Book Review: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? – By James K. A. Smith

Smith WAOP.pngLetter PPostmodernism is an idea that is [intentionally] ill-defined and poorly understood, both by those who call themselves postmoderns and by those who attack them.

One of the groups which has set its sights on postmodernism in recent years is the Christian church, which has had no shortage of condemnations for it. Granted, we may also witness many within the Christian church embracing the movement (ie, the Emergent Church), only to be thrown into the fire by the rest of the Christian populace.

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? is James K. A. Smith’s contribution to shedding light on the situation by clarifying just what it is that postmodern thinkers mean and what their effect (for good or ill) on the church should be. On one level, the goal is to tackle the thought of postmodernism head on both to show how Christian critics and Christian adherents have misunderstood it in both their attacks and implementation of what they think to be postmodernism. On another level the goal is analyze the key ideas of three major postmodern philosophers – Derrida, Lyotard, and Focault – and to discuss how we may properly view and incorporate these ideas into the church, what our reactions to them should be.

Two main themes giving form to Smiths text are a discussion of postmodern ideas as they are seen in recent film and an explanation of the various bumper-sticker phrases which are often thrown out as embodying post-modern thought along with analysis of what they actually mean, whether they are really at odds with Christianity or whether they may be employed to further the interests of the church. After a short historical and philosophical introduction to the topics being discussed, Smith then analyzes these phrases chapter by chapter: Derrida’s “There is nothing outside the text,” Lyotard’s “Incredulity toward metanarratives,” and Foucault’s “power is knowledge.”After giving his analysis and removing false understandings of these ideas, Smith offers his view of how these ideas can and should be incorporated into the church. Granted, he acknowledges that the ideas are not necessarily in complete agreement with the ideas of Christianity, but they are not diametrically opposed either. Thus we can see that:

  • “when Derrida claims that there is nothing outside the text, he means there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language… Texts that require interpretation are not things that are inserted between me and the world; rather, the world is a kind of text requiring interpretation (p39)… To say that there is nothing outside the Text is to say that there is no aspect of creation to which God’s revelation does not speak.”(p55)
  • “For Lyotard, metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal societies do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason… It is the supposed rationality of modern scientistic stories about the world that makes them a metanarrative (p65)…the problem with metanarratives is that they do not own up to their own mythic ground.”(p69)
  • “Christians should eschew the very notion of an autonomous agent who resists any form of control. By rejecting Foucault’s liberal Enlightenment commitments, but appropriating his analyses of the role of discipline in formation, we can almost turn Foucault’s project on its head.”(p99)

Thus we can create a church which removes the modern isolationism and realize the presuppositional nature of our ideas; we can recognize the story-telling nature (in a non-pejorative sense) of the church and the fault in the materialistic worldview; we can do away with modernistic view of autonomy and allow for the disciplinary and authoritative role of the church; we can refuse the Cartesian model of thought and realize that we can have knowledge without absolute knowledge, that we are finite; that we can incorporate a rich liturgy, social concerns, tradition, and a working creedal theology.

It is this “Radical Orthodoxy” that Smith promotes, a move away from the fundamentalism that sees postmodernism in a purely negative light, away from the emergent movement which misinterprets it as a reason to do away with truth claims and any sort of discipline, toward a revival of the church that isn’t caught under the presuppositions of modernism.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Whenever science attempts to legitimate itself, it is no longer scientific but narrative, appealing to an orienting myth that is not susceptible to scientific legitimation.”(p68)

-“We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity.”(p121)

-“We were created for stories, no propositions; for drama, not bullet points.”(p140)

Specific Criticisms

I don’t have any criticisms of this text. This isn’t to say that it is a perfect text or that the ideas presented have no flaws, but only that I’m not informed enough to be able to pick them out.

Rereading the Faith for Today – Gnostic Tendencies and Defending Against Them

 

Princeton.pngLetter IIn his book The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton asserts that “the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.”

Chesterton is here referencing the way the early church had to deal with their contemporary culture attempting to bring all religions into one accord; the solution as Chesterton presents it was to formulate a creed, to define the Christian faith against those who pushed for mere assimilation.

One of the groups which Chesterton has in mind here are the early Gnostics. Although early Christianity was able to overcome the threat of Gnosticism in its day there is a perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith, a perpetual tendency for sinful man to read the faith in a way congenial to his own culture. The failure of one attempt, such as the rationalistic Christianity of the Enlightenment, is followed by another, the Gnosticizing relativism of our present day.

When the the stars of cultural tendencies in which people re-read the faith align -as they have done today – the result in something akin to ancient Gnosticism.

This perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith thus gives the appearance of an ongoing gnostic tendency plaguing the church throughout its history. As Nicholas Perrin puts it “The battle between orthodoxy and Gnosticism isn’t over yet and probably won’t be any time soon.”

Gnosticism in its Origins

In his systematic theology The Christian Faith Michael Horton provides a definition of Gnosticism in which he states that the primary underpinning was dualism, such as a contrast between the God of the Old Testament and that New Testament or the contrast between matter as evil and spirit as good.

They sought salvation from the evil material world, and believed this could be accomplished by gaining a secret knowledge. The cause of this as laid out by Horton is that this group of Jews and Christians “tried to reinterpret the biblical narrative in a basically Greek philosophical framework.”

When we read Tertullian’s writing against the Gnostic heretic Valentinus one realizes that Horton’s definition is only a rough generalization of the Gnostic position. Gnosticism as it expressed itself during the period of the early church had a very elaborate metaphysic consisting of varied and convoluted emanations from the central deity which comprise the various spirits of the world, a complex creation account which places the god of the Old Testament at fault, and has the creation of mankind (and the material world as a whole) being an error.

Although the original expression of Gnosticism is quite complex it is not necessary to go into the exact details of the system. Part of the reason for this is because Gnosticism was expressed in a wide variety of ways during the period of the early church, and because it had such a strong focus on subjective experience and interpretation it is difficult – if not impossible – to give any explicit statement of exactly what Gnosticism entailed.

Another reason for this is because Gnosticism is to a large degree merely a borrowing of philosophic trends popular of any given period; in the instance of the early church this borrowing was done primarily from Platonism.

The result was a group which focused on “a subjective, immediate experience” and “concerned themselves above all with the internal significance of events.” It regarded “all doctrines, speculations, and myths – their own as well as others’ – only as approaches to truth.”

Because the focus here is on the subjective “knowledge of the self as divine is the essential pillar of Gnosticism.” It is with these attributes in mind that one may analyze how Gnosticism is affecting contemporary Christianity.

General Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Ideas reminiscent of Gnosticism entered the contemporary era in a variety of ways, and it might be said that it was these tendencies which brought about the revival of interest in Gnosticism proper present in contemporary academia.

While one of the more recent expressions of gnostic-esque ideals was the New Age movement of the 1980’s and 90’s, the principle characteristic responsible for the gnostic presence in contemporary Christianity is the aforementioned way in which the Gnostics attempted to reinterpret the faith in the light of their culture’s philosophy.

In H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the different ways in which Christianity interacts with the world around it – Christ and Culture he labels this sort of approach towards society as ‘The Christ of Culture’. As described by Niebuhr this is the approach which interprets Christ “wholly in cultural terms and tends to eliminate all sense of tension between him and social belief or custom” and seeks to “reconcile the gospel with the science and philosophy of their time.”

In not-to-distant history this can be seen in the way Enlightenment and modernist worldviews attempted – in step with their gnostic forebears – to interpret Christianity in light of the science and philosophy of that time period.

The result of this attempt was a rationalistic Christianity which put forth the idea “that truth must be a risk-free venture, leaving us with only two options: absolute certainty or thoroughgoing skepticism.” One of the results of this was an adherence to “the notion that we believe the Bible to be God’s Word on certain proofs” and a standard which required an “interpretation-free history.”

It is rather ironic then that in an attempt to find an interpretation-free history, the liberals of the day merely managed to “reinterpret the faith by the pagan philosophy of the day.”

When this ideal of absolute certainty inevitably failed and skepticism took center stage the door was opened for writers such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels – and prior to them Walter Bauer – to try and legitimate the original writings of Gnosticism.

Through the perpetual tendency to re-interpret Christianity via the lens of the popular philosophy, ancient Gnosticism itself was once again able to gain a hearing in the public square.

Yet the rise of Gnosticism is not merely a result of the Enlightenment and modernist thinkers attempting to rationalize Christianity. Other philosophic developments have occurred since then – some of them good and some of them bad – which have also served in one way or another to promote this revival of Gnosticism. Perhaps one of the most relevant philosophic developments in this regard are those of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault.

The first of these philosophic influences which has opened the door for Gnosticism – while at the same time itself owing its existence to the influx of gnostic tendencies –  is that of Derrida’s idea that there is ‘nothing outside the text.’ The idea presented is that reality is always being interpreted through the lens of language, so much so that reality itself is a sort of text requiring interpretation.

When interpreted through a more liberal schema, this is seen as showing that since everything is merely interpretation that the truth cannot be truly arrived at objectively, and therefore all interpretations are valid.

It is with cognitive dissonance that writers such as Ehrman and Pagels on the one hand insist on the modernist standards of an interpretation-free history, and on the other push the idea that all interpretations are valid.

Another of the primary philosophic influences forging the way for the Gnostic revival is the idea of Lyotard that has a disdain for meganarratives and an ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’

The meganarratives are those which attempt to tell a grand story arching over human history, while metanarratives are those which attempt to legitimate themselves through appeal to some sort of universal reason.

The major result of this view was that the overarching narrative of the triumph of orthodoxy over the innumerable heresies began to be questioned, with a secondary result being an attack on the legitimacy of that orthodoxy’s appeal to something outside itself.

The last of these philosophic influences which was both brought about by gnostic tendencies in the faith and in turn enabled a newfound focus on ancient Gnosticism is Foucault’s idea that ‘power is knowledge’.

The idea behind this notion is that those in power have the ability to influence what is considered true ‘knowledge’, they are able to define what is the ‘correct’ interpretation of a given set of data.

For the resurgence of Gnostic thought-patterns, this meant that contemporary interpreters focused their attacks to a large degree on the way in which – according  to their view – the success of orthodoxy was merely the result of the dominant party powering their way to the front and rewriting the narrative surrounding their history.

Specific Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Even before there was an explicit focus on Gnosticism as a system, gnostic-esque ideas were working their way into the overall worldviews surrounding the church.

The primary of these aspects is the aforementioned tendency to re-interpret the faith through the lens of the popular philosophy.

During the early church period this played itself out in such a way that a variety of Platonism was brought into the church; during the modern period it played itself out in such a way that rationalism was brought into the church; in the contemporary period it is playing itself out in such a way that subjectivism and relativism have become major aspects of many churches.

The most aspect most reminiscent of Gnosticism in the contemporary church is the present focus upon individual experience, where truth is ultimately personal.

As has been already stated, the gnostics concerned themselves primarily with the internal significance of events, which in turn causes them to focus on the internal significance of whatever is perceived as conveying truth.

One way in which this presents itself in the church is a tendency in many Bible studies to focus on ‘what the passage means to me.’

Often, rather than attempting to try and discover what the intended meaning of a certain Biblical passage is, such groups focus on whatever personal feeling or message the reader thinks the passage is trying to tell them, and each person’s interpretation is just as valid as the next person’s. This individual interpretation and experience is elevated above adherence to any particular doctrine.

Indeed, the doctrines of the church are seen as things to be stretched and molded to suite one’s own personal understanding of truth.

A common phrase on the lips of those who take this line of thought is that ‘I have a relationship, not a religion.’ Here a false dichotomy is set up, for what they have is both a relationship and a religion, with the proper term for this being the church.

One chief effect of this focus on individual experience and interpretation is that it produces a class of Christians who are generally ignorant regarding what they believe or why they ultimately believe anything.

When faced with skeptics these individuals often find their faith shaken; when faced with those such as Bart Ehrman who tell them that there are other legitimate versions of their faith or that their faith is founded upon a lie, they have no idea how to respond (and may thus even end up embracing Gnosticism itself as a system, as opposed to merely being influenced by some of its aspects).

Those such as Rob Bell call them to question the doctrines of the faith, but fail to give any advise on actually arriving at an answer to those questions or on what standard these doctrines are supposed to be held to.

This is because the standard being looked to is not external, but internal.

The Christian faith turns to focus on “contemporary ideals of self-discovery, self-awareness, self-actualization, and self-salvation” coupled with a “dislike of any kind of authority” such as that represented in many doctrinal statements.

When the goal becomes this sort of self-discovery not only is the result a group of poorly informed individuals, but also a group that has little real cause for evangelism; since personal experience cannot be conveyed from one person to the next an attitude of ‘if it works for you, do it, if not then try something else’ is adopted.

Not only is simply difficult to be evangelical with a message of subjectivism, but such individuals must also worry about whether they are forcing their own beliefs on others – this fear of being imposing is perhaps the thing that kills evangelism the fastest.

Responding to Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Figuring out how best to respond to these trends is one of the challenges of thoughtful Christians.

tertullian (1)One good way to figure out how to respond is to look back to those who responded to these issues the first time they came about, such as Tertullian. In Tertullian’s writings at least three approaches may be found, to include: making others aware of what is influencing them, pointing out the shortcomings in their belief system along with the strength of the orthodox position, and appealing to the truth of Scripture.

The first way of response which can be picked up by Tertullian is simply to point out what it is that the other side is doing. That is, to bring it to their attention the way in which popular philosophy is influencing their beliefs.

This sort of approach is seen in Tertullian when he asks “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?” and goes on to exclaim “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition.”

His goal here is to bring it to the attention of his opponents – and more importantly to those who might be influenced by his opponents – where the true origins of their beliefs lie. The previous sections detailing the general and specific aspects of Gnosticism present in the contemporary world (including how they came to be there) are themselves an attempt at this approach, and thus while they served to be primarily informational, that information is an apologetic in and of itself.

Tertullian’s approach may be emulated in the contemporary world by pointing out the way that the church was originally influenced by modernistic values, which then led to its influence by postmodern values. Before the problem can be properly addressed those who fall prey to it must be made aware of it.

Another way of response which can be found in Tertullian is the need to point out the failings of the opposing position.

This sort of tactic can be seen throughout Tertullian’s writings, such as in his writings against Marcion, where he systematically goes through the different implications of Marcion’s views to show how they are inconsistent with themselves. One example of this is where he shows that Marcion’s god is weak and unjust, for “how is it possible that he should issue commands, if he does not mean to execute them; or forbid sin, if he intends not to punish them” because “it would have been far more right, if he had not forbidden what he meant not to punish.”

In the contemporary world this may be accomplished by pointing out the ways in which subjectivism and relativism really keep the individual from saying anything meaningful, and that merely adhering to the popular philosophy is simply to trade one master for another – except whereas one master is constant and able to speak to people consistently over thousands of years, the other is fickle and ever changing with every new fad of thought.

Yet not only does Tertullian demonstrate the shortcomings of the opposing view, he also demonstrates the consistency of the orthodox view.

An example of this is Tertullian’s classic line that “the Son of God died, it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”

His point is not that the Christian faith doesn’t make sense, but that for it to make sense one must accept it as a whole.

In this case that entails accepting that Christ was a man of flesh, and that in turn “Christ could not be described as being man without flesh… just as He is not God without the Spirit of God.”

In the contemporary world this may be accomplished by pointing out the ways in which Christianity, or the world at large, only makes sense when taken from an orthodox point of view. Furthermore, because the Gospel message is true, it is the only thing that will be able to fully account for their feelings and experiences, and to then offer hope.

A final way that Tertullian gives a good example of how to approach contemporary Gnostic influences in the world is through appeal to the Scriptures.

As he states, “We want no curious disputation after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.” Thus Tertullian can be seen appealing again and again to truth as presented in the Scriptures, such as detailing the authority of Christ from Luke, or proving the nativity through Matthew.

In the contemporary world Christians must appeal to the truth of Scripture, because ultimately it is the only avenue to any sort of salvific truth. If individuals are convinced to follow Christianity because of something other than the truth of Scripture, then more than likely they are merely adhering a different philosophy than they were before, but have found no true conversion.

Today

The perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith has resulted in the resurgence of gnostic-style influences being alive and well in the world today, and through these influences a newfound focus on Gnosticism itself has arisen.

The primary of these influences is the tendency to interpret the faith in the light of the popular philosophy of the day, which in turn leads to a relativising and a watering-down of the truth.

The danger that this presents to the church is not something seen only by those defenders of the faith such as Chesterton. Quite the contrary, those promoting such gnostic views realize exactly what the danger is; as Elaine Pagels puts it, “Had Christianity remained multiform, it might well have disappeared from history, along with dozens of rival religious cults of antiquity.”

The difference lies in the fact that those such as Pagels view having dozens of rival religious cults as a better thing than having only one, because in the opinion of herself and those like her all of the rivaling cults are merely diverse approaches to truth and God. Because such individuals places no real truth-value on orthodox Christianity it is not a true problem for them if it fades into obscurity beneath a newfound diversity – indeed, that would be a good thing from their perspective.

Yet with a proper understanding of Scripture and of the theological and philosophic issues surrounding it, the Christian is aware of just how dangerous these trends can be.

Gnosticism is far from dead; as put by Alister McGrath, “Its echo is heard today in those who interpret Christianity as a religion of self-discovery, not redemption.” 

The Christian knows that grace and redemption is what is needed by the world, and it is with this in mind that they are called to fight against the influences which would try and make the faith palatable by making it relative.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Appetite of Tyranny – By G. K. Chesterton

appetiteoftyrannyOn June 28th of the year 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a small group of Serbians, an event which would begin Europe’s spiral into what was to be deemed “the war to end wars,” otherwise called The Great War or World War I.

In his book The Appetite of TyrannyG.K. Chesterton endeavors to assess the events which followed the assassination, primarily the psyche of Prussia as it sought to wrest control of Europe and bring upon the world the ‘progress’ of the ‘superior’ Teutonic race.

Chesterton’s main goal is to analyze what made for the incoherence and barbarism of the Prussian philosophy of that era, where ‘barbaric is defined as “one who is hostile to civilization, not one who is insufficient in it.”

Chesterton begins with a description of the details leading up the war: the assassination of the Archduke, the first hostilities of the Prussians, here making it a point to discuss what it is that marks the difference in the Prussian mindset from the rest of Europe, or what it is that makes the Prussians more properly ‘barbaric’ than the Russians. These differences primary include – as Chesterton sees it – that the Prussians do not value or uphold the promises they had made to others, but then expected the others to value and uphold promises made to the Prussians; thus, “his limited but very sincere lunacy concentrates chiefly in a desire to destroy two ideas, the twin root ideas of rational society. The first is the idea of record and promise: the second is the idea of reciprocity.”

This lack of care for the idea of a promise is then coupled with – or perhaps supposedly justified by – the Prussian idea that they themselves (or at least those of Teuton heritage) – were a superior race to all others, that progress consisted of them claiming establishing that superiority. In establishing this superiority Chesterton argues that the Prussians felt that “victory was a necessity and honour was a scrap of paper”  which was then coupled with “the idea that glory consists in holding the steel, and not in facing it.” Hence the Prussian “will explain, in serious official documents, that the difference between him and us is a difference between ‘the master-race and the inferior-race.'”

The majority of this text is spent elaborating these ideas, of analyzing what it is that set the Prussian mindset at odds with the rest of Europe. In this Chesterton is at times lucid, and at other times hard to follow (though that may partially be due the great amount of specificity that he goes into and my own not being fully aware of the issues), this was especially true in the letters addressed to Italy that make up the final portion of the text.

Finally, Chesterton is aware that the English were not perfect, and this then is where he draws another distinction (in feeling that the Prussians felt they themselves could do no wrong), thus: “I am that Englishman who has tortured Ireland, who has been tortured by South Africa; who knows all his mistakes, who is heavy with all his sins. And he tells you, Faultless Being, with a truth as deep as his own guilt, and as deathless as his own remembrance, that you shall not pass this way.”

Overall, this was a good read, and provides great insight into the events and philosophies surrounding the events of World War I, which is if nothing else good for any attempt to see similar trends in the contemporary world. More than anything, Chesterton’s work is valuable for two things:

  1. Chesterton masterfully lays out just what it was that made the Prussian philosophy the thing that it was: the ideas of superiority, of militarism for militarism’s sake, of being hostile to civilization itself. Chesterton shows that these were not peripheral issues, but were central to the Prussian mindset and mission. In this he gives a wonderful window into the psychological and philosophical world of the early 20th Century, one that you can’t get by reading just any historical text on the topic.
  2. Chesterton offers a well thought-out defense of the War, of war in general, and especially of an imperfect nation’s involvement in war. Chesterton does not shy away from the many sins committed by England, but he also realizes that this does not disqualify them from engaging their present threat. It is a good object lesson in our need to both realize our own faults and at the same time stand up for our convictions.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The definition of the true savage is that he laughs when he hurts you; and howls when you hurt him.”

-“[T]he essence of every game is that the rules are the same on both sides.”

-“But the truth is that all that they call evolution should rather be called evasion. They tell us they are opening windows of enlightenment and doors of progress. The truth is that they are breaking up the whole house of the human intellect, that they may abscond in any direction. There is an ominous and almost monstrous parallel between the position of their over-rated philosophers and of their comparatively under-rated soldiers. For what their professors call roads of progress are really routes of escape.”

-“The cockney and incomplete civilisation always sets itself up to be copied. And in the case here considered, the German thinks that it is not only his business to spread education, but to spread compulsory education. “Science combined with organisation,” says Professor Ostwald of Berlin University, “makes us terrible to our opponents and ensures a German future for Europe.” That is, as shortly as it can be put, what we are fighting about.”

-“It is vital in a discussion like this, that we should make sure we are going by meanings and not by mere words. It is not necessary in any argument to settle what a word means or ought to mean. But it is necessary in every argument to settle what we propose to mean by the word. So long as our opponent understands what is the _thing_ of which we are talking, it does not matter to the argument whether the word is or is not the one he would have chosen… A soldier does not say “We were ordered to go to Mechlin; but I would rather go to Malines.” He may discuss the etymology and archæology of the difference on the march; but the point is that he knows where to go. So long as we know what a given word is to mean in a given discussion, it does not even matter if it means something else in some other and quite distinct discussion”

-“I wish to tell these people that they are wrong; that they are wrong upon all principles of human justice and historic continuity: but that they are specially and supremely wrong upon their own principles of arbitration and international peace. These sincere and high-minded peace-lovers are always telling us that citizens no longer settle their quarrels by private violence; and that nations should no longer settle theirs by public violence. They are always telling us that we no longer fight duels; and need no longer wage wars. In short, they perpetually base their peace proposals on the fact that an ordinary citizen no longer avenges himself with an axe. But how is he prevented from revenging himself with an axe? If he hits his neighbour on the head with the kitchen chopper, what do we do? Do we all join hands, like children playing Mulberry Bush, and say “We are all responsible for this; but let us hope it will not spread. Let us hope for the happy day when he shall leave off chopping at the man’s head; and when nobody shall ever chop anything for ever and ever.” Do we say “Let byegones be byegones; why go back to all the dull details with which the business began; who can tell with what sinister motives the man was standing there within reach of the hatchet?” We do not.”

-“The vow is to the man what the song is to the bird, or the bark to the dog; his voice, whereby he is known. Just as a man who cannot keep an appointment is not fit even to fight a duel, so the man who cannot keep an appointment with himself is not sane enough even for suicide. It is not easy to mention anything on which the enormous apparatus of human life can be said to depend. But if it depends on anything, it is on this frail cord, flung from the forgotten hills of yesterday to the invisible mountains of to-morrow. On that solitary string hangs everything from Armageddon to an almanac, from a successful revolution to a return ticket.”

-“For instance, no man of the world believes all he sees in the newspapers; and no journalist believes a quarter of it. We should, therefore, be quite ready in the ordinary way to take a great deal off the tales of German atrocities; to doubt this story or deny that. But there is one thing that we cannot doubt or deny: the seal and authority of the Emperor. In the Imperial proclamation the fact that certain “frightful” things have been done is admitted; and justified on the ground of their frightfulness.”

____________

Chesterton’s full argument of what defines ‘barbaric’:

“If the German calls the Russian barbarous he presumably means imperfectly civilised. There is a certain path along which Western nations have proceeded in recent times; and it is tenable that Russia has not proceeded so far as the others: that she has less of the special modern system in science, commerce, machinery, travel or political constitution. The Russ ploughs with an old plough; he wears a wild beard; he adores relics; his life is as rude and hard as that of a subject of Alfred the Great. Therefore he is, in the German sense, a barbarian. Poor fellows like Gorky and Dostoieffsky have to form their own reflections on the scenery, without the assistance of large quotations from Schiller on garden seats; or inscriptions directing them to pause and thank the All-Father for the finest view in Hesse-Pumpernickel. The Russians, having nothing but their faith, their fields, their great courage, and their self-governing communes, are quite cut off from what is called (in the fashionable street in Frankfort) The True, The Beautiful and The Good. There is a real sense in which one can call such backwardness barbaric; by comparison with the Kaiserstrasse; and in that sense it is true of Russia.

Now we, the French and English, do not mean this when we call the Prussians barbarians. If their cities soared higher than their flying ships, if their trains travelled faster than their bullets, we should still call them barbarians. We should know exactly what we meant by it; and we should know that it is true. For we do not mean anything that is an imperfect civilisation by accident. We mean something that is the enemy of civilisation by design. We mean something that is wilfully at war with the principles by which human society has been made possible hitherto. Of course it must be partly civilised even to destroy civilisation. Such ruin could not be wrought by the savages that are merely undeveloped or inert. You could not have even Huns without horses; or horses without horsemanship. You could not have even Danish pirates without ships, or ships without seamanship. This person, whom I may call the Positive Barbarian, must be rather more superficially up-to-date than what I may call the Negative Barbarian. Alaric was an officer in the Roman legions: but for all that he destroyed Rome. Nobody supposes that Eskimos could have done it at all neatly. But (in our meaning) barbarism is not a matter of methods but of aims. We say that these veneered vandals have the perfectly serious aim of destroying certain ideas which, as they think, the world has outgrown; without which, as we think, the world will die.”

Liberalism or Christianity — J. Gresham Machen

machenThe attack upon the fundamentals of the Christian faith is not a matter merely of theological seminaries and universities. It is being carried on vigorously by Sunday School “lesson-helps,” by the pulpit, and by the religious press. The remedy, therefore, is not to be found in the abolition of theological seminaries, or the abandonment of scientific theology, but rather in a more earnest search after truth and a more loyal devotion to it when once it is found.

At the seminaries and universities, the roots of the great issue are more clearly seen than in the world at large; among students the reassuring employment of traditional phrases is often abandoned, and the advocates of a new religion are not at pains, as they are in the Church at large, to maintain a pretence of conformity with the past. In discussing the attack against the fundamentals of Christianity “from the point of view of colleges and seminaries,” therefore, we are simply discussing the root of the matter instead of its mere superficial manifestations. What, at bottom, when the traditional phrases have all been stripped away, is the real meaning of the present revolt against historic Christianity?

That revolt, manifold as are its manifestations, is a fairly unitary phenomenon. It may all be subsumed under the general head of “naturalism”–that is, the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God (in distinction from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity. The word “naturalism” is here used in a sense somewhat different from its philosophical meaning. In this non-philosophical sense it describes with fair accuracy the real root of what is called, by a common degradation of an originally noble word, “liberal” religion. What then, in brief, are the teachings of modern liberalism, as over against the teachings of Christianity?

At the outset, we are met with an objection. “Teachings,” it is said, are unimportant; the exposition of the teachings of liberalism and the teachings of Christianity, therefore, can arouse no interest at the present day; creeds are merely the changing expression of a unitary Christian experience, and provided only they express that experience they are all equally good.

Whether this objection be well-founded or not, the real meaning of it should at least be faced. And that meaning is perfectly plain. The objection involves an out-and-out skepticism. If all creeds are equally true, then since they are contradictory to one another, they are all equally false, or at least equally uncertain. We are indulging therefore in a mere juggling with words. To say that all creeds are equally true, and that they are based upon experience, is merely to fall back upon that agnosticism which fifty years ago was regarded as the deadliest enemy of the Church. The enemy has not really been changed into a friend merely because he has been received within the camp. Very different is the Christian conception of a creed. According to the Christian conception, a creed is not based upon Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based.

But, it will be said, Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. The assertion is often made, and it has an appearance of godliness. But it is radically false, and to detect its falsity one does not need to be a Christian. For to say that “Christianity is a life” is to make an assertion in the sphere of history. The assertion does not lie in the sphere of ideals; it is far different from saying that Christianity ought to be a life, or that the ideal religion is a life. The assertion that Christianity is a life is subject to historical investigation exactly as is the assertion that the Roman Empire under Nero was a free democracy. Possibly the Roman Empire under Nero would have been better if it had been a free democracy, but the historical question is simply whether as a matter of fact it was a free democracy or no. Christianity is an historical phenomenon, like the Roman Empire, or the Kingdom of Prussia, or the United States of America. And as an historical phenomenon it must be investigated on the basis of historical evidence.

Is it true, then, that Christianity is not a doctrine but a life? The question can be settled only by an examination of the beginnings of Christianity. Recognition of that fact does not involve any acceptance of Christian belief; it is merely a matter of common sense and common honesty. At the foundation of the life of every corporation is the incorporation paper, in which the objects of the corporation are set forth. Other objects may be vastly more desirable than those objects, but if the directors use the name and the resources of the corporation to pursue the other objects they are acting “ultra vires” of the corporation. So it is with Christianity. It is perfectly conceivable that the originators of the Christian movement had no right to legislate for subsequent generations; but at any rate they did have an inalienable right to legislate for all generations that should choose to bear the name of “Christian.” It is conceivable that Christianity may now have to be abandoned, and another religion substituted for it; but at any rate the question what Christianity is can be determined only by an examination of the beginnings of Christianity.

The beginnings of Christianity constitute a fairly definite historical phenomenon. The Christian movement originated a few days after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. It is doubtful whether anything that preceded the death of Jesus can be called Christianity. At any rate, if Christianity existed before that event, it was Christianity only in a preliminary stage. The name originated after the death of Jesus, and the thing itself was also something new. Evidently there was an important new beginning among the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem after the crucifixion. At that time is to be placed the beginning of the remarkable movement which spread out from Jerusalem into the Gentile world–the movement which is called Christianity.

About the early stages of this movement definite historical information has been preserved in the Epistles of Paul, which are regarded by all serious historians as genuine products of the first Christian generation. The writer of the Epistles had been in direct communication with those intimate friends of Jesus who had begun the Christian movement in Jerusalem, and in the Epistles he makes it abundantly plain what the fundamental character of the movement was.

But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It is perfectly clear that the first Christian missionaries did not simply come forward with exhortation; they did not say: “Jesus of Nazareth lived a wonderful life of filial piety, and we call upon you our hearers to yield yourselves as we have done to the spell of that life.” Certainly that is what modern historians would have expected the first Christian missionaries to say, but it must be recognized at least that as a matter of fact they said nothing of the kind. They came forward, not merely with an exhortation or with a program, but with a message,–with an account of something that had happened a short time before. “Christ died for our sins,” they said, “according to the Scriptures; he was buried; he has been raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

This message, even the small excerpt from it quoted by Paul in 1Cor. 15:3ff., contains two elements–it contains (1) the facts and (2) the meaning of the facts (“for our sins”). The narration of the facts is history; the setting forth of the meaning of the facts is doctrine. These two elements are always contained in the Christian message. “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried”-that is history. “He loved me and gave himself for me”–that is doctrine. Without these two elements, inextricably intertwined, there is no Christianity.

The character of primitive Christianity, as founded upon a message, is summed up in the words of the eighth verse of the first chapter of Acts–“Ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” It is entirely unnecessary, for the present purpose, to argue about the historical value of the Book of Acts or to discuss the question whether Jesus really spoke the words just quoted. In any case the verse must be recognized as an adequate summary of what is known about primitive Christianity. From the beginning Christianity was a campaign of witnessing. And the witnessing did not concern merely what Jesus was doing within the recesses of the individual life. To take the words of Acts in that way is to do violence to the context and to all the evidence. On the contrary, the Epistles of Paul and all the sources make it abundantly plain that the testimony was primarily not to inner spiritual facts but to what Jesus had done once for all in His death and resurrection.

Christianity is based, then, upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness. But if so, it is rather important that the Christian worker should tell the truth. When a man takes his seat upon the witness stand, it makes little difference what the cut of his coat is, or whether his sentences are nicely turned. The important thing is that he tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If we are to be truly Christians, then, it does make a vast difference what our teachings are, and it is by no means aside from the point to set forth the teachings of Christianity in contrast with the teachings of the chief modern rival of Christianity.

The chief modern rival of Christianity is “liberalism.” An examination of the teachings of liberalism will show that at every point the liberal movement is in opposition to the Christian message. That examination will now be undertaken, though necessarily in a summary and cursory way.[1]

Christianity, it has already been observed, is based upon an account of something that happened in the first century of our era. But before that account can be received, certain presuppositions must be accepted. These presuppositions consist in what is believed first about God, and second about man. With regard to the presuppositions, as with regard to the message itself, modern liberalism is diametrically opposed to Christianity.

It is opposed to Christianity, in the first place, in its conception of God. But at this point we are met with a particularly insistent form of that objection to doctrinal matters which has already been considered. It is unnecessary, we are told, to have a “conception” of God; theology, or the knowledge of God, is the death of religion; we should not seek to know God, but should merely feel His presence.

With regard to this objection, it ought to be observed that if religion consists merely in feeling the presence of God, it is devoid of any moral quality whatever. Pure feeling, if there be such a thing, is non-moral. What makes affection for a human friend, for example, such an ennobling thing is the knowledge which we possess of the character of our friend. Human affection, apparently so simple, is really just bristling with dogma. It depends upon a host of observations treasured up in the mind with regard to the character of our friend. But if human affection is thus really dependent upon knowledge, why should it be otherwise with that supreme personal relationship which is at the basis of religion? Why should we be indignant against slanders directed against a human friend, while at the same time we are patient about the basest slanders directed against our God? Certainly it does make the greatest possible difference what we think about God.

In the Christian view of God as set forth in the Bible, there are many elements. But one attribute of God is absolutely fundamental in the Bible; one attribute is absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible all the rest. That attribute is the awful transcendence of God. From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator. It is true, indeed, that according to the Bible God is immanent in the world. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him. But he is immanent in the world not because He is identified with the world, but because He is the free Creator and Upholder of it. Between the creature and the Creator a great gulf is fixed.

In modern liberalism, on the other hand, this sharp distinction between God and the world is broken down, and the name “God” is applied to the mighty world process itself. We find ourselves in the midst of a mighty process, which manifests itself in the indefinitely small and in the indefinitely great–in the infinitesimal life which is revealed through the microscope and in the vast movements of the heavenly spheres. To this world-process, of which we ourselves form a part, we apply the dread name of “God.” God, therefore, it is said in effect, is not a person distinct from ourselves; on the contrary our life is a part of His. Thus the Gospel story of the Incarnation, according to modern liberalism, is sometimes thought of as a symbol of the general truth that man at his best is one with God.

It is strange how such a representation can be regarded as anything new, for as a matter of fact, pantheism is a very ancient phenomenon. And modern liberalism, even when it is not consistently pantheistic, is at any rate pantheizing. It tends everywhere to break down the separateness between God and the world, and the sharp personal distinction between God and man. Even the sin of man on this view ought logically to be regarded as part of the life of God. Very different is the living and holy God of the Bible and of Christian faith.

Christianity differs from liberalism, then, in the first place, in its conception of God. But it also differs in its conception of man. Modern liberalism has lost all sense of the gulf that separates the creature from the Creator; its doctrine of man follows naturally from its doctrine of God. But it is not only the creature limitations of mankind which are denied. Far more important is another difference. According to the Bible, man is a sinner under the just condemnation of God; according to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.[2]

The consciousness of sin was formerly the starting-point of all preaching; but today it is gone. Characteristic of the modern age, above all else, is a supreme confidence in human goodness; the religious literature of the day is redolent of that confidence. Get beneath the rough exterior of men, we are told, and we shall discover enough self-sacrifice to found upon it the hope of society; the world’s evil, it is said, can be overcome with the world’s good; no help is needed from outside the world.

What has produced this satisfaction with human goodness? What has become of the consciousness of sin? The consciousness of sin has certainly been lost. But what has removed it from the hearts of men?

In the first place, the war has perhaps had something to do with the change. In time of war, our attention is called so exclusively to the sins of other people that we are some-times inclined to forget our own sins. Attention to the sins of other people is, indeed, sometimes necessary. It is quite right to be indignant against any oppression of the weak which is being carried on by the strong. But such a habit of mind, if made permanent, if carried over into the days of peace, has its dangers. It joins forces with the collectivism of the modern state to obscure the individual, personal character of guilt. If John Smith beats his wife nowadays, no one is so old-fashioned as to blame John Smith for it. On the contrary, it is said, John Smith is evidently the victim of some more of that Bolshevistic propaganda; Congress ought to be called in extra session in order to take up the case of John Smith in an alien and sedition law.

But the loss of the consciousness of sin is far deeper than the war; it has its roots in a mighty spiritual process which has been active during the past seventy-five years. Like other great movements, that process has come silently, so silently that its results have been achieved before the plain man was even aware of what was taking place. Nevertheless, despite all superficial Continuity, a remarkable change has come about within the last seventy-five years. The change is nothing less than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant view of life. Seventy-five years ago, Western civilization, despite inconsistencies, was still predominantly Christian; today it is predominantly pagan.

In speaking of “paganism,” we are not using a term of reproach. Ancient Greece was pagan, but it was glorious, and the modern world has not even begun to equal its achievements. What, then, is paganism? The answer is not really difficult. Paganism is that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties. Very different is the Christian ideal. Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature, whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.

In saying that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity ends with the broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of “Woe is me.” Nothing could be further from the fact. On the contrary, Christianity means that sin is faced once for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea. The trouble with the paganism of ancient Greece, as with the paganism of modern times, was not in the superstructure, which was glorious, but in the foundation which was rotten. There was always something to be covered up; the enthusiasm of the architect was maintained only by ignoring the disturbing fact of sin. In Christianity, on the other hand, nothing needs to be covered up. The fact of sin is faced resolutely once for all, and is removed by the grace of God. But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given him. Such is the higher Christian humanism–a humanism founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace.

But although Christianity does not end with the broken heart, it does begin with the broken heart; it begins with the consciousness of sin. Without the consciousness of sin, the whole of the gospel will seem to be an idle tale. But how can the consciousness of sin be revived? Something no doubt can be accomplished by the proclamation of the law of God, for the law reveals transgressions. The whole of the law, morever, should be proclaimed. It will hardly be wise to adopt the suggestion (recently offered among many suggestions as to the ways in which we shall have to modify our message in order to retain the allegiance of the returning soldiers) that we must stop treating the little sins as though they were big sins. That suggestion means apparently that we must not worry too much about the little sins, but must let them remain unmolested. With regard to such an expedient, it may perhaps be suggested that in the moral battle we are fighting against a very resourceful enemy, who does not reveal the position of his guns by desultory artillery action when he plans a great attack. In the moral battle, as in the Great European War, the quiet sectors are usually the most dangerous. It is through the “little sins” that Satan gains an entrance into our lives. Probably, therefore, it will be prudent to watch all sectors of the front and lose no time about introducing the unity of command. But if the consciousness of sin is to be produced, the law of God must be proclaimed in the lives of Christian people as well as in word. It is quite useless for the preacher to breathe out fire and brimstone from the pulpit, if at the same time the occupants of the pews go on taking sin very lightly and being content with the moral standards of the world. The rank and file of the Church must do their part in so proclaiming the law of God by their lives that the secrets of men’s hearts shall be revealed.

All these things, however, are in themselves quite insufficient to produce the consciousness of sin. The more one observes the condition of the Church, the more one feels obliged to confess that the conviction of sin is a great mystery, which can be produced only by the Spirit of God. Proclamation of the law, in word and in deed, can prepare for the experience, but the experience itself comes from God. When a man has that experience, when a man comes under the conviction of sin, his whole attitude toward life is transformed; he wonders at his former blindness, and the message of the gospel, which formerly seemed to be an idle tale, becomes now instinct with light. But it is God alone who can produce the change.

Only, let us not try to do without the Spirit of God. The fundamental fault of the modern Church is that she is busily engaged in an impossible task–she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the Church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin. The preacher gets up into the pulpit, opens the Bible, and addresses the congregation somewhat as follows: “You people are very good,” he says; “you respond to every appeal that looks toward the welfare of the community. Now we have in the Bible–especially in the life of Jesus–something so good that we believe it is good enough even for you good people.” Such is modern preaching. It is heard every Sunday in thousands of pulpits. But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He.

Modern liberalism, then, has lost sight of the two great presuppositions of the Christian message–the living God, and the fact of sin. The liberal doctrine of God and the liberal doctrine of man are both diametrically opposite to the Christian view. But the divergence concerns not only the presuppositions of the message, but also the message itself.

According to the Christian view, the Bible contains an account of a revelation from God to man, which is found nowhere else. It is true, the Bible also contains a confirmation and a wonderful enrichment of the revelations which are given also by the things that God has made and by the conscience of man. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handywork”–these words are a confirmation of the revelation of God in nature; “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”–these words are a confirmation of what is attested by the conscience. But in addition to such reaffirmations of what might conceivably be learned elsewhere–as a matter of fact, because of men’s blindness, even so much is learned elsewhere only in comparatively obscure fashion–the Bible also contains an account of a revelation which is absolutely new. That new revelation concerns the way by which sinful man can come into communion with the living God.

The way was opened, according to the Bible, by an act of God, when, almost nineteen hundred years ago, outside the walls of Jerusalem, the eternal Son was offered as a sacrifice for the sins of men. To that one great event the whole Old Testament looks forward, and in that one event the whole of the New Testament finds its centre and core. Salvation then, according to the Bible, is not something that was discovered, but something that happened. Hence appears the uniqueness of the Bible. All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that other religion no Christianity.

For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event. Without that event, the world, in the Christian view, is altogether dark, and humanity is lost under the guilt of sin. There can be no salvation by the discovery of eternal truth, for eternal truth brings naught but despair, because of sin. But a new face has been put upon life by the blessed thing that God did when he offered up his only begotten Son.

Thus the revelation of which an account is contained in the Bible embraces not only a reaffirmation of eternal truths–itself necessary because the truths have been obscured by the blinding effect of sin–but also a revelation which sets forth the meaning of an act of God.

The contents of the Bible, then, are unique. But another fact about the Bible is also important. The Bible might contain an account of a true revelation from God, and yet the account be full of error. Before the full authority of the Bible can be established, therefore, it is necessary to add to the Christian doctrine of revelation the Christian doctrine of inspiration. The latter doctrine means that the Bible not only is an account of important things, but that the account itself is true, the writers having been so preserved from error, despite a full maintenance of their habits of thought and expression, that the resulting Book is the “infallible rule of faith and practice.” The Christian, then, if he makes full use of his Christian privileges, finds the seat of authority in the whole Bible, which he regards as the very Word of God.

Very different is the view of modern liberalism. The modern liberal rejects the unique authority of the Bible. But what is substituted for the Christian doctrine? What is the liberal view as to the seat of authority in religion?

The impression is sometimes produced that the modern liberal substitutes for the authority of the Bible the authority of Christ. He cannot accept, he says, what he regards as the perverse moral teaching of the Old Testament or the sophistical arguments of Paul. But he regards himself as being the true Christian because, rejecting the rest of the Bible, he depends upon Jesus alone.

This impression, however, is utterly false. The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus. Even if he did so, he would be impoverishing very greatly his knowledge of God and of the way of salvation. The words of Jesus, spoken during His earthly ministry, could hardly contain all that we need to know about God and about the way of salvation; for the meaning of Jesus’ redeeming work could hardly be fully set forth before that work was done. It could be set forth indeed by way of prophecy, and as a matter of fact it was so set forth by Jesus even in the days of His flesh. But the full explanation could naturally be given only after the work was done. And such was actually the divine method. It is doing despite, not only to the Spirit of God, but also to Jesus Himself, to regard the teaching of the Holy Spirit, given through the apostles, as at all inferior in authority to the teaching of Jesus.

As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not hold fast even to the authority of Jesus. Certainly he does not accept the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. For among the recorded words of Jesus are to be found just those things which are most abhorrent to the modern liberal Church, and in His recorded words Jesus also points forward to the fuller revelation which was afterwards to be given through His apostles. Evidently, therefore, those words of Jesus which are to be regarded as authoritative by modern liberalism must first be selected from the mass of the recorded words by a critical process. The critical process is certainly very difficult, and the suspicion often arises that the critic is retaining as genuine words of the historical Jesus only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas. But even after the sifting process has been completed, the liberal scholar is still unable to accept as authoritative all the sayings of Jesus; he must finally admit that even the historical Jesus said some things that are untrue.

So much is usually admitted. But, it is maintained, although not everything that Jesus said is true, His central “life-purpose” is still to be regarded as regulative for the Church.[3] But what then was the life-purpose of Jesus? According to the shortest, and if modern criticism be accepted, the earliest of the gospels, the Son of Man “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Here the vicarious death is put as the “life-purpose” of Jesus. Such an utterance must of course be pushed aside by the modern liberal Church. The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life-purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus–isolated and misinterpreted–which happen to agree with the modern program. It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas.

It is not true at all, then, that modern liberalism is based upon the authority of Jesus. It is obliged to reject a vast deal that is absolutely essential in Jesus’ example and teaching–notably His consciousness of being the heavenly Messiah. The real authority, for liberalism, can only be “the Christian consciousness” or “Christian experience.” But how shall the findings of the Christian consciousness be established? Surely not by a majority vote of the organized Church. Such a method would obviously do away with all liberty of conscience. The only authority, then, can be individual experience; truth can only be that which “helps” the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and when once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The result is an abysmal skepticism.

The Christian man, on the other hand, finds in the Bible the very Word of God. Let it not be said that dependence upon a book is a dead or an artificial thing. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was founded upon the authority of the Bible, yet it set the world aflame. Dependence upon a word of man would be slavish, but dependence upon God’s word is life. Dark and gloomy would be the world, if we were left to our own devices, and had no blessed Word of God.

It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.

Three points of difference between liberalism and Christianity have now been noticed. The two are different (1) in their view of God, (2) in their view of man, and (3) in their choice of the seat of authority in religion. A fourth difference concerns the view of Christ. What does modern liberalism believe about the person of our Lord?

At this point a puzzling fact appears–the liberal preacher is often perfectly ready to say that “Jesus is God.” The plain man is much impressed. The preacher, he says, believes in the deity of our Lord; obviously then his unorthodoxy must concern only details; and those who object to his presence in the Church are narrow and uncharitable heresy-hunters. But unfortunately language is valuable only as the expression of thought. The English word “god” has no particular virtue in itself; it is not more beautiful than other words. Its importance depends altogether upon the meaning which is attached to it. When, therefore, the liberal preacher says that “Jesus is God,” the significance of the utterance depends altogether upon what is meant by “God.”

But it has already been observed that when the liberal preacher uses the word “God,” he means something entirely different from that which the Christian means by the same word. “God,” at least according to the logical trend of modern liberalism, is not a person separate from the world, but merely the unity that pervades the world. To say, therefore, that Jesus is God means merely that the life of God, which appears in all men, appears with special clearness or richness in Jesus. Such an assertion is diametrically opposed to the Christian belief in the deity of Christ.

Equally opposed to Christian belief is another meaning that is sometimes attached to the assertion that Jesus is God. The word “God” is sometimes used to denote simply the supreme object of men’s desires, the highest thing that men know. We have given up the notion, it is said, that there is a Maker and Ruler of the universe. Such notions belong to “metaphysics,” and are rejected by the modern man. But the word “God,” though it can no longer denote the Maker of the universe, is convenient as denoting the object of men’s emotions and desires. Of some men, it can be said that their God is mammon–mammon is that for which they labor, and to which their hearts are attached. In a somewhat similar way, the liberal preacher says that Jesus is God. He does not mean at all to say that Jesus is identical in nature with a Maker and Ruler of the universe, of whom an idea could be obtained apart from Jesus. In such a Being he no longer believes. All that he means is that the man Jesus–a man here in the midst of us, and of the same nature as ours–is the highest thing we know. It is obvious that such a way of thinking is far more widely removed from Christian belief than is Unitarianism, at least the earlier forms of Unitarianism. For the early Unitarianism no doubt at least believed in God. The modern liberals, on the other hand, say that Jesus is God not because they think high of Jesus, but because they think desperately low of God.

In another way also, liberalism within the “evangelical” Churches is inferior to Unitarianism. It is inferior to Unitarianism in the matter of honesty. In order to maintain themselves in the evangelical churches and quiet the fears of their conservative associates, the liberals resort constantly to a double use of language. A young man, for example, has received disquieting reports of the unorthodoxy of a prominent preacher. Interrogating the preacher as to his belief, he receives a reassuring reply. “You may tell everyone,” says the liberal preacher in effect, “that I believe that Jesus is God.” The inquirer goes away much impressed.

It may well be doubted, however, whether the assertion, “I believe that Jesus is God,” or the like, on the lips of liberal preachers, is strictly truthful. The liberal preacher attaches indeed a real meaning to the words, and that meaning is very dear to his heart. He really does believe that “Jesus is God.” But the trouble is that he attaches to the words a different meaning from that which is attached to them by the simple-minded person to whom he is speaking. He offends, therefore, against the fundamental principle of truthfulness in language. According to that fundamental principle, language is truthful, not when the meaning attached to the words by the speaker, but when the meaning intended to be produced in the mind of the particular person addressed, is in accordance with the facts. Thus the truthfulness of the assertion, “I believe that Jesus is God,” depends upon the audience that is addressed. If the audience is composed of theologically trained persons, who will attach the same meaning to the word “God” as that which the speaker attaches to it, then the language is truthful. But if the audience is composed of old-fashioned Christians, who have never attached anything but the old meaning to the word God (the meaning which appears in the first verse of Genesis), then the language is untruthful. And in the latter case, not all the pious motives in the world will make the utterance right. Christian ethics do not abrogate common honesty; no possible desire of edifying the Church and of avoiding offence can excuse a lie.

At any rate, the deity of our Lord, in any real sense of the word “deity,” is of course denied by modern liberalism. To the modern preacher Jesus is an example for faith, and Christianity consists in having the same faith in God that Jesus had. To the Christian, on the other hand, Jesus is the object of faith, and upon Him alone depends the eternal welfare of the individual soul and of humanity.[4]

Finally, liberalism differs from Christianity in the account which is given of the way of salvation. The two give exactly opposite answers to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” Liberalism finds salvation in man; Christianity finds it only in an act of God.

The difference with regard to the way of salvation concerns, in the first place, the basis of salvation in the redeeming work of Christ. According to Christian belief, Jesus is our Saviour, not by virtue of what He said, not even by virtue of what He was, but by what He did. He is our Saviour not because He has inspired us to live the same kind of life that He lived, but because He took upon Himself the dreadful guilt of our sins and bore it instead of us on the Cross. Such is the Christian conception of the Cross of Christ. It is ridiculed as being a subtle “theory of the atonement.” In reality, though it involves mysteries, it is itself so simple that a child can understand it. “We deserved eternal death, but the Lord Jesus because He loved us died instead of us on the cross”–surely there is nothing so very intricate about that. It is not the Bible doctrine of the atonement which is difficult to understand–what are really incomprehensible are the elaborate modern efforts to get rid of the Bible doctrine in the interests of human pride.

To modern liberalism the Cross of Christ is an inspiring example of self-sacrifice. But since there have been many acts of self-sacrifice in the history of the world, why should we pay such exclusive attention to this one Palestinian example? We are perfectly ready, men say in effect, to admit Jesus into the noble fellowship of those who have sacrificed themselves in a noble cause. But further we will not go. Men used to say with reference to Jesus, “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.” They say so no longer. On the contrary, every man is now regarded as plenty good enough to pay the price of sin if he will only go bravely over the top in a noble cause.[5]

It is no wonder that men adopt this patronizing attitude toward the Cross; for the liberal conception of the Cross follows naturally from the liberal conception of man and the liberal conception of Christ. If there be no such thing as sin, no such thing as the just condemnation of God’s law, then of course we can get along perfectly well without a sacrifice for sin. And if Jesus be a man like the rest of men, then of course His death cannot possibly be a sacrifice for the sins of others. One mere man cannot possibly pay the penalty of another man’s sin. But it does not follow that the Son of God cannot pay the penalty of the sins of men. When we come to see that it was no mere man, but the Lord of glory who suffered on Calvary, then we shall be willing to say, as men used to say, that the precious blood of Jesus alone–and not all the rivers of blood that have flowed on the battle-fields of history–is of value as a ground for our own salvation and for the hope of the world.

With the liberal view of the basis of salvation goes the liberal view of the application of salvation to the individual man, and that also is entirely different from the teaching of the Bible. According to the Bible, salvation is applied to the individual man by the Spirit of God. The work of the Spirit is mysterious. But the human accompaniment of the Spirit’s action is a very simple thing–it is faith. Faith means simply receiving a gift. To have faith in Christ means to cease trying to win God’s favor by one’s own character; the man who believes in Christ simply accepts the sacrifice which Christ offered on Calvary. The result of such faith is a new life and all good works; but the salvation itself is an absolutely free gift of God.

Liberalism, on the other hand, seeks the welfare of men by urging them to “make Christ Master in their lives.” In other words, salvation is to be obtained by our own obedience to the Commands of Christ. Such teaching is just a sublimated form of legalism. Not the sacrifice of Christ, on this view, but our own obedience to God’s law is the ground of hope.

In this way the whole achievement of the Reformation has been given up, and there has been a return to the religion of the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, God raised up a man who began to read the Epistle to the Galatians with his own eyes. The result was the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith. Upon that rediscovery has been based the whole of our evangelical freedom. As expounded by Luther and Calvin the Epistle to the Galatians became the “Magna Carta of Christian liberty.” But modern liberalism has returned to the old interpretation of Galatians which was urged against the Reformers. Thus Professor Burton’s elaborate commentary on the Epistle, with all its valuable modern scholarship, is at bottom a thorough mediaeval book; it has returned to an anti-Reformation exegesis, by which Paul is thought to be attacking in the Epistle only the piecemeal morality of the Pharisees. In reality, of course, the object of Paul’s attack is the thought that in any way man can earn his acceptance with God. What Paul is primarily interested in is not spiritual religion over against ceremonialism, but the free grace of God over against human merit.

The grace of God is rejected by modern liberalism. And the result is slavery–the slavery of the law, the wretched bondage by which man undertakes the impossible task of establishing his own righteousness as a ground of acceptance with God. It may seem strange at first sight that “liberalism,” of which the very name means freedom, should in reality be wretched slavery. But the phenomenon is not really so strange. Emancipation from the blessed will of God always involves bondage to some worse task-master.

Thus it may be said of the modern liberal Church, as of the Jerusalem of Paul’s day, that “she is in bondage with her children.” God grant that she may turn again to the liberty of the gospel of Christ!

Such is the present situation. It is a great mistake to suppose that liberalism is merely a heresy–merely a divergence at isolated points from true Christian teaching. On the contrary it proceeds from a totally different root. It differs from Christianity in its view of God, of man, of the seat of authority, of Christ, and of the way of salvation. Christianity is being attacked from within by a movement which is anti-Christian to the core.

What is the duty of laymen at such a time? What is the duty of the ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church?

In the first place, they should encourage those who are engaging in the intellectual and spiritual struggle. They should not say, in the sense in which some laymen say it, that more time should be devoted to the propagation of Christianity, and less to the defence of Christianity. Certainly there should be propagation of Christianity. Believers should certainly not content themselves with warding off attacks, but should also unfold in an orderly and positive way the full riches of the gospel. But far more is usually meant by those who call for less defence and more propagation. What they really intend is the discouragement of the whole intellectual defence of the faith. And their words come as a blow in the face of those who are fighting the great battle. As a matter of fact, not less time, but more time, should be devoted to the defence of the gospel. Indeed, truth cannot be stated clearly at all, without being set over against error. Thus a large part of the New Testament is polemic; the enunciation of evangelical truth was occasioned by the errors which had arisen in the churches. So it will always be, on account of the fundamental laws of the human mind. Moreover, the present crisis must be taken into account. There may have been a day when there could be propagation of Christianity without defence. But such a day at any rate is past. At the present time, when the opponents of the gospel are almost in control of our church, the slightest avoidance of the defence of the gospel is just sheer unfaithfulness to the Lord. There have been previous great crises in the history of the Church, crises almost comparable to this. One appeared in the second century, when the very life of Christendom was threatened by the Gnostics. Another came in the Middle Ages when the gospel of God’s grace seemed forgotten. In such times of crisis, God has always saved the Church. But He has always saved it not by pacifists, but by sturdy contenders for the truth.

In the second place, ruling elders should perform their duty as members of presbyteries. The question, “For Christ or against him?,” constantly arises in the examination of candidates for licensure or ordination. Attempts are often made to obscure the issue. It is often said: “The candidate will no doubt move in the direction of the truth; let him now be sent out to learn as well as to preach.” And so another opponent of the gospel enters the councils of the Church, and another false prophet goes forth to encourage sinners to come before the judgment seat of God clad in the miserable rags of their own righteousness. Such action is not really “kind” to the candidate himself. It is never kind to encourage a man to enter into a life of dishonesty. The fact often seems to be forgotten that the Presbyterian Church is a purely voluntary organization; no one is required to enter into its service. If a man cannot accept the belief of the Church, there are other ecclesiastical bodies in which he can find a place. The belief of the Presbyterian Church is plainly set forth in the Confession of Faith, and the Church will never afford any warmth of communion or engage with any real vigor in her work until her ministers are in whole-hearted agreement with that belief. It is strange how in the interests of an utterly false kindness to men, Christians are sometimes willing to relinquish their loyalty to the crucified Lord.

In the third place, the ruling elders of the Presbyterian Church should show their loyalty to Christ in their capacity as members of the individual congregations. The issue often arises in connection with the choice of a pastor. Such and such a man, it is said, is a brilliant preacher. But what is the content of his preaching? Is his preaching full of the gospel of Christ? The answer is often evasive. The preacher in question, it is said, is of good standing in the Church, and he has never denied the doctrines of grace. Therefore, it is urged, he should be called to the pastorate. But shall we be satisfied with such negative assurances? Shall we be satisfied with preachers who merely “do not deny” the Cross of Christ? God grant that such satisfaction may be broken down! The people are perishing under the ministrations of those who “do not deny” the Cross of Christ. Surely something more than that is needed. God send us ministers who, instead of merely avoiding denial of the Cross shall be on fire with the Cross, whose whole life shall be one burning sacrifice of gratitude to the blessed Saviour who loved them and gave Himself for them!

A terrible crisis has arisen in the Church. In the ministry of evangelical churches are to be found hosts of those who reject the gospel of Christ. By the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the representation of differences of opinion as though they were only differences about the interpretation of the Bible, entrance into the Church was secured for those who are hostile to the very foundations of the faith. And now there are some indications that the fiction of conformity to the past is to be thrown off, and the real meaning of what has been taking place is to be allowed to appear. The Church, it is now apparently supposed, has almost been educated up to the point where the shackles of the Bible can openly be cast away and the doctrine of the Cross of Christ can be relegated to the limbo of discarded subtleties.

Yet there is in the Christian life no room for despair. Only, our hopefulness should not be founded on the sand. It should be founded, not upon a blind ignorance of the danger, but solely upon the precious promises of God. Laymen, as well as ministers, should return, in these trying days, with new earnestness, to the study of the Word of God.

If the Word of God be heeded, the Christian battle will be fought both with love and with faithfulness. Party passions and personal animosities will be put away, but on the other hand, even angels from heaven will be rejected if they preach a gospel different from the blessed gospel of the Cross. Every man must decide upon which side he will stand. God grant that we may decide aright! God grant that instead of directing men, as modern liberalism does, to the village of Morality, where dwells a gentleman whose name is Legality, said to have skill in easing men of their burdens, we may direct them on the old, old way, through the little wicket gate, to a place somewhat ascending, where they shall really see the Cross, that when at that sight the burden of their sin has fallen away, they may press on past the Hill Difficulty, past the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death, past the allurements of Vanity Fair, up over the Delectable Mountains, and so, at length, across the last river, into the City of God.

–J. Gresham Machen


Notes
1. The principal divisions of what follows were suggested by the Rev. Paul Martin, of Princeton.

2. For what follows, compare “The Church in the War,” in The Presbyterian, for May 29, 1919, pp. 10 f.

3. Compare “For Christ or Against Him,” in The Presbyterian for January 20, 1921, p. 9.

4. For the distinction between Jesus as an example for faith and Jesus as the object of faith, see Denney, Jesus and the Gospel, 1909

5. See “The Church in the War,” in The Presbyterian, for May 29, 1919, p. 10.

Book Review: Escape from Reason – Francis Schaeffer

schaefferThe caption for this book is “a penetrating analysis of the trends in modern thought.” The goal of the book is to provide an brief overview and outline of the past 800 years of theological/philosophical progress – especially as relates to the development of the modern theological climate (though note that the book was published in 1968) – with the intention of giving the reader an understanding of the current landscape so that they may better communicate the truths of Christianity into the generation in which they’re living. It is an attempt to help a generation of Christians “to speak meaningfully to its own age.”

To start off, the book is very short, and at 94 pages can be read fairly easily without having to dedicate too much time to it. The world which Schaeffer sets up is one in which there is a dualism between man and truth, between the rational and the irrational. The eternal questions of how one may find meaning in the world, how far reason can take the mind, and how we can know anything are the things we have to figure out.

In this attempt create an outline of modern thought Schaeffer begins with Aquinas and attributes the first creation of this duality to him, he then progresses up through Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Barth while taking detours to discuss the trends as they flow through art, literature and film. The over-riding principle that Schaeffer sees as developing is one of an increasing separation of man from rational truth, ending in a complete wall between man and his ability to form a unified field of knowledge; as Schaeffer notes, “Modern man has given up his hope of unity and lives in despair – the despair of no longer thinking that what has always been the aspiration of men is at all possible.” It is the loss of a unified answer for knowledge and life which tries to jump the gap from rationalism to meaning through any way possible, whether a ‘leap of faith’, drugs, nonrational experiences and feelings.

On the whole Schaeffer does have a good point to make. In the most general of ways his outline of philosophical history speaks truth, but it needs to be taken wit a spoonful of salt. His general mood is correct, and his feelings towards various thought trends are also correct, such as the trends towards “faith in faith” and using the terms God and Jesus more for their connotations than for their orthodox meanings. The gap which he describes is one which needs to be addressed and he is right in his position that in order to effectively communicate to a generation one must understand their thought patterns (this is most relevantly posited in the gulf between parents and their children during his time-frame, where the children are being educated in increasingly skeptical worldviews where truth is being forced to give way to relativism and subjectivism). Finally, he’s got some interesting insights into art and literature.

The issue with the text is that while he gets various things correct and the overall message of the book is acceptable, his scholarship is dubious at best. The caption designates it as “a penetrating analysis of the trends in modern thought” when in fact it feels as though Schaeffer simply took what he knew to be true about the theological landscape and patched together a sketchy outline of philosophic history based on the vague impressions he had of each theologian. “Penetrating” is hardly the word I would use – it’s more like a cursory outline that one might formulate after reading a philosophy textbook.

That said, the book is not without merit. If you take everything at face value you’ll come away misinformed, but at least you’ll come away motivated to engage the thought-trends where they are (since I’d say that even if his history is skewed he’s got a good hold on the present), hopefully you’ll even come away motivated to read the source-texts of the authors which Schaeffer condemns as creating the current theological climate – you’ll probably be happy to find that many of them have very valuable things to contribute to the conversation, some are even an orthodox, and few are the heralds of irrationality and mysticism that Schaeffer makes them out to be.

Memorable Quotes:

-“These things are never merely theoretical, because men act the way they think.”

-“The early scientists also shared the outlook of Christianity in believing that there is a reasonable God, who had created a reasonable universe, and thus man, by use of his reason, could find out the universe’s form.”

-“Today there are almost no philosophies in the classic sense of philosophy – there are anti-philosophies.”

-“Once the historic Christian answer is put away, all we can do is to leap upstairs and say that against all reason God is good.”

Specific Criticisms

1) Early on in the book Schaeffer makes Aquinas the foundational starting point for the progress of rationalistic philosophy. He states that “In Aquinas’s view the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not… Mans’ intellect became autonomous… philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation.” A few things here, on is that Aquinas had an exceptionally high view of revelation; to assert that man can know things through reason is not to make reason autonomous. Furthermore, if man’s will is fallen then one can’t help but have the intellect affected.

Aquinas did not ‘set philosophy free from revelation’ as Schaeffer posits – indeed, philosophy had been free for quite some time, I’d give it at least 1500 years or more. Afterall, if anything, Aquinas served simply to bring the thought of Aristotle back into play. Note that Aristotle was a philosopher over a thousand years before Aquinas and he had no place for revelation in his philosophy. As Chesterton would argue “St. Thomas did not reconcile Christ to Aristotle; he reconciled Aristotle to Christ” and acknowledge that there is a root in part to wisdom in the real world rather than solely intangible truths of Platonism. What he would point out is that if the unbeliever is to be proved wrong, it should be done so on their own grounds (as proving them wrong on somebody else’s ground does no good). At most in Aquinas we have a subordinate autonomy, which is hardly equal to Schaeffer’s weighty claim – if he allowed his philosophy to step away from his theology it was grounded in an absolute certainty of the truth of God, that since God is true the facts of necessity can lead to nothing other than Him; and yet he still held the place of revelation in the knowledge of God (for otherwise the uneducated masses would have no hope of coming to know God).

2) Another point of poor scholarship on Schaeffer’s part is in his view of thought pre-Aquinas. He tries to point out that the heavenly things were all important for those early thinkers, but then creates a dichotomy in saying that nature was just a backdrop for them. If we’re talking about the superstitious folk here the case is nothing of the sort, nature wasn’t just a backdrop, nature was what was heavenly – filled to the brim with spirits and gods and nymphs. If we’re talking about the philosophers we can look to Maurice de Wulf (author of ‘A History of Medieval Philosophy’) noting that “The earliest Grecian philosophers confined themselves to the study of the external world.” Again, Schaeffer simply seems to have not done his research, but is rather relying on the feel he gets from a few pictures to make a generalization about over a thousand years worth of philosophy.

The closest he might have to a valid point here would be that much western thought in Europe pre-Aquinas was dominated by Plato, which gives priority to the realm of ideas (what Schaeffer might interpret as ‘heavenly things) over the physical world (which Plato asserts as being modelled on the world of thought).

3) Schaeffer states that modern man has given up hope for a unified system of knowledge. While it is true that modern [secular] man has acknowledge the lack of a unified system, they haven’t given up hope; a point which can be made by referencing Hawkings ‘A Brief History of Time’. Science is still searching for this unified system, specifically in reconciling the general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics (that is, the way normal to really big things operate in terms of gravity versus the way very tiny things operate).

4) Schaeffer posits that, in regards to the middle class who are generally unaffected by philosophical and theological shifts “they still think in the right way – to them truth is truth, right is right – but they no longer know why.” I’d simply disagree. If anybody knows why truth is truth it is the down-to-earth middle class, those unaffected by the rampant skepticism of the past century. They know why truth is truth, the fact that they can’t express it in philosophical form isn’t an argument against them (and to use it as such is to near begging the question).