Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: October, 2018

THE RELIGION ABOUT JESUS

harry_emerson_fosdick

Harry Emerson Fosdick

What is wrong with America today?  Those of us who are of an older generation can remember an America that was very different from what we see today.  Families were mostly intact, people were polite and courteous, and believed in honesty and hard work.  Then came the turmoil of the late 1960’s, the sexual revolution, the rise of radical feminism, and Supreme Court decisions removing prayer from public schools, legalizing abortion, and more recently same-sex marriage.  America is indeed very different than it was fifty years ago.

What is the solution?  Build a wall?  Elect conservative politicians.  Change the makeup of the Supreme Court?  But these are all symptoms of a deeper problem.  America has always been a melting pot of nationalities.  But what held us together was a cultural heritage, a set of ideals and values.  And it was a cultural heritage that was largely rooted in the Protestant Reformation.  Practically every town and village in America had a village church, sometimes several – Congregational, Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist.  And up until the late 19th Century these mainline Protestant denominations largely biblically sound and orthodox.  From time to time powerful revivals would sweep the land, and who communities were transformed as a result.

But today things look very different.  What happened?  Long before the turmoil of the late 1960’s significant changes took place in the mainline Protestant churches.  The 1920’s saw the rise of theological liberalism, and the mainline churches cease to believe what they had always previously taught.  The abandoned the authority of Scripture and with it the major tenets of historic Christian theology.

This can be seen most revealingly in the work of one of the leading Modernist theologians of the era, Harry Emerson Fosdick.  Fosdick (1879 – 1969).was originally ordained as a Baptist minister in 1903 and became known as a popular preacher.  In 1915 he became professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  At one point he became a minister of a Presbyterian church in New York City, but was forced from that position in 1925 and became the pastor of what would later become known as the Riverside Church.  He eventually retired in 1946.

At the height of the Modernist / Fundamentalist controversy of the 1920’s Fosdick wrote a number of popular essays explaining the position of the liberals, and these were published collectively in 1926 in a volume entitled Adventurous Religion.

Fosdick lived at a time that was flush with the excitement of scientific discovery and industrial advance, and he took it for granted that evolution was a scientifically proven fact.  Evolution, he says, “is as much taken for granted among scientists as is the new astronomy or the law-abiding nature of the universe” (p. 108).  Likewise Fosdick accepted the conclusions of the modern “higher criticism” of the Bible.  “Modern scholarship has traced the progressive writing and assembling of our Scriptures with a massing of evidence which puts the general outline of the process beyond reasonable doubt” (pp. 93-94).  The Bible, Fosdick concludes, “came warmly up out of a human existence” (p. 94).

But where does that leave Christianity?  Fosdick writes “Always the outcome has been the same: the scientific view of the world has triumphed and the seers of the spirit have found the new truth vehicle than the old for the experiences of the soul” (pp. 103-104).

What this means, then, according to Fosdick, is that religion must constantly change with the times.  “The one utter heresy in Christianity is thus to believe that we have reached finality and can settle down with a completed system” (p. 5).

But what, the, about Jesus Himself?  What are we to make of Him?  “Chaos and turmoil . . .spring directly from the impossible endeavor of large sections of the church to continue the presentation of the Gospel in forms of thought that are no longer real and cogent to well-instructed minds” (p. 242).

To avoid the perceived problem Fosdick tried to make a distinction between the “religion of Jesus” and the “religion about Jesus.”  The religion of Jesus “is the religion which Jesus Christ himself possessed and by which he lived, his filial relationship with God, his purity, unselfishness, sincerity, sacrifice, his exaltation of spiritual values.”  The religion about Jesus, on the other hand, “consists of things said of and believed concerning Jesus, theories to account for him, accumulated explanations and interpretations of him” (p. 305).  The theological liberalism of Fosdick’s day “springs from the desire somehow to escape from the too-great dominance of an inherited religion about Jesus and to recover for our modern life the major meanings of the religion which he himself possessed” (p. 306).

But can we separate “the religion about Jesus” from “the religion of Jesus”?  The fact of the matter is that the historical Jesus of the First Century was put to death precisely because of the claims He had made about Himself.  The whole conflict revolved around His claim to be the Son of God who came into the world to save sinners.  If Jesus was simply a man who lived a life of “filial fellowship with God,” a life of “purity, unselfishness, sincerity, sacrifice,” a man who believed in “the exaltation of spiritual values,” there would have been little controversy; He would not have been put to death.

What Fosdick forgot is that no matter what the scientific and industrial progress, there are certain basic facts of life that never change.  God is eternal and unchanging. Jesus is who His is and His death and resurrection are facts of history.  Human nature remains unchanged, and we must all eventually face the fact of death.  And in the end our eternal salvation on who Jesus is and what He did.

For the early Christians the Gospel was “the faith which was once all delivered to the saints” for which we must “contend earnestly” (Jude 3; NKJV).  It is the “gospel of Christ . . . the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).  It was not an ever-changing set of human opinions and speculative theories.  But tragically the mainline Protestant churches in America have abandoned that faith.

And the results have been catastrophic.  Having abandoned the authority of Scripture these churches can no longer state categorically what is true and what is not true.  They profess to believe in social justice but cannot give a rational basis for it.  In the end their members never hear the gospel which alone can transform lives and ensure eternal salvation.  And meanwhile the rest of society drifts into moral and social chaos.  Will God ever forgive the churches for their awful apostasy?

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THE ESSENCE OF MONOTHEISM

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Ancient Israel, almost alone among the peoples among the peoples of the ancient world, held to the belief that there is only one God, the Maker of heaven and earth.  Most of the surrounding nations were polytheistic and idolaters.  They worshipped a variety of anthropomorphic deities.  How, then, did Israel come to be so different?

The answer recorded in Scripture is that God chose to reveal Himself to Israel, especially through the prophet Moses.  And the introduction to that revelation came in the form of the Ten Commandments given at Mt. Sinai.  And the first two of those Commandments stated in bold terms the basic premises of monotheistic religion.

The First Commandment states simply that “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3; NKJV).  Unlike the surrounding pagan nations Israel was to worship only one God.  Moreover they were told, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (vv. 4,5c).  The implication here is that there is only one true God, and that He cannot be compared with any earthly thing.  He alone is the Creator.  Thus to represent Him in the form of a heavenly body or an earthly being would do a grave injustice to what God really is, and is positively insulting and offensive to Him.

But then God gives a reason for all of this.  “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God . . .” (v. 5).  What this points to is that God is not just an abstract philosophical principle to be contemplated intellectually.  Rather, He is a conscious, intelligent, personal Being who created us for His own purposes; and thus He wants us to know Him on a personal level.  If then we worship some other god, who is no god at all, we are being unfaithful to the true and living God to whom we owe our very existence.

And this, in turn, introduces a moral principle.  For God goes on to say that He is “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me” (v. 5).  Here idolatry is viewed as an “iniquity” or crime, and is punishable as such.  In other words, we are responsible for our actions and will be held accountable accordingly.  To “visit the iniquity” means essentially to punish the crime.  And God does this “on the children of the third and fourth generations.”  Sad to say, descendants often suffer the consequences of their ancestors’ bad decisions.  And the reason for this stern judgment is that, at the bottom of it, the reason that people worship other gods than the one true God (or worship no god at all) is because they “hate” Him (v. 5).  People do not want God in their lives.

But, on the other hand, God is “showing mercy [or, “lovingkindness,” NASV] to thousands, to those who love Me . . .” (v. 6).  God is by nature loving and compassionate, and He desires to have a relationship with us.

But then this points to the nature of morality itself.  What ultimately makes an action morally right or wrong?  Philosophers have wrestled with the question for literally thousands of years, but the answer that the Bible gives is that it is a matter of keeping God’s commandments (v. 6).  This is sometimes dismissed as “the divine command theory.”  And yet if God is our Creator, the sovereign Lord of the universe, and in the end our Judge, He is the One who determines right and wrong.  We are obligated to obey Him.

This, then, is the essence of monotheism.  It is a worldview distinct from all pagan and secular systems of thought, and it has far-reaching implications for us as human beings.  If it is true that we were created by a personal, rational Supreme Being we owe Him our love and obedience.  And in the end no other system of thought offers an adequate explanation of reality.

DIETRICH BONHOEFFER: 20TH CENTURY MARTYR

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

Review:

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas

Thomas Nelson, 2010

542 pp., pb.

 

In this age of secularization the Christian is increasingly faced with the question of how to relate to the state, especially when the state espouses values that run counter to Christian moral standards.  The problem is not new, and was confronted in the last century by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German theologian who was put to death in a Nazi concentration camp near the end of World War II.

The story is told for us, in considerable detail, by Eric Metaxas in his New York Times Bestseller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  It is the story of a man who was both talented and devout and who was led to confront directly the evil of Nazi Germany.

Bonhoeffer came from a very cultured and aristocratic family.  His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a prominent psychiatrist.  His mother was the granddaughter of an earlier prominent theologian, Karl August von Hase.  The immediate family, however, was not particularly religious.  For some unknown reason, however, young Dietrich decided to study theology.  He studied at Berlin under Adolf von Harnack, the renowned liberal theologian, earning a doctorate in 1927 at the age of only 21.  He did local church work and gave university lectures, and from 1930 to 1931 did some post-graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Even though Bonhoeffer came from a liberal theological background, the theologian whose writings influenced him the most was Karl Barth, the famous Swiss proponent of Neo-Orthodoxy, which stressed that God can only be known through revelation.  Bonhoeffer also became involved with the ecumenical movement.  But at some point along the way he discovered prayer and the Bible, and that deepened his faith in God and his commitment to serving Him.  Was this a conversion in the evangelical sense of the word?  Metaxas is not sure, but Bonhoeffer was definitely a changed man.

Shortly afterwards, however, things began to change in Germany as well.  Hitler came to power in 1933 and sought to remake Germany along Nazi lines.  This involved, among other things, changing the Lutheran state church, and the Nazis began promoting “German Christianity,” a version of Christianity reshaped along the lines of Aryan racial identity.  Bonhoeffer, along with others, realized that this was unacceptable, and during the 1930’s he and others organized the “Confessing Church” which would be true to its Christian heritage.  In 1934 it issued the “Barmen Declaration” urging the churches to remain faithful to their doctrinal standards.  It was during this period that Bonhoeffer wrote his famous book The Cost of Discipleship.

But things took a turn for the worse at the outbreak of World War II in 1939.  The racism of the Nazis manifested itself in outright genocide, with the German military slaughtering innocent civilians in Poland and elsewhere.  Bonhoeffer’s well-connected friends and relatives became convinced that for the good of Germany and the world at large it was necessary to remove Hitler from power.  A conspiracy was formed.

Bonhoeffer, however, was at risk of being drafted into the army.  His friends managed to arrange to have him come to the U.S. to teach at Union Seminary.  But no sooner did he arrive than he began to have doubts about the wisdom of the plan.  In a state of emotional turmoil he became convinced that he belonged back in Germany where the struggle was.  He returned to his home country after only one month in the U.S.

But what would he do in Germany?   His sister-in-law urged him to join the conspiracy.  “’You Christians are glad when someone else does what you know must be done,’ she said, ‘but it seems that somehow you are unwilling to get your own hands dirty and do it’” (p. 359).  A turning point came when France fell to the German armies in June, 1940.  Up until then the hope had been that Hitler would overreach and thereby destroy himself.  But with the unexpected victory in France Hitler was more popular in Germany than ever.  It was at about this time that Bonhoeffer made his decision.  He joined the resistance.

Bonhoeffer’s friends arranged to get him a position in the Abwehr, the German military intelligence.  His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was already on the staff of the head of the Abwehr, Wilhelm Canaris.  At one point Canaris had asked Dohynanyi to compile a file of Nazi atrocities that could be used to convince others to join the conspiracy.  The file became known as the “Chronicle of Shame.”  By joining the Abwehr himself Bonhoeffer could evade the Gestapo and avoid military service.

But it also involved a certain amount of dissimulation on Bonhoeffer’s part.  Outwardly he would appear to be working for the German government when in reality he was actually working against it.  This, of course, raised a disturbing ethical question.  Bonhoeffer was saying, in effect, that the end justifies the means.

The Gestapo, however, eventually caught up with him, and in April, 1943 he was arrested and taken to jail.  Bonhoeffer’s influential family connections helped ease his discomfort in prison, and he was able to smuggle out letters to his friends, some of which were later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.

However on July 20, 1944 there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler.  Anyone remotely connected to the conspiracy was rounded up and many were executed.  Dohnanyi was one of those arrested, and the Chronicle of Shame was discovered by the authorities.  Bonhoeffer was moved to a prison run directly by the Gestapo and eventually taken to various concentration camps.  He was finally hanged on April 9, 1945, only two weeks before that camp was liberated by the Allies.

There has been some confusion of Bonhoeffer’s theology in its later stages.  His Letters and Papers from Prison reveal and much more complex and conflicted figure, the radical theologian who seemingly embraced modern secularism, the advocate of “Religionless Christianity,” the inspiration for the “God is Dead” movement.  Metaxas feels that while Bonhoeffer was very much concerned with how Christianity relates to an increasingly secularized world, what he wrote in his letters was “simply an extension of his previous theology, which was dedicately Bible centered and Christ centered” (p. 467)  He also says that Bonhoeffer “might be the most misunderstood theologian that ever lived” (p. 365).

One thing that is certain is that Bonhoeffer’s theology did undertake a change of direction while he was in prison.  In some of his letters written from prison Bonhoeffer described the growing secularization of the Western world.  The church had responded to this trend by conceding the advances of modern science, but clung to the idea that God was still the answer to the ultimate questions of life.  But by the mid-Twentieth Century it had become evident that most Germans had grown quite comfortable without religion at all.  The world, in Bonhoeffer’s words, had “come of age.”  What should the church do now?

Bonhoeffer’s answer is not at all clear, partially because he was executed before he had the opportunity to put down his ideas in book form.  He does criticize the church for seeking conversions by making men feel guilty.  He says that the church should rather share the problems of ordinary human life, “not dominating, but helping and serving” (Letters, Macmillan, 1967, p. 204), and should teach positive human values by example.  In some ways his suggestions sound like what we know today as the Social Gospel and Incarnational theology.

What is especially disconcerting about Bonhoeffer is his apparent embrace of secularism.  He claimed that “we must live as men who manage our lives without [God]” (Ibid., p. 188).  He criticizes Christians who use God as a kind of “deus ex machina,” the Person to whom we go when we are in trouble.  He claims that “the Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help” (p. 188).  The church must become “this worldly.”  Dropping religious pretense it must reinterpret biblical concepts and revise the church’s creeds, apologetics and ministry.

There are serious problems with Bonhoeffer’s analysis.  First of all, God is not the weak and helpless figure Bonhoeffer portrays Him to be.  God is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, who rules over all things through His providence.  Biblical piety requires us to put our trust in God for our daily needs.  Indeed, that is the very essence of prayer.  Without it religion simply does not exist.

Secondly, embracing secularism is simply not an option for the Christian.  It is expected that the world will reject Christ.  The Christian, however, is not supposed to conform to the world.  He has been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ and is expected to live accordingly.  The world does not set the church’s agenda; Christ does.  Bonhoeffer should have recognized the world’s rejection of Christ for what it is: rebellion against God.

Bonhoeffer’s problem can probably be traced back to the weakness of the liberal apologetic.  By accepting the conclusions of modern science and abandoning the authority of Scripture, German Protestantism had placed itself in a position in which it could not state with certainty what was actual truth.  The result was that Bonhoeffer found himself drifting with the general culture; he could not simply go back to Scripture and say “Thus saith the Lord.”  He had no answer to the world’s presuppositions.  It was only a matter of time before he adopted the world’s conclusion: religion is irrelevant.

What it all comes down to is the authority of Scripture.  Is the Bible what it claims to be, the inspired Word of God, true and accurate in all that it affirms?  Or is it just a collection of ancient myths and legends, the product of a society with an outdated worldview?  If the former, then Scripture is our standard: we must heed and obey it.  If the latter, then we are adrift in a vast sea of human opinion.

Bonhoeffer’s Letters raise some intriguing questions about his spiritual and emotional state.  If two different images of Bonhoeffer have come down to us, it may be because he himself was not exactly sure of who he was.  While in prison he wrote a revealing piece of verse entitled “Who Am I?”  In it he tells of how impressed others were of him, but then he asks,

“Am I really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I know of myself,

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage . . .”

He then goes on to say,

“Who am I?  This or the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once?  A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?”

(Letters, p. 188-189)

In his essay “After Ten Years,” also written while he was in prison, he makes this revealing comment: “We have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open . . . What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.  Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”  (Ibid., p. 17).

Bonhoeffer, as we have noted, came from a comfortable upper middle class family.  The picture that we glean from his letters of Bonhoeffer himself is that of a charming and cultured individual – well-educated, able to appreciate music, literature and art.  He was likeable, warmhearted and sincere in his beliefs.  He was also the product of a state church.  To be a good German was to be a good Lutheran.  Bonhoeffer was, in a sense, fulfilling a predetermined role as a member of his nation and class.

This created a dilemma, however.  Was he a Christian because he was a German, or was he a Christian because of a personal relationship with Christ?  And if for the former reason, was he really any different from those who did not go to church at all?  The inner conflict may account for the ambiguity of his theology.

Bonhoeffer’s predicament, in a way, illustrates the problem facing believers in many Western countries today.  These countries have a Christian heritage.  Christianity was honored and respected; and it was easy, under such circumstances, to think of “God and country.”  The professing Christian could expect to live a nice, safe, comfortable middle class life.  But as these countries become increasingly secularized the surrounding culture becomes increasingly hostile to genuine Christianity.  More and more we are faced with the stark reality of God or country.

America today is not Germany in the 1930’s, of course; and it is impossible to say what challenges lie ahead.  But like Bonhoeffer we too may have to learn what is the true cost of discipleship, to learn what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24; NKJV).