Sacred & Secular: How Should Christians Interact With the World?

vocationLetter IIn his classic work Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton asks whether one can “hate [the world] enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?”In this quote Chesterton – likely much to his chagrin – expresses something more in line with the reformer Martin Luther, setting Christ and culture in a paradoxical tension.

As sociologist James Davison Hunter has noted in the past, there is a tension between the church and the world that should not be minimized; there must be both affirmation and antithesis. According to Hunter, Christians can engage in world-building, but this is not kingdom-building (and it will not evolve into the kingdom this side of heaven). This affirmation is balanced with a constructive subversion of the negative aspects of the world. Hunter’s vision boils down to a doctrine of vocation – of being faithfully present in the world.

There is a danger when taking this approach of dichotomizing life into the sacred and the secular and thereby forcing the Christian faith wholly into the private realm. A proper doctrine of vocation should not result in a separation of the sacred from the secular, but of that which glorifies God from that which doesn’t.

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Book Review: The Great Heresies – By Hilaire Belloc

belloc great heresies.pngLetter TThe Great Heresies is Hilaire Belloc’s concise survey of what he deems to be the five chief heresies (and models of heresy) in the history of the [Catholic] Church. ‘Heresy’ in this sense for Belloc is defined as “the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein… Heresy means, then, the warping of a system by ‘Exception’: by Picking out’ one part of the structure and implies that the scheme is marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation.” The heresies tackled by Belloc include Arianism, Islam, Albigensian/Manichean, Protestantism, and what he simply calls ‘The Modern Attack’, which we today would simply refer to as ‘modernism’ or ‘classic liberalism’.

While these are theological issues which Belloc is confronting the book is not a refutation of heresy on those grounds. Belloc takes a stand against heresy but rather through historical, sociological and political routes. One of his main goals is to demonstrate the effect which heresy has had and continues to have on society; his point here is that “[Heresy] is a subject of permanent and vital interest to mankind because it is bound up with the subject of religion, without some form of which no human society ever has endured, or ever can endure. Those who think that the subject of heresy may be neglected because the term sounds to them old-fashioned and because it is connected with a number of disputes long abandoned, are making the common error of thinking in words instead of ideas… The whole story of Europe, her various realms and states and general bodies during the last sixteen centuries has mainly turned upon the successive heresies arising in the Christian world.”

For this reason the book should as a historical treatise rather than a theological one (though it does certainly contain theological elements), thus Belloc spends roughly half of each chapter discussing the historical impact of each heresy, their rise and their fall. Such instances play out in discussing wars between Rome and barbarians amidst Arianism, the economics of Islam, and the intricacies of Communism in relation to ‘the modern attack’.

In this aspect the text is a more unique look at heresies, historically rather than theologically. Belloc is also interesting in his defining of ‘heresy’, offering a definition broad enough to encompass everything from Islam to to Nestorianism to Anglicanism; the benefits and inconsistencies of this I won’t try and discuss here.

Overall the text is a short (~150pgs), yet dense, read. One not interested in history will not likely care for the book, and even one interested in history may find Belloc’s style a tad on the dry side, though I believe he makes up for it in the precision of his words.

Regardless it is a decent survey of various heresies. For the Protestant it will offer in an interesting perspective (given that Belloc labels Protestantism a [dead] heresy), and it will also offer a rather interesting analysis of Islam. It at least deserves a light skim from anybody interested in the subject matter covered.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy, and has not the creative power of a heresy. It is of the essence of heresy that it leaves standing a great part of the structure it attacks. On this account it can appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting them from their original characters. Wherefore, it is said of heresies that ‘they survive by the truths they retain.‘”

“The modern attack will not tolerate us. It will attempt to destroy us. Nor can we tolerate it. We must attempt to destroy it as being the fully equipped and ardent enemy of the Truth by which men live. The duel is to the death.

-“Such an attitude would seem again to be a contradiction in terms; for if you deny the value of human reason, if you say that we cannot through our reason arrive at any truth, then not even the affirmation so made can be true. Nothing can be true, and nothing is worth saying. But that great Modern Attack (which is more than a heresy) is indifferent to self-contradiction.”

-“Terms are used so loosely nowadays; there is such a paralysis in the power of definition, that almost any sentence using current phrases may be misinterpreted.”

Specific Criticisms

My biggest complaint with Belloc (despite being a Protestant) is not that he labels Protestantism as a heresy. He’s a Catholic and this is to be expected; I can understand and even sympathize with this Catholic hostility (especially when I have essentially the same feeling towards modernism & postmodernism). In general Belloc attributes to Protestantism a break-up of unity and a worship of the text of the Bible.

My criticism isn’t necessarily of this, instead it is in his strange confidence in the death/defeat of Protestantism. As he says in the final chapter “[The modern attack] may die as Protestantism has died before our very own eyes.” He goes on to state that “But there is not one man of a hundred in Geneva today who accepts Calvin’s highly defined theology. The doctrine is dead; its effects on society survive…” As a Calvinist the assertion that my doctrine died near the beginning of the last century naturally strikes me as odd; the date of this final death he points as coinciding with World War I.

It’s quite possible that for the most part Belloc is referring to Protestant culture (which is what he references towards the end of the chapter on Protestantism). This would be an understandable analysis; Protestantism as a culture met with a great decline following the wars, though Protestantism as a theology met no such fate.

So, while ‘Protestantism dying before our very eyes’ may be an understandable sentiment if seen in reference to a distinctly Protestant culture being replaced by the culture of liberalism, skepticism and eventually postmodernism, one still can find no excuse for Belloc’s pessimism towards the state of Protestant doctrine and theology. As a theology Protestantism was alive then, though also sharing the attack of modernism, and it remains animatedly alive today. To declare Protestantism as a theology dead is simply a falsity, as the test of time has shown (though really, it was just as alive in his day).

Book Review: Christianity & Liberalism – By J. Gresham Machen

machen xnty and liberalism.pngletter-c.pngChristianity & Liberalism is what might be rightly called the pinnacle of the Christian defence for orthodoxy. The landscape in which the book falls into is one of increasing religious Liberalism, a movement which overtook Christianity in the years following the Enlightenment up through the early Twentieth Century (and even into the present) in the form of the German Higher Criticism. Liberalism in this context can properly be understood as that thing which tries “to remove from Christianity everything that could possibly be objected to in the name of science.” This plays out as a denial of the historicity of the Biblical accounts (namely, the incarnation/resurrection), of the Trinity, the virgin birth, miracles and anything else which may appear illogical to scientific scrutiny; it is this which Machen argues against.

The text is an expansion of an earlier address delivered by Machen – ‘Liberalism or Christianity’ – which can also be read in essay form at White Horse Inn.

In his defense of Christianity Machen focuses on demonstrating the dichotomy present between traditional and liberal sects, such as their opposing views of the relationship between God and man, of Scripture, of the person Jesus Christ and of salvation. Where Christianity makes God the creator and the author of Salvation through a historical event in the death of Christ, Liberalism creates a works-centered religion in which man is essentially good and must simply follow Christ as his example. As Machen puts it: “Liberalism regards [Christ] as an Example and Guide; Christianity, as a Savior; liberalism makes Him an example for faith; Christianity, the object of faith.”

Machen seeks to show that Christianity and Liberalism are indeed two different religions, with the latter simply feeding off of the former, trying to pass itself off as orthodoxy through use of equivocation in traditional terms. Machen confronts this dishonesty which he sees in liberal Christian leaders, noting how “By the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the representation of differences of opinion as though they were only differences about the interpretations of the Bible, entrance into the Church was secured for those who are hostile to the very foundations of the faith.” The book concludes in addressing what it is that Christians and churches need to do in order to combat the growing trend throughout the congregations and leadership positions. This is mostly through higher standards of church leadership and discernment amongst church offices, but chiefly through a revival of Christian education both in the home and in the churches (as in essence, ignorance breeds heresy).

The text not only serves to demonstrate the sharp contrast between Liberalism and Christianity and what happens when one places the authority of man over the authority of the Scripture, but is also on its own a wonderful outline of just what orthodox Christianity looks like – afterall, one of the best way to define what you believe is to contrast it with what you don’t believe. Furthermore, the text serves to show the religious climate in the early Twentieth Century when Machen wrote, but is just as applicable today as it was then. The postmodern movement has picked up many of the liberal tendencies in it’s disdain for defined doctrines or truth, it’s trust in faith as faith (regardless of what it’s in), it’s pluralism, and it’s focus on the man for salvation over Christ.

This is quite simply one of the best books on Christianity that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, regardless of category.

Memorable Quotes:

-“But if the Christian faith is based upon truth, then it is not the faith which saves the Christian but the object of that faith. And the object of the faith is Christ. Faith, then, according to the Christian view, 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.”

-“In such times of crisis, God has always saved the Church. But He has always saved it not by theological pacifists, but by sturdy contenders for the truth.”

-“According to the 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.”

-“Narrowness does not consist in definite devotion to certain convictions or in definite rejection of others. But the narrow man is the man who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them, the man who makes no effort to look at things from the other man’s point of view.”

[Honestly, this is one of those books that’s so full of excellent quotes that I could fill page upon page with just that.]

Specific Criticisms

If there is something to critique about this text I’m not sure I’m skilled enough to be able to say what it is. There is nothing that I could say I disagree with, nor can I even propose to critique his style or some aspect of his presentation – the text is eloquent and yet simple, touching the root of every matter that he comes across.

One possible point of contention is that the address in putting so striking of a dichotomy between Christianity and Liberalism as schools of thought, it may fail to account for that dichotomy not transferring directly over into the churches – that is, while traditional and liberalized Christianity may be opposites, the majority of people in the churches fall into a an oblivious middle group which fail to see the relevance of such things. Granted, while most of the book is directed towards what church leaders need to do to combat the issue Machen does point out that the most important thing which needs to be done is a renewal of Christian education: “The rejection of Christianity is due to various causes. But a very potent cause is simple ignorance. In countless cases, Christianity is rejected simply because men have not the slightest notion of what Christianity is.”

While this does address that one of the main problems is with that oblivious middle group being so oblivious, and says that the remedy is naturally for them to stop being so oblivious, there is little to be practically drawn from this. Sure, churches which are already in agreement with Machen’s thesis would increase their focus on teaching orthodoxy, but this does very little for the rest of the churches. Those opposing Machen’s thesis are naturally going to ignore it, while the oblivious middle group is still just has hopelessly lost as before – afterall, one can’t pull oneself out of oblivion, they’ll just continue on as ignorant as before because they’re unlikely to hear or even recognize Machen’s call to renewal. This is likely why Machen seems to focus on a sort of ‘trickle down’ effect, as it is only through properly educating the leaders that one may properly educate the masses if the masses have no will to educate themselves, or even a notion that they might need to.

Thus I think in the end it is the title and the marketing of the book that I would critique. While it seems to be directed towards scholars it is easy to read and thus would do fine in the general populace – (like with the book Orthodoxy by Chesterton), Christianity & Liberalism simply isn’t something that’s going to attract the attention of the oblivious middle. If you want to use a trickle down effect it’s fine, but if you want to hit gut of the Christian populace it’s just poor showmanship, one needs to get down on their level without compromising the message.

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: Orthodoxy – By G.K. Chesterton

ChestertonOrthodoxyLetter TThere are few books which I am more indebted to than Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I think I may say with some certainty that it is the book which spurned me to think critically about my faith, to delve into the pool that is theology.

The book is what one might call the second in a series, preceded by Heretics. The former was formed as a rebuttal to all the popular thinkers of Chesterton’s day, and having been criticized for not having offered an alternative he set out to write Orthodoxy.

Complimenting Chesterton’s antagonistic nature the book’s structure parodies the format to H.G. Wells’ essay ‘The Skepticism of the Instrument’, and much of what Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy seems to be a rebuttal to Wells’ skepticism. The flow of the book follows what Chesterton points out as being his own journey in discovery of the Christian faith. His analogy is one of an adventurer setting off to discover a new land – or a thinker setting out to formulate a new philosophy – only to find upon completion that his new land was really the old one, that his new philosophy had been set forth over two-thousand years before. As Chesterton notes: “When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom… I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

Chesterton’s apologetic is one of the common sense, taking the reader turn by turn through each philosophy which pushed him away from the world and towards Christianity. The culmination of this rests in the end of ‘free thought’: “It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself… It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.”

When he comes around to discussing Christianity one cannot pin down any overarching epiphany due to which Chesterton accepts Christianity, for the reason that it isn’t any one reason. Rather, it is a vast accumulation of reasons. That Christianity possess the unique ability to discern ‘illogical truths; that the monstrous divergence between man and animal is in need of an explanation; that Christianity is capable of balancing seemingly opposing forces, and that it is this balancing (as opposed to a compromising) of these opposing forces which sets it above the rest – what might be called the paradoxes of Christianity. It is not a truth, but a truth-telling thing.

The book as a whole is a trailing portrayal of a journey through everything that is wrong with the world to the discovery of that which is true. In outlining his reasons for Christianity he simultaneously refutes almost every heresy and opposing view imaginable, yet he does so with the whim of common sense rather than a strict logic – chiefly that the mistake of the opposing views can be seen either in their suicide of thought or the manifest mistake of their entire lives (ie, skepticism stops thought, while pantheism stops love). The text is at once fun and challenging, touching the depths of philosophy and theology while maintaining the common sense air for which Chesterton is so well known.

Memorable Quotes:

This is another of those books in which one may find a memorable quote on every page. Many are too long to post what I’d like, but here are a few of my favorites:

– “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The
virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other
and are wandering alone.”

-“They stand at the cross-roads, and one hates all the roads and
the other likes all the roads. The result is — well, some things are not
hard to calculate. They stand at the cross-roads.”

-“Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking… Surely one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals.”

-“Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.”

Specific Criticisms

1) Probably the chief criticism that I’d put forward against Chesterton is that in his outlining of orthodoxy, he is only outlining Christianity as a life-philosophy. It impacts his life in that it is the only sensible option, but there isn’t the slightest hint of gospel within Chesterton’s orthodoxy. He makes an excellent argument for Christianity as the philosophically, theologically, and practically correct choice – he accounts for it being the best way for man to live bodily, but offers little for his soul. While it is full of the truth of Christianity, the gospel is simply absent from Chesterton’s worldview.

The words of J. Gresham Machen are perhaps the best rebuttal: “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.”

Chesterton has all the ideas, but he lacks the event. I guess this might be indicative of his Catholicism, or at least his Thomism, where the fall of man is more of an intellectual problem than it is an spiritual/sinful one of the will.

2) Another criticism which can be offered up against Chesterton is his blind hostility towards all things Puritan. Whenever Chesterton uses the terms ‘Puritan’, ‘Calvinistic’ etc, in his work they are rarely in reference to any system of thought but serve rather as general epitaphs for anything dealing with determinism. He doesn’t seem to actually show an understanding of Calvinistic thought but boils the entire argument down to a dichotomy against free will.

If I had to venture a guess it seems that Chesterton’s harshness towards Calvinism is an overflow of his hostility towards materialism and the determinism of Marx and the like, the view of a completely mechanical universe and man which pervaded the thought of his time. In ridding himself of deterministic materialism he threw out all things which gave the slightest hint of it’s notions, which for him meant that Calvinism had to go to.

Gnosticism: Heresy or Paganism?

maxresdefaultIn his book The Great Heresies, Hilaire Belloc defines a heresy a sort of thing which takes a system of thought and – rather than depart wholesale from the previously established tradition – picks out one part of that system and through either overemphasis or removal leaves the structure marred, yet in-tact enough to still draw adherents of the previous system to it; thus Belloc states that “The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy” but “it is of the essence of heresy that it leaves standing a great part of the structure it attacks… wherefore, it is said of heresies that ‘they survive by the truths they retain’”.

In this way Arianism denied the divinity of Christ, Docetism denied the humanity of Christ, while the various Trinitarian heresies such as Monarchianism or Sabellianism overemphasized the oneness of God. In approaching early Christian heresies it is necessary to look at them and determine what the major tenets of these systems were, and in turn to determine where they departed from the orthodox tradition.

However, when looking at a system such as that of Gnosticism, there is not merely one (or even two or three) doctrines or pieces of the orthodox system which have been removed or overemphasized. Rather, one finds that the Gnostic system is – for all intents and purposes – a denial of the Christian scheme wholesale. Thus, when one composes a list of the tenets of Gnosticism, one finds that this list in every way departs from Christianity; indeed, it merely borrows Christian language and categories in order to tell an entirely different story.

gnostic-gospelsIn demonstrating this one may look at the Gnostic views of God, man, creation, Christ, salvation, and Scripture, each bearing no resemblance to the orthodox system of which it is said to be a heresy.


View of God:

As with anything dealing with theology, the first place to begin is with God, and from the beginning Gnosticism takes a radical departure from orthodoxy Christianity; indeed, rather than merely overemphasizing one quality of the Christian Trinity (such as His oneness or his threeness), Gnosticism substitutes the Christian God for a plurality of gods, demoting the creator-god of the Genesis narrative to a minor and somewhat malevolent being, and putting in his place a being of pure thought.

From this being of thought the myriad of lesser gods ’emanate’, one of these being the Jewish creator-god who contaminated the previous existence through the creation of the material world. Rather than being a god to be revered, the creator-god of Genesis is looked down upon, and is said to have sinned when he claimed to be the only god. Thus, the Gnostic gods – and especially their interpretation of the god of the Old Testament – are far removed from the God of Christianity, who is upheld not only as the only God, but as a wholly holy God, deserving all honor and worship.

View of Creation:

Just as Gnosticism has a radically different view of God than Christianity, so does it have a radically different view of man.

The Gnostic view of man is made of somewhat disparate elements. In The Secret Book of John man is created through angels and demons working together to construct a natural body , while in The First Thought in Three Forms it is the creator-god of Genesis as a great demon who creates the body of man while his spirit is given by a higher being. In On the Origin of the World man is created “when Sophia let fall a droplet of light” which “flowed onto the water, and immediately a human being appeared…”  Yet, while the origins of mankind vary in the Gnostic mythos, it is generally agreed in some form or another that the soul of man “is a precious thing which came into a worthless body.” Thus the soul of man is held in high regard, while the material body of man is seen as something degenerate; this is quite far from the view of man – body and soul – being made as essentially good and in the image of God their creator.

Just as the creation of fleshly man is seen as a negative thing in Gnosticism, so is the creation of the entire material world. Here again the Gnostic views vary, in most accounts, such as The Gospel of Philip, the material world “came into being through an error,” most often the error of the lesser god of Genesis. In contrast to this The Secret Book of John has the material world being created by various lesser beings. Once again, even though the way in which the material world came into being may vary in the Gnostic system, it is agreed that this creation was not a good thing (ie, an error). Thus, just as the Gnostic view looks down upon the body of man, so it too looks down upon the entirety of the material world – quite dissimilar from everything being counted as ‘good’ in the Genesis narrative.

View of Christ and His Work:

Just as the Gnostic views of God, man, and creation bear no resemblance to the Christian system, so the Gnostic view of Christ is at great odds with the orthodox position, with the primary point of their system being that Christ did not truly come in the flesh, but rather merely possessed the body of a man named Jesus.

This divergence can be seen all throughout the Gnostic writings, such as in The First Thought in Three Forms where it is stated that “As for me, I put on Jesus”, or in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth which states “I visited a bodily dwelling. I cast out the one who was in it previously, and I went in”. In keeping with the theme that Christ did not really become incarnate, the Gnostic system hold that he also did not die, such that in “… I died, though not in reality…”. Rather than suffer on the cross, the divine part of Jesus – according to The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter – was “above the cross, glad and laughing” while his human counterpart died. For this reason the Gnostics ridicule the orthodox, claiming that “they will hold fast to the name of a dead man, while thinking that they will become pure” . This view is opposed in the more orthodox writings – such as The Letter of Barnabas – with statements noting that “the Son of God came in the flesh for this reason…” and “this is why he allowed himself to suffer”. This notion is echoed in The Epistle of the Apostles where the author asserts that “he has truly risen in the flesh”.

Because the Gnostics have radically different view of both God and man, and thus of Christ, so they also have a different understanding of why Christ came and what salvation entails.

Perhaps the primary way in which the Gnostic idea of salvation differs from the Christian view is that while the Christian view deals with bringing man back into right relationship with God through the covering of his sins (and thus revolves in a large degree around morality), the Gnostic view of salvation is primarily epistemological. Thus, mankind does not need saved from their sins, they need saved from their ignorance. This theme is fairly consistent in the Gnostic writings: in The Gospel of Truth it is stated that “He has brought back many from error” and “knowledge to those who have committed sin in their error”; in The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter it is said of certain people that “they have become ignorant and have not been saved”; in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth that “they did not know the Gnosis of the Greatness”; in The Gospel of Philip that “Folks do not know the right meaning”; and finally in The Secret Book of John one is made perfect when they are “liberated from the forgetfulness and acquires knowledge”. The common theme her is that there is no real moral or sinful quality to speak of, but the focus is instead on a lack of knowledge, an ignorance of the truth. Certainly Christianity too speaks of having true knowledge, but this is not the central focus of its soteriology. The Letter of Barnabas responds to this error as well, stating that “he renewed us through the forgiveness of our sins.”

View of Scripture:

Just as the Gnostics differ from the orthodox view on every other position, so they also hold the Scriptures in a different manner, which is likely a large contributing factor to the other errors; because they have an inadequate view of Scripture they therefore have a faulty view of everything on which Scripture speaks.

When one reads the early church writers in the more orthodox position, one is struck with the high view of the Biblical Scriptures that they had. Thus, when they reference the Old Testament texts, they do so in order to use them as proof-texts, using the sources of the Old Testament to build their theologies. In sharp contrast to this, the Gnostic texts may quite often be seen ridiculing the Old Testament characters and directly stating that they are departing from the traditionally understood narrative (which, in turn, demonstrates that there must have been a traditional narrative already in place to depart from). In this way they refer to a large number of the great figures in the Old Testament as “laughingstocks.” stating that the law of Moses has been misunderstood, attacking authority and leaders as such, and criticizing the orthodox for “proclaiming the doctrine of a dead man and falsehoods to resemble the freedom and purity of the perfect assembly.”

This departure is particularly noted when the Gnostic texts use such statements as “in our view”, which assumes they are disagreeing with some pre-established view. That the more orthodox writers held in much higher esteem the writings which are now referred to as the canonical Scripture can be seen not only in their use of the Old Testament texts as reference material, but also in the way they stress the keeping of tradition. Thus in The Didache it is stated that “if the teacher should himself turn away and teach something different, undermining these things, do not listen to him”, or in The Third Letter to the Corinthians that “anyone who remains in the rule received through the blessed prophets and the holy Gospel will receive a reward”. When the more orthodox writers turn to critiquing the Gnostic writings, the most often attack them on the grounds that they are written “very recently, in our times”, that is, the sources that the Gnostics did use were of a later date than that of the more orthodox and therefore did not hold the same authority as those writings which were contemporary to the apostles.


 

Through looking at each of these areas of doctrine it can be seen that Eusebius was quite right when he claimed that “they are as different as possible from truly orthodox works”.

Indeed, the Gnostic narrative possesses only the barest similarity to that of Christianity. Each of these departures is in itself as a particular problem with the Gnostic system, yet on the more general level the Gnostic system faces a grander problem. This problem is the aforemenionted way in which the Gnostic texts disagree with each other, presenting often conflicting narratives. One group writer that the world was made in error by a Demon, another by a host of demons; one writer claims that man was made by that same demon, another from a droplet of light, another through angels and demons working together. There is a common element of material creation (and therefore the creator god) being bad, of ignorance being the problem, and of Christ not truly coming in the flesh; it is these overarching themes which give some coherance to the Gnostic system, while the individual details vary depending on whoever might be telling the story. Apart from this the Gnostic system also presents writings which are much more mythical than that of traditional Christianity, generally without any practical value, and once again they self-consciously depart from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

On the whole, it seems that the Gnostic system can be called a Christian heresy in a loose sense, for it is in fact a completely different religious system, as different as possible from the Christian tradition. In the words of Belloc, it is a denial of the scheme wholesale; it is simply a complete departure from the systems of either Judaism or Christianity, albiet one which still uses some language of Christianity and feigns some reliance upon the Judeo-Christian texts (even if only to refute them). Gnosticism has a different view of God, of man, of creation, of Christ, of salvation, and of Scripture; thus unless one is judging by some standard other than Christianty, it must be asserted that the entirety of Gnosticism is itself a problem.

The Holy Spirit in the Reformed Tradition

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Letter WWhat is the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life and Christian theology according the Reformed tradition? If the stereotypes are to be believed, the Holy Spirit doesn’t have much of a place in the Reformed church; the Holy Spirit, it seems, is only for those of a more charismatic or Pentecostal flavor. Perhaps the stereotypes are to be believed, after all, the Westminster Confession of Faith doesn’t even have a section on the Holy Spirit.

So where is the Holy Spirit in the Reformed church?

In his book The Christian Faith Michael Horton makes the point that “in every external work of the Godhead, the Father is always the source, the Son is always the mediator, and the Spirit is always the perfecting agent.” When referring to salvation, it might be said that the Father works in His people through an eternal decree by choosing them in Christ before the foundation of the world; that the Son works in His people by procuring for them a righteous standing before God; that the Spirit works in His people by applying to them that which the work of Christ procured.

The thing here being decreed, procured and applied might simply be called union with Christ, the pivotal element of salvation. There is thus a central theme of the Trinitarian God working out His grace to man: the Father ordains it, the Son procures it, and the Spirit imparts it. Thus once one understands the work of the Father and the Son, it is important to note that without the Spirit applying this work to the individual the endeavor is in vain. But what does that mean, and how does that work?

In light of this Trinitarian nature, the Reformed doctrine of the Spirit can be best seen by first looking at the Holy Spirit as a member of the Triune God, by then looking at salvation in itself, and finally by looking at the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to this salvation. Because we want to be faithful to both the Scriptures and to the historic Christian faith, it is necessary to see what the Scriptures say on the matter, how the historic Christian church has addressed the issue, and how present theologians wrestle with it in the contemporary context.

The Person of the Holy Spirit

Within many Protestant circles the person of the Holy Spirit is often either given so much emphasis so as to overshadow the other members of the Trinity, or else the Spirit is forgotten by the wayside, with the chief focus of Christianity being placed upon the providence of the Father or the atonement of Christ upon the cross. In order to have a balanced theology, it is necessary to focus upon and understand the work of the Trinity in all its parts, neglecting none, for the work of each person of the Trinity is imperative if the Gospel is to have any effect.

As was noted above, it is said in Christian orthodoxy that the Spirit – along with the Father and the Son – is God. Perhaps the place in Scripture where this is most evident is in Matthew 28:19 where the command is given to go and make disciples “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This verse is important because it places the Holy Spirit in the same category as the Father and the Son. Still further, this is not a doctrine that is extrapolated from a single verse standing alone, but rather it can be found throughout Scripture: one may find Scripture that to lie to the Holy Spirit is to lie to God (Acts 5:3-4); that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), which is elsewhere called “the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16); that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son (Gal 4:6); that He is the Spirit of truth (John 14:16-17). Thus it can be seen that the Holy Spirit is one with God.

It is also important to realize in this that the Holy Spirit is indeed a person, and not merely a force. That the Holy Spirit is indeed a person can be realized in passages where the Spirit is said to grieved (Eph 4:30), where He speaks (Heb 3:7), has a will (Acts 15:28), is able to guide us in truth (John 16:13), and where He intercedes for us to the Father (Rom 8:27). This final verse also demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is also a distinct person of the Trinity, given that He intercedes to the Father.

In looking at the person of the Holy Spirit, one may also look at the way the Holy Spirit acts apart from salvation. For instance the Spirit can be seen in creation (Gen 1:2), coming upon individuals in order to have them do something (Jdgs 6:34), inspiring Scripture (Acts 1:16), and even leading Christ into temptation (Mark 1:12). Even just in looking at the person of the Holy Spirit and the way He works outside salvation on can see the theme of the Trinitarian God working out His grace to man, indeed, while any contact that God makes with man is a gracious contact this can be seen most readily in the inspiration of Scripture, by which God has spoken to us. These truths guard against a number of false teachings in the Church. The primary of these are the various heresies surrounding the Trinity, such as modalism, for the Holy Spirit is both truly God and yet a distinct person from the Father and the Son.

Salvation

In speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit as applying the works of the Father and of the Son, it is important to know what the Holy Spirit is applying.

In speaking of salvation, the pattern most often used to describe the process is the ordo salutis. In Protestantism this is laid out as election, predestination, calling, regeneration, conversion (faith and repentance), justification, sanctification, and glorification. Overall, the thing being worked at here might be said to be union with Christ, indeed as A.W.Pink puts it “Our union with Christ is the grand hinge on which everything turns.” Or as it is stated by Sinclair Ferguson “the forgiveness of sins is not received in a vacuum, but in union with Christ.” Michael Horton makes note in turn that “justification is the judicial ground of a union with Christ that also yields renewal and sanctification” such that the Scriptures “call believers to become more and more of what they already are in Christ.”

Thus, union with Christ is the pivotal part of what salvation is, for it is in being unified with Christ that we are saved. It is into union with and conformity to Christ that we are elected and predestined (Rom 8:29), which we are called into, by which we are justified by having Christ’s righteousness be credited as ours, it is this conformity and this temporal realizing of our union with Christ which constitutes our sanctification, and it is the consummation of this union which is our glorification. Thus, salvation might be said to be the total work – from our election to our glorification – of the Trinitarian God in bringing us into union with Christ.

As has been stated, union with Christ is the pivotal element of this salvation but it is also made up of many facets (such can be seen through the ordo salutis). Yet even beyond the many facets of the ordo salutis, salvation can be seen in a number of different lights. For instance, on the one hand salvation is legal standing; because of our union with Christ, God does see our own debt but rather sees the credit of Christ accounted to us.

On another hand salvation is a relational standing; we are placed into communion and fellowship with God – and thereby into the relationship of the Father and the Son – through our union with Christ. In yet another, the union itself is a corporate one, for it is the church as a group that makes up the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27), not any one individual. While it is always important to keep the communal aspect of salvation in view that we might not slip into individualism, it is also important to note that the focus is still a personal one, for the believer can be saved without the church as a visible institution.

With this corporate aspect, it is found that God only decrees his election upon a certain group of people, that is, those who believe upon His Son as their Savior (John 3:16). Yet those who believe are those who are decreed by God the Father as His elect, indeed in Acts 13:48 it is read that “when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” Therefore while all have sinned and are justly deserving condemnation (Rom 3:23), God only chooses some in his mercy to receive this salvation, as is stated by John Owen:

Christ did not die for any upon condition, if they do believe; but he died for all God’s elect, that they should believe, and believing have eternal life. Faith itself is among the principal effects and fruits of the death of Christ… Salvation, indeed, is bestowed conditionally; but faith, which is the condition, is absolutely procured.

Given that none are deserving of this salvation, it is still only through the utmost grace of the Trinitarian God that it is dispensed. Salvation is the sinners escape from the just condemnation of their sins, and this is accomplished according to the decree of the Father and made possible by the sacrifice of the Son who is able to fully satisfy the debt owed by us and bring us into the fellowship of the Trinity; yet as John Calvin notes in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, to communicate the blessing of Christ to us he must dwell in us such that “teachers would cry aloud to no purpose, did not Christ, the internal teacher, by means of his Spirit, draw to himself those who are given to him of the Father.” Thus, for all of the realized and actual effects of salvation upon the sinner, one must speak of the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit and Salvation

In following with the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism, as the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is given to the elect of mankind so that through faith they are made to share in Christ. As was stated above, the Father is the source of this grace, the Son the mediator, and the Spirit the perfecting agent; or similarly, that the Father ordains it, the Son procures it, and the Spirit secures or applies it.

For the purposes of analyzing the work of the Holy Spirit directly related to the individual, the sections of the ordo salutis in view are conversion through glorification: as is stated by Calvin “For the Spirit does not merely originate faith, but gradually increases it, until by its means He conducts us into the heavenly kingdom.” Thus, salvation for the purposes here begins with the conversion of the sinner to faith in Christ. ‘Conversion’ here is perhaps a poor term to refer to the originating of faith and repentance – indeed, many Christians are raised in the faith of Jesus Christ, and therefore they have no marked point of conversion. Regardless, whether faith is brought about from childhood or whether the individual comes to it later in life, this faith is a work of the Holy Spirit. We are saved through faith (Eph 2:8), and this faith – as noted by Calvin – originates in the Holy Spirit. Or as it is stated in the Westminster Confession: “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts…” Or as is stated in Scripture “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor 12:3). In this faith we share with Christ in his death and resurrection (Col 2:12) and are placed into union with Him.

While the Holy Spirit is active in bringing us into this union with Christ, the instrument for bringing about this union is the proclamation of the Gospel. This is perhaps made most apparent in Romans 10:14-15 where Paul asks:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?

Thus the proclamation of the gospel is the instrument which the Holy Spirit uses to bring the elect into faith in Christ. This faith is accompanied by repentance, thus we are called to “Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). It is important to note here, however, that it is not the faith nor the repentance in and of themselves which truly save us, but rather it is the object of our faith, hence: “It is not the quality of faith itself, but of the person it apprehends, that makes it the sufficient means of receiving both our justification and sanctification.” It is also important – as was mentioned earlier – that this faith is given only to the elect, and does depend for its application upon the will of man, indeed: “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16). It is because of this truth that John Owen can say that while salvation is bestowed conditionally, faith – which is the condition – is absolutely procured. The will of man is fallen and must be changed in order to produce faith; free will is properly the will that has been freed from its state of sin to be able to choose the things of God, thus “by his grace alone, [God] enables [man] freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good.”

By sharing in this union which we are brought into by the Holy Spirit, we are justified. Yet we are not merely given a legal pardon through our union with Christ, only to be left in the reality of our sins. Rather “God does what he declares. When he pronounces someone righteous in Christ, he immediately begins also to conform that person to Christ.”

The Father declares us righteous due to our union with Christ, and we are brought into this union by the Spirit, yet even further than this the Spirit works to actually conform us to that image of Christ and to rid our selves of the pollution and corruption of sin. That is, we are sanctified. This is just as much wrought in man as the other areas of salvation, as is stated by the Westminster Divines, by the indwelling of the Word and the Spirit “the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they are more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces…”

The Westminster Confession here introduces two different aspects of sanctification, dying to sin and living to Christ, and in this we can see the more day-to-day out-workings of our union with Christ. These two facets can be seen in Scripture in such verses as Galatians 5:24 that “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” and in Colossians 1:10-11 that we are “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” Yet even these good works are not fully our own, for we were “created in Christ Jesus, for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10) so much that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).

So God will bring this good work to completion, and the works that we do have been prepared for us beforehand. In becoming more and more who we are in Christ, in being unified with him and being conformed to his image, we put to death sin and walk in holiness, and both of these are worked in us through the workings of the Holy Spirit, not of our own will or our own strength. Because it is the work of the Holy Spirit and not our own we can have assurance that we will persevere and not fall away from the faith; indeed, He who began a good work will finish it, and again “I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:28).

Because it is the work of the Triune God we can be sure that it will not fail and we will be brought into glorification: the Father has not failed in his decree, the Son has not failed in his work on the cross but was raised from the dead for the remission of sins, and so the Holy Spirit has not and will not fail in his work of applying these benefits to the sinners and of brining them into the union of Christ into which they are predestined.

The Holy Spirit’s Work in Salvation Defending Against Heresy

Because of these truths of Scripture a great number of heresies and false teachings are guarded against, many of which are still present in the contemporary context. Because faith itself is a work of the Holy Spirit, not of the will of man, the false teaching of Arminianism is guarded against. Because salvation is brought about by faith through the working of the Spirit and not by the good works of the individual (which are themselves also fruit of the Spirit), the false teaching of legalism is guarded against, that we must perfectly live up a given set of laws – indeed, Christ did this because we could not. Because the Holy Spirit is actively at work in those to whom he brings faith, the false teaching of antinomianism is guarded against, claiming that it doesn’t matter what the Christian does and opening up the possibility of being a carnal Christian. Similarly, because it is the work of God, the false teaching that one can lose their salvation after acquiring it is guarded against, for as has been stated none will pluck us out of His hand.

Regarding the contemporary context, perhaps the greatest heresy which is guarded against by the truths of the Holy Spirit is the great pessimism that comes with postmodernism. Pessimism, for one, that we as Christians can truly change; pessimism, for the second, as to whether we can even know God at all. Again, because salvation is the work of God, and because the real sanctification of the individual is a part of this salvation, we can be assured that we will truly be changed, that we are not left in total depravity throughout our mortal lives. Because it is the Holy Spirit – God himself – who has inspired Scripture and has decided in his grace to communicate with man, we can be assured that we can indeed know God in our finite way as much as God chooses to reveal himself. Furthermore, because the Spirit has inspired the Scriptures we can rest assured that the truth of them is not founded in any individual, which thereby guards against the great subjectivism of postmodernism; because this is the only Word which the Spirit is inspired, the pluralism of the contemporary world is also guarded against.

The mere fact that He has chosen to reveal himself is in itself gracious, and because He is God he will not fail in this endeavor and we can truly know him. Not only has God given us is Word in the form of the Holy Scriptures, but the Holy Spirit himself works in us to have faith and knowledge of this.

The Practical Effects of Spirit’s Work & Salvation

Just as these truths regarding the Holy Spirit and salvation guard against a number of false teachings within the church, so they are also of great practical benefit to the believer. As Horton claims “the gospel is the answer not only to our guilt and condemnation but to our corruption and slavery to sin.” Freedom from guilt and slavery to sin are in themselves supremely practical things; no longer must we dwell in the shame of our sin but we can look with joy upon the grace that has been decreed for us by the Father, wrought for us by Christ, and wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, we are truly enabled and made by the Holy Spirit to be free from the tyranny of sin in our lives. This union with Christ is incredibly comforting and liberating, as John Bunyan put it upon realizing this truth: “Now did my chains fall off my legs; indeed I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away…”

A personal, practical, and real change is brought about in the believer’s life due to these truths, and because we do not have to rely upon our own strength but may see ourselves joined with Christ we may be kept from despair. Because the Holy Spirit is God he will not fail, and because he will not fail we will without a doubt be changed, that we will be graciously saved according to the decree of the Father that was worked out by the Son and is being applied by the Spirit.

In the same way that these truths affect our own personal assurance and growth, they also affect that of our ministry. We are called to preach the word, and the word is an instrument for the bringing of faith, yet because faith itself is a work of the Holy Spirit in the believer we can be assured that so long as we faithfully proclaim the gospel of Christ that the Holy Spirit will do His gracious work. Thus it does not rest upon us in our own power of person, on our own eloquence, or on our own power of reason, to convince people to believe the gospel. A great weight is therefore taken off of the minister and they are able to distinguish their actual mission from the perversion that tends to turn the church into a cult of personality.

Just as we can have hope for real change in our lives, we can call our congregations to this change. We can hold them accountable for their sins when they fall into the habit of the carnal Christian and assure them that the Holy Spirit will work in them for their sanctification. The Trinitarian God is working out His grace to man: the Father has ordained it, the Son has procured it, and the Spirit is actively imparting it for our salvation.

Beliefs and Believing the Bible

bibleOften in the desire not to cause controversy or argument those who follow Christ will revert to saying “I can only say that I believe the Bible” or else simply refuse to get involved in a discussion of what many consider vital points of Scripture. This isn’t limited to layman, Joel Osteen and A.W. Tozer come to mind in the world of Christian teachers. The problem with this statement is that it is without content, it says nothing. One cannot only say that they believe the Bible and end there, for one must believe something about the Bible. That is to say, if one is to believe the Bible one must have beliefs.

Paul in his letter to Titus instructs that the elders must be those who “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).” Now, if you are going to “give instruction in sound doctrine” you must be able to do more than say that you believe the Bible, you must be able to say what it is that you believe about the Bible, you must say what the Bible teaches.

The Christian faith has been established and maintained not by “saying only that I believe the Bible” but by bringing to bear what it is that the Bible says – it has been maintained by “rebuking those who contradict it.” Tozer maintains that the “Holy Spirit has come into this world to take polemics away from the scholar and give it back to the human heart,” but it is in the vigorous yet patient polemics that the church has survived, otherwise it would have faded into obscurity before it could get off the ground.

Christ did not send the Holy Spirit to take away the ability to discuss and urge truth from the scholar, but the change is in that he gave that scholar his Spirit that he might rightly divide the word of truth and that he might engage his fellows in love rather than a mere desire to win; he renewed that scholar’s human heart. It is out of the refuting of heresy that the church persevered and cleansed itself of ideas hostile to Christ – it is only by saying “that is wrong and this is why” that we can say “Christ is true and this is why”; it is only by refuting heresy that you may have orthodoxy. It is in part by “demolishing arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5)” that Christians may define what is unique about their faith, though the fact that they do so out of love and concern rather than hatred and pride sets them apart. It is by knowing and believing what the Bible says and standing by it that we can keep from falling off the narrow path that is the truth.

As G.K. Chesterton puts it, the church’s “purity was preserved by dogmatic definitions and exclusions. It could not possibly have been preserved by anything else. If the Church had not renounced the Manicheans it might have become merely Manichean. If it had not renounced the Gnostics it might have become Gnostic… If the Church had not insisted on theology, it would have melted into a mad mythology of the mystics, yet further removed from reason or even from rationalism; and, above all, yet further removed from life and from the love of life (From ‘The Everlasting Man‘).”

In the end the proper response to anybody who claims “I can only say that I believe the Bible” is to say “ok, well what does the Bible say?”

The author of Hebrews (most likely Paul) states:

“We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so (Hebrew 5:11-18,6:1-3).”

Tozer says “It is no longer and intellectual problem – it is a moral problem… These are the important things – confirmation by the Spirit of God concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment. Let me assure you that the Holy Spirit has not come among us to become involved in  a lot of our minor concerns, the trivial things that take up much of our attention [including prophetic interpretation, modes of baptism and eternal security]… I want the Holy Spirit to help me and guide me and He will not help me if I insist on fooling around in those areas that are not the most important in Christian truth and proclamation. Those are important things which Tozer identifies, the most important things even, but those are also the same things the author of Hebrews identifies as the milk.

It is the milk which Tozer would sup forever in his effort to avoid arguments and intellectual pursuit. But we are not instructed to stay an infant in the faith, we are to grow, to get into the meat of the Word which will allow us to mature (the meat being those areas that Tozer refuses to ‘fool around in’).

There is nothing to fear in teaching true Biblical doctrine; what is controversy when compared with the truth of God? There is only one truth – it is our job to bring forth that truth in its whole, not just the parts that we feel others won’t disagree with.

The caveat is that we must speak that truth in love; which is also to say that we must not speak to anybody about the truth until we first learn to love them. If we view the other person as the enemy, if we dislike them for their differing stance, if we hate them for who they are, then we have no right to speak to them at all.

Finally we must not speak to anybody while our goal is to merely ‘win’. Winning is not our job. Christ won. That is done. Our job is to spread the good news of the cross.

We must speak the truths of the Bible, but we must speak them to those that we love as fellow humans. Once we know how to love, and once people see that we love them, it is only then that we can say ‘this is what the Bible says’.

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.

Chesterton’s Apologetic & The World Today

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G.K. Chesterton – despite his great girth – is somehow often overlooked in contemporary discussion. Yet if you should take up most any book of his and read you will find that he is still a wonderful treasure trove of insight into the world.

Chesterton was a massive influence on Christianity during the early 20th century, at least within the context of England. He was his generation’s version of C.S. Lewis, with an extra serving of wit. This made him the chief candidate for being the popular defender of Christianity during his day, and his method of defending the faith is one that we would do well to learn from today. But before we can learn from Chesterton’s methods, we must first determine what those methods were.

In undertaking this task it is helpful to first look at what types of strategies are out there, there are at least five different approaches:

  1. the Classical Method, which includes using natural theology and pure reason to establish theism, that is, a belief in God or gods
  2. the Evidential Method, which uses miracles, the historicity of Jesus, etc. to argue its case
  3. the Cumulative Case Method, which says Christianity makes the best sense of the data
  4. the Presuppositional Method, which argues that only through God can one make sense of the world and have a basis for reason and ethics, and also that the opponent’s views all end in absurdity
  5. the Reformed Epistemology Method, which tends towards fideism (that is, a stance which “refuses to offer any arguments or evidence for Christian claims”) and is mostly defensive rather than offering any real argument.

With this cursory survey given we can look at where Chesterton’s arguments fall in this schema.

Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy is perhaps his most iconic work in defense of the faith, and it is therefore ideal for discerning his method. As one reads Orthodoxy the feeling is given that Chesterton’s apologetic is one of common sense, with his chief enemy being skepticism. First Chesterton argues positively for certain evidences which may be found within Christianity, including what he calls guessing ‘illogical truths’ – truths that would be thought illogical if not for their being true – or that the division between man and animal is in need of an explanation. The view that evolution fails to account for the vast differences between man and animal can also be seen in his book The Everlasting Man, where he argues that:

A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all; he does not begin to do it at all; he does not begin to begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin.

Both of these show signs of a sort of evidentialist method, where the argument is made by looking at the outside world and asking for explanations of what is seen.

But more than just presenting arguments for Christianity, Chesterton also offers many arguments against the opponents of Christianity. The opponents he primarily tackles include skepticism, materialism, and pantheism; skepticism being the view that human knowledge is impossible in some field or another, materialism the view that the material world is all that there is, and pantheism the view that everything that exists is part of God. His primary argument against these opposing views is that they result in a ‘suicide of thought’, which is  the name of the chapter in which he states “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

Through this method – similar to reductio ad absurdum – Chesterton greatly imitates the method of presuppositionalism, yet in this he has a similarity to the cumulative case method as well; on the one hand arguing that the opposing views end in absurdity, and on the other that it is only Christianity that makes sufficient sense of the data.

G.K. Chesterton employs a variety of apologetical methods in order to argue his case for Christianity. Yet apart from just looking at the arguments that he presents, we can also look at how he views the relationship between faith and reason.

This relationship forms a pivotal part of any apologetic method, for it is this relationship which determines whether the arguments presented will have any practical effect on the nonbeliever.

In looking for his view on this matter it is perhaps best to look once again back to Orthodoxy, in which he provides his arguments for Christianity and against its critics. Chesterton may be found stating here that “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith.” It might thus be concluded that Chesterton places faith above reason, for reason itself falls under the purview of faith.

The relationship between faith and reason is further expounded in Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, in which he condones Aquinas’ view where he “was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth.”

The point here is that for Chesterton faith and reason are two methods for arriving at the one truth. Chesterton therefore has no outright contention with science or reason (such as the proofs of Thomas Aquinas) because he is sure that if reason arrives at any truth that truth could not contradict the truth of Christianity.

This not only demonstrates Chesterton’s view of the relationship between faith and reason, but it also shows his endorsement of the classical method of apologetics through his approval of Aquinas, who formulated most of the classical proofs. Thus, it may be said that Chesterton pulls his argumentation from all of the apologetical methods combined – classical, evidentialist and presuppositional –  rather than simply relying upon one or the other.

Chesterton’s was of course greatly defined by his era, by the onset of modern liberalism – that is, the movement to make Christianity compatible with science – as well as the fact that presuppositionalism was just coming into play during his time period. Modern liberalism was just starting to take hold during Chesterton’s time, hence the attacks against it in texts such as Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism as well as Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies.

This period also saw the development of a new type of apologetic, that of Van Til’s presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism is best known for its attack on the epistemology of the opponent, a strategy not seen before the dawn of the Twentieth Century, and therefore we may assume that Chesterton was also influenced by this trend.

Perhaps one of the greatest insights to be drawn from Chesterton is that one is not limited to any one view of apologetics, indeed, he drew from just about all of them.

Furthermore, many of the same heresies that Chesterton fought against are still prevalent. We can still see skepticism in the world today, as well as materialism, as well as pantheism. It is by analyzing how our ancestors battled untruth that we can better understand how to do it ourselves. The truth never changes, therefore it may still be truly said that “there is nothing new under the sun.”


 

[Originally posted on Chestertonian.com]