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Evangelicals are antimodern only across a narrow front; I write from a position that is antimodern across the entire front. It is only where assumptions in culture directly and obviously contradict articles of faith that most evangelicals become aroused and rise up to battle “secular humanism”; aside from these specific matters, they tend to view culture as neutral and harmless. More than that, they often view culture as a partner amenable to being coopted in the cause of celebrating Christian truth. I cannot share that naivete; indeed, I consider it dangerous. Culture is laden with values, many of which work to rearrange the substance of faith, even when they are mediated to us through the benefits that the modern world also bestows upon us. Technology is a case in point. While it has greatly enhanced many of our capabilities and spread its largess across the entirety of our life, it also brings with it an almost inevitable naturalism and an ethic that equates what is efficient with what is good. Technology per se does not assault the gospel, but a technological society will find the gospel irrelevant. What can be said of technology can also be said of many other facets of culture that are similarly laden with values. It is the failure to see this and to see how, in consequence, evangelical faith is being transformed that is now greatly straining its connections to historic Protestant orthodoxy. It is precisely because I reject belief in the modern world that I am able to believe in the truth that this orthodoxy seeks to preserve. It is because many evangelicals believe in the innocence of modern culture and for that reason exploit it and are exploited by it that they are unable to believe in all of the truth that once characterized this Protestant orthodoxy. In the current typology, evangelicals are typically moderns in their orientation; this book is insistently antimodern.
This difference in orientation to modernity leads to a stark difference in faith. The stream of historic orthodoxy that once watered the evangelical soul is now dammed by a worldliness that many fail to recognize as worldliness because of the cultural innocence with which it presents itself. To be sure, this orthodoxy never was infallible, nor was it without its blemishes and foibles, but I am far from persuaded that the emancipation from its theological core that much of evangelicalism is effecting has resulted in greater biblical fidelity. In fact, the result is just the opposite. We now have less biblical fidelity, less interest in truth, less seriousness, less depth, and less capacity to speak the Word of God to our own generation in a way that offers an alternative to what it already thinks. The older orthodoxy was driven by a passion for truth, and that was why it could express itself only in theological terms. The newer evangelicalism is not driven by the same passion for truth, and that is why it is often empty of theological interest.
Modernization is the process that requires that our society be organized around cities for the purpose of manufacturing and commerce. It is, therefore, a process driven by capitalism and fueled by technological innovation. These forces have reshaped our social landscape and, in turn, have reshaped our inner lives as we have been drawn into the vortex they have created. And it is this vortex that I am calling modernity.
In time, as the New Testament letters were completed and the canon was eventually closed, there seems little doubt that the whole apostolic exposition of the disclosure of God, of his character, acts, and will (especially as these were revealed in Christ), became the substance of what was confessed. To be a believer, then as later, meant believing what the apostles taught. It is in this sense that apostolic succession is a New Testament truth. Believers succeed the apostles as they accept what the apostles taught. It is a succession not of ecclesiastical power as the Church of Rome teaches but of doctrine.
This is why the apostles not only framed Christian faith in doctrinal terms but called for its preservation and protection in this form. There is no Christian faith in the absence of “sound doctrine” (l Tim. 1:10; Tit. 1:9), “sound instruction” (1 Tim. 6:3), or the “pattern of sound teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13-14). It is this doctrine, or, more precisely, the truth it contains and expresses, that was “taught” by the apostles and “delivered” to the Church. It is this message that is our only ground for hope (Tit. 1:9) and salvation (1 Cor. 15:2; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). Without it, we have neither the Father nor the Son (2 John 9). Indeed, Paul says that we can grow in Christ only if we stay within this doctrinal framework, for its truth provides the means of our growth (Col. 2:6). It is no wonder that Christians are urged not to depart from the apostolic teaching they received “in the beginning” (John 2:7, 24, 26; 3:11) or from what they had heard (Heb. 2:1), for it is the “faith once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). Nor should we be amazed to read of Paul’s admonition to Timothy that it is only by adhering to this “good teaching” that he will become a “good minister of Jesus Christ” (I Tim. 4:6). For all of these reasons, the apostles instructed believers to “guard” this faith (2 Tim. 1:13-14; 4:3; cf. Tit. 1:9; Gal. 1:9), defend it (Jude 3), “stand firm” in it, not to “drift” from it, to become “established” in it, and to transmit it intact to succeeding generations.
It is not that the elements of the evangelical credo have vanished; they have not. The fact that they are professed, however, does not necessarily mean that the structure of the historic Protestant faith is still intact. The reason, quite simply, is that while these items of belief are professed, they are increasingly being removed from the center of evangelical life where they defined what that life was, and they are now being relegated to the periphery where their power to define what evangelical life should be is lost. This is not the sort of shift that typical polling will discover, for these items of belief are seldom denied or qualified, but that does not mean that the shift has not occurred. It is evangelical practice rather than evangelical profession that reveals the change.
In an extraordinary fashion, then, the theological wheel has turned full circle. Evangelicals, no less than the Liberals before them whom they have always berated, have now abandoned doctrine in favor of “life.” It is true that they view this life as supernatural in a way that might have discomforted the old Liberals, but their discomfort would only have had to be momentary. For evangelicals today, this life is also an “essence” detached from a cognitive structure, a detachment made necessary by the external modern world in which it no longer has a viable place, and it really does not require a theological view of life. Evangelicals today only have to believe that God can work dramatically within the narrow fissure of internal experience; they have lost interest (or perhaps they can no longer sustain interest) in what the doctrines of creation, common grace, and providence once meant for Christian believers, and even in those doctrines that articulate Christ’s death such as justification, redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. It is enough for them simply to know that Christ somehow died for people.
One might suppose that the disappearance of conviction would be the stuff of which ecumenical dreams were made, for conviction always plays the spoilsport to dreams of unity. It turns out, however, that here we encounter a small surprise. In the absence of conviction, all belief collapses, even the belief in unity. The energy that is needed to fuel the ecumenical vision evaporates. Nothing now stands in the way of unity, but nothing now impels us toward it either. Nothing impels us at all, so faith must now sweeten its own existence by toying with itself.
The onset of this pall of privatization has worked havoc with the structural cohesion of the evangelical movement. In the 1950s and 1960s, defining evangelical faith was not hard, because evangelicals were anxious to say exactly who they were and what they believed. But in the 1990s, when the movement has become a sprawling empire in which the left hand has no idea that the right hand even exists, definitions of who the evangelicals are frequently reflect the movement’s disintegration and, on occasion, the special interest of the authors who offer the definitions.
Donald Dayton thinks that those who have shown the most concern for theology, including those in the confessional churches as well as those who are generally Reformed, should now be viewed as being peripheral to the evangelical world. He is probably correct in this judgment, but it remains a fact that the work of defining evangelicalism theologically has until quite recently been borne by the kind of people who are now on its periphery. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was such leaders as Carl Henry, E. J. Carnell, Cornelius Van Til, Bernard Ramm, Francis Schaeffer, and Kenneth Kantzer who provided evangelicals with the capital off which they have for the most part been living since, but this capital has now been exhausted. The bank is empty. The growth and prosperity of evangelical institutions during the 1970s and 1980s have brought with them much bureaucracy, and bureaucracy invariably smothers vision, creativity, and even theology. Leadership is now substantially in the hands of the managers, and as a consequence the evangelical capital is not being renewed. The only semblance of cohesion that now remains is simply tactical, never theological. This does not mean that there are no theological agreements among evangelicals around the edges, for there are. What it does mean is that evangelicals are not driven by a theological vision, and those who have risen to positions of leadership most commonly reflect this diminished outlook.
As evangelicalism has continued to grow numerically, it has seeped through its older structures and now spills out in all directions, producing a family of hybrids whose theological connections are quite baffling: evangelical Catholics, evangelicals who are Catholic, evangelical liberationalists, evangelical feminists, evangelical ecumenists, ecumenists who are evangelical, young evangelicals, orthodox evangelicals, radical evangelicals, liberal evangelicals, Liberals who are evangelical, and charismatic evangelicals. The word evangelical, precisely because it has lost its confessional dimension, has become descriptively anemic. To say that someone is an evangelical says little about what they are likely to believe (although it says more if they are older and less if they are younger). And so the term is forced to compensate for its theological weakness by borrowing meaning from adjectives the very presence of which signals the fragmentation and disintegration of the movement. What is now primary is not what is evangelical but what is adjectivally distinctive, whether Catholic, liberationalist, feminist, ecumenist, young, orthodox, radical, liberal, or charismatic. It is, I believe, the dark prelude to death, when parasites have finally succeeded in bringing down their host. Amid the clamor of all these new models of evangelical faith there is the sound of a death rattle.
The sound of death is hard to hear, however, given the rumble of the large numbers that the evangelical movement has attracted and the chorus of voices being echoed from the cultural pluralism that surrounds it. The pluralism is providing insulation from criticism and reality. It is not hard to see that the disappearance of a center of values in culture is now paralleled by a disappearance of a theological center in evangelicalism.
Where truth is central in the religious disposition, theology is always close at hand. As theology has become dislodged, contemporary evangelicals have become progressively more remote from their forebears in the faith whose courage and fortitude produced the rich heritage of historic Protestant orthodoxy. They are, in fact, now beginning to retread the path that the Protestant Liberals once trod, and they are doing so, oddly enough, at the very time when many of the descendants of the Liberals have abandoned this path because of its spiritual bankruptcy.
For this reason, it might be argued that in the absence of some notable repentance that would reverse the present direction, evangelicals are now in their declining years. Of course, appearances suggest quite the contrary: evangelicals seem to be at the zenith of their influence. Influence, however, is not simply a matter of numbers. It is necessarily bound up with an appropriate relationship with truth and character, both of which are eroded in every accommodation that is made to modernity. It is the inextinguishable knowledge of’ being owned by the transcendent God that forms character, and his ownership challenges that of every other contender, including that of the modern world.
What is now in place is not exactly an alternative system of belief. What is in place is no system of belief at all. It is more like a vacuum into the quiet emptiness of which the self is reaching for meaning – and finding only itself. But this is to put the matter more passively than is warranted. Vacuums may be empty, but they are highly destructive. The “systematic hunting down of all settled conviction,” writes Rieff, “represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being organized.” Its essence is not right doctrine, values, and behavior; its essence is the freedom to have no doctrines, no values, to be free to follow the stream of instinct that flows from the self wherever it may lead.
We are replacing the categories of good and evil with the pale absolutes that arise from the media world – entertainment and boredom. It is not by struggle, still less by grace, that we have eliminated the corruption from human nature of which the Reformers were so aware. We have done it simply by a fresh definition. Evil is boredom, and that is remedied with far greater ease than sin. It is remedied not by Christ but by a cable hookup.
The American way of life may be the envy of the world, its gadgets and accoutrements sought after and emulated, but the American version of happiness, it turns out, is quite lethal. America is a violent and disturbed country. Its teenagers have the highest suicide rate in the world (in 1991, more teenage boys died from gunshot wounds than from all natural causes combined); it leads the world in the consumption of drugs, legal and illegal, in addictions of various kinds, in divorce, in the incidence of depressive illness, and in the marketing of a vast range of therapies to counteract these problems – all of which points to a vast underlying unhappiness.
The attraction of evangelical faith, then, has been very intimately tied up with this reshaping of the American character. Evangelicals have always insisted that Christ is a person who can and should be known personally; he is not simply an item on a creed to which assent should be given. But from this point they have drawn conclusions that become increasingly injurious. They have proceeded to seek assurance of faith not in terms of the objective truthfulness of the biblical teaching but in terms of the efficacy of its subjective experience. Testimonies have become indispensable items in the evangelistic fare. Testifying to having experienced Christ personally is peculiarly seductive in the modern context, because it opens up to view an inner experience that responds to the hunger of the … individual but often sacrifices its objective truth value in doing so. The question it poses to the outsider is not whether Christ is objectively real but simply whether the experience is appealing, whether it seems to have worked, whether having it will bring one inside the group and give one connections to others.
In any genuine knowledge of God, there is an experience of his grace and power, informed by the written Scriptures, mediated by the Holy Spirit, and based upon the work of Christ on the Cross. What is not so clear from the New Testament is that this experience should itself become the source of our knowledge of God or that it should be used to commend that knowledge to others. To be sure, there was plenty of witnessing that went on in the early Church, but it is anything but clear that this should be understood as the use of personal autobiography to persuade others that they should commit themselves to Christ. New Testament witness was witness to the objective truth of Christian faith, truth that had been experienced; our witness today is witness to our own faith, and in affirming its validity we may become less interested in its truthfulness that in the fact that it seems to work. Evangelical hymnody today is changing direction to reflect this experience-centered focus.
This adaptation has enabled evangelicalism to orient itself to our consumer culture and the habits of mind that go with it. The televangelists, whether deliberately or simply intuitively, have exploited this to their considerable advantage. Their type of ministry, in which serious thought has been supplanted by slickly packaged experience, is easy on the mind. Sustaining orthodoxy and framing Christian belief in doctrinal terms requires habits of reflection and judgment that are simply out of place in our culture and increasingly are disappearing from evangelicalism as well.
In America, it has always been hard to quarrel with success; it is even more futile when there are those who are convinced that the success has been divinely produced. Yet, if one understands modernity, it is not difficult to imagine that much of what is vaunted as the Spirit’s work may have causes that are rather more natural. Nor is it difficult to understand that where a religion is busy accommodating itself to culture there will be a period of success before the disillusionment sets in. In the end, those who promote the sort of Christianity that accommodates the culture always have to answer the question as to what they are offering in Christ that cannot be had from purely secular sources.
In another age, Robert Schuller’s ministry, for example, might well have been viewed not as Christian ministry at all, but as comedy. Would it not be possible to view him as providing a biting parody of American self-absorption? Sin, he says with a cherubic smile, is not what shatters our relationship to God; the true culprit is the jaundiced eye that we have turned on ourselves. The problem is that we do not esteem ourselves enough. In the Crystal Cathedral, therefore, let the word sin be banished, whether in song, Scripture, or prayer. There is never any confession there. Then again, Christ was not drawing a profound moral compass in the Sermon on the Mount; he was just giving us a set of “be (happy) attitudes.” The word was, don’t worry, be happy. And God is not so mean as to judge; he is actually very amiable and benign. Comedy this devastating would be too risky for most to attempt. But Schuller is no comic. He earnestly wants us to believe all of this, and many do. When he makes these pronouncements, he attracts a large and devoted Christian following. What is the appeal?
The answer, it would seem, is that Schuller is adroitly, if unconsciously, riding the stream of modernity. By Yankelovich’s estimate, 80 percent of the nation is now engaged in the search for new rules premised on the search for and discovery of the self. Schuller is offering in easily digestible bites the therapeutic model of life through which the healing of the bruised self is found. He is by no means alone in this; he is simply the most shameless.
…when people are no longer compelled by God’s truth, they can be compelled by anything, the more so if it has the sheen of excitement or the lure of the novel or the illicit about it. The heretics of old, one suspects, would be sick with envy if they knew of the easy pickings that can now be had in the Church.
Biblical faith is not just about ideas and doctrines; that needs to be said. In our contemporary climate, however, this is taken as license to imagine that it is not about objective truth at all, that it extends only to what is privately and subjectively appealing. If there is no truth, however, then there is no theology; we are left with only the creation of symbols of reality that interpret inner experience.
But biblical faith is about truth. God has described himself and his works to us in the language of the Bible, and it is quite presumptuous for us to say that we have found a better way to hear him (through our own experience) and a better way to find reality (by constructing it within the self).
… there has been a tendency to associate theology with elitist interests, and a subsequent drive to rid the evangelical faith of them both. Popular evangelical faith has developed a bias against theology (not to mention against the intellect), and what is more, it has elevated the bias to the level of a virtue, defending it as vigorously as democracy.
American television is driven by commercial interests, by the need to appeal to the largest possible mass audience. Programmers have traditionally worked to determine what sort of material will appeal to the largest possible percentage of a diverse viewing public – to men and women, the young, the middle-aged, and the old, to people from different ethnic backgrounds and with different class ties, and so on. The most commercially successful programs are those that, as John Fiske puts it, “homogenize this variety.” The result is a product – and that is the correct word – that appeals broadly by thinning its substance, by ensuring that all can find connections with it, by demanding little of the viewer, and by offending as few people as possible. The resulting banality and emptiness are then concealed beneath a dramatic veneer that the medium has virtually perfected.
Were that the extent of television’s sins, its critics on both the Right and the Left could not do much more than bewail the decline of America’s cultural taste. But more is at issue here than just taste. In order to become commercially successful, programs must not only be easy on the mind but must in fact create an alternative reality. Television is first and foremost an entertainment machine, a fount of distraction that enables millions of Americans to “enter a different world that is more pleasant and less difficult in almost every way” than the one in which they actually live.
In a democracy, every person’s vote has the same weight, regardless of how well or badly informed it is. And in a democratized faith, such as we see in the evangelical world, every person’s intuitions are likewise granted equal value. To think otherwise, it is argued, would be to fall into the elitist trap of imagining that some have a larger access to truth and hence deserve a larger religious privilege than others. It was this sort of presumption, predicated on class assumptions, that in the past added passion to the Revolution. And in the evangelical world, it is the counterrevolution that is now firmly entrenched. Common access to truth is understood to mean common possession of truth. If everyone’s intuitions about God and life stand on the same plane, it is assumed that they are all equally valid, equally true, and equally useful. At the very least, it has become awkward to suggest that the intuitions someone has found to be valid, true, and useful might be nothing of the kind. After all, one does not question the propriety of extending the vote to all, and it seems quite as arrogant and offensive to question extending a presumption of common insight to all. Furthermore, just as politicians hold office only by consent of the sovereign electorate, so Church leaders should fulfill their responsibilities within the limits of popularly held ideas. When the religious audience is thus sovereign, its leadership is appropriately refined. The best pollster now makes the best leader, for all ideas must find their sanction, even their legitimacy, in the audience, and who knows the audience better than a pollster?
To be sure, this is not a flattering way of describing those leaders who have succumbed to popular evangelical sentiment. It is more flattering to talk instead of “servant leadership.” That has the ring of piety about it. But it is a false piety, for it plays on an understanding of servanthood that is antithetical to the biblical understanding. Contemporary servant leaders are typically individuals without any ideas of their own, people whose convictions shift with the popular opinion to which they assiduously attune themselves, people who bow to the wishes of “the body” from whom their direction and standing derive. They lead by holding aloft moist fingers to sense the changes in the wind. In all this they show themselves to be different indeed from the One who embodied what servanthood was intended to be and who never once tailored his teaching to what he judged the popular reception of it would be – unless he was an exceedingly poor judge of what the crowds and religious leaders had in mind as they heard him. And to suppose that he derived the legitimacy to teach from the implied permission of those who heard him is to misunderstand both the Gospels and Christ himself. It is a supposition that also leads to the misunderstanding of Christian faith and why God provides the teachers that it and the Church needs.
The fundamental requirement of the Christian leader is not a knowledge of where the stream of popular opinion is flowing but a knowledge of where the stream of God’s truth lies. There can be no leadership without a vision of both what the Church has become and what, under God, it should be. Only a genuine leader has such vision. Those who do not, those who are the servants merely of popular opinion, seldom amount to more than the blind leaders of the blind that Jesus castigated. How so? It is because, in the modern context at least, popular opinion frequently carries within itself the corruptions of popular culture. And simply because it is so broadly endorsed, popular opinion conveys a sort of legitimacy to this corruption. The preference of our video culture for intuition over reason and feeling over truth have been transferred to the realm of faith. Faith that appeals to reason – even reason exercised through biblical exposition – is doomed to failure; faith that appeals to feelings, on the other hand, seems for that reason to be assured of success. So it is that democratized faith, faith driven by the urge to conform, settles into its niche in the world. And that is precisely what, in biblical terms, it has settled into: the world. For worldliness is that system of values which in any culture has the fallen sinner at its center, which takes no account of God or his Word, and which therefore views sin as normal and righteousness as abnormal.
In other words, the old divinity has largely died, as has its importance for the Church, and so seminary training increasingly is about inculcating a kind of public demeanor and etiquette, along with know-how in the soul-caring business, to lay paths to successful careers for students. Seminary students are not blind to the fact that the big churches and the big salaries often go to those who are untheological or even anti-theological. They know what kind of training they need: they need to become managers who have the status of professionals, not scholars, thinkers, or theologians.
The university opens its arms to those theologians who can successfully disguise themselves as psychologists, anthropologists, or sociologists looking for divine reality within the structures of the self or society, but it is a good deal less hospitable to those who find it hard, if not impossible, to see these mediating structures as themselves the vehicles of revelation and who look instead to Scripture as a confessional source that does not merely mirror human consciousness but is the means of transcendent disclosure. Indeed, the university has been so consistently hostile toward the position that grows out of classical orthodoxy that “theological argumentation has virtually become a forgotten and lost mode of discourse” among American intellectuals.
…if it is the case that careers can be had in the Church, then it is inevitable that ministers will he judged by the height to which they ascend on the ladder of achievement, and they in turn will judge the Church on the extent to which it facilitates this ascent, It is a little difficult to see how such calculations can be reconciled with the biblical notion of service, the call to serve the Church without thought of what one might receive in return. Furthermore, careers are determined by market conditions. After the Civil War, American colleges were slowly transformed into the universities that we know today, and part of that transformation involved thinking of education less as immersion in knowledge for its own sake and more as preparation for a career opportunity created by the market. When these habits were imported into the seminaries, an anti-theological temper soon followed. Here, too, the focus shifted from knowledge for its own sake to knowledge that was practical and useful. The implication was that knowledge is marketable. The consequence was a burst of interest in matters of practical application and a corresponding loss of interest in the field of classical theological study.
It has to be said, however, that this change did reflect the changing position of the minister, which was forcing a redefinition of his or her work. It is now their lot to wander from church to church, seldom finding a secure or long-lasting position, and so they have been obliged to define their ministry in terms of its marketability. The market has come to dominate the way in which they exercise their ministry, often taking precedence over the matter of internal calling and over personal spirituality. Whereas ministers once focused on such staple interests as brokering God’s truth, caring for the sick and ailing, and building up Christian character and understanding, they now have to extend their energies to a whole new line of responsibilities, which in some cases eclipse the older and more foundational responsibilities.
In 1912, Washington Gladden published The Christian Pastor and the Working Church, in which he argued that the older idea of the pastor as the broker of truth should give way to the newer idea of the pastor as the friend of all. This was the genesis of pastoral psychology and the clinical movement, and further, it was the first stirring of an antitheological breeze that soon grew to gale force. In the interests of serving “life, not doctrine,” the Liberals sought to remake Christian faith. It is no small irony that the evangelical faith that so stiffly resisted this modernism has now been substantially overcome by modernization, that what the one could not succeed in doing the other has achieved with little effort or notice.
While it is true that the teacher of the Bible has a special authority in the Church, this authority derives not from the professionalized status of the teacher but from the Word that is being taught, not from the minister’s office but from the truth that it is his or her duty to expound. This was one of the basic affirmations of the Protestant Reformation, and it would be strange to expect that evangelicals who rejected the magisterium of the Catholic Church should now be pleased to accept the magisterium of a modern clerical profession.
The result, according to Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, is practical atheism, regardless of whether it is the Liberals or the Fundamentalists who are busy at it. It is an atheism that reduces the Church to nothing more than the services it offers or the good feelings the minister can generate. In other words, where professionalization is at work, there the ministry will typically be deprived of its transcendence and reduced to little more than a helping profession. The kind of sentimentality it offers, they declare, “has become the most detrimental corruption of the church and ministry” today. “Without God, without the one whose death on the cross challenges all our good feelings, who stands beyond and over against our human anxieties, all we have left is sentiment, a saccharine residue of theism in demise. It is the kind of sentimentality that wants to listen without judging, that has opinions but little interest in truth, that is sympathetic but has no passion for that which is right. It is under this guise of piety – indeed, of professionalization – that pastoral unbelief lives out its life.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the demise of Liberalism, Leonard Sweet has argued, it is at this point. The constant minimalizing of what faith meant, the reductions and modifications aimed at meeting the demands of the age, the slick shifting and moving to catch the prevailing cultural winds took away the ability of Liberalism to speak to the most basic aspects of meaning. Soon, “a good church was not a believing church, but a working church, a church of constant to-ing and fro-ing, with lots of task forces and especially lots of committees.” The Church became a place to get things done, and its fidelity came to be measured by the activities it arranged. But these activities had less and less to do with the love of God and more and more to do with the love of neighbor until in the end the one was subsumed under the other. And then this love for neighbor itself underwent further transformation so that faith came to mean little more than seeking justice in the world, and while that is a characteristically Christian concern, it is not distinctively Christian. The path that this earlier Liberalism followed is now, perhaps entirely unconsciously, being replicated in evangelicalism, especially where the culture of professionalization is stripping it of a functioning, transcendent reference point in the Word of God.
It should now be clear that there are two quite different models of ministry at work in the evangelical Church today, and theology is located quite differently in each. In the model of the Church that has its roots in the Reformation and in the Puritanism that followed, theology is essential and central; in its modern-day evangelical descendants, however, theology is often only instrumental and peripheral. In the one, theology provides the culture in which ministry is understood and practiced; in the other, this culture is provided by professionalization.
The difference between the two models is not that theology is present in one but not the other. Theology is professed and believed in both. But in the one, theology is the reason for ministry, the basis for ministry; it provides the criteria by which success in ministry is measured. In the other, theology does none of these things; here the ministry provides its own rationale, its own criteria, its own techniques. The second model does not reject theology; it simply displaces it so that it no longer gives the profession of ministry its heart and fire.
Nothing, therefore, could be more remarkable than to hear the contention, even from those within the Church, that the existence of religious pluralism today makes belief in the uniqueness of Christianity quite impossible. Had this been the necessary consequence of encountering a multitude of other religions, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul would have given up biblical faith long before it became fashionable in Our Time to do so.
The World Council of Churches, for example, issued excerpts from an ecumenical consultation held in Baar in 1990 that essentially abandoned Christian uniqueness. “Because we have seen and experienced goodness, truth, and holiness among followers of other paths and ways than that of Jesus Christ, we are forced to confront with total seriousness the question raised in the [WCC] Guidelines on Dialogue (1979) concerning the universal creative and redemptive activity of God towards all humankind and the particular redemptive activity of God in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ (para. 23). We find ourselves recognizing a need to move beyond a theology which confines salvation to the explicit personal commitment of Christ.” The statement goes on to say that God works through Christ redemptively in all of history and through the other religions. (See the World Council of Churches’ “Ecumenical Press Service,” 90.09.22.)
In order to think biblically about our world, we have to put ourselves in the minds of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Paul, and Peter and accept for ourselves the norms and habits by which they functioned. And their starting place was this category of truth. Truth to them was not privatized. It was not synonymous with personal insight, with private intuition. It was not sought in the self at all, as a matter of fact, but in history – the history that God wrote and interpreted – and it was therefore objective, public, and authoritative. Here lay the great divide between the pagans and the prophets: the pagans thought of truth in terms of private intuition, and the prophets did not. The same divide today separates moderns, for whom truth is a matter of private insight, from biblical Christianity, for which it cannot be.
The resurrection of Christ had nothing to do with the religious imagination, nothing to do with parables of existence and symbols of inner experience; it had everything to do with an act of God that was public, external, and objective. And herein lies the crucial difference between the pagan and the biblical minds. For the latter, as G. Ernest Wright argued in an earlier attempt to resuscitate the importance of the biblical narrative, it is “the objectivity of God’s historical acts which are the focus of attention”; for the former it is “the subjectivity of inner, emotional, diffuse and mystical experience.”
…the biblical authors wrote from the conviction of the uniqueness of biblical faith a uniqueness that was not a matter of perception but of fact, not simply of their inner experience but of the objective facts of their history. The locus of its revelation was not in the human imagination but in history. It was this that protected the uniqueness of their faith, because it secured the objectivity of the revelation upon which that faith rested. … Pagan cultures encountered their gods and goddesses in nature. … The Hebrews encountered their God in history.
The early Christians did not preach their experience of Christ; that would have been to promote a form of religion like any other form of religion. Rather, they preached the Christ of that experience. They preached not what was internally interesting but what was externally true. God had raised him from the dead, and this was a matter of history, not simply of internal perception. The bells that rang in celebration of God’s conquest over sin, death, and the devil also summoned every competing religious view into judgment. This event invalidated every pretension to absoluteness in the ancient world – as it does in the modern world.
The fact that God’s truth was transmitted through events external to the individual meant that it was objective, and the fact that it was objective meant, further, that his truth was public. It was truth for the open market, truth for the nation, truth for other nations. The content of this truth could not be privatized, reduced within private consciousness. Those who were trained by biblical revelation could not follow the path of the pagans, who established faith on their experience of nature and their intuitions regarding human nature. Their faith was grounded solely in the objective and public nature of God’s Word. They stood alone among these ancient cultures, their faith distinctive and unique.
Furthermore, inasmuch as the meaning of God’s redemptive acts was not discovered by human insight and sagacity but was rather given by God himself, that revelation was authoritative. The Church through the ages has always assumed and respected the authority of Scripture. It was never questioned until the modern period, and it has only become a problem because some have suggested that God did not interpret – perhaps could not interpret – the meaning of his acts or that the record of the acts themselves is awry. Both of these assertions, however, are typically made not on historical grounds but on philosophical grounds. It is not the narrative of God’s acts that makes it hard for us to believe in the authority of their meaning; it is the modern world.
It is the biblical world of meaning, its way of interpreting life, into which we are invited to enter, to make its world our own. We stand at its door, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim before the Cross, the bundle of our self-understanding and of our self-interpreted world upon our back. This bundle, as with that of our sin, must be abandoned. If we are to enter this new world of meaning, we will have to do so hermeneutically naked, our modern horizons and tastes, our modern fascination with ourselves wrenched from us and abandoned on entry. For we come to take from this new world, not to give. We come to take meaning; we come to give up the narrative of our own life with its parables of self-constructed meaning in order to find the truth that God has given in his own narrative.
And here, strangely enough, lies the watershed both of the ancient and the modern worlds. Where is the locus of God’s truth to be found? To the pagan who heard the voice of the gods within, who listened to the whisperings of intuition, and to the modern who similarly listens within for the voice of self, the answer is the same. For the Israelite it was different. The Bible is not a remarkable illustration of what we have already heard within ourselves; it is a remarkable discovery of what we have not and cannot hear within ourselves. Thus, our inward sense of God and our intuitions about meaning are irrelevant in any effort to differentiate biblical truth from pagan belief. It is how we apply ourselves to learn what God has disclosed of himself in a realm outside ourselves that is important. And unless we steadfastly maintain this distinction in the face of the modern pressures to destroy it, we will soon find that we are using the Bible merely to corroborate the validity of what we have already found within our own religious consciousness – which is another way of saying that we are putting ourselves in place of the Bible. It is another way of reasserting the old paganism. When that happens, theology is irredeemably reduced to autobiography, and preaching degenerates into mere storytelling.
In many ways, then, we are witness to a convergence of the premodern and the modern worlds, as improbable as that might seem. On the surface, it may seem that the modern world with its speed and technology, its conquest over space and time, its abundance and convenience, grows daily more remote from the world of Elijah, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul. But in a deeper sense, as Western civilization passes into the late evening of its life and as the Christian values it has borne across the centuries fade into the shadows, alternative ways of thinking are emerging that parallel much of what occurred in the pre-modern world.
The bottom line for our modernized world is that there is no truth; the bottom line for Christian consciousness is precisely the opposite. The Christian predisposition to believe in the kind of truth that is objective and public and that reflects ultimate reality cuts across the grain of what modernity considers plausible.
A Christian mind sees truth as objective. It seeks to understand reality as it is in itself, not as it seems to the subject. The modern mind, no less than the pagan, finds this distinction at least difficult and probably impossible – because modernity admits of no exits, no escape from the darkness imposed by its diminished horizons of knowledge. That is not to say that there actually is no exit. Indeed, the exit is there to be found; it is simply difficult to do so in the dark. The Christian mind has sought and found a way to understand life in the light of revelation; the modern mind rejects that light and turns instead to private experience for illumination. The Christian mind accepts God’s pronouncements concerning the meaning of life as the only true measure in that regard; the modern mind rejects such revelation as the figment of a religious imagination.
Today, reality is so privatized and relativized that truth is often understood only in terms of what it means to each person. A pragmatic culture will see truth as whatever works for any given person. Such a culture will interpret the statement that Christianity is true to mean simply that Christianity is one way of life that has worked for someone, but that would not be to say that any other way of life might not work just as well for someone else.
If Elijah on Mount Carmel, or any of the prophets in their encounters with other gods and religions, or Jesus in the Gospels, or Paul at the Areopagus functioned with a concept of truth as relativized as this, we would have a very different Bible indeed! The reason that they believed in truth in a way that we frequently do not had nothing to do with their parochialism and our relative sophistication but with their understanding of its objectivity and our loss of that understanding. They believed that the truth about God had been given in a history that was external to the interpreter and could not be changed; we believe that such truth is frequently given only in the self, if it is given at all, and that its content does change. We believe that it varies from person to person, time to time, and culture to culture just as consciousness varies from person to person, time to time, and culture to culture. The pagan religions, over against which that of Israel was established, denied the distinction between what was objective and what was subjective, and so, too, does the modernized mind. The prophets had to point again and again to the history in which God had disclosed himself as the antidote to the pagan habit of looking for divine meaning in nature and the intimations of human nature. The prophetic interpretation of the meaning of God was an interpretation not of their experience but of the nation’s history. They were interpreting the external acts of God in a history that was objective, by a Word that was divinely given and was not a result of their own sagacity or personal insight. And we need that same objectivity if we are to find again a fully active Christian mind today. It is this history, which can neither be changed nor obliterated, that anchors God’s truth in a realm that is always outside our own private perceptions. It is this that strikes down the habit of thinking that truth is simply what is true to us. It contradicts all that is fundamental to the modernized mind.
The contraction of reality into the self, whether in its Liberal or evangelical versions, introduces nothing more or less than the reordering of reality by our modernized world, and the first casualty of this reordering, with respect to the mind, is the belief that truth is something that should be found outside of our own subjective consciousness. It is simply incontrovertible that the disappearance of a belief in truth of this order destroys both the soil in which any theology must grow and the criterion by which it must be judged. Without this criterion, “theology” becomes autobiography, and, no matter how revealing it is of the person who “shares” it, it can have no public significance.
It is precisely because Christian faith presents itself as objectively true that it has always exalted teaching. If there is a religion in the world that “exalts the teaching office,” James Orr said, “it is safe to say that it is the religion of Jesus Christ.” He went on to note that the doctrinal element, the substance of what could be taught, was conspicuous by its absence in paganism, whereas, by contrast, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the New Testament is the fact that it is “full of doctrine.” The New Testament “comes to men with definite, positive teaching; it claims to be the truth; it bases religion on knowledge…. A religion based on mere feeling is the vaguest, most unreliable, most unstable of all things. A strong, stable, religious life can be built on no other ground than that of intelligent conviction. Intelligent conviction requires for its underpinning and, indeed, its explanation, a truth that is objectively true. Unless truth is objective, it cannot be declared to others, cannot be taught to others, cannot be required of others. Wherever biblical religion has been recovered, the recovery of the teaching office is never far behind. Nor is the kind of biblical preaching the life and force of which is the truth of Scripture. And wherever this preaching takes root, there the desire to know and practice God’s truth begins to blossom. And this is the soil, the only soil, in which theology can grow.
But there is a difference. Casserley, speaking as a Liberal, mourned what he referred to as theology’s “ineptitude” in having squandered its brilliance on a preoccupation with the Bible during the post-Reformation period. He pleaded for a fresh direction in theology that would allow it to recover the philosophical luster it had shown in the patristic and medieval periods. The chorus of evangelical voices that seem to be reiterating his point are in fact doing so from the other side of the theological divide. They are calling for something quite different. They do not merely dismiss modern theology because of its unbelief; they dismiss all theology because of its uselessness. They are not interested in a recovery of any sort. They view theological profundity as an oddity, something irrelevant to the health and well-being of the Church today. Some are even more explicit, asserting that Christianity will become attractive in the world today only to the extent that it is emptied of all theology.
The vast growth in evangelically minded people in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s should by now have revolutionized American culture. With a third of American adults now claiming to have experienced spiritual rebirth, a powerful countercurrent of morality growing out of a powerful and alternative worldview should have been unleashed in factories, offices, and board rooms, in the media, universities, and professions, from one end of the country to the other. The results should by now be unmistakable. Secular values should be reeling, and those who are their proponents should be very troubled. But as it turns out, all of this swelling of the evangelical ranks has passed unnoticed in the culture. It has simply been absorbed and tamed. Aside from Jerry Falwell’s aborted attempt from the political Right in the 1980s to roll back the earlier victories scored by the Left, especially during the 1960s, the presence of evangelicals in American culture has barely caused a ripple.
This surely is an odd circumstance. Here is a corner of the religious world that has learned from the social scientists how to grow itself, that is sprouting huge megachurches that look like shopping malls for the religious, that can count in its own society the moneyed and powerful, and yet it causes not so much as a ripple. And its disappearance, judged in moral and spiritual terms, is happening at the very moment when American culture is more vulnerable to the uprooting of some of its cherished Enlightenment beliefs than ever before, because it knows itself to be empty. Thus it is that both American culture and American evangelicalism have come to share the same fate, both basking in the same stunning, outward success while stricken by a painful vacuity, an emptiness in their respective centers. This has produced, in the one, a civilization that has deliberately built itself without religious foundations and imagines God and the supernatural order alike to be irrelevant. In the other it has produced a way of Church life in which God’s truth, if one is to judge by the sermons being preached, the books being published, and the journals being blessed by success, seems often to be a stranger to its inner life. As a result, in the one there are no moral absolutes, and in the other there is no theology. This coincidence of spiritual interests will make reform exceedingly difficult.
At moments like this, the customary response to the sense of Christian inadequacy, whether in relation to God or some aspect of the Christian message, has been to call for revival. In the modern period, though, revival has frequently entailed little more than proceeding with business as usual and praying that God will spice it up with some new enthusiasm and effectiveness. This is the legacy of the Finneyite conception of revival as something that can be engineered by the Church with the proper techniques. Working from such assumptions, the Church will almost certainly be inclined to think of its own rejuvenation as self-engineered. But this is simply to apply modernity’s solution to a problem that modernity has caused, and that is a dead end. The impotence of the evangelical Church does not stem from inadequate technique or diminished enthusiasm. Where enthusiasm has waned, the malaise is but a symptom of a far deeper and more troubling problem – a problem that is not going to be solved by the Church’s efforts at self-regeneration, however fine the religious language in which they are cloaked. What the Church now needs is not revival but reformation.
Both the earlier Liberalism and the current evangelicalism have made use of culture, but they have done so in different ways. The earlier Liberalism was a deliberate program of adjusting the content of Christian faith to bring it into conformity with the dogmas of culture, on the ground that those dogmas were describing the reality of God as this was reflected in and made known through culture. At the heart of their program, then, was a belief in the immanence of God. Contemporary evangelicalism, because it sees culture as essentially neutral in its values, is also in the process of adapting the contents of Christian faith to cultural dogma, but its program for doing so is haphazard and unconscious.
Christ brought everything into harmony with the holiness of God. To be sure, this harmony has two entirely different expressions: justification and judgment. In both, the holiness of God comes into its full and awful expression. In the one case, it does so in him who bears the consequences of that wrath on behalf and in the place of those whom he represented; in the other case, it is expressed in the final and awesome alienation of those in whom God’s judgment vindicates for all eternity his holiness.
It is this holiness of God, then, without which the Cross of Christ is incomprehensible, that provides the light that exposes modernity’s darkness for what it is. For modernity has emptied life of serious moral purpose. Indeed, it empties people of the capacity to see the world in moral terms, and this, in turn, closes their access to reality, for reality is fundamentally moral. God’s holiness is fundamental to who he is and what he has done. And the key to it all has been the loss of God’s otherness, not least in his holiness, beneath the forms of modern piety. Evangelicals turned from focusing on God’s transcendence to focusing on his immanence – and then they took the further step of interpreting his immanence as friendliness with modernity.
The loss of the traditional vision of God as holy is now manifested everywhere in the evangelical world. It is the key to understanding why sin and grace have become such empty terms. What depth or meaning, P T Forsyth asked, can these terms have except in relation to the holiness of God? Divorced from the holiness of God, sin is merely self-defeating behavior or a breach in etiquette. Divorced from the holiness of God, grace is merely empty rhetoric, pious window dressing for the modern technique by which sinners work out their own salvation. Divorced from the holiness of God, our gospel becomes indistinguishable from any of a host of alternative self-help doctrines. Divorced from the holiness of God, our public morality is reduced to little more than an accumulation of trade-offs between competing private interests. Divorced from the holiness of God, our worship becomes mere entertainment. The holiness of God is the very cornerstone of Christian faith, for it is the foundation of reality. Sin is defiance of God’s holiness, the Cross is the outworking and victory of God’s holiness, and faith is the recognition of God’s holiness. Knowing that God is holy is therefore the key to knowing life as it truly is, knowing Christ as he truly is, knowing why he came, and knowing how life will end.
It is this God, majestic and holy in his being, this God whose love knows no bounds because his holiness knows no limits, who has disappeared from the modern evangelical world. He has been replaced in many quarters by a God who is slick and slack, whose moral purposes turn out to be avuncular advice that we can disregard or negotiate as we see fit, whose Word is a plaything for those who wish merely to listen to themselves, whose Church is a mall in which the religious, their pockets filled with the coin of need, do their business. We seek happiness, not righteousness. We want to be fulfilled, not filled. We are interested in satisfaction, not a holy dissatisfaction with all that is wrong.
This is why we need reformation rather than revival. The habits of the modern world, now so ubiquitous in the evangelical world, need to be put to death, not given new life. They need to be rooted out, not simply papered over with fresh religious enthusiasm. And they are by this point so invincible that nothing less than the intrusion of God in his grace, nothing less than a full recovery of his truth, will suffice.
In this regard, the death of theology has profound ramifications. Theology is dying not because the academy has failed to devise adequate procedures for reconstructing it but because the Church has lost its capacity for it. And while some hail this loss as a step forward toward the hope of new evangelical vitality, it is in fact a sign of creeping death. The emptiness of evangelical faith without theology echoes the emptiness of modern life. Both have elected to cross over into a world in which God has no place, in which reality has been rewritten, in which Christ has become redundant, his Word irrelevant, and the Church must now find new reasons for its existence.
Unless the evangelical Church can recover the knowledge of what it means to live before a holy God, unless in its worship it can relearn humility, wonder, love, and praise, unless it can find again a moral purpose in the world that resonates with the holiness of God and that is accordingly deep and unyielding – unless the evangelical Church can do all of these things, theology will have no place in its life. But the reverse is also true. If the Church can begin to find a place for theology by refocusing itself on the centrality of God, if it can rest upon his sufficiency, if it can recover its moral fiber, then it will have something to say to a world now drowning in modernity. And there lies a great irony. Those who are most relevant to the modern world are those most irrelevant to the moral purpose of God, but those who are irrelevant in the world by virtue of their relevance to God actually have the most to say to the world. They are, in fact, the only ones who having anything to say to it. That is what Jesus declared, what the Church in its best moments has known, and what we, by the grace of God, can yet again discover.
(My friend Mark Witte identified the above quotes from No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? as some particularly worthy of considered reflection.)