Why Legalism Fuels and is Fueled by the Insecurity of the Times, Part 1

Legalism is an ugly thing to those outside it, but often a beautiful thing to those within it. Legalism is any system whereby the merits of man contribute in any way to his standing with God. For those who have been delivered from the works-righteousness mentality, legalism is bondage, an oppressive system that distorts the grace of God and often turns out neurotic believers who wear themselves out trying to keep up. But to those within legalistic systems, legalism is a refuge from the insecurities of life and the uncertainties of our world. This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to talk someone out of a legalistic church. There is so much “certainty” and comfort in knowing exactly what one must do to remain in “right with God.” Legalism requires so little faith, because every aspect of life is defined and mandated. In contrast, the concept of grace and Christian liberty is a scary wilderness of uncertainty. Better to stay in the fortress (or prison).

This is not a new phenomenon. At the end of the Middle Ages, the predominant concern of Europeans was the fear of death. After years of bad weather and widespread famine in the 14th century that culminated in the Black Death, life in the 15th century was bleak. As Carter Lindberg notes, “The shortness of life was never far from people’s minds” (The European Reformations, Blackwell, 1996). This situation fueled an obsession with concern for the afterlife. Enter the Catholic Church.

Since hell was not the preferred option, the church and its theologians developed a whole set of practices and exercises to assist people to avoid it. The irony was that in attempting to provide security in an insecure world, the church largely mirrored the new urban and economic developments that exacerbated human insecurity. Suspended between hope and fear, the individual had to achieve his or her goal through a whole system of quid pro quo services that reflected the new ledger mentality of the urban burgher absorbed in the developing profit economy. Taken as a whole, Christendom at the end of the Middle Ages appeared as performance-oriented as the new business enterprises of the day (p. 60).

Pastoral care, while intending to provide security, succeeded only in adding to the insecurity of the individual before God. The reigning paradigm of the Christian life was the phrase facere quod in se est: do what lies within you; do your very best.

In religion as in early capitalism, contracted work merited reward. Individuals were responsible for their own life, society, and world on the basis of and within the limits stipulated by God…This theology, however, enhanced the crisis because it threw people back upon their own resources. That is, no matter how grace-assisted their good works, the burden of proof for those works fell back upon the performers, the more sensitive of whom began asking how they could know if they had done their best (p. 60).

For anyone who has ever lived in a legalistic system, this sounds all too familiar. The fundamentalist variety of today would never deny that salvation is all by grace, but the not so subtle message is that to be “right with God” requires the keeping of the rules. This division between “salvation by grace” and “standing by works” is a theological aberration that has at least two results. The first is that people live in a perpetual state of insecurity regarding their standing with God. This reflects a complete misunderstanding of the nature of justification, whereby we are declared to be in a righteous standing with God, based on the perfect righteousness of Christ. Legalism, in effect, makes the believer’s standing with God dependent on his own works. This creates either self-righteous pride in those who give themselves good marks, or abject despair in those sensitive souls who see their failures more clearly.

The other result of legalism is the emergence of strategies for dealing with the psychoses that arise from this impossible situation. The second half of this essay will recount the emergence of relics and indulgences in the Middle Ages, and the concomitant strategies of legalists today to cope with such a system.

Why blog? Ask Luther!

The advent of the internet on a popular level in the mid-1990’s and on a global scale by the turn of the century has had such an all-encompassing effect on the world, that it is virtually impossible anymore to imagine life without it. In the past few years serious thought and writing have emerged about the possibilities of this technology for the spread of gospel and the edification of the church.

Some object to the internet as too uncertain and prone to corruption for any serious use for spiritual purposes. In an attempt to perhaps preserve the old-fashioned ways of print media, some have balked at accepting the internet as a useful tool for God’s church. Perhaps these skeptics should go further back in history to the time when print media was the new technology and was transforming society in a way every bit as radical as the internet today.

Carter Lindberg documents the radical transformation of society in the fifteenth century in his book, The European Reformations (Blackwell, 1996). With the advent of moveable metal type in Germany, inexpensive linen rag paper from China and quality ink, the printing press transformed Europe by the rapid dissemination of ideas. Whereas John Wyclif’s ideas took decades to spread by means of hand-written copies, Martin Luther’s ideas blanketed Europe within six months. By 1500, printing presses existed in over 200 cities and towns. An estimated 6,000,000 books were in print, and half of the 30,000 titles were on religious subjects. Between 1460 and 1500 more books were printed than had been produced by scribes and monks throughout the entire Middle Ages (p. 36).

Books were not the only means of spreading ideas. Thousands of pamphlets and tracts incorporating pictures, images and cartoons flooded the Empire. In contrast to publications from the Middle Ages, which served primarily to preserve and transmit knowledge, the print media of the Reformation had a new function: to transmit opinions. These publications could be enormously provocative by swaying opinions and moving people to action in such momentous ways as to cause governments great concern (p. 37). And the most effective publicist to capitalize on this new tool was Martin Luther. According to historian Mark Edwards,

[Luther] dominated to a degree that no other person to my knowledge has ever dominated a major propaganda campaign and mass movement since. Not Lenin, not Mao Tse-tung, not Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, or Patrick Henry (Edwards, Printing, Propaganda and Martin Luther, xii).

In Wittenberg, Germany, there were seven print shops devoted exclusively to the writings of Luther and his colleagues. In other words, Luther saw the potential of the new technology for the spread of the gospel and sound doctrine, and capitalized on it very effectively.

What does that mean for us? With all the genuine dangers of the internet and the over-connected lifestyle of people in the West, technology is in itself a neutral “thing” that can be used for good or evil. Rather than let the potential good of the internet go to waste, we should use it to the best of our ability for the spread of the gospel and sound doctrine, for the edification of the church and the evangelism of the world. Like Luther, we should discern the possibilities of websites, blogging, social media sites, and whatever else comes along through the internet. Technology should never distract from our calling, but it can certainly help it, if we have a vision for its possibilities.

A Call to Missions If Ever There Was One

American Christians have, for a long time, thought of Christianity primarily through American eyes, often viewing America as the center of the world since the 20th century. As a result, the burden for overseas missions represents only a drop in the bucket of our concern, efforts, and consideration. Most American Christians could not conceive of living anywhere else in the world, for if they did, how could they achieve the American dream? It is, after all, an American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As a result, we see few of our young people intending to give their lives to foreign missionary service, and even fewer adults selling all they have to emigrate to a foreign country for the purpose of spreading the gospel. Also as a result, missionaries spend 2-3 years (or more) traipsing across America begging churches to support them so they can get to a field before the next generation of natives dies without Christ. The rest of the world just seems so far away, and most of them don’t speak English, so it’s a bit of a bother to expend too much effort in that direction. We are glad to see the missionaries when they come home on furlough and ask how they can stand living in that awful place, but then quickly forget them when they return abroad.

This pessimistic account is not entirely inaccurate. The truth is, when we think of Christianity, we tend to think only of American Christianity. When we think of heaven, we tend to think of people just like ourselves numbering in the millions, worshipping God around the throne. What we don’t often think about is the fact that there is a whole world of Christians in other countries that don’t think of America as the center of the Christian world, won’t ever be American, and may not even desire to be so. In fact, in some places of the world, the Christian church is actually quite a bit healthier than it is in the U.S. and more populous.

In his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins documents the shift of Christianity to the southern hemisphere of the planet over the past one hundred years:

We are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide. Over the past five centuries or so, the story of Christianity has been inextricably bound up with that of Europe and European-derived civilizations overseas, above all in North America. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of Christians have lived in White nations, allowing theorists to speak smugly, arrogantly, of “European Christian” civilization…

Over the past century, however, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America. If we want to visualize a “typical” contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela. As Kenyan scholar John Mbiti has observed, “the centers of the church’s universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manilla.” Whatever Europeans or North Americans may believe, Christianity is doing very well indeed in the global South—not just surviving but expanding (p. 1-2).

While Jenkins’ comments reveal some disdain for American Christianity, and his figures make no distinction between Evangelicals, Catholics, and other types of “Christians,” his point stands nonetheless. The “average” Christian in the world is not a middle class white man (or woman). Population booms and religious shifts have made the world a different place than it was as short a time ago as the 1980’s. By 2015 none of the most populated urban centers in the world will be on American soil. And with the exception of the U.S. and China, all of the most populated countries in the world will be in the global South.

This reality has a number of implications for the work of missions. First, at the present mission work seems to be moving more to a teaching, educational model than a church planting model. Many missionaries have learned that an American pastoring a church of nationals in a foreign country is counterproductive in the long run. The most effective missionaries today seem to be those who go with the intent to raise up a college or seminary for the training of national pastors, and eventually work themselves out of a job as those very men take over the institution. The seminary where I teach has already done that in several countries in Eastern Europe and South America. This trend should compel more and more missionaries to obtain seminary and advanced degrees before going to the mission field, or else they will find themselves unable to train nationals to a level necessary to run their own schools.

Second, there are many countries of the world closed to American missionaries. Yet these very same countries are wide open to people of other nationalities. One missionary I know in Eastern Europe trains men to go into the Muslim “stan” countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan that are closed to American passports. A similar phenomenon is happening with Asian Christian working in Middle Eastern countries, many at the risk of persecution or death. Rather than giving up on closed countries, we need to continue to seek creative ways to get the gospel into them through believers of other ethnic heritage.

Finally, in the very near future, the tide may change in some countries where Americans find missionaries from Africa, Asia and Latin America knocking on their doors in Anytown, U.S.A. to evangelize Americans. Jenkins notes,

Great Britain today plays host to some 1,500 missionaries from fifty nations. Many come from African countries, and they express disbelief at the spiritual desert they encounter in this “green and pagan land”…Announcing a new missionary endeavor, the Anglican primate of Brazil declared that “London is today’s field of mission. It’s so secular we have to send people for their salvation” (p. 205).

Be prepared to be evangelized by a foreigner!

Revelation 7:9 speaks of a multitude without number from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb. What a glorious day that will be when a countless sea of faces from every corner of the earth will raise their voices like a mighty wave of praise to God! If God designed a global redemption to culminate in such a scene, how much more should we already be thinking of Christianity in such terms? How much more should we be encouraging our children to think naturally about foreign missions? How much more should churches be sacrificing to speed missionaries to the field? How much more should those preparing for missionary service be adequately preparing for long-term effective ministry? And finally, a little closer to home, how much more should we be reaching our own neighbors right next door?

Rationality and Irrationality in History

Have you ever read history and wonder, “What in the world were these people thinking?” Have you ever been tempted to question the sanity and rationality of an historical figure? In his essay, “Interpretation, Rationality and Truth” (in Visions of Politics, vol. 1; Cambridge University Press, 2002), Quentin Skinner makes a compelling case for the granting of the rationality of beliefs held in the past, unless strong evidence exists to the contrary. He warns against the common practice of the historian accusing historical figures of irrationality when those historical figures held beliefs that contradict his own. By doing this, says Skinner, the historian sets himself up as the authority on rationality.

This is a significant mistake by the historian. As a fallible human being, the historian is in no significantly better position than any other person to determine what is rational, since he is finite and prone to error himself. It is a sign of hubris to think that a historian is in some privileged epistemological position that grants him a transcendent view of rationality. That is not to say that no historical belief can be judged irrational. But if a historian is to judge a particular belief irrational, it ought to be because it was “not an appropriate belief for that particular agent to have espoused in that particular society at that particular time” (p. 38). The standard for rationality moves away from the historian’s judgment, which is anachronistic, to the time, place and culture of the subjects under consideration.

Skinner gives as an example Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s classic study, The Peasants of Languedoc, in which Ladurie attributes the belief in witchcraft to “mass delirium.” According to Ladurie, belief in witches could never be rationally held. He proceeds to infer, therefore, that the peasants were slipping savagely into irrationalism and pathological beliefs. He speculates that the peasants were reacting to the loss of traditional spiritual assistance as the Reformation progressed, and so gave in to their anxieties and primordial fears. They felt a deep sense of frustration at the social upheaval and failure of social reform, and so their desire to improve their lot took on a mythical dress with demonic forms of escape.

Skinner disapproves of so much speculation, noting that Laduries’ presupposition of the peasants’ irrationality precludes a number of possible explanations. Skinner suggests one alternative theory that is certainly more plausible in the historical context of the events. He suggests that the peasants also held to the belief that the Bible constituted the directly inspired Word of God, a belief that was widely accepted as rational and indeed indubitable in sixteenth-century Europe. Since the Bible affirms the existence of witches and proscribes that they not be allowed to live. Within this historical context, therefore, it would have been the height of irrationality to disbelieve the existence of witches. To do so would have also been tantamount to denying the credibility of God’s Word, something very dangerous (and therefore irrational) in that day.

From this, Skinner derives a principle of judging the rationality of historical beliefs.

We need to begin by recreating as sympathetically as possible a sense of what was held to connect with what, and what was held to count as a reason for what, among the people we are studying as historians. Otherwise we are sure to commit the characteristic sin of ‘whig’ intellectual history: that of imputing incoherence or irrationality where we have merely failed to identify some local canon of rational acceptability.

It seems that this principle can be applied to at least one twentieth-century belief system that seems to commit this same fallacy of anachronistic judgment of irrationality. The evangelical and liberal retelling of the history of American fundamentalism in the twentieth-century often evidences this unjustified accusation of irrationality. Not that there were no irrational beliefs held by fundamentalists. There were plenty, and the historical evidence bears this out. But the number and severity of these accusations is grossly and inexcusably exaggerated. Only recently have we seen more sympathetic readings of fundamentalist history that have extended this assumption of rationality. Some may also see the postconservative revision of evangelical theology’s so-called reliance on Greek philosophical metaphysics regarding the nature of God as another example, but this is technically wrong, because the postconservative accusation is more often that evangelicals through the ages were simply dead wrong, not that they were irrational.

On the other hand, some fundamentalist histories violate this same principle in their accusation of irrationality on the part of their antagonists. It may very well be that a fair reading will reveal that on some points, some of the opponents of fundamentalists through the years were the rational ones. One need only review the proceedings of the Scopes Trial of 1925 to see that, at a few select points, Clarence Darrow’s beliefs about the need to engage the cultural challenges of that day seemed more rational than William Jennings Bryan’s desire to pretend they didn’t exist.

The point is simply this: ascribing rationality and irrationality to a belief held in the past needs to be done carefully, taking into consideration the cultural and intellectual climate of the time, the place and the individuals under consideration. Only then will we achieve a more objective evaluation of the past and avoid such gross anachronisms.

As Christian historians, we believe that man is made in the image of God, but was ruined spiritually and intellectually at the Fall. We believe that man is essentially the same throughout history (contra evolutionists), and therefore we can assume that our ancestors shared at least some of our beliefs about the importance of coherence and consistency. We can assume, then, that our ancestor’s utterances are a guide to the identification of their beliefs, and that generally, they sought to have coherent and consistent belief systems (p. 54). When we encounter a people for whom it is no problem to affirm and deny the same proposition, we must ascribe irrationality, and admit that there is no prospect of reporting what they believed.

While these historiographical principles may prevent us from understanding the histories of a few self-consciously irrational objects of study, they will also guard us from a speculative hagiography of our historical heroes and a demonization of those whose beliefs we find distasteful.

Waiting: God’s Cure for Unredeemed Ambition

In his book, Rescuing Ambition (Crossway, 2010), Dave Harvey skillfully explains the practice of God to curb and refine our ambitions through the often painful process of waiting on him.

Waiting is God’s backhoe in the excavation of our ambitions. Waiting unearths and brings to the surface what we really want. Yet waiting is a strange thing. God’s purposes are not a bus stop where we just sit, waiting for the right option to come by. No, we keep walking while we wait, and we wait while we walk. This may sound ironic, but it serves many purposes (p. 72).

Harvey offers three possible reasons why waiting is so important to the rescue of our ambitions. First, waiting purifies our ambitions.

Reach your hand into a river and grab a handful of rocks. You can tell the ones that have been recently deposited and those that have been there a long time, waiting. The new arrivals are rough with edges and sharp points. The other rocks are smooth; time and water have worn away their rough exterior, revealing a polished, beautiful stone. For us, waiting has the same effect. God purifies our ambitions by delaying their fulfillment. An ambition with a waiting sign is an ambition being smoothed in a riverbed of God’s activity (p. 72).

Second, waiting cultivates patience.

Perhaps in reading this you’re becoming aware of impatience toward God and his timing in your life. But is God’s timing not perfect? Are his ways not perfect? Is his will not perfect? Is his character not perfect? And hasn’t all this perfection been displayed for us in the cross? Who are we to question God in impatience when he has so perfectly displayed his love for us in the shedding of his Son’s blood on the cross? (p. 73)

Last, waiting redefines our definition of productivity. In our culture we define success and work by “productivity.” We keep tightly packed schedules and run from one place to the next, fearful of not being able to maintain all our commitments, and failing our own expectations.

Waiting is often God’s reorientation program aimed at our definition of success. He lovingly empties our misguided preoccupation with accomplishment and fills it with ambitions to know him and be like him. God isn’t beyond slowing our walk to remind us that only he is omnipotent, and we’re not; only he is omnicompetent, and we’re not; only he exists without need for rest, and we don’t (p. 74).

So many times our dreams and ambitions are frustrated, and we are tempted to see that as a sign that God is perhaps not as good as he makes himself out to be, or at least not as good as we’ve been told he is. But if we could see our lives from God’s perspective, we would see how many times God delivered us from a dream or ambition that would have made us incurably miserable, or one that would have destroyed more precious things in our lives. This means that every job lost, unhappy marriage, condition of infertility, frustrating boss, and dead end in life is actually a blessing from God.

We find no peace in life until we’re convinced our path is his way and our place is his choice. That’s so important it’s worth repeating: your place is his choice. Fences and all. When God is fencing our ambition, it can sure seem to constrain our freedom. But fences don’t simply contain, they protect. A good fence keeps us on the right path and prevents us from hurtling over cliffs, even if it seems we’re chasing something good (p. 79).

Rescuing Ambition for Ministry

Do you desire to be involved in ministry? Does your passion burn for serving God? I am writing primarily to those who long for vocational ministry, but the principles apply to anyone seeking to serve God in any way.

Paul’s first epistle to Timothy gives sobering instructions concerning the proper way for a man who possesses ambition for ministry to find his desire fulfilled. In 1 Timothy 3:1 he states that if a man is “reaching for” oversight (Gk. episkopos), that is, the responsibility of leadership in the local church, then he is desiring a good thing. But what of this desire, this ambition to lead?

Ambition can be constructive or destructive, driven by pride or driven by a passion for the glory of God. In his new book, Rescuing Ambition (Crossway, 2010), Pastor Dave Harvey seeks to show that ambition is not evil in itself, but has to be redeemed, or rescued by Christ. He believes ambitions for greatness are natural because we were made to experience glory—just not our own. Comparing our inner ambition for glory to storm chasers, he says,

Maybe you don’t chase tornadoes, but we’re all born glory chasers. Glory moments stir us…We experience something totally vicarious, some strange exercise in identification. And make no mistake, it goes deep. It calls to something we value. To do something that matters. To seek something greater than our own puny existence (p. 21-22).

The temptation for those who desire ministry is to let their natural ambition for glory become selfish, turned inward. What should be fuel for the glory of God becomes selfish ambition for our own glory. Ministry becomes a means for getting praise, flattery, gifts, and ultimately worship. The root cause of this is sin.

Sin does the same thing to us that it did to Adam and Eve. It distorts the truth of God and undermines our essential dependence on him. It seduces us to crave things that deface God’s holiness and assault his glory. Ultimately, sin moves self to the center of our desires and dreams. Rather than promoting God’s order and glory, we become relentless self-promoters. It’s a condition that shrinks the soul (p. 37).

Sometimes those who desire ministry see those already in ministry, and the respect and influence that typically accompanies faithful execution of the task, and assume that the way to obtain influence and respect is to seek influence and respect. These mistaken observers, however, miss two points. First, the way to glory is not to seek glory. The way to glory is to seek humiliation and servanthood. “Humility comes before honor,” says Proverbs 15:33. “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you,” says James 4:10. Many aspiring leaders misunderstand the path to leadership. Second, those faithful leaders that have obtained influence and respect did not do so by seeking it. They, too, pursued a path of service and humility that led to influence and respect.

Selfish ambition, on the other hand, is self-glorifying, and any time glory is drawn from anything other then God, it has the opposite effect of worship—it shrinks the soul. Harvey quotes Jonathan Edwards:

The ruin that the Fall brought upon the soul of man consists very much in losing the nobler and more benevolent principles of his nature, and failing wholly under the power and government of self-love. Before, and as God created him, he was exalted and noble, and generous; but now he is debased, and ignoble, and selfish. Immediately after the fall, the mind of man shrank from its primitive greatness and expandedness, to an exceeding smallness and contractedness (Charity and Its Fruits, 226-7).

Ambition and humility are not mutually exclusive. A minister with a proper humility will also be possessed of a holy ambition. G.K. Chesterton distinguished between a proper humility, which he called “the old humility,” and a “new” false humility that dampened ambition. He appealed to a return to the old humility.

The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

Humility, then, should harness, not hinder ambition. Harvey expounds on rescued, or redeemed, ambition.

Formerly our aspirations were the soul-shrinking agents of self-exaltation. But because of Jesus, everything has changed. Having God’s approval changes why we obey, aspire, and apply. Now aspiration fuels delight. We can pursue great things for God, and it will enhance our joy in God. We no longer live ambitious for approval, but we act ambitious because we have approval. Here’s the difference: One disillusions us, the other inspires us. One is temporary, the other permanent. One drives us, the other delights us. (p. 59)

So what should a person who desires ministry do with his ambition? He should certainly not squash it, castrate it or kill it. Rather, he should redirect that ambition to bring about the greatest glory to God possible, recognizing that this happens through humble, selfless service that strives for the ideal of William Carey’s famous maxim: “Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God.”

The Influence of Christian Views in Writing History

What difference does being a Christian historian make? George Marsden suggests three things that Christian perspectives do not mean. First, Christian perspectives on academic topics will not change everything, but it will change some things. Important areas of thought regarding human nature, anthropology, justice, etc. greatly influence the way history is perceived. Second, for Christianity to make a difference, it does not mean that the perspective must be uniquely Christian. Distinctly Christian scholarship means that our scholarship is grounded in distinctly Christian principles, not that it is wholly unlike other perspectives or scholarship. Third, there are no set formulae for the Christian perspective. There are many types of questions that a Christian might ask if they consciously seek to relate faith and learning.

So, how does being a Christian shape the way we do history? Marsden suggests three things that are unique about a Christian writing history. First, our Christian commitments shape our selection of topic. What is worth studying? Our priorities and values shape these choices, so a Christian may choose a field of inquiry that is considered politically incorrect to scholars committed to cultural relativism or scientific naturalism. Second, our Christian perspectives will influence the questions we ask about the subject. Christian scholars are likely to be interested in a different set of issues than are other scholars and to see different things. Third, our Christian commitments inevitably influence which current theories we are likely to accept. For example, Christians who accept the authority of ancient texts are unlikely to accept radical postmodern deconstruction of the authority of all texts, or accept the idea that humans are, in effect, the only creators of reality.

For example, Christians approach the study of man as a created being made in the image of God, marred by the fall, capable of being redeemed by Christ, and destined for an eternity beyond this lifetime. This metanarrative explains much about psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc. In contrast, secular scholars view man as the “Transcendental Self” that is devoid of a creator, and therefore any transcendent authority. Human capacities are immensely inflated and man’s goodness is assumed, along with the inevitable progress of mankind. The secularist’s metanarrative also provides a number of answers (however flawed) to problems of human nature, psychology, anthropology and sociology. Applied to history, Christian and secular historians end up telling a very different story of the past.

The insights that a Christian view of history brings should not, however, result in pride. Being a Christian historian does not in any way mean that one is a better historian than a non-Christian historian. It simply means that a better way of viewing history is available to the historian who is willing to submit his perspective to the Scriptures, do the hard work of history and remain humble in the doing. Marsden sums it up well when he says,

Ultimately people are convinced not simply by arguments, although sound scholarship is essential. They are convinced also by the character of the people who present arguments…So Christian scholars should, without compromising their scholarship, present themselves as models of genuine servanthood within adverse academic communities.

This essay is adapted from George Marsden, “What Difference Might Christian Perspectives Make?” in History and the Christian Historian (ed. Ronald Wells; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

O, for the Return to a Love of Sound Doctrine!

I love theology, because I love the study of God as revealed in his Word and world. Yet, I also realize that life is not about theology and we don’t worship theology. Theology is a discipline, that when kept in its proper place, and based on the right foundation, allows us to worship God in a more knowledgeable and enlivening manner. Theology is the dish upon which the glory of God is served.

So, while I understand that theology is not life, I do believe that every Christian ought to be actively studying theology for the purpose of knowing God better. As a theology professor, it is somewhat disheartening to hear the average Christian express disinterest, boredom, or indifference when it comes to the soul-enriching glorious truths of sound doctrine.

Although I don’t desire for a return to the tumultuous centuries of the early church when the doctrine of the Trinity was being hammered out amidst profound confusion, I would love to see some of the same universal interest among Christians regarding important theological matters, such as this description by a bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century:

If in this city you ask someone for change, he will discuss with you whether God the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you ask about the quality of bread, you will receive the answer that ‘God the Father is greater, God the Son is less.’ If you suggest that a bath is desirable, you will be told that ‘there was nothing before God the Son was created.’ (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 99).

Obviously, confusion reigned at this time, but at least Christians were thinking and talking about important truths. How often in our diversion-saturated culture do we think and talk about everything but the most important matters?

This convicts me because I have found it easy to talk about theology in seminary, but not so easily outside. I find it easier to talk about the weather, politics, or sports than to initiate a conversation with a fellow believer about something eternal. Yet, when conversations do turn theological, I find my soul nourished by the interchange. So, let’s talk more theology and see if the glory of God is not served more often to hungry souls, including our own.

The New Gnostic High Priests of Higher Criticism

In the last two years, few issues in biblical studies have been discussed more than the question of the historicity of Adam and Eve. More and more high profile evangelical scholars have made what would have been an unthinkable pronouncement just a few years ago—that Adam and Eve were probably not, or in some cases, definitely not genuine historical figures. Almost all the scholars who have surrendered to the tenets of higher criticism have done so because some “evidence” in science or history was found to be more convincing than the clear words of Genesis 1-3.

The problems with this popular theological shift are myriad. The focus of this post, however, is on the historical pedigree of the heresy that is introduced by well-meaning Christians who try to do exactly what the Gnostics did in the early church. Bruce Shelley describes the gnostic practice of disentangling the gospel from its involvement with “barbaric and outmoded” Jewish notions about God and history (Church History in Plain Language, 52). That is, Gnostics sought to separate the message of Jesus from the historic event of his incarnation, death and resurrection. In doing so they serve as a warning to all who “try to raise Christianity from the level of faith to a higher realm of intelligent knowledge and so increase its attractiveness to important people.”

Shelley explains:

In his effort to reconcile Christ and the gospel with the science and philosophy of the day, the gnostic denied the event and lost the gospel. Just as nineteenth-century defenders of the faith tried to present Jesus Christ in terms of evolution, so the gnostic interpreted the Savior in light of the fascinating ideas of the enlightened men of his day. But the attempt to tie the gospel to the latest theories of men is self-defeating. Nothing is as fleeting in history as the latest theories that flourish among the enlightened, and nothing can be more quickly dismissed by later generations (p. 52).

If the “evidence” of science and history is allowed to rule out the historicity of Adam based on the genre of Genesis 1-3, or the supposed incompatibility of the Genesis account with reigning scientific paradigms, why not apply the same criteria to the miracles of Jesus or his resurrection? Scholars who are denying the historical Adam are increasingly telling us that one has to be an expert in the Ancient Near East (ANE) to understand the Old Testament and in Second Temple Judaism (STJ) to understand the New Testament. Such scholars have become the new high priests who serve as intermediaries between the text of Scripture and the common man.

The relatively new fields of ANE and STJ (only a century or so old) allow a few “qualified” individuals to feel that they alone can interpret the milieu of Scripture for the rest of us. We are told to simply trust them, despite the weight of church history and the perspicuity of Scripture. Almost invariably these scholars over time find less and less in Scripture to be historically accurate or scientifically verifiable. The trajectory is almost always away from belief in the historicity of biblical events and people. What these scholars perceive to be the rescue of the faith from literalistic readings of Scripture is actually the wholesale undermining of any confidence in God’s Word.

The accommodation of higher criticism by evangelicals is ultimately nothing more than a new Gnosticism that privileges a few experts, and will finally eviscerate the faith of many. The historicity of Adam may not seem like a major issue to some, but I believe it is foundational to the reliability of Scripture, and indicative of the sort of doctrines that need to be retained purely on the testimony of Scripture, regardless of what science or history “prove.”

Make Preaching Memorable

Why do heretics make such a big splash with their ideas? One reason seems to be that historically, many heretics have possessed an uncanny ability to communicate their ideas in popular vernacular. Two examples will suffice to make the point–Arius and Tetzel.

In his theological contest with Arius regarding the nature of the Son, Athanasius was fighting an uphill battle with the heretic’s memorable articulation of his message. Shelley notes,

Arius’ views were all the more popular because he combined an eloquent preaching style with a flair for public relations. In the opening stages of the conflict, he put ideas into jingles, which set to simple tunes like a radio commercial, were soon being sung by the dock-workers, the street-hawkers, and the school children of the city. (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 100-101)

Over one thousand years later, another preacher was blazing a trail through Germany, with a simple and memorable message: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” The Dominican priest, John Tetzel was so effective in his papal fund-raising campaign through the sale of indulgences that Martin Luther’s ire was aroused and he responded with his 95 theses.

Two observations arise from these examples, one negative and one positive. Negatively, the propensity of the human heart toward ideas that entertain the mind and require no intellectual effort is a proclivity that is all too familiar today. Why wrestle with difficult concepts of the Trinity when Arius’ jingle can be learned in a matter of minutes? A similar attitude in evangelical Christianity eschews serious doctrinal preaching and teaching in favor for a simplistic faith that can be learned in a matter of weeks. This watered-down version of Christianity teaches catchphrases and talking points that never scratch the surface of biblical faith. In our sound-byte culture, this intellectual laziness seems so much easier than the kind of devotion to which Timothy was urged for Scripture reading, teaching and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:13).

Positively, the truth is not averse to being articulated in memorable terms. Too often the adherents of orthodox theology are adroit at articulating sound doctrine in a manner that preserves and advances the faith, but they fail to understand what makes a message unforgettable. This is not a plug for alliterated sermons, for a series of five characteristics of Paul’s life beginning with the letter “P” is hardly a model for making one’s message memorable. Rather, what preachers and teachers need is an understanding of the limits of the average individual’s attention and memory, and a concerted effort to simplify one’s message and main points. We also need to understand that many factors contribute to a sermon being memorable— simplicity of expression, repetition in delivery, imagination in structure, passion in the preacher, and more. The most basic, simplicity of expression, is a challenge in itself.

The master of memorable sermon titles is Haddon Robinson, whose messages on the Good Samaritan (“A Case Study of a Mugging”) and Mary and Martha (“Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There”) are hard to forget. But what about memorable content? Making one’s proposition and main points memorable takes hard work. It requires deep thought and multiple revisions, sometimes leading to the scrapping of earlier work in order to retain wording that aids memory. It requires analogies, similes and metaphors. It requires vivid illustrations and pointed applications. There have been many times when my sermon preparation has ended short of this final step, and I have no doubt that those occasions have undermined the long-term effectiveness of a message.

Recently I was given a Sunday evening in my church to preach the entire book of Numbers in about 35 minutes. After multiple revisions, rewording and rewriting, I boiled down my proposition to six words that I believe accurately reflect the message of Numbers, especially the core of the book, chapter 14. The message of Numbers, I told the congregation, is this: God’s sovereignty triumphs over our stubbornness. Of all the preaching I have done over the past few years, my guess is that this sermon was the most memorable. Yet, the time it took to distill my thoughts into those six words was an investment that I have not always been careful to make.

If heresy can be made memorable through catchy phrases and slick marketing techniques, how much more should we be investing the time and effort to express the truth in ways that will make a lasting impression on our hearers? How many unforgettable statements in Scripture are so because of their distillation of poignant ideas into simple statements? “You must be born again.” “Judge not that you be not judged.” The Lord is my shepherd.” In light of the media-savvy times in which we live, we should seek, not to compete, but to outshine all competing ideas with the profound simplicity that we find in Scripture.

Haddon Robinson sums it up well:

You want to leave something lasting in the minds of the congregation when a sermon is over. The truth is, people don’t remember outlines. They may not [ever] refer to them again…What they do live for, what they do die for, is an idea, some great truth that has gripped them. I can’t expect that every congregation is going to remember every idea I try to get across, but there’s a better chance they’ll take something away and remember it for a week or two or even a month or two later if I can stamp that central thrust on their minds. The rest of the sermon is often like the scaffolding: It’s important, but the major thing is for people to get hold of an idea or have an idea get hold of them that can in some way shape the way they respond to life. (“Better Big Ideas,” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, 353).