God’s Lobbyist
17. Brian McLaren: Paradigm Shifter
18. Joyce Meyer: A Feminine Side Of Evangelism
19. Richard John Neuhaus: Bushism Made Catholic
20. Mark Noll: The Intellectual Exemplar
21. J.I. Packer: Theological Traffic Cop
22. Rick Santorum: The Point Man On Capitol Hill
23. Jay Sekulow: The Almighty’s Attorney-at-Law
24. Stephen Strang: Keeper of “The Faith”
25. Ralph Winter: A Global Mission
Full details of each can be found at
In an otherwise reasonably fair-minded front-pager in the Sunday New York Times, Richard Bernstein and Daniel Wakin write that as a young professor in 1968 Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, began to insist on “unquestioned obedience” to the authority of Rome. That phrase is a residue of unexamined anti-Catholic bigotry. It is an insult. Its aim can only be to make the new pope look stupidly dogmatic.
Catholics do not praise, admire, or aspire to unquestioned obedience. There is nothing virtuous in unquestioned obedience. Since God implanted in us the drive to understand (even little children are born with the drive to raise questions), it would be a sin against nature to stifle questions. Besides, one way that we are each made in “the image of God” is in our capacity to raise questions without end. That capacity in us is our foretaste of the infinite. It is the root of our “natural desire to see God.”
Andrew Sullivan is a self-described tormented Catholic who both loves his faith too much to leave it and is very angry with it. He is so angry that he recklessly hurls lightning bolts charging that freedom to question was not allowed in John Paul II’s church, and will not be in Pope Benedict XVI’s. According to Sullivan, Benedict’s Church will “turn toward authoritarianism, hostility to modernity, assertion of papal supremacy and quashing of internal debate and dissent.” “We are,” he thunders, “back in the nineteenth century.” And yet here’s what he wrote a week ago: “I stand by my questions and by my faith. You know I wish in many ways I could simply leave this church, and say to hell with it. But I cannot. For one, I keep believing. This is not experienced as a choice. It is just my reality... This is my family. I can no more divorce myself from it than I can my biological mother.”
Well, I have seen three generations of theologians since I was a young man, and in this generation hundreds more theologians in America (and elsewhere) have expressed contempt and disregard for Rome than in the previous two. Those who call themselves “Catholic theologians” today are often flying chiefly under their own colors, feeling largely unbound by whichever Catholic doctrines “of the past” they choose to discard. (So common has this become that Catholics have a name for it: “Cafeteria Catholicism.”) What is in the minority in some Catholic university these days, and even in many Catholic seminaries, is not dissent. What is in the minority (among the professors, not so much among the students) is intelligent, thoroughly questioned, and critically appropriated orthodoxy.
There are always reasons why the Catholic Church holds something as doctrine. It is never arbitrary. Those who inspect the reasons may or may not be persuaded; but they cannot deny that a reasoned case has been laid out. While other churches may rely more on conversion of heart and even abjure the giving of reasons, and while still others may take refuge in “Here I stand, I can do no other,” the Catholic Church is willing to run the risk of falling into an excess of rationalism by its willingness to put its case in discursive reason.
It is one thing for persons without education, or perhaps with only a child’s capacity for reasoning, to rest on a simple, more or less unquestioned faith. My mother was a simple person, without a college education, but God tested her through very great suffering, including the murder of her second son and a near-fatal car accident to a beloved daughter, among many other griefs. She was cruelly tempted to doubt the goodness of God and even the existence of God. Her love for God, even in the darkness, held firm. She could not, however, good woman that she was, offer a reasoned case for what she was doing. Her faith was deep, and tested, and wise, but not verbose or highly cognitive.
It is another thing for intellectually talented and well-trained minds to practice an unquestioned faith. That would be an abuse of God’s gift, a failure of application, a classic case of intellectual sloth, and a lack of honesty and courage. To think unquestioned faith a standard to be aspired to would be an outrage. In its infantile conception of the God who made the sun and all the stars — and all the brains within the universe — to think unquestioned faith a good would be a blasphemy.
God does not wish us, in coming to Him, to go down on all fours. He wishes us to come to Him erect and free and questioning and attentive. He wishes the worship, not of blind and dumb slaves, but of intelligent and free women and men.
Andrew Sullivan is a brave witness to both love for the Church and brave questioning. He has taught a lot of us more about homosexuality and its inner life than we would otherwise know. To the best of my knowledge, he has not been chastised by the Congregation of the Faith, or any bishop, or any priest for his probing and his quarreling and his often quite strident and grievously pained cries of disapproval. His questioning is a service to the church, as to all persons of good will who come in contact with it. I do think some of his allegations over the top, such as those cited above. Even so, he is entitled to cry out as he sees fit.
One point on which he is way over the top is his allegation that there have been an unparalleled number of excommunications and other forms of disciplining of dissenters in the Catholic Church during the 27 years of John Paul II’s pontificate. What is his evidence? He should name names.
The New York Times offered its own list on April 22. It included twelve names, of which all are priests or nuns, who labor under the special burden that Catholics who hear them have a right to believe that they speak for the Catholic Church. It is only truth in advertising to insist that they do so.
Of these twelve, only three were excommunicated, an average of one every nine years of the pontificate. The only one whose excommunication is long standing is Archbishop Lefebvre (and his followers) of the traditionalist movement that rejects Vatican II. This excommunication was only after very long talks, entreaties, and extraordinary efforts at reconciliation, in which the Vatican walked much more than the extra mile.
In the other two cases, the disciplined parties soon repented and were reinstated into full communion. The African Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who married a follower of Sun Myong Moon in a mass wedding, was temporarily excommunicated, until he chose to return to the Church and ended the public scandal. The Sri Lankan theologian Fr. Tissa Balasuriya was temporarily excommunicated until he reconciled with the Church the following year.
Of the twelve, eight were scholars, some of whose views were questioned by the congregation. On their refusal to qualify their views, two — Hans Küng and Charles Curran — lost their licenses to teach at Catholic institutions, in both cases in pontifical chairs or universities (those that speak with the special blessing of the Pope), but have continued practicing as priests, teaching, writing, and dissenting. Now that they are no longer seen as speaking for the Pope or the Catholic Church, their work is hardly distinguishable (except by its internal quality) from that of thousands of other Protestant and Catholic theologians.
The worst punishment three of the others incurred was to be asked not to publish for a year, which is about how long it takes to pile up enough pages for a book, which they could continue writing. (I have heard critics wish that I would be silent for at least a year.) One American nun, told that her work for the government (which required public support for abortion) was inconsistent with her profession as a nun, chose to resign from her order. Another, told by her own community that her open support for Catholic approval of homosexual couples was inconsistent with her religious profession, chose to resign from that order and join another.
Two quite famous theologians, Edward Schillebeeckx of the Netherlands and Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, were questioned and problematic formulations in their work were pointed out, and that was that. Both remained at work.
Thus, what characterized the Wojtyla/Ratzinger era as guardians of the teaching of the Church was, for their part, great care to enunciate that teaching accurately and forcefully, and in regards to others, the reluctance and mildness of their disciplining of the “false shepherds” who mislead and confuse. Some say they set a record for mildness over a quarter-century.
After all, theological opinions are not like divergent opinions in astrophysics or archeology. Real people looking for guidance in how to live put their lives on the line when they follow the theology taught them. The pallium worn by the Pope, the cloak of a shepherd, symbolizes his responsibility to be certain that the vulnerable among the people not be misled. What, then, explains the dread that the Catholic Left — the culture of dissenters on women priests, a celibate clergy, contraception, divorce, and other gender/sex issues (the heart of what being on the left means these days) — feel toward the new Pope? As a new cartoon circulating on the Internet puts it: NOTICE: THE CAFETERIA IS NOW CLOSED. The Left argues that the Church should “modernize” in order to hold its flock. But the Left is overlooking an inconvenient reality.
Those churches that have chosen to modernize and to be “with it,” following the advice of their own progressives, have rapidly lost members, weakened conviction in many others, and become adjuncts of the morality of the secular culture. Churches that have resisted the currents of “the new morality” — whose initial guise is often the refrain “It’s all just a matter of opinion, so just choose your own version” — have tended to gain in high morale, growing numbers in the pews, and strongly committed new vocations to the clergy.
The Left doesn’t seem to get this. They urge bishops, cardinals, and the Pope to join contemporary currents in order not to lose members. The Anglican church, the Methodist church (in some districts), and others have tried that. When they do, they lose everything that once was dear to them, including their membership.
The only real reason for being Catholic is to be faithful to the faith as Jesus left it to us, reflected on and questioned, developing in its own self-understanding, but not betraying its inheritance in a rash desire for temporary popularity.
So it is true enough that the Church thrives only through the unlimited drive to ask questions. It is the duty of theologians, or at least of some among them, to be explorers, and to go into new terrain, to test whether their path is safe for the whole body of the faithful. Theologians have a special responsibility to the whole Church, in addition to their merely private responsibility to their personal intellectual interests. It is by such venturesome theological explorations that the horizons of the faith grow. Just the same, as theologian-explorers are not, the Pope as shepherd is responsible for the integrity of the whole flock. Theologians propose, but they do not dispose. Often their work bears better fruit after a generation or two rather than in their own lifetimes. The long view is necessary.
These are deep and difficult questions. They require mature and patient attention. To address them in the small space of this column is impractical. Fortunately, one of the Church’s most respected theologians has done them considerable justice. One can check his guidance out at the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. It was composed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, chaired by Joseph Ratzinger. But even that was intended to spur further and more practical proposals, region by region, country by country. To volunteer some rules that would serve the whole Church, not only the explorers, and suitable to our own country, is a topic I would like to return to in another essay.
— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.
Evangelical Anglicans are crying out against a proposed document that would give credence to the controversial Roman Catholic view on the Virgin Mary. The proposal was released last week in Seattle after six years of ecumenical talks between the two massive church bodies and seeks to backtrack on centuries of Anglican dissent over the place of Mary in Christianity.
In essence the statement says the Catholic dogma that Mary was born without original sin and was taken up to heaven without dying are “consonant with the teachings of Scripture.” The document also describes private devotions and prayers to the mother of Jesus as acceptable practices in the church.
Although this statement was made in a good-hearted effort to strengthen ecumenical ties between the two largest Christian faiths, it fails to uphold the emphasis on scriptural authority and the uniqueness of Christ that inspired the Reformation centuries back.
There is no clear basis in scripture that supports the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, and the Anglican Communion should not sacrifice scripture for slapdash unity.
The “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ” document is now being examined by the Vatican and the Anglican Communion before being fully accepted as an authoritative statement. In the coming months as ecumenical dialogues continue between the two churches, leaders in the Anglican Communion should realize that scripture – not dogma – is what brings unity to the followers of Christ and firmly reject the document as a false attempt to place tradition before Christ.
The book’s title looks both promising and inspiring. Brian D. McLaren’s new book, A Generous Orthodoxy, is sure to get attention, and its title grabs both heart and mind. Who wouldn’t want to embrace an orthodoxy of generosity? On the other hand, the title raises an unavoidable question: Just how “generous” can orthodoxy be?
McLaren defines orthodoxy as “straight thinking” or “right opinion.” He sets the mood of his book right at the start: “The last thing I want is to get into nauseating arguments about why this or that form of theology (dispensational, covenant, charismatic, whatever) or methodology (cell church, megachurch, liturgical church, seeker church, blah, blah, blah) is right (meaning approaching or achieving timeless technical perfection).” Still following?
Since he is determined to transcend all those difficult questions of who is right and who is wrong, McLaren wants to qualify his brand of orthodoxy as “generous orthodoxy.” He credits the term to Dr. Stanley Grenz, a prominent revisionist evangelical theologian who, in his book Renewing the Center, quotes the late Yale theologian Hans Frei as the inventor of the phrase.
McLaren intends to be provocative, explaining that this reflects his “belief that clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, obscurity, playfulness, and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity.”
McLaren is also honest about the fact that he lacks any formal theological education. As a matter of fact, he seems rather proud of this fact, insinuating that formal theological education is likely to trap persons in a habit of trying to determine right belief.
This author’s purpose is transparent and consistent. Embracing the worldview of the postmodern age, he embraces relativism at the cost of clarity in matters of truth and intends to redefine Christianity for this new age, largely in terms of an eccentric mixture of elements he would take from virtually every theological position and variant.
He claims to uphold “consistently, unequivocally, and unapologetically” the historic creeds of the church, specifically the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. At the same time, however, he denies that truth should be articulated in propositional form, and thus undercuts his own “unequivocal” affirmation. McLaren doesn’t like answering questions, either. Even though he would be more appropriately categorized as a “post-evangelical,” McLaren was listed as one of 25 influential evangelicals in the February 7, 2005 edition of TIME magazine. In its profile, TIME referred to a conference last spring at which McLaren was addressed with a question related to gay marriage. “You know what,” McLaren responded, “The thing that breaks my heart is that there’s no way I can answer it without hurting someone on either side.” TIME referred to this as “a kinder and gentler brand of religion.” Others would be less charitable, for McLaren’s “nonanswer” is itself an answer. This is a man who doesn’t want to offend anyone on any side of any argument. That’s why it’s hard to find the orthodoxy in A Generous Orthodoxy.
As McLaren admits, “People who try to label me an exclusivist, inclusivist, or universalist on the issue of hell will find here only more reasons for frustration.” In other words, McLaren simply refuses to answer the question as to whether there will be anyone in hell. He refers to these questions—evangelical hang-ups for the doctrinally moribund—as “weapons of mass distraction.”
Incredibly, McLaren simply asserts that concern for the propositional truthfulness of the text is an artifact of the modern age, “modern-Western-moderately-educated desires.” As a postmodernist, he considers himself free from any concern for propositional truthfulness, and simply wants the Christian community to embrace a pluriform understanding of truth as a way out of doctrinal conflict and impasse.
What about other belief systems? McLaren suggests that we should embrace the existence of different faiths, “willingly, not begrudgingly.” What would this mean? Well, a complete reconsideration of Christian missions, for one thing. McLaren claims to affirm that Christians should give witness to their faith in Jesus Christ. But, before you assume this means an affirmation of Christian missions, consider this statement: “I must add, though, that I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all?) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts. This will be hard, you say, and I agree. But frankly, it’s not at all easy to be a follower of Jesus in many ‘Christian’ religious contexts, either.”
Citing missiologist David Bosch, McLaren affirms that we have no assurance that salvation is found outside the work of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, he believes that we cannot jump from this to a claim that there is no salvation outside belief in Jesus Christ.
The Bible, McLaren argues, is intended to equip God’s people for good works. He rejects words such as authority, inerrancy, and infallibility as unnecessary and distracting. In a previous work, McLaren had argued that the Bible is “a unique collection of literary artifacts that together support the telling of an amazing and essential story.” His thinking shows the influence of the so-called “Yale School” of theologians who have argued for Scripture as the record and substance of Christianity as a “cultural-linguistic system,” to be interpreted as narrative and not as propositional truth.
The Emergent movement represents a significant challenge to biblical Christianity. Unwilling to affirm that the Bible contains propositional truths that form the framework for Christian belief, this movement argues that we can have Christian symbolism and substance without those thorny questions of truthfulness that have so vexed the modern mind. The worldview of postmodernism—complete with an epistemology that denies the possibility of or need for propositional truth—affords the movement an opportunity to hop, skip and jump throughout the Bible and the history of Christian thought in order to take whatever pieces they want from one theology and attach them, like doctrinal post-it notes, to whatever picture they would want to draw.
McLaren attributes this to humility. “A generous orthodoxy,” he explains, “in contrast to the tense, narrow, controlling, or critical orthodoxies of so much of Christian history, doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is humble; it doesn’t claim too much; it admits it walks with a limp.” In other words, it is so humble that it will not answer some questions that will not rest without an answer. In this case, a nonanswer is an answer. A responsible theological argument must acknowledge that difficult questions demand to be answered. We are not faced with an endless array of doctrinal variants from which we can pick and choose. Homosexuality either will or will not be embraced as normative. The church either will or will not accept a radical revisioning of the missionary task. We will either see those who have not come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as persons to whom we should extend a clear gospel message and a call for decision, or we will simply come alongside them to tell our story as they tell their own.
The problem with A Generous Orthodoxy, as the author must surely recognize, is that this orthodoxy bears virtually no resemblance to orthodoxy as it has been known and affirmed by the church throughout the centuries. Honest Christians know that disagreements over issues of biblical truth are inevitable. But we owe each other at least the honesty of taking a position, arguing for that position from Scripture, and facing the consequences of our theological convictions.
Orthodoxy must be generous, but it cannot be so generous that it ceases to be orthodox. Inevitably, Christianity asserts truths that, to the postmodern mind, will appear decidedly ungenerous. Nevertheless, this is the truth that leads to everlasting life. The gospel simply is not up for renegotiation in the twenty-first century. A true Christian generosity recognizes the infinitely generous nature of the truth that genuinely saves. Accept no substitutes.
[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 16, 2005.]
by Blake Roeber, TrueU Editor
Part one in a three-part series on St. Anselm’s “ontological argument” for the existence of God. In case that doesn’t sound interesting to you, it is.
927 Years of Argument
The ontological argument — first formulated by Anselm but reformulated many times since — is 927 years old and still attracts the attention of the smartest people on earth. In contrast, the articles in this morning’s newspaper are only a day old and they’ll be largely forgotten by tomorrow — completely forgotten in a year. Da Vinci Code will be forgotten in 10. If you have to choose between them, you’d be better off reading Anselm than the newspaper or Da Vinci Code, I’d say.
If Anselm’s argument works, then we can see that atheism is false just by thinking about the word “God.”
Here’s part of the most philosophical prayer of all time, compliments of Anselm:
Well then, Lord, You who give understanding to faith, grant me that I may understand, as much as You see fit, that You exist as we believe You exist, and that You are what we believe You to be. Now we believe that You are something than which nothing greater can be thought. Or can it be that a thing of such nature does not exist, since “the fool has said in his heart, there is no God”?
But surely, when this same fool hears what I am speaking about, namely, “something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought,” he understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his mind, even if he does not understand that it actually exists. For it is one thing for an object to exist in the mind, and another thing to understand that an object actually exists.
Thus, when the painter plans beforehand what he’s going to execute, he has a picture in his mind, but he does not yet think that it actually exists because he has not yet executed it.
However, when he has actually painted it, then he both has it in his mind and understands that it exists because he has now made it. Even the fool, then, is forced to agree that something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind, since he understands this when he hears it, and whatever is understood is in the mind.
And surely that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater.
If then that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists in the mind alone, this same that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is that-than-which-a-greater-can-be-thought. But this is impossible.
Therefore, there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists both in the mind and in reality.
And, of course, God is that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought, from which it follows — if Anselm’s argument works — that there’s no doubt that God exists, both in the mind and in reality.
So, what do you think? Is this a good argument? More specifically, should atheists be convinced by it?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Anselm’s argument, let’s take a look at it in outline.
Anselm starts the argument with two claims:
(1) Even the Fool understands “something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought.”
(2) What is understood exists in the mind.
Anselm then notes that, if (1) and (2) are true, then so is:
(3) Something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind.
Next, Anselm makes another claim:
(4) If something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater.
He then points out that, if (4) is true, then so is:
(5) If that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists in the mind alone, then this same that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is that-than-which-a-greater-can-be-thought.
But this is obviously impossible, says Anselm. Therefore:
(6) That-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists both in the mind and in reality.
God, however, is that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought. Therefore:
(7) God exists both in the mind and in reality.
(8) Atheism is false.
As can be seen from (1) through (8), the significance of Anselm’s argument is that, if it works, we can see that atheism is false just by thinking about the word “God.” To see what all of this means, check out the nifty Venn diagram in Figure 1.
If you take a look at Figure 1, you’ll see that Anselm is arguing that God must be in section C, the green area. God is that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought; that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot be thought to exist in the mind alone; therefore, God cannot be in section A, since A contains things that exist in the mind alone.
In other words, God isn’t an imaginary creature like Big Foot, Nessy or Brad Pitt. He’s real. He actually exists. He’s not a figment of the imagination or Hollywood’s latest fabrication.
But that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought doesn’t only exist in reality, since that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is understood. Therefore, God cannot be in section B either, since section B contains things that exist in reality alone. So God must be in section C, which contains those things that exist both in the mind and in reality. See?
Theological education has become an exotic and mysterious enterprise, at least to the general public. Most Americans think seldom of theological seminaries, if at all, and most conceive of them as something like graduate schools for religious professionals—teaching religious people to do whatever it is that religious people do.
Even inside the church, some confusion about theological education clouds the picture. Laypersons often assume that the seminary exists as a factory to turn out preachers—freshly minted and ready for immediate call—ready to be wound up and set in motion. The view from the pew is of interest, for it reveals the widespread impression that seminaries can do everything necessary for the preparation of ministers, even if the churches have given little attention to their own responsibility.
The most malignant confusion about theological education exists within the seminaries, and is writ large across the accrediting agencies and coalitions of seminaries. This is not a recent development. Writing in 1954, H. Richard Niebuhr found little clarity as he presented a survey of theological education in America: “Great confusion prevails in some quarters about theological education. What, it is asked, is the meaning of this ministry? For what purpose are we educating? The situation in some circles of theological educators seems to be similar to the one found among certain foreign missionaries and sponsors of foreign missions. They know what they are doing is important, but an understanding of the strategy of their work, a relatively precise and definite understanding of its meaning, is lacking.”
Richard Niebuhr, like his brother Reinhold, was one of the paladins of American Protestantism at mid-century. The confusion he found among theological educators was, he noted, the same as that found among missionaries. They were not at all certain of their mission, their task, or their message.
Liberal Protestantism had lost confidence in the Bible, in the Gospel, and in the unique mission of the church. Progressively, its theological schools grew less and less theological; its missionaries grew less and less evangelistic; its bureaucracies grew larger and more powerful, and theological education became the engine for doctrinal dissipation, moral relativism, cultural revolution, and the death of once-great denominations.
Evangelicals had better pay close attention to this pattern. This kind of alarm is often met with bemusement and dismissed as hyperbole, but the nagging reality of what theological seminaries can become and can destroy is affirmed by history and seen in the ruins of churches once faithful, now empty.
In reality, the very pattern so easily traced within liberal Protestantism is increasingly evident among evangelicals as well. The same compromises are demanded; the subtle concessions are rewarded. We dare not deny the obvious. Some evangelicals now present the arguments once made by liberals—only a half-century delayed.
At the end of his glorious exposition of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in Romans 1-11, the Apostle Paul writes a song of praise to God:
Oh, the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has become His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to Him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
This doxology—this climactic declaration of praise and wonder and glory—is precisely directed at God’s glory evident in His wisdom and knowledge. These are immeasurably rich, infinite, and inexhaustible. In Him, wisdom and knowledge are combined so that we cannot know the one from the other. We have no right to question God’s wisdom, or His economy of salvation. We have no ground from which to launch an investigation into the strategies of the Most High God. His judgments are unsearchable, and His ways are unfathomable.
Modern theology can be seen as one vast exercise in second-guessing the mind of God. The clear declarations of the Bible are seen as hypotheses to be considered, thought experiments to be debated—anything but eternal truths to be received with gratitude, defended with honor, handled with respect, passed down faithfully from generation to generation, and directed always to God’s glory.
Paul did not argue that God’s ways are hard to decipher, but that they are impossible to trace. He did not argue that God’s wisdom is superior, but that His wisdom is infinitely rich and deep. Modern theology is a massive demonstration of what the Greeks called hubris. It is overreaching of the most egregious sort. As the African American tradition reminds us, our arms are too short to box with God. Look at the current literature in theology. Review the latest so-called biblical scholarship from the academic guilds and societies. Visit the divinity schools and seminaries of liberal Protestantism and confused evangelicalism, and you will find boxing matches aplenty, with cheering in the stands, one-sided energy in the ring, and judgment waiting in the wings. Be not deceived, for God is not mocked.
The contemporary debate over the so-called “openness of God” amounts to nothing more (or less) than such an exercise in second-guessing God, and thereby reducing Him to a more manageable and user-friendly deity. With breathtaking arrogance, these theologians claim that God is so glorious that He does not have to be omniscient, which is akin to arguing that the Titanic was so glorious that it didn’t have to float. The God of the Bible is not standing by ready with “Plan B” when “Plan A” fails. He knows all things, even foreknows all things. Theologians may debate how the divine foreknowledge is linked to the divine will, but never has any orthodox Christian theologian affirmed that God’s omniscience is partial, limited, or blind. As Professor Bruce Ware rightly notes, such a theology is an argument for God’s lesser glory.
But the Bible’s consistent testimony is to God’s greater glory. And believers throughout the ages have testified of God’s great glory manifest in His omniscience, His wisdom and knowledge, and the infinity of the divine Mind.
The Apostle Paul then turns to the Old Testament for two important questions. Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor? Earthly kings, presidents, and emperors are surrounded by a coterie of aides, advisors, strategists, media experts, pollsters, and the like. The heavenly throne is surrounded by the bene Elohim who continually praise God and testify of His glory. They offer no advice. None is needed.
Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to Him? God is the sovereign Creator of the universe, the source of all that is, and the sustainer of all things. No one can give anything to God in any genuine sense, for all things are His, and come from Him. Most clearly, God is never in debt to His creature for any reason.
Finally, Paul expresses the consummate summary of the divine glory expressed in all creation—and manifest supremely in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen. This is the great unbroken circle of God’s praise and glory. All things were created by Him. All things are sustained even now by Him. All things will find their destiny by His judgment to His greater glory. To Him—and to Him alone—be the glory forever. Amen.
This brings us to the starting point, and the ending point, of all true theological reflection. The biblical worldview is framed on all sides by the great reality of God’s glory. In this frame we find our identity as sinners seeking to rob God of His glory. In this frame we find salvation through the glorious redemption of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is beheld the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, and in whose cross we glory. In this frame we find our purpose in this life and in the life to come—to glorify God and praise His name forever.
All of life is to be lived in this frame. All theology is to be defined by this frame. All our teaching and preaching and study and writing and learning and striving and witnessing and living are to be done to the greater glory of God.
This frame defines the Christian worldview and thus the task of theological education. Most problems and controversies in theology could quickly be solved by asking this question: How can we most purely, most truthfully, most biblically, and most eagerly define and describe the glory of God and His ways toward us? Asking that question and answering it truthfully would amount to a revolution in theological education.
[Editor’s Note: This is an edited transcript of an address given to the faculty and students at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. Monday: If All This is True, What Now?]
At the end of his glorious exposition of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in Romans 1-11, the Apostle Paul writes a song of praise to God:
Oh, the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has become His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to Him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
Then in Romans 12:1, he immediately turns to address the people of God: “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”
Therefore. What a significant word. With this Paul turns to press his case. If all this be true—if God is truly as glorious as Paul says—then an entire structure of discipleship follows. All this—from the Gospel defined to God’s glory manifested—now points us to our proper response and mode of life. On this therefore hangs the great question of faithfulness or unfaithfulness, obedience or disobedience, discipleship or disaster.
Paul is making more than a request, and he offers more than an imperative. By the mercies of God, he urges us to present ourselves to God as a living sacrifice. Theologically and biblically speaking, this appears to be an oxymoron. Logic defies the combination of “living” and “sacrifice.” The sacrificial system was a graphic picture of our need for atonement and God’s provision, and it pointed to the atonement accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ on that cruciform altar at Calvary.
As the book of Hebrews explains, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” [Hebrews 9:11-12, NASB]
What can this text mean, but that we are the dead made alive in Christ? As those who are dead to ourselves, we devote ourselves as living sacrifices of God. As those who are alive in Christ, we present ourselves as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.
Paul turns to define in greater detail how a living sacrifice would live in the light of the cross to God’s glory. We are not to be conformed to this world, but rather we must be transformed by the renewing of our minds. The language here is graphic and accessible. We understand immediately what is being demanded. Living sacrifices cannot be worldly in form of life, in disposition, nor in intellectual framework. The living sacrifice is not to be conformed to the present evil age, but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind.
This is, to say the least, a very inconvenient text for those who want to blend in with the larger culture. In fact, Paul’s word here is a manifesto for cultural, behavioral, and intellectual confrontation. We are not to be indistinguishable from the world in our thinking, our worldview, our lifestyle, or our worship. Instead, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Theological education stands at a crossroads. There are inescapable choices to be made, and these choices will determine whether evangelical institutions will remain recognizably Christian or fall into the same pattern of intellectual, theological, and moral collapse seen in so many colleges, universities, and divinity schools.
Historians have traced the progressive accommodation and intellectual surrender of Christian institutions in the face of a secular culture, and one of the most astonishing facts is how quickly the decline took place. Colleges, universities, and seminaries established for the training of faithful ministers and resoundingly committed to biblical truth forfeited those commitments in a breathtakingly brief period of time. Within just a few generations, the worldview of Christianity had been supplanted by the secular worldview of modernity.
Of course, champions of the secularized academic culture celebrate the very pattern we lament. These advocates of established secularism present their victory as the liberation of institutions and individuals from the intellectual shackles of revealed religion. This intellectual Prometheanism is the dominant fact of life in the American academic culture, and it tempts both the Christian scholar and the Christian academy.
Swimming against the tide is tiresome and intellectually demanding. Going with the flow of the dominant culture is the easiest option. But this is not an option for the living sacrifice, who must stand on biblical truth, reason through the complexities of thought, and out-think the opposition.
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. This kind of talk can get you into a great deal of trouble in the secular academy—and in the circles of compromised Christianity.
There are three urgent realities embedded in this great text, and all three demand the attention and the discipleship of every true believer—especially those who would serve the church as ministers of the Word and of the Gospel.
First, Paul clearly affirms the importance of the life of the mind, and calls upon Christians to submit to the renewing of our minds in the frame of God’s glory. There is no room for anti-intellectualism in the Christian life, nor for intellectual egotism and pride. The frame of God’s glory reminds us that all we know of God and His ways is given us by grace. We are absolutely dependent upon revelation, for God’s ways are unfathomable and His judgments are unsearchable.
Theological education exists, at least in part, to equip ministers with the ability to think, to reason, to analyze, to learn, and to synthesize biblical truth, so that this truth may be imparted to others through preaching and teaching and ministry. We dare not lose sight of this great purpose.
The frame of God’s glory demands our best devotion to this task, even as the Christian ought to grow increasingly to love the things of God and to seek understanding in all things. We are to have the mind of Christ, and this certainly requires that we think. The anti-intellectualism of contemporary evangelicalism has led to nothing less than unconditional surrender. We have left generations of young Christians unequipped for the battle of the mind, and the losses are staggering.
At the same time, we can give no quarter to intellectual pride. There is no place for an arid, intellectual sterility. What we know, we know by grace.
Second, Paul warns against the scandal of secular conformity. The living sacrifice must resist the intellectual conformity so arrogantly demanded by the secular culture and its secular academy.
The current proletariat of the academic culture demands naturalism and excludes supernaturalism. All views are tolerated except any view that will not tolerate all things and call all things true. Postmodernism has degenerated into a circus of moral relativism, sexuality majors, gender feminism, semiotics, and fictionalized history.
Against this tide, the Christian scholar must engage the academy without compromising Christian truth, and without conforming to the prevailing worldview. This is no easy task, but it is a necessary one.
Third, Paul calls us to the power of intellectual transformation as the antidote to intellectual conformity. This, too, is all of grace and all for God’s glory. We cannot renew our own minds any more than we can save our own souls. We are saved by grace, and we are transformed by grace. The one cannot be severed from the other.
Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ must be thinkers whose minds are captive to the Word of God, and whose entire intellectual structure is shaped and determined by biblical truth. Our captivity to the Word of God is a scandal in the secular culture, and among the Christians enamored with that culture. The secular intellectuals are blind to their own intellectual captivity to the spirit of the age. We, on the other hand, must wear our captivity to the Word of God as a badge of intellectual honor and integrity.
This intellectual transformation is a spiritual reality meant to demonstrate the power and the wisdom of God even in the midst of a fallen world. This is our spiritual service of worship.
[Editor’s Note: This is an edited transcript of an address given to the faculty and students at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. This is Part Two of a two-part series. Click here for Part One.]
From The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates by Xenophon (a student of Socrates), Book I, Chapter 4.
If there be any who believe what some have written by conjecture, that Socrates was indeed excellent in exciting men to virtue, but that he did not push them forward to make any great progress in it, let such reflect a little on what he said, not only when he endeavoured to refute those that boasted they knew all things, but likewise in his familiar conversations, and let them judge afterwards if he was incapable to advance his friends in the paths of virtue.
I will, in the first place, relate a conference which he had with Aristodemus, surnamed the Little, touching the Deity, for he had heard that he never sacrificed to the gods; that he never addressed himself to them in prayer; that he never consulted the oracles, and even laughed at those that practised these things, he took him to talk in this manner:—
“Tell me, Aristodemus, are there any persons whom you value on account of their merit?”
He answered, “Yes, certainly.”
“Tell me their names,” added Socrates.
Aristodemus replied: “For epic poetry I admire Homer as the most excellent; for dithyrambics, Melanippides; Sophocles for tragedy; Polycletes for statuary; and Zeuxis for painting.”
“Which artists,” said Socrates, “do you think to be most worthy of your esteem and admiration: they who make images without soul and motion, or they who make animals that move of their own accord, and are endowed with understanding?”
“No doubt the last,” replied Aristodemus, “provided they make them not by chance, but with judgment and prudence.”
Socrates went on: “As there are some things which we cannot say why they were made, and others which are apparently good and useful, tell me, my friend, whether of the two you rather take to be the work of prudence than of hazard.”
“It is reasonable,” said Aristodemus, “to believe that the things which are good and useful are the workmanship of reason and judgment.”
“Do not you think then,” replied Socrates, “that the first Former of mankind designed their advantage when he gave them the several senses by which objects are apprehended; eyes for things visible, and ears for sounds? Of what advantage would agreeable scents have been to us if nostrils suited to their reception had not been given? And for the pleasures of the taste, how could we ever have enjoyed these, if the tongue had not been fitted to discern and relish them? Further, does it not appear to you wisely provided that since the eye is of a delicate make, it is guarded with the eyelid drawn back when the eye is used, and covering it in sleep? How well does the hair at the extremity of the eyelid keep out dust, and the eyebrow, by its prominency, prevent the sweat of the forehead from running into the eye to its hurt. How wisely is the ear formed to receive all sorts of sounds, and not to be filled with any to the exclusion of others. Are not the fore teeth of all animals fitted to cut off proper portions of food, and their grinders to reduce it to a convenient smallness? The mouth, by which we take in the food we like, is fitly placed just beneath the nose and eyes, the judges of its goodness; and what is offensive and disagreeable to our senses is, for that reason, placed at a proper distance from them. In short, these things being disposed in such order, and with so much care, can you hesitate one moment to determine whether it be an effect of providence or of chance?”
“I doubt not of it in the least,” replied Aristodemus, “and the more I fix my thoughts on the contemplation of these things the more I am persuaded that all this is the masterpiece of a great workman, who bears an extreme love to men.”
“What say you,” continued Socrates, “to this, that he gives all animals a desire to engender and propagate their kind; that he inspires the mothers with tenderness and affection to bring up their young; and that, from the very hour of their birth, he infuses into them this great love of life and this mighty aversion to death?”
“I say,” replied Aristodemus, “that it is an effect of his great care for their preservation.”
“This is not all,” said Socrates, “answer me yet farther; perhaps you would rather interrogate me. You are not, I persuade myself, ignorant that you are endowed with understanding; do you then think that there is not elsewhere an intelligent being? Particularly, if you consider that your body is only a little earth taken from that great mass which you behold. The moist that composes you is only a small drop of that immense heap of water that makes the sea; in a word, your body contains only a small part of all the elements, which are elsewhere in great quantity. There is nothing then but your understanding alone, which, by a wonderful piece of good fortune, must have come to you from I know not whence, if there were none in another place; and can it then be said that all this universe and all these so vast and numerous bodies have been disposed in so much order, without the help of an intelligent Being, and by mere chance?”
“I find it very difficult to understand it otherwise,” answered Aristodemus, “because I see not the gods, who, you say, make and govern all things, as I see the artificers who do any piece of work amongst us.”
“Nor do you see your soul neither,” answered Socrates, “which governs your body; but, because you do not see it, will you from thence infer you do nothing at all by its direction, but that everything you do is by mere chance?”
Aristodemus now wavering said, “I do not despise the Deity, but I conceive such an idea of his magnificence and self-sufficiency, that I imagine him to have no need of me or my services.”
“You are quite wrong,” said Socrates, “for by how much the gods, who are so magnificent, vouchsafe to regard you, by so much you are bound to praise and adore them.”
“It is needless for me to tell you,” answered Aristodemus, “that, if I believed the gods interested themselves in human affairs, I should not neglect to worship them.”
“How!” replied Socrates, “you do not believe the gods take care of men, they who have not only given to man, in common with other animals, the senses of seeing, hearing, and taste, but have also given him to walk upright; a privilege which no other animal can boast of, and which is of mighty use to him to look forward, to remote objects, to survey with facility those above him, and to defend himself from any harm? Besides, although the animals that walk have feet, which serve them for no other use than to walk, yet, herein, have the gods distinguished man, in that, besides feet, they have given him hands, the instruments of a thousand grand and useful actions, on which account he not only excels, but is happier than all animals besides. And, further, though all animals have tongues, yet none of them can speak, like man’s; his tongue only can form words, by which he declares his thoughts, and communicates them to others. Not to mention smaller instances of their care, such as the concern they take of our pleasures, in confining men to no certain season for the enjoying them, as they have done other animals.
“But Providence taketh care, not only of our bodies, but of our souls: it hath pleased the great Author of all, not only to give man so many advantages for the body, but (which is the greatest gift of all, and the strongest proof of his care) he hath breathed into him an intelligent soul, and that, too, the most excellent of all, for which of the other animals has a soul that knows the being of the Deity, by whom so many great and marvellous works are done? Is there any species but man that serves and adores him? Which of the animals can, like him, protect himself from hunger and thirst, from heat and cold? Which, like him, can find remedies for diseases, can make use of his strength, and is as capable of learning, that so perfectly retains the things he has seen, he has heard, he has known? In a word, it is manifest that man is a god in comparison with the other living species, considering the advantages he naturally has over them, both of body and soul. For, if man had a body like to that of an ox the subtilty of his understanding would avail him nothing, because he would not be able to execute what he should project. On the other hand, if that animal had a body like ours, yet, being devoid of understanding, he would be no better than the rest of the brute species. Thus the gods have at once united in your person the most excellent structure of body and the greatest perfection of soul; and now can you still say, after all, that they take no care of you? What would you have them do to convince you of the contrary?”
“I would have them,” answered Aristodemus, “send on purpose to let me know expressly all that I ought to do or not to do, in like manner as you say they do give you notice.”
“What!” said Socrates, “when they pronounce any oracle to all the Athenians, do you think they do not address themselves to you too, when by prodigies they make known to the Greeks the things that are to happen, are they silent to you alone, and are you the only person they neglect? Do you think that the gods would have instilled this notion into men, that it is they who can make them happy or miserable, if it were not indeed in their power to do so? And do you believe that the human race would have been thus long abused without ever discovering the cheat? Do you not know that the most ancient and wisest republics and people have been also the most pious, and that man, at the age when his judgment is ripest, has then the greatest bent to the worship of the Deity?
“My dear Aristodemus, consider that your mind governs your body according to its pleasure: in like manner we ought to believe that there is a mind diffused throughout the whole universe that disposeth of all things according to its counsels. You must not imagine that your weak sight can reach to objects that are several leagues distant, and that the eye of God cannot, at one and the same time, see all things. You must not imagine that your mind can reflect on the affairs of Athens, of Egypt, and of Sicily, and that the providence of God cannot, at one and the same moment, consider all things. As, therefore, you may make trial of the gratitude of a man by doing him a kindness, and as you may discover his prudence by consulting him in difficult affairs, so, if you would be convinced how great is the power and goodness of God, apply yourself sincerely to piety and his worship; then, my dear Aristodemus, you shall soon be persuaded that the Deity sees all, hears all, is present everywhere, and, at the same time, regulates and superintends all the events of the universe.”
By such discourses as these Socrates taught his friends never to commit any injustice or dishonourable action, not only in the presence of men, but even in secret, and when they are alone, since the Divinity hath always an eye over us, and none of our actions can be hid from him.
Michael V. Fox doesn’t believe that faith-based scholarship of the Bible is possible—and he wants to see such scholars marginalized in the larger world of scholarship. In an essay posted at the Web site for the Society of Biblical Literature [SBL], Fox argues, “In my view, faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship, whether the object of study is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or Homer. Faith-based study is a different realm of intellectual activity that can dip into Bible scholarship for its own purposes, but cannot contribute to it.”
That is a shocking claim, but Fox is simply asserting what many others in the academy have thought for a very long time. Even if the secularization of the larger academy is a fait accompli, Fox and many others are concerned that the majority of scholars studying the Bible are believers of some sort, mostly Christians and Jews involved in the serious study of the Bible.
Fox teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and he is unsparing in his denunciation of what he calls faith-based scholarship. In reality, what he means is that scholars who study the Bible as believers forfeit any claim to scholarship. Could there be any more telling evidence of what the secularization of the academy has wrought?
The naïveté of Fox’s approach is self-evident, but he apparently fails to see that even an atheist brings a certain “faith” to the work of scholarship. As he sees it, Jewish scholars who would wish to publish academic research on the Old Testament are simply to be discounted because they may well believe in the existence of deity and may see the Old Testament writings as sacred. Beyond this, Christians are to be discounted wholesale, and Christians who engage in biblical scholarship are to be denied the status of scholars, regardless of which testament is their focus of study.
“Faith-based study of the Bible certainly has its place,” Fox concedes—but those places are “synagogues, churches, and religious schools, where the Bible (and whatever other religious material one gives allegiance to) serves as a normative basis of moral inspiration or spiritual guidance.” His next statement serves as the theme for his entire essay: “This kind of study is certainly important, but it is not scholarship—by which I mean Wissenschaft, a term lacking in English that can apply to the humanities as well as the hard sciences, even if the modes and possibilities of verification in each are very different.”
Look carefully at Fox’s next sentence: “Any discipline that deliberately imports extraneous, inviolable axioms into its work belongs to the realm of homiletics or spiritual enlightenment or moral guidance or whatnot, but not scholarship, whatever academic degrees its practitioners may hold.”
This is where Fox’s own lack of intellectual honesty brings his argument to a standstill. Does he really believe that he, or anyone else for that matter, comes to the task of scholarship with absolutely no “extraneous” presuppositions? No, Fox concedes that “everyone has presuppositions and premises,” but he insists that, for scholars such as himself, “these are not inviolable.” He continues, “Indeed, it is the role of education to teach students how to recognize and rest their premises and, when necessary, to reject them.”
Of course, this simply begs the question. Why is the presumption of atheism any less inviolable than belief in Jesus Christ as Lord? In its own way, the same argument holds true for assertions of agnosticism, since the true agnostic argues that the question of God’s existence simply cannot be answered. That is about as inviolable an axiom as one is likely to encounter.
Give Fox his due, he attempts to exclude believers from the academy with fair warning. “Faith-based Bible study is not part of scholarship even if some of its postulates turn out to be true.” Thus, even if the believing scholar makes a scholarly argument that non-believers find convincing, that work is still to be denied the status of scholarship, simply because the person is neither agnostic nor atheist.
Fox does attempt to distinguish between “faith-based Bible study” and “the scholarship of persons who hold a personal faith.” He explains, “there are many religious individuals whose scholarship is secular and who introduce their faith only in distinctly religious forums.” Nevertheless, Fox never really explains how these persons are anything other than secular in their scholarly conclusions. Does he believe that persons live in separate intellectual spheres and can operate as authentic believers in one sphere but not in any other?
Fox’s frustration is clear: “There is an atmosphere abroad in academia (loosely associated with postmodernism) that tolerates and even encourages ideological scholarship and advocacy instruction. Some conservative religionists have picked this up. I have heard students, and read authors, who justify their biases by the rhetoric of postmodern self-indulgence. Since no one is viewpoint neutral and everyone has presuppositions, why exclude Christian presuppositions? Why allow the premise of errancy but not of inerrancy? Such sophistry can be picked apart, but the climate does favor it.”
Fox may dismiss these arguments as “sophistry,” but he never answers his own questions. Why should the premise of biblical errancy be considered ideologically neutral, but the assertion of biblical inerrancy is considered to be evidence of distorting bias?
“The claim of faith-based Bible study to a place at the academic table takes a toll on the entire field of Bible scholarship,” Fox laments. “The reader or student of Bible scholarship is likely to suspect (or hope) that the author or teacher is moving toward a predetermined conclusion. Those who choose a faith-based approach should realize that they cannot expect the attention of those who don’t share their postulates. The reverse is not true.”
Get it? In Fox’s scheme, the secularist wins the coin toss whichever side turns up. “The best thing for Bible appreciation is secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic.” That is an astounding claim, and one that demands a far more developed argument and series of definitions. Does Fox actually believe in the myth of a “secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic?” Does he believe in the Easter Bunny?
He cites with appreciation the work of Jacques Berlinerblau, who also argues for a secular hermeneutic. In a response to Fox’s essay, Berlinerblau stated that he read Fox’s essay “with appreciation and glee.” Berlinerblau, who teaches at Georgetown University and Hofstra University, is the author of The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously, published by Cambridge University Press. Berlinerblau congratulated Fox for calling “attention to a topic that is virtually taboo in biblical scholarship.”
Berlinerblau criticizes the world of biblical scholarship for its “demographic peculiarities,” most specifically the fact that the vast majority of Bible scholars are members of some church or synagogue. He sees this as historically understandable but academically unsustainable. “They continue to ignore the fact that the relation between their own religious commitments and their scholarly subject matter is wont to generate every imaginable conflict of intellectual interest,” Berlinerblau asserts. “Too, they still seem oblivious to how strange this state of affairs strikes their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences.” Significantly, Berlinerblau seems to understand that this imbalance is overwhelmingly in favor of the secularist. “Before this response begins to sound like the prelude to a class-action suit, permit me to observe that the type of discrimination encountered by secularists in biblical studies is precisely what believers working in the humanities and social sciences have endured for decades. The secular bent and bias of the American research university is well known. It is undeniable that many of its workers are prejudiced against sociologists, English professors, and art historians who are ‘too’ religious.”
But, back to believers engaged in biblical scholarship, Berlinerblau is concerned “by the degree to which explicitly confessional researchers sit on editorial boards of major journals, steering committees, search committees, and the hierarchy of the Society of Biblical Literature.”
In contrast to Michael V. Fox, Berlinerblau does not appreciate believers who attempt to compartmentalize their faith and their scholarship into separate worlds. “It is another category of Biblicists that, to my mind, is far more problematic” Berlinerblau explains. “It is comprised of researchers who in every facet of their private lives are practicing Jews or Christians but who—somehow—deny that this may influence their professional scholarly work (which just happens to concern those documents that are the fount of Judaism and Christianity!)”
Sounding slightly less alarmist than Fox, Berlinerblau warns of “a collective ideational drift in the field” of biblical studies—”one that makes it difficult to think or speak about the Scripture in certain ways.”
Berlinerblau must be given credit for a finely-tuned sense of humor. Consider this paragraph: “Assume for a moment that you are an atheist exegete. Now please follow my instructions. Peruse the listings in Openings [a listing of academic posts looking to be filled]. Understand that your unique skills and talents are of no interest to those institutions listed there with the words ‘Saint’ and ‘Holy’ and ‘Theological’ and ‘Seminary’ in their names. This leaves, per year, about two or three advertised posts in biblical studies at religiously un-chartered institutions of higher learning. Apply for those jobs. Get rejected. A few months later learn—preferably while consuming donuts with a colleague—that the position was filled by a graduate of a theological seminary. Realize that those on the search committee who made this choice all graduated from seminaries themselves. Curse the gods.”
In his indispensable work, The Soul of the American University, George M. Marsden explains how academia came to embrace this degree of secularism: “One way to describe the current state of affairs, however, is that, in effect, the only points of view that are allowed full academic credence are those that presuppose purely naturalistic worldviews. Advocates of postmodernist viewpoints have, as a rule, been just as committed to exclusively naturalist premises for understanding human belief and behavior as were their turn-of-the-century predecessors who established evolutionary naturalism as normative for academic life. One must wonder, however, whether there are adequate grounds for most academics to insist on naturalistic premises that ignore the possibility of fruitful religious perspectives.”
Evidently, Professor Fox needs to read Professor Marsden’s book. Then again, I hold little hope that it would make much of a difference. If nothing else, Professor Fox’s essay, published by the Society for Biblical Literature, indicates where the debate in those circles is headed.
All scholarship is based in some faith and deeply grounded in some set of presuppositions. For the vast majority of those engaged in academia today, that faith is some form of ideological secularism. Christian scholars should always be absolutely transparent and clear about their confessional commitments. As a matter of fact, this should be an absolute requirement of their confessional institutions. At the same time, we should never allow that those who hold alternative worldviews are any less ideologically or intellectually committed. The radical nature of Professor Fox’s proposal indicates just how committed he is to his own faith—and how blind he is to his own faith-based perspective. Watch this debate with interest—it is not going away any time soon.
Every pastor is called to be a theologian. This may come as a surprise to some pastors, who see theology as an academic discipline taken during seminary rather than as an ongoing and central part of the pastoral calling. Nevertheless, the health of the church depends upon its pastors functioning as faithful theologians—teaching, preaching, defending, and applying the great doctrines of the faith.
The transformation of theology into an academic discipline more associated with the university than the church has been one of the most lamentable developments of the last several centuries. In the earliest eras of the church, and through the annals of Christian history, the central theologians of the church were its pastors. This was certainly true of the great Reformation of the sixteenth century as well. From the patristic era, we associate the discipline and stewardship of theology with names such as Athanasius, Irenaeus, and Augustine. Similarly, the great theologians of the Reformation were, in the main, pastors such as John Calvin and Martin Luther. Of course, their responsibilities often ranged beyond those of the average pastor, but they could not have conceived of the pastoral role without the essential stewardship of theology.
The emergence of theology as an academic discipline coincides with the development of the modern university. Of course, theology was one of the three major disciplines taught in the medieval university. Yet, so long as the medieval synthesis was intact, the university was always understood to be in direct service to the church and its pastors.
The rise of the modern research university led to the development of theology as merely one academic discipline among others—and eventually to the redefinition of theology as “religious studies” separated from ecclesiastical control or concern. In most universities, the secularization of the academy has meant that the academic discipline of theology has no inherent connection to Christianity, much less to its central truth claims.
These developments have caused great harm to the church, separating ministries from theology, preaching from doctrine, and Christian care from conviction. In far too many cases, the pastor’s ministry has been evacuated of serious doctrinal content and many pastors seem to have little connection to any sense of theological vocation.
All this must be reversed, if the church is to remain true to God’s Word and the Gospel. Unless the pastor functions as a theologian, theology is left in the hands of those who, in many cases, have little or no connection or commitment to the local church.
The Pastor’s Calling
The pastoral calling is inherently theological. Given the fact that the pastor is to be the teacher of the Word of God and the teacher of the Gospel, it cannot be otherwise. The idea of the pastorate as a non-theological office is inconceivable in light of the New Testament.
Though this truth is implicit throughout the scriptures, this emphasis is perhaps most apparent in Paul’s letters to Timothy. In these letters, Paul affirms Timothy’s role as a theologian—affirming that all of Timothy’s fellow pastors are to share in the same calling. Paul emphatically encourages Timothy concerning his reading, teaching, preaching, and study of scripture. All of this is essentially theological, as is made clear when Paul commands Timothy to “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you” [2 Timothy 1:13-14]. Timothy is to be a teacher of others who will also teach. “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” [2 Timothy 2:2].
As Paul completes his second letter to Timothy, he reaches a crescendo of concern as he commands Timothy to preach the Word, specifically instructing him to “reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” [2 Timothy 4:2]. Why? “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” [2 Timothy 4:3-4].
As Paul makes clear, the pastoral theologian must be able to defend the faith even as he identifies false teachings and makes correction by the Word of God. There is no more theological calling than this—guard the flock of God for the sake of God’s truth.
Clearly, this will require intense and self-conscious theological thinking, study, and consideration. Paul makes this abundantly clear in writing to Titus, when he defines the duty of the overseer or pastor as one who is “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” [Titus 1:9]. In this single verse, Paul simultaneously affirms the apologetical and polemical facets of the pastor-theologian’s calling.
In reality, there is no dimension of the pastor’s calling that is not deeply, inherently, and inescapably theological. There is no problem the pastor will encounter in counseling that is not specifically theological in character. There is no major question in ministry that does not come with deep theological dimensions and the need for careful theological application. The task of leading, feeding, and guiding the congregation is as theological as any other vocation conceivable.
Beyond all this, the preaching and teaching of the Word of God is theological from beginning to end. The preacher functions as a steward of the mysteries of God, explaining the deepest and most profound theological truths to a congregation which must be armed with the knowledge of these truths in order to grow as disciples and meet the challenge of faithfulness in the Christian life.
Evangelism is a theological calling as well, for the very act of sharing the Gospel is, in short, a theological argument presented with goal of seeing a sinner come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In order to be a faithful evangelist, the pastor must first understand the Gospel, and then understand the nature of the evangelist’s calling. At every step of the way, the pastor is dealing with issues that are irrefutably theological.
As many observers have noted, today’s pastors are often pulled in many directions simultaneously—and the theological vocation is often lost amidst the pressing concerns of a ministry that has been reconceived as something other than what Paul intended for Timothy. The managerial revolution has left many pastors feeling more like administrators than theologians, dealing with matters of organizational theory before ever turning to the deep truths of God’s Word and the application of these truths to everyday life. The rise of therapeutic concerns within the culture means that many pastors, and many of their church members, believe that the pastoral calling is best understood as a “helping profession.” As such, the pastor is seen as someone who functions in a therapeutic role in which theology is often seen as more of a problem than a solution.
All this is a betrayal of the pastoral calling as presented in the New Testament. Furthermore, it is a rejection of the apostolic teaching and of the biblical admonition concerning the role, and responsibilities of the pastor. Today’s pastors must recover and reclaim the pastoral calling as inherently and cheerfully theological. Otherwise, pastors will be nothing more than communicators, counselors, and managers of congregations that have been emptied of the Gospel and of biblical truth.
The pastoral calling is inherently theological. Given the fact that the pastor is to be the teacher of the Word of God and the teacher of the Gospel, it cannot be otherwise. The idea of the pastorate as a non-theological office is inconceivable in light of the New Testament.
The pastor’s stewardship of the theological task requires a clear sense of pastoral priority, a keen pastoral ear, and careful attention to the theological dimensions of church life and Christian discipleship. This must be foundational to the ministry of the local church, and ministry must emerge from a fundamentally theological foundation.
In a very real sense, Christians live out their most fundamental beliefs in everyday life. One essential task of the pastor is to feed the congregation and to assist Christians to think theologically, in order to demonstrate discernment and authentic discipleship.
All this must start with the pastor. The preacher must give attention, study, time, and thought to the theological dimensions of ministry. A ministry that is deeply rooted in the deep truths of God’s Word will be enriched, protected, and focused by a theological vision.
The pastor’s concentrated attention to the theological task is necessary for the establishment of faithful preaching, God-honoring worship, and effective evangelism in the local church. Such a theological vision is deeply rooted in God’s truth and in the truth about God that forms the very basis of Christian theology.
The pastor’s concentration is a necessary theological discipline. Thus, the pastor must develop the ability to isolate what is most important in terms of theological gravity from that which is less important.
I call this the process of theological triage. As anyone who visits a hospital emergency room is aware, a triage nurse is customarily in place in order to make a first-stage evaluation of which patients are most in need of care. A patient with a gunshot wound is moved ahead of a sprained ankle in terms of priority. This makes medical sense, and to misconstrue this sense of priority would amount to medical malpractice.
In a similar manner, the pastor must learn to discern different levels of theological importance. First-order doctrines are those that are fundamental and essential to the Christian faith. The pastor’s theological instincts should seize upon any compromise on doctrines such as the full deity and humanity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of atonement, and essentials such as justification by faith alone. Where such doctrines are compromised, the Christian faith falls. When a pastor hears an assertion that Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead is not a necessary doctrine, he must respond with a theological instinct that is based in the fact that such a denial is tantamount to a rejection of the Gospel itself.
Second-order doctrines are those which are essential to church life and necessary for the ordering of the local church, but which, in themselves, do not define the Gospel. That is to say, one may detect an error in a doctrine at this level and still acknowledge that the person in error remains a believing Christian. Nevertheless, such doctrines are directly related to how the church is organized and its ministry is fulfilled. Doctrines found at this level include those most closely related to ecclesiology and the architecture of theological systems. Calvinists and Arminians may disagree concerning a number of vital and urgently important doctrines—or, at the very least, the best way to understand and express these doctrines. Yet, both can acknowledge each other as genuine Christians. At the same time, these differences can become so acute that it is difficult to function together in the local congregation over such an expansive theological difference.
Third-order doctrines are those which may be the ground for fruitful theological discussion and debate, but which do not threaten the fellowship of the local congregation or the denomination. Christians who agree on an entire range of theological issues and doctrines may disagree over matters related to the timing and sequence of events related to Christ’s return. Yet, such ecclesiastical debates, while understood to be deeply important because of their biblical nature and connection to the Gospel, do not constitute a ground for separation among believing Christians.
Without a proper sense of priority and discernment, the congregation is left to consider every theological issue to be a matter of potential conflict or, at the other extreme, to see no doctrines as worth defending if conflict is in any way possible.
The pastor’s theological concentration establishes a sense of proper proportion and a larger frame of theological reference. At the same time, this concentration on the theological dimension of ministry also reminds the pastor of the necessity of constant watchfulness.
At crucial points in the history of Christian theology, the difference between orthodoxy and heresy has often hung on a single word, or even a syllable. When Arius argued that the Son was to be understood as being of a similar substance as the Father, Athanasius correctly understood that the entirety of the Gospel was at risk. As Athanasius faithfully led the church to understand, the New Testament clearly teaches that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. In the Greek language, the distinction between the word offered by Arius and the correction offered by Athanasius was a single syllable. Looking back, we can now see that when the Council of Nicaea met in A.D. 325, the Gospel was defended and defined at this very point. Without the role of Athanasius as both pastor and theologian, the heresy of Arius might have spread unchecked, leading to disaster for the young church.
The Pastor’s Conviction
As a theologian, the pastor must be known for what he teaches, as well as for what he knows, affirms, and believes. The health of the church depends upon pastors who infuse their congregations with deep biblical and theological conviction. The means of this transfer of conviction is the preaching of the Word of God.
We will be hard pressed to define any activity as being more inherently theological than the preaching of God’s Word. The ministry of preaching is an exercise in the theological exposition of Scripture. Congregations that are fed nothing more than ambiguous “principles” supposedly drawn from God’s Word are doomed to spiritual immaturity, which will become visible in compromise, complacency, and a host of other spiritual ills.
Why else would the Apostle Paul command Timothy to preach the Word in such solemn and serious terms: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” [2 Timothy 4:1-2].
As we have already seen, this very text points to the inescapably theological character of ministry. In these preceding verses, Paul specifically ties this theological ministry to the task of preaching—understood to be the pastor’s supreme calling. As Martin Luther rightly affirmed, the preaching of the Word of God is the first mark of the church. Where it is found, there one finds the church. Where it is absent, there is no church, whatever others may claim.
Paul had affirmed Scripture as “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” [2 Timothy 3:16]. Through the preaching of the Word of God, the congregation is fed substantial theological doctrine directly from the biblical text. Expository preaching is the most effective means of imparting biblical knowledge to the congregation, and thus arming God’s people with deep theological conviction
In other words, the pastor’s conviction about theological preaching becomes the foundation for the transfer of these convictions into the hearts of God’s people. The divine agent of this transfer is the Holy Spirit, who opens hearts, eyes, and ears to hear, understand, and receive the Word of God. The preacher’s responsibility is to be clear, specific, systematic, and comprehensive in setting out the biblical convictions that are drawn from God’s Word and which, taken together, frame a biblical understanding of the Christian faith and the Christian life.
The Pastor’s Confession
All this assumes, of course, that the pastoral ministry is first rooted in the pastor’s own confession of faith—the pastor’s personal theological convictions.
The faithful pastor does not teach merely that which has historically been believed by the church and is even now believed by faithful Christians—he teaches out of his own personal confession of belief. There is no sense of theological attachment or of academic distance when the pastor sets out a theological vision of the Christian life.
All true Christian preaching is experiential preaching, set before the congregation by a man who is possessed by deep theological passion, specific theological convictions, and an eagerness to see these convictions shared by his congregation.
Faithful preaching does not consist in the preacher presenting a set of theological options to the congregation. Instead, the pastor should stand ready to define, defend, and document his own deep convictions, drawn from his careful study of God’s Word and his knowledge of the faithful teaching of the church.
Our model for this pastoral confidence is, once again, the Apostle Paul. Paul’s personal testimony is intertwined with his own theology. Consider Paul’s retrospective analysis of his own attempts at human righteousness, coupled with his bold embrace of the Gospel as grounded in grace alone.
“But whatever things were gained to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ,” Paul asserted. “More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” [Philippians 3:7-11].
In other words, Paul did not hide behind any sense of academic detachment from the doctrines he so powerfully taught. Nor did he set before his congregation in Philippi a series of alternate renderings of doctrine. Instead, he taught clearly, defended his case, and made clear that he embraces these very doctrines as the substance of his life and faith.
Of course, the experiential nature of the pastor’s confession does not imply that the authority for theology is in personal experience. To the contrary, the authority must always remain the Word of God. The experiential character of the pastor’s theological calling underlines the fact that the preacher is speaking from within the circle of faith as a believer, not from a position of detachment as a mere teacher.
The pastor’s confession of his faith and personal example add both authority and authenticity to the pastoral ministry. Without these, the pastor can sound more like a theological consultant than a faithful shepherd. The congregation must be able to observe the pastor basing his life and ministry upon these truths, not merely teaching them in the pulpit.
In the end, every faithful pastor’s theological confession must include an eschatological confidence that God will preserve His work to the end. As Paul confessed, “For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” [2 Timothy 1:12].
In the end, every preacher receives the same mandate that Paul handed down to Timothy: “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you” [2 Timothy 1:13-14].
In other words, we are the stewards of sound words and the guardians of doctrinal treasure which has been entrusted to us at the very core of our calling as pastors. The pastor who is no theologian is no pastor.
An ecumenical church leader from the Pacific region urged representatives at the 9th Assembly of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) to be assertive “in bringing Pacific perspectives and experience into international forums.”
In his keynote speech at the PCC assembly, which is taking place Sept. 2-8 in Pago Pago, American Samoa, John Taroanui Doom, a president of the World Council of Churches (WCC), explained that people from the Pacific region have experienced, and are experiencing “the effects of all the major issues that have affected the world.”
Among the “major issues” affecting the Pacific region and the world, Doom mentioned colonialism, migration problems, the downside of tourism, issues of democracy and good governance, the ravages of climate change and its long-term effect, and “the geo-political tensions played out in our region by larger nations.”
These issues are the context from which “Pacific theological insights” – often coined as “Coconut theology” – come out. They need to be considered “alongside those that emanate from Europe,” Doom said.
“Here in the Pacific we prefer our world maps to have our Pacific Ocean in the center,” he affirmed. “That is our world – the ocean is our center.”
While the rest of the world may think of the Pacific as “the region of blue skies, swaying palms and gracious hotel living […] we know we are more than that,” he added.
The WCC president called on the 200 delegates from 25 churches and seven national councils of churches attending the gathering at the Kanana Fou Theological Seminary to change the attitude and mindset which makes Pacific people feel “junior or inexperienced.”
As the “liquid continent, a continent different from any other continent in the world,” the Pacific region is “unique,” concluded Doom.
These nominal churches are forced to focus on social agendas seeing that the truth of scripture eludes them. [KH: well-said]
S. Michael Craven
[KH: I believe that the author has a wrong concept about fundamentalism. See Packer’s book.]
The latter half of the 20th century has seen the emergence of two extremes in the American Church and its relationship to the culture – liberal revisionism on the one side and conservative fundamentalism on the other. Both, I contend, have hindered the work and ministry of the Church. One renders the Christian faith meaningless while the other makes it irrelevant.
Liberal revisionism has capitulated to contemporary culture and with it many truths of the historic faith. Liberal revisionism ultimately renders the Christian message meaningless by reducing Christ to anything you want him to be – there is simply no authority in this view beyond your own preference and cultural whims. My concern herein however is not for liberal revisionism but conservative fundamentalism, which has become the predominant view. Additionally, unlike liberal revisionism, conservative fundamentalism remains Christian but a distorted version of it that is often difficult to distinguish. A recent conversation with Os Guinness offers this further insight:
Fundamentalism has become an overlay on the Christian faith and developed into an essentially modern reaction to the modern world, a reaction that tends to romanticize the past … and radicalize the present, with styles of reaction that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian or worse.
I think Os puts this well when he describes fundamentalism as “an overlay” which, as a result, has captured the thinking of many unwitting Christians. This is frequently expressed in terms of conservative politics, Christian nationalism and what one Evangelical writer revealed when he referred to the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount as “Americanisms.” Being Christian and being American are often thought to be synonymous.
Practically, these expressions are manifest in the almost exclusive reliance upon coercion and politics as the means and method of bringing culture under the influence of biblical principles. The idea is that if “we” can only capture political control we can bring about cultural change in a way that recovers biblical values. Cal Thomas refers to this as expecting the “Kingdom of God to arrive on Air Force One.”
This is, in large part, inspired by a romantic, but inaccurate, view of the past in which we believe that America was once a distinctly “Christian nation” and from the time of our founding has suffered the linear descent from once Christian to now secular. There is no doubt that secularism has achieved its pinnacle in our time, however this does not mean that Christianity was the singular prevailing reality that occupied its place prior to this point. More accurately, the Church in America, much like the Israelites of the Old Testament, has been cyclical with periods of spiritual apathy punctuated by periods of great Awakenings and faithfulness. A serious survey of history will quickly confirm this. Consider that on the eve of the American Revolution, church attendance in this country was less than 10 percent, significantly lower than it is today. Nonetheless, driven by a romanticized view of the past, there is the desire to recover this past but this is often nothing more than a conservative social/political movement with a shallow Christian identity.
To be sure, Christians should be involved politically. This is part and parcel of being a good citizen within a democratic republic. However, Christianity is not nor ever should be defined politically—it is and always must be defined theologically and confessionally. This is where these two extremes share an equal role in undermining the Church’s mission. While liberal revisionism errs in defining Christianity culturally, conservative fundamentalism errs in defining Christianity politically, which is often limited to nothing more than conservative political positions. To be sure, these may tend more toward biblical values than the liberal position but neither political expression is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. They, in and of themselves, are not the source of truth; they are merely political positions that must be tested against the truth of Scripture. Ironically, politics has never changed culture as politics is a reflection of culture not vice versa.
The ultimate effect of conservative fundamentalism upon the Church is one of cultural irrelevance. Fundamentalism tends to see the world as something to oppose rather than to engage and influence. As a result there naturally follows a disregard for anything deemed “worldly” and this includes among other things, intellectualism. Fundamentalists will say “The only book I need is the Bible” and thus remain uniformed about the world and incapable of meaningful influence. This same attitude is expressed toward the study of theology and Church history, which results in a sophomoric theology – wholly inadequate to shape a coherent biblical response to the complexities of life and culture.
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S. Michael Craven
Fundamentalism inevitably reduces the Christian faith to a simplistic set of behaviors and the emphasis tends toward legalism and personal piety – it remains a private belief and not a public truth to be pressed into every aspect of life and culture. Additionally, with the emphasis on external behaviors, (i.e. sin management) there is little effort applied in the converting the human heart and mind with all of its wretched attitudes. This theological myopia has been central to the deplorable lack of a consciously Christian life and worldview among so many professing Christians as documented by George Barna and others.
Additionally, this “opposing” posture is inherently adversarial, inciting an “us versus them” mentality rather than an “us for them” attitude. This mentality can even be seen in much of the Church’s approach to evangelism, which often treats the gospel message as an argument to win. In such a state, the Church is polarized against the culture and the “Good News” is reduced to a “sales pitch” often relying on high pressure and committed to closing the deal. In many instances the gospel is subtly defined in terms of “happiness,” which is not even the true gospel. Gone is the demonstration of the gospel where the Christian is encouraged to “love his neighbor” and then through the course of a, possibly long and at times difficult, relationship, disciple him or her into the truth. This is the Great Commission and it remains unchanged to this day.
Fundamentalism is not only antagonistic to the world but often toward other Christians as well. Fundamentalists tend to view anyone outside their particular tradition or beyond their theological distinctions with suspicion at best or as outright unbelievers at worst. The result is increasing division within the Body of Christ over what often amounts to non-essentials.
Liberalism won’t press the kingdom in the culture because it has surrendered to the culture; it is of the world, and Fundamentalism won’t because it is not in the world but rather opposed to it. What is needed is a return to the historic Christian position of being in but not of the world. This position requires that we do the hard work of renewing our minds to form a coherent and comprehensive view of life and reality through the lens of a distinctively Christian worldview – being confident in the Truth. It also means that we endeavor to understand and engage the culture in a humble and intelligent way so that we might reach the lost and suffering with the reality of Jesus Christ.
S. Michael Craven is the Founding Director of the Center for Christ & Culture, a ministry of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families.
Fundamentalism comes from a document called The Five Fundamentals of the Faith. They are:
1) The inerrancy and full authority of Scripture
2) The Virgin Birth and Deity of Christ
3) The Substitutional Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ
4) The Bodily Resurrection
5) The Literal second coming of the Lord
I for one an definitely a Fundamentalist.