Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Church History

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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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).

 

PAUL THE CALVINIST; PAUL THE ANABAPTIST

 

One of the great scandals of the modern church, at least in America, is the sectarian rivalries that divide it.  The church is divided into warring camps, each taking great pains to disavow the theology of the others.  Lutheranism, Anglicanism, the Reformed Faith, Anabaptism, Dispensationalism and Pentecostalism are all seen as distinct species of religion, with barely anything in common.  Even the variety of Restoriationist movements (Plymouth Brethren, Church of Christ) display an extreme sectarian mentality.

And so it is that advocates of “the Reformed Faith” and the “Anabaptist Heritage” often eye each other with the deepest suspicion.  The one is thoroughly Calvinistic in theology; the other just as thoroughly Arminian.  Could both groups possibly be reading the same Bible?

They might both be surprised at what the Bible actually says.  For example, when we look at the writings of Paul in particular and try to describe him in modern terms, we find that he was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist” at the same time.

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John Calvin

Consider Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  In the first half of the epistle Paul characteristically discusses doctrine; in the second, practice.  The one flows from the other.  There is no such thing as theology without practical implications; and there is no such thing as a Christian lifestyle that is not rooted in a Christian worldview.  The two go hand-in-hand.  And in Paul’s case the theology is thoroughly “Calvinistic,” if we can impose such an anachronistic term on a first century apostle.  He begins in Chapter One, verses 3-14 with a breathtaking overview of the plan of redemption, ascribing everything to God’s grace.  He mentions election and predestination, and repeatedly stressed that salvation was “according to the good pleasure of His will” (vv. 5,9; NKJV), and “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (vv. 6,12,14).  He then prays that the Ephesian believers will come to understand the greatness of God’s power toward them (1:19,20).

In Chapter Two he goes on to describe human depravity (2:1-3) and salvation by grace through faith (2:8-10).  He then goes on in Chapter Three to ascribe all to God’s eternal plan, which Paul describes as a mystery which has now been revealed.  He finally concludes the doctrinal section of the book with a benediction (3:20,21) in which he exalts the power of God and gives all glory to Him.  Thus the first half of the epistle is a veritable wellspring of Reformed theology.

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Menno Simons

But in the second half of the epistle one would have thought that Paul had changed denominations.  He describes the church as a community of believers united to each other by a spiritual bond (4:1-16).  This, in turn, requires a life lived in non-conformity to the world (4:17-24), and the practice of brotherly love (4:2,3; 4:29-5:2).  It is, in fact, a thoroughly Anabaptist view of the church and the Christian life.

Significantly Paul begins the practical section of the epistle with the word “therefore.” The word signifies that what follows is the logical conclusion to what went before.  This means that the Anabaptist ethics that Paul described in the second half of the book follows logically from the Calvinistic theology of the first half.  Paul sums up his argument in 4:1: “I, therefore . ..beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”  The “calling” is the plan of redemption described in Chapters 1-3.  It is effectual calling, a calling which has the actual effect of drawing the sinner to Christ.  The gist of Paul’s argument is that the “calling” should result in the kind of changed life that he describes in Chapters 4-6.

And the one does logically flow from the other.  If the lost are totally depraved and in bondage to sin, and if the saved have been inwardly renewed by irresistible grace, the saved will live differently from the lost.  Salvation is a change which makes a real difference, and it is a change which results from something that God has done inside of us.  It is the result of God’s grace and power.

Paul was consistent with himself; his modern interpreters are not.  Today we tend to think of Calvinism and Anabaptism as two separate and distinct belief systems, mutually opposed to each other.  But this is largely because of the conflicts that arose during the Reformation.  But in the context of the First Century church they were not.  They are merely two different sides of the same New Testament Christianity.

The problem with Luther and Calvin is that, while they recovered the doctrine of justification by faith, they did so in the context of state churches.  What they could not see was that if we are justified by faith, then we must have faith in order to be saved.  Only believers are true Christians.  But if this is true then only a church which is made up of believers can function like a true Christian church.  The state cannot make someone a Christian; only the Holy Spirit can.  By trying to reform state churches Luther and Calvin missed the clear implications of their own theology.  On the doctrine of justification they were biblical and evangelical.  On their doctrine of the church they were medieval.

The problem with the Anabaptists is that they had a natural tendency to react against the magisterial Reformers who were persecuting them, and thus we have the divisions that are typical today.  But no such division existed in the First Century.  It was all one and the same Christianity.  Paul was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist”!

WHY CHURCH?

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Many readers would undoubtedly agree with most of what we have said so far.  But in the minds of many younger people there remains an important question.  Granted the necessity of having a personal relationship with Christ, why bother going to church?  Cannot someone worship God and have a relationship with Christ without going to church?

For many people the question arises because of bad church experiences they have had in the past.  Some pastors are domineering and tyrannical; some church members are judgmental and self-righteous.  Some churches are too commercialized.  There have been ugly church splits.  There have been sex scandals and financial impropriety.  And in all too many cases there is very little that is genuinely spiritual about the typical modern institutionalized church.  It is understandable, therefore, that many would want Christ but not the church.

The biblical answer to this is found in Hebrews 10:24,25: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (NKJV).  Why should we not “forsake the assembling of yourselves together”?  So that we can “stir up love and good works” and “exhort one another.”  And none of this can take place unless we have regular interaction with each other.

To understand what exactly this passage is getting at it is important to realize that the First Century church did not operate the way most modern churches do today.  In the First Century there were few, if any, church buildings, nor was there a professionally trained clergy.  Nor were there separate denominations.  Rather, the entire Christian community in a given city was considered a single church, so that it was possible to speak of the “church at Ephesus” or the “church of the Thessalonians.”  Each of these large metropolitan churches was governed by a board of elders (Acts 20:17) who were chosen from within the local church based on their spiritual gifts and maturity.  There was no “senior pastor.”  On certain occasions the entire, large, city-wide church would hold a meeting in some open, public place (Acts 5:12).

Within these large, city-wide churches there were smaller groups that met in private homes (Acts 2:46; Rom. 16:5; Phln. 2).  It was in these smaller house churches that the Lord’s Table would be observed.  We have a description of one of these gatherings in Acts 20:6-12.  The believers were meeting in an upper room on a Sunday evening and Paul preached long into the night, after which they broke bread.  It would have been in these smaller gatherings that the believers would have had the opportunity to interact with each other.

In this context, then, it is easier to see how a church is supposed to function.  It is assumed that all baptized church members have been genuinely born again and have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.  They are each given spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12:4-11) and they are to use these gifts to edify one another and build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-13).  We do this by exhorting one another (Heb. 3:13), confessing our sins to each other (Jas. 5:16) and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).  All of this necessitates some form of regular, small-group interaction, which is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.  It is the means by which we “stir up to love and good works” and “exhort one another.”

The Christian life cannot be lived in isolation from other Christians.  The basic ethical requirement of the Christian life is that we love one another, and that means that we must actually care for each other (I John 3:16-18).  And that cannot be done unless we are an active part of a local church body.  The question should not be, “what can the church do for me?”; but rather “what can I contribute to the church?”

The church has long since departed from the apostolic model.  During the Middle Ages it developed into an elaborate hierarchy supported by the state.  Worship became formal and ritualistic.  During the Reformation improvements were made, but they mainly involved taking existing state-sponsored institutional churches and “reforming” them.  The priest was replaced by the pastor whose chief function was to teach the congregation, but it was still largely a one-man ministry.  During times of revival, however, when there were real spiritual awakenings, small group interactions would often reappear – Sunday afternoon conferences, prayer bands and class meetings.  Where there is genuine spiritual life it must express itself, and express itself it did.

So what about today?  Where can one find a church like that? – one that is genuinely spiritual?  No church is perfect – we are all human and fall short of what God expects from us, and that includes churches as well as individuals.   The truly amazing thing about church history is that a God who is infinite, holy, all-wise and all-powerful would choose to use clay vessels like ourselves to accomplish His purposes on earth.  And so there is no such thing as a perfect church, but some are better than others.  Is the pastor a godly man?  Does he possess the biblical qualifications for an elder?  Are his sermons biblically sound?  Are they practical?  Does prayer play an important part in the life of the congregation?  Does the church exercise church discipline?

But more importantly, is there meaningful small group interaction?  This can take several forms, including small home group Bible studies, an active midweek prayer meeting, or adult Sunday School classes.

But the question is, do the believers actively work to build each other up spiritually?  Only then can the church accomplish what Christ intended for it.

“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with

All your heart.”        (Jer. 29:13; cf. Dt. 4:29)

THE LEGACY OF LUTHER

 

martin-luther

 

This Tuesday (Oct. 31) marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Specifically it was 500 years ago that Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany.   The theses, written in Latin, attacked the practice of selling indulgences on the supposition that penitent sinners could purchase the forgiveness of their sins by making a cash donation to the church.  Luther intended his theses to be an invitation to scholarly debate, but others translated them into German and distributed them to the press.  Probably no one at the time could have foreseen what would happen as a result.

The theses touched on just a small part of a much larger issue, viz., how can a guilty sinner find forgiveness from a holy and just God?  The Roman Catholic view, as it had evolved over the centuries, was that one’s sins are initially washed away in baptism, but that sins committed after baptism had to be dealt with through the sacrament of penance.  The sinner must make confession, show contrition, and make satisfaction.  This, in turn, could involve spending a lengthy period of time after death in purgatory.

But how can a guilty sinner make satisfaction for his sins?  That was the question that plagued young Luther during his early years.  Originally destined to become a lawyer, he was nearly killed one day by a bolt of lightning.  Terrified, he took a vow to become a monk and joined an Augustinian monastery.

But the monastic life brought him no peace of mind.   Try as hard as he might, he could not convince himself that he had won God’s favor.  But as he studied the Scriptures, especially Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, he slowly came to realize that we are “justified,” i.e., made righteous in the sight of God, through faith. Christ died on the cross to pay for our sins, and we receive forgiveness by placing our trust in Him as our Savior.  For Luther this was an eye-opening understanding.

This is why Luther became so alarmed when Johann Tetzel came through the area selling indulgences, proclaiming “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”  Luther posted his theses, and the controversy was on.

Luther went on to write books, participate in debates, and make his famous stand before the Holy Roman Emperor.  He had to go into hiding, and while there he began his translation of the Bible into German.  Returning to Wittenberg he devoted the rest of his life to teaching and preaching, all the while under the ban of both the Catholic Church and Empire.  He wrote catechisms, reformed the liturgy, and composed hymns, including his famous “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

Luther was a very capable and talented theologian.  But he could never have gained the insight he had or achieved the results that he did if God had not been at work achieving His own sovereign purposes in history.  Luther’s key insight (justification by faith) came about through an intense spiritual struggle.  And it was often Luther’s opponents who forced him to see the implications of his doctrine.  And in the end it was larger historical forces beyond Luther’s control that achieved the final result – the Protestant Reformation in all of its breadth and diversity.  But in the providence of God it fell to Luther to strike the first blow.

Was Martin Luther a perfect human being?  By no means.  He could be irascible, and intemperate in his use of language.  He was subject to bouts of depression.  In his later years he became increasingly hostile towards Anabaptists, Jews and Roman Catholics.  Even his fellow Reformers sometimes found him difficult to work with at times.  “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (II Cor. 4:7; NKJV).  The remarkable thing about church history is that an infinite, holy, all-powerful and all-wise God could choose finite, mortal and fallible human beings to accomplish His purposes here on earth.

The Protestant Reformation resulted in the recovery of the Christian gospel – the message of salvation by grace through faith.  Not that it had entirely disappeared; but during the Middle Ages it had been buried under layers of tradition, canon law and scholastic philosophy.  But it was during the Reformation that it reappeared in all of its power, grace and glory.  It has since then spread to the distant corners of the world, and untold multitudes have found salvation, the forgiveness of their sins, in Christ.  And in the providence of God it was Martin Luther who sparked the flame.

A REVIVAL

 

 

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  Owasco Dutch Reformed Church

 

 

                           

Note: The Second Great Awakening was a powerful revival that swept across the country during the early Nineteenth Century. (The First Great Awakening took place during the 1740’s).  The Second Great Awakening began in the 1790’s and lasted until the 1830’s.  Much of it was centered in Northern, Central and Western New York State, an area that became known as “The Burned Over District.”  Here is an account of one small part of the Awakening, a revival that began at a Dutch Reformed church in Owasco, NY, in 1816.  Owasco is a small village located in Cayuga County about 7 miles southeast of Auburn.  This building was constructed in 1815, just before the revival described.  The account also mentions a sister congregation at Sand Beach, located just outside of Auburn.  The account is taken from Accounts of Religious Revivals by Joshua Bradley, originally published in 1819 and republished in 1980 by Richard Owen Roberts.

 

“A most wonderful work of grace commenced in this place in 1816.  Seventeen persons were added to the church in January.  The number was rather unexpected, and produced a more than ordinary excitement in old professors, who generally before this had lain in a state of spiritual torpor.  In February, Rev. Mr. Ten Eych pastor of the above church, visited and preached in that part of his congregation bordering on Skaneateles Lake.  Here the power of God came down, and about thirty mostly young persons were soon discovered to be under the most pungent conviction.  He appointed another meeting for the next week, and then found a very large assembly who in the time of worship appeared to be in tears.  After closing meeting, he conversed with many and found some, under the most awful apprehensions of their ruin and wretchedness, while others were rejoicing in the hope of the gospel.  This induced him to propose to his consistory, the appointment of a meeting for the examination of such as felt the freedom of offering themselves for church membership.  By this time the flame had extended to every part of the society, and almost every day new cases occurred: Conferences were unusually thronged; God’s children were awake to their best interest; additional places for meeting were appointed and generally crowded.  The consistory had two meetings for the examination of candidates, about the last of February and first of March.  Sixty seven came before their first meeting, and thirty four before their last meeting.  One hundred and one joined the church on the first Lord’s day in march and sat down at their Lord’s table to commemorate his death.

“As several young persons from Sandbeach congregation were present, when these candidates were examined, there returned home deeply impressed.  That society had remained in a state of spiritual stupor: but the news of the large accession to the church of Owasco, together with the impressions made on the minds of those before mentioned, operated like an electrical spark: the flame spread with a rapidity unequalled by anything ever before seen in that region.  In the course of a few days there was scarcely a family in the neighborhood, where there were not some, more or less, under serious impressions; and in some families, all who were not church members were anxiously inquiring what they should do to be saved.  Conference meetings were held on every evening in the week, except Saturday evening.

“The Rev. Ten Eych appointed one evening a week for religious conversation.  This he found peculiarly serviceable.  It had a happy tendency to give freedom to many, who were before backward to open the state of their minds: and many received encouragement in hearing the state of others.  In May seventy one were examined and admitted to the communion of Sandbeach church.  The work still progressed in Owasco, and every sermon seemed to have a tendency either of comforting or awakening some present.  In July one hundred and forty were examined and admitted to the communion.  In one year there were admitted into those two churches, three hundred and fifty one. . . .

“In this revival God’s Spirit has operated differently on the minds of sinners from anything seen in some other places.  In relation to three fourths of those, who have been the subjects of hopeful conversion; the time between their first alarm, and their being set free in the liberty of God’s children, has not exceeded two weeks; — and respecting some, not more than half that time.

“Two instances I may here mention worthy of notice; a man who had previously spoken disrespectfully of the work, was with difficulty persuaded by his wife to attend conference, that was held I his neighborhood.  During the singing of the last psalm, he was awakened to a sense of his deplorable condition.  This was on Thursday afternoon.  On Friday morning he was distressed beyond any language to describe.  On Saturday morning he appeared to be the most happy person, on this side the perfect mansions of endless glory.  He rejoiced in the government of God, and seemed fully to approve of God’s plan of saving sinners through the meritorious righteousness of Jesus Christ.

“Another man, of seventy years, whose days had been wholly occupied in accumulating wealth, was awakened to a sense of his danger by a sudden death in his family, and in the course of a few days, was made to rejoice in the glorious hope the gospel presents.

“The whole work has been free from noise confusion and enthusiasm; nay, while distress and anguish of heart were seen depicted in their countenances, they strove to keep the same concealed from others, until constrained to apply to some pious friends to pray for them, or give them some spiritual instruction.

“Three fourths, at least, of those who have joined the above churches, are between the age of nine, and twenty five years, and perhaps an equal number of both sexes.  These have been led to own their unworthiness, wretchedness and entire sinfulness in a state of nature: that salvation alone is by free, sovereign, rich grace abounding to sinners through the atonement.  In about two hundred families, which compose the Owasco congregation, one hundred and eighty have more or less praying persons; and there are several instances where every branch of the family give evident tokens of a change of heart.  Many of these young converts promise fair to be peculiarly useful to the church of Christ.  They manifest sincere repentance, humility, a confident reliance on the all sufficient merits of a risen Redeemer, and a heart glowing with the warmest affection to his cause and interest in the world.”

 

A word on the vocabulary:

A “professor” is someone who professes faith in Christ.  Older writers would sometimes use the word in a negative sense to refer to someone whose profession of faith was weak or insincere, i.e., a nominal Christian.

A “consistory,” in the Reformed tradition, is a group of elders who oversee a church.  It is the rough equivalent to a “session” in a Presbyterian church.

A “society” is a legal entity that would own a church building and pay the pastor.  It would often include a large number of people in a given community.  A “church” is a smaller group of people who profess faith in Christ, are admitted to communion, and are subject to church discipline.

A “conference” would be a gathering to discuss the practical implications of the morning sermon or some other religious topic.

WHAT GOD THINKS OF THE MODERN CHURCH

 

            Near the beginning of his controversial novel The Shack author Wm. Paul Young has his main character Mackenzie Phillips (Mack) complain that “. . .Sunday prayers and hymns were cutting it anymore, if they ever really had.  Cloistered spirituality seemed to change nothing in the lives of the people he knew . . . He was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that don’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes” (The Shack, p. 66).  Most of us would probably have to acknowledge that there is more truth to this accusation than we would care to admit.

In many ways the condition of the modern American evangelical church resembles that of the church at Laodicea, described in Revelation 3:14-22.  Ancient Laodicea was a prosperous city, situated on a fertile plain in Asia Minor.  Located at an important crossroads, it was a center of trade and commerce.  But its material prosperity affected the spiritual life of the Christian church located there.  It was the infamous “lukewarm” church of the seven churches of Asia that were addressed in Revelation chapters two and three.

What is especially striking about this particular church is how different its perception of itself was from the way God saw it.  Their self-perception is summed up in verse 17: “You say ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing . . .’” (NKJV).  Material prosperity leads to a sense of self-sufficiency.  Outwardly they appeared to be doing very well – they had financial resources at their disposal and could pretty much do as they wanted.

But how very different was God’s perception of them!  “You . . . do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked . . .” Their material prosperity masked a spiritual poverty.  “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot . . .you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot” (vv. 15,16).  They were half-hearted Christians, content to go through the formalities of public worship, but not really devoted to Christ; precisely the kind of church life described by Young in his book.

And so it is with us today.  We have impressive looking buildings and institutions and “ministries” galore, but can scarcely bring ourselves to spend any meaningful time in prayer.  What passes for “worship” is hardly more than glorified entertainment.  We sit passively in the pews (or theater seats) and when the service is over we go our merry ways, scarcely giving any thought at all at how we may serve Christ in our daily lives.  We are all too prone to ethical compromise.  “ . . .these people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me, / And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men . . .” (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8).

The problem is that the modern American evangelical church is a holdover from the Victorian era.  The early nineteenth century was marked by genuine revival – the Second Great Awakening (the First Great Awakening had taken place in the 1740’s).  But during the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century it became quite popular and respectable to identify oneself as a Christian.  Being a Christian came to be equated with being a respectable middle-class American.  It was easy to attract an audience, and impressive looking church edifices were built, complete with stone masonry, stained glass windows, and carved wooden pulpits and pews.  But an institutionalized form of church life developed that was unhealthy.  The theology was watered down, the sermons were filled with sentimental commonplaces, and a variety of religious practices were developed – processionals, robed choirs, responsive readings – that had little to do with actual discipleship or developing the spiritual life.  In short, Protestant Christianity became an American civil religion – comforting, supportive of the standing order, but superficial.

And then the twentieth century arrived, along with the intellectual challenges of evolution and higher criticism.  The more affluent churches in the urban centers tried to change with the times, adopting a liberal theology.  The more conservative churches in the rural areas clung to the older ways.  But the surrounding culture continued to change and drift further and further away from its Judeo-Christian moorings.  First it was the denial of the supernatural, and then it was the abandonment of basic moral principles” the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.  Churches were faced with a painful dilemma: either conform to the changing mores of society or risk being marginalized and irrelevant.  The liberal churches caved in; the more conservative churches tried to keep the faith, although with many of the Victorian trappings.

But what does God think about all of this?  What He told the church at Laodicea in our text is striking: “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich: and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (v. 18).  What they needed was true wealth – spiritual wealth.  And the way He described it has an ominous ring to it – “gold refined in the fire.”  Gold is a precious metal, but it is refined or purified in the fire.  Likewise the Christian’s true spiritual worth is sometimes tested by the fire of persecution.  And this gold, the Lord says, must be “bought from Me.”  Genuine life must come from God himself – it is the fruit of the Spirit.  We cannot work it up ourselves.

Likewise the church at Laodicea was counselled to buy “white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.”  They were so utterly destitute of genuine godliness that they were spiritually “naked.”  They were the proverbial emperor with no clothes.  In Rev. 19:8 the bride of Christ (the church) is “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”  God wants His people to live lives that are pleasing to Him; only then will we be attractive in His sight.

And then the church was advised to “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.”  They were so spiritually blind that they could not see their own true spiritual condition.  What they needed was spiritual insight and discernment so that they would have a clear view of God’s will for their lives.

The Lord goes on to say, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.  There be zealous and repent” (v. 19).  If God truly loves us, what will He do to us when we are in this condition? What will He do to us now?  Our text says that He will “rebuke and chasten” us.  God loves us, but that means that He will not stand by idly while we wander into sin and apostasy.  A loving parent will discipline his children when they misbehave, because he wants what is best for them.  But the same token God may bring pain, suffering or hardship into our lives to awaken us, humble us, and make us feel our dependence upon Him, and thus restore full fellowship with Him.

What Christ tells the church next is nothing less than stunning: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20).  This verse is often taken out of context and given an evangelistic meaning.  But taken in its context Christ is standing outside of the church.  This, of course, is not where we would expect to find Him, and yet that is where He is all too often.  He has, in effect, been excluded from the life of the church, so used has it become to operating without Him.  But there may be a few within the church who are still listening to His voice, and to them He makes a promise: “I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Even in the worst state of the church it is still possible for individual Christians to maintain a meaningful relationship with Christ.

The aim of the modern evangelical church, then, should not be to revive  the American civil religion of the past; it ought to be to become authentic disciples of Jesus Christ – and that means going back to the first century and sitting, as it were, at His feet.  The answer is not to try to become more relevant; it is to become more spiritual.  It is not to become more accepted by the world; it is to become more conformed to the will of God.  The aim is not to become more like the world but to be lights shining in the darkness.  When the world looks at the church, it should not see a reflection of itself, but rather the image of Christ.  Only then can the church have the kind of testimony to the world that it ought to have.

AN EXAMPLE OF A REVIVAL

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Jonathan Edwards

We have been discussing the subject of revival and have examined a Scriptural passage (Jer. 29:11-13) that contains a promise for revival.  But what does one look like in real life?  What happens in a revival?

One historical example of a revival is the one that broke out in Northampton, MA during the winter of 1734-1735 under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards.  The town had experienced revivals before, but by 1730 there had arisen a new generation of young people who were as mischievous and spiritually careless as any generation before it.  Edwards worked to bring things under control, and to a large extent there was an improvement.  Then the sudden deaths of two young people in the spring of 1734 had a sobering effect on the entire community.

That fall Edwards proposed having the young people meet in small groups on Sunday evenings for their spiritual edification.  The practice was soon taken up by the adults as well.  In other words, the people were starting to seek after God, just as we have seen in the Book of Jeremiah.

It just so happened that at about that time a controversy arose over Arminianism, and Edwards was led to preach a series of sermons on the subject of justification by faith (Edwards was a staunch Calvinist).  It was a clear and forceful presentation of the gospel, and people began to respond.  The spiritual life of the community was deepened, conversions resulted, and the revival spread to neighboring towns.

What is significant about all of this is that people did not just add their names to the membership roll of the church.  There was a genuine interest in spiritual things.  “The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and everyone appeared to be pressing into it,” Edwards wrote (Works, 1:348).  The town was filled with joy; the public worship became alive.  “Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive to God’s service, everyone earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth . . .”   Some were weeping in sorrow, while others wept for joy.

At the outset Edwards had preached a sermon entitled “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.”  The title says it all.  The sermon explains the dynamic of a genuine spiritual experience.  Edwards tells us that the spiritual light consists of “a true sense of the divine and superlative excellency of the things of religion; a real sense of the excellency of God and Jesus Christ, and of the work of redemption, and the ways and works of God revealed in the gospel” (Works, 2.14).  He goes on to explain: the spiritually enlightened person “does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart.”  He points out that “there is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.”  It is one thing to know about honey; it is another thing actually to have tasted it, and appreciate its taste.  And so it is with spiritual things.  “There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing, but there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness.”

Edwards points out that this spiritual light is supernatural – it is something that is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit.  “. . .this light is immediately given by God, and not obtained by natural means.”  “The Holy Spirit operates in the minds of the godly, by uniting himself to them, and living in them, exerting his own nature in the exercise of their faculties” (p. 13).  Edwards is careful to emphasize that “This spiritual light is not the suggesting of any new truths or propositions not contained in the word of God.”  It “only gives a due apprehension of those things that are taught in the word of God” (p. 13).

And what are the effects of this spiritual enlightenment?  “This knowledge will wean from the world, and raise the inclination to heavenly things.  It will turn the heart to God as the fountain of good, and to choose him for the only portion” (p. 17).

This spiritual light also leads to a holy life.  “It shows God as worthy to be obeyed and served.  It draws forth the heart in a sincere love to God, which is the only principle of a true, gracious, and universal obedience; and it convinces of the reality of those glorious rewards that God has promised to them that obey him.”

And that is exactly what happened shortly afterwards at Northampton.  May it happen to us as well!

 

Note: All quotes of Jonathan Edwards are taken from the 1974 Banner of Truth edition of his Works.

WHAT IS A REVIVAL?

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George Whitefield

Today in Evangelical circles we sometimes hear people speak of a need for “revival.”  We witness some of the awful things going on in the world today, and we may have heard that in the past there were “revivals,” and we imagine that if only we had one today things would be better.  The problem: scarcely anyone alive today has any idea of what a revival is.

There actually were revivals in the past.  Probably the most famous one was the First Great Awakening during the 1730’s and ‘40’s, led by such figures as George Whitefield, the famous British evangelist, and Jonathan Edwards, the colonial theologian.  There was also a Second Great Awakening, which was actually a series of revivals that occurred during the early 19th Century.  And then there was the Great Prayer Revival of 1857-1858.

But what exactly were these “revivals”?  Strictly speaking, they were revivals of spiritual life within the churches.  Unfortunately it sometimes happens that churches fall into a pattern of spiritual apathy and decay.  The institutional life of the church goes forward: people continue to show up for services on Sunday morning, they follow a prescribed order of service, the pastor delivers his sermon.  But it is all largely a matter of form.  The problem is that it does not go beyond the outward form and activity, and the people are largely unmoved by what they see and hear.  And we have become so accustomed to this that we accept it as normal.

What is missing is God Himself.  There is little sense of His presence, and very little reverence, joy or love.  And aside from the formal worship service on Sunday morning there is little or no prayer at all, and sometimes even professing Christians are too willing to make ethical compromises in their business and personal relationships.  In other words, there is precious little spiritual life in the churches.

What we need to understand is that there is something seriously wrong with this picture.  In the Old Testament God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, put it this way.  Speaking of ancient Israel He said:

“. . .these people draw near with their mouths

And honor me with their lips,

But have removed their hearts far from Me,

And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment

of men. . .”

(Isa. 29:13: NKJV)

In other words, the people of Israel continued to maintain the outward forms of worship, but their heart was not in it.  And since God looks on the heart, He was not at all impressed by their half-hearted religiosity.

Israel, sadly, did not heed the warning, and was sent into exile as a result.  But then God made a promise to them: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.  And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all you heart” (Jer. 29:11-13).

There are several important things to notice about this passage.  First of all, there were to seek God – not an institution, not a system of theology, not a liturgy, but God Himself.  Secondly, they were to seek Him, to look for Him, to search until they found Him.  Our problem today is that we take God for granted – we just assume that He is there, even in the absence of any evidence that He is actively at work in our lives.  What we need to do is to look for Him, to make a conscious effort to find Him; and that entails prayer.  Without a prayer life there is no meaningful connection with God.  And it may also mean the confession of sin.

Thirdly, we must seek Him “with all our heart.”  God is not impressed with half-hearted or insincere attempts at formal “worship.”  The whole object of true religion is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt. 6:5).  Jesus said that this was “the first and great commandment” (Matt. 22:37,38).  If we fail here we have missed the whole point of Christianity.  Everything else we may think or do is utterly beside the point.

And, to return to Jeremiah 29, the promise is that if we earnestly seek God we will find Him.  Note: we will find Him – not just the church, not just the fellowship with other Christians, but find God Himself.  And to find God is to be overawed and overjoyed at the same time.  We sense that we are in the presence of God, on holy ground, and nothing else matters.  Everything else is subordinate to knowing God Himself.

It is generally acknowledged that our country is in awful shape today.  But what is not so widely recognized is that it is the church that needs revival.  Sadly, today, most Evangelical Christians think that the Church of Laodicea, described in Rev. 3:14-22, is normal, because it is the only church they have ever known.  They can scarcely imagine anything else.  May God have mercy on His church and revive it in the midst of years!  How desperately we need a genuine spiritual awakening!

THEOLOGY: ATHENS OR JERUSALEM?

Princeton_Theological_Seminary[1]

Princeton  Theological Seminary in the 19th Century

One of the most serious problems facing the church today is the quality of preaching we hear.  Too often sermons are dull, lifeless, and often boring.  The exegesis is often poor, the delivery flat, and the practical application trivial.  And the result, sadly, are congregations that are biblically illiterate and spiritually immature.

The problem can at least partially be traced back to the way our pastors are trained.  Most pastors today receive an academic training in a seminary or Bible college.  “The professor walks into the classroom, delivers his lecture, and leaves.  If the course happens to be systematic theology, the professor will state definitions, marshal proof texts, and attack opposing points of view.  The students take notes, hopefully pass the final, and that is the end of it.  Then when the pastor finally arrives in the pulpit of a local church he is not quite sure of what to do with what he had been taught in the classroom.  If he has an intellectual bent of mind, he might try to repeat what he had heard in the classroom.  The congregation struggles to stay awake through the sermon in dreary anticipation of the closing hymn.  Or if the pastor is more practically minded he might decide that what he had been taught in the classroom was irrelevant – no one is interested in dry, abstruse points of theology.  And so he moves on to something more practical and relevant – marriage, child-rearing, or personal finance.  But the congregation comes away knowing little about God.

Part of the problem, I say, is the way theology is taught in the classroom.  It is an academic approach.  And I use the word “academic” purposefully, for this approach can be traced back to an institution by that name, the “Academy” in ancient Athens founded by the Greek philosopher Plato.  Plato was a seminal figure in the history of Western thought, and his approach to knowledge has very much influenced the way educational institutions operate, even today.

What set the Greeks apart from other ancient peoples is that the Greeks were struck by the rational order of the universe.  They struggled to explain, however, what the source of that rational order was.  Plato’s attempted solution to the problem was to posit the existence of an abstract world of ideas, of which the physical world is an imperfect copy.  Thus the true philosopher was to turn his attention from the constantly changing physical world to the eternal world of abstract ideas.

But that eternal world of abstract ideas was impersonal.  One could form a mental conception of it, and even be devoted to it as a matter of principle; but one could never form a personal relationship with it.  It is, at the bottom of it, lifeless and inanimate.

Greek thought, however, was far in advance of anything else in the ancient world.  The Romans soon came to admire and emulate it, and from there is came to have a profound influence on Western thought.  To one extent or other it came to represent the educational ideal of colleges, universities and seminaries ever since.

Unfortunately it came to have an influence, not altogether good, on Christian theology as well.  Charles Hodge, for example, the famous 19th Century Princeton theologian, begins his monumental Systematic Theology by asserting that theology is a science in which the task of the theologian is to collect the facts of Scripture and arrange them in logical order.  He does allow that “The Scriptures teach not only the truth, but what are the effects of the truth on the heart and conscience, when applied with saving power by the Holy Ghost” (Vol. I, p. 11).  But in the remaining 2,249 pages of his opus magnum he scarcely mentions these “effects of the truth on the heart and conscience” at all.*

When we turn to the Scriptures themselves, however, a whole different view of things emerges.  In Psalm 139, for example, when David contemplates God’s omniscience and omnipresence, he does not just define the terms and attack opposing points of view.  Rather, the psalm takes the form of a prayer addressed to God himself, and David states the issue in strikingly personal terms:

“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.”

(Ps. 139:1; NKJV).

And in the end the discussion comes down to moral and practical concerns:

“Try me, and know my anxieties;

And see if there is any wicked way in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting.”

(vv. 23,24).

The difference between Athens and Jerusalem, then, comes down to our view of ultimate reality, our worldview.  For Plato it was the “form” (idea) of the good.  For David it was the true and living God, who is both personal and infinite.  And the world that God created has a real, concrete existence.  Ideas we can contemplate with cold objectivity; but we are personally accountable to the living God.

We are called in Scripture to love God, to worship Him and obey Him.  Thus any theology that does not lead us to do that misses the whole point of what is revealed to us in Scripture.  And any academic institution that fails in this regard is worse than useless – it is downright criminal.

The academic world typically lays stress on objectivity.  And truth, real truth, is indeed objective.  But it is also subjective as well.   We are not just merely to contemplate the bare fact of God’s existence; we are to respond to it personally.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4,5).  This does not mean that we are free to create our own “personal truth.”  Man does not create reality; he must adapt to the reality created for him by God.  But we must appropriate the truth as our own and act upon it.  God is neither pleased nor honored with dead orthodoxy.  What He wants is a genuine, heart-felt piety!

 

*At Princeton Seminary the limitations of the classroom instruction were partially offset by the famous “Sabbath Afternoon Conference,” a weekly discussion about the practical aspects of religion.  It was that which typically left the deepest impression upon the students.