Meritorious Faith v. Instrumental Faith

One of the major differences between Calvinist and Arminian soteriology, between Monergism and Synergism, is the concept of faith. Calvinists see human response of faith as meritorious, and therefore must argue that faith is a gift from God, and not something initiated by man. This fits well with unconditional election, irresistible grace, and a monergistic view of the process of salvation. If they did not argue against this meritorious sense of faith, they would be admitting human participation in salvation, and there would be little difference between their view and Roman Catholic Pelagianism. We can see, therefore why a Calvinist insists that faith is a gift from God, exercised by a person only after it has been given by God.

Arminians, on the other hand, tend to see faith as the instrumental cause of salvation. That is, they believe that a person must exercise faith in order to receive the free gift of salvation that is entirely of God. They do not see the exercise of faith as meritorious in any way, but simply the instrumental means by which a person receives God’s salvation. This view understands the response of faith to be the equivalent of a beggar opening his hand or reaching up to receive help. There is no merit in such a response, but the act is merely the instrument by which salvation is received.

The difference between merit and instrument is a common one in theology. Francis Turretin used the distinction to show that biblical covenants could be understood as conditional or unconditional, depending on whether human response to a covenant was seen as meritorious (people had to fulfill their part to keep the covenant in effect), or merely instrumental (in which human response is the means by which God’s unconditional promises are received). Calvinists do understand faith as instrumental, but only in the context of faith being given by God. Arminians, on the other hand, see faith as a non-meritorious response to the gospel.

Understanding these differences doesn’t automatically solve the Calvinist-Arminian debate, but it does help us understand the other side better. It also drives us back to the Scriptures to see if we are misreading references to the concept of faith in certain passages. We may find that some passages refer to faith in the meritorious sense, and others in the instrumental sense.

The differences between merit and instrument help us to see that not only are the signs we use in theology important, but also the signifiers. Not only do the words matter, but also what we mean by the words. When we pay careful attention to our words and meanings, we can often avoid theological stalemates with brothers in Christ, and move toward clarity and mutual understanding.

Philosophy Fridays: Nietzsche as Prophet of Modern Christianity, Part 6

Nietzsche’s Antidote to Christianity

Nietzsche’s purpose in attacking Christianity is multi-fold, but it can be argued that one of the main reasons was the need to overthrow the reigning metaphysic of the day in order to proclaim his own supposedly non-religious worldview. Some see a motivation that is more directly tied to the very Christianity that Nietzsche sought to destroy. Giles Fraser sees in Nietzsche, not a Nietzschean Christianity or a Christianized Nietzscheanism, nor even Nietzsche as positive theologian (per Walter Kaufmann), but rather a man who struggled with some of the most significant themes of Christianity, specifically salvation. “Nietzsche is obsessed with the question of human salvation.”[1] Fraser sees Nietzsche’s works as a series of experiments in redemption, specifically designed for a post-theistic age.

Fraser seems to have a point. All religions seek answers to some basic questions that seem innate to the human heart. Questions of origin, purpose, destiny, morality and redemption are common in belief systems. While Nietzsche does not address all of these, his various themes and constructs do resonate with common philosophic and religious themes. Will to power functions as a metaphysic for Nietzsche, and sometimes sounds like a deity—all encompassing, ineffable, generative, and distinguishing. His eternal return, while not teleological, does function as an eschatology, telling the future to some degree. The problem with the world, is not sin, as in the Christian worldview, but rather ressentiment. Many other parallels could be drawn, but there seems to be no doubt that in overturning Christianity’s system of thought, Nietzsche needed to supply terms and concepts for many similar, though admittedly different, ideas.

The death of God that Nietzsche predicted was to be considered a positive event in his eyes. While many who have since read Nietzsche have seized upon this concept and made him to be a radical atheist committed to nihilism, Nietzsche did not regard himself so. Rather, as a cultural and philosophical prophet, he saw his role as the herald of a new age.

Religion was an obstacle to this new philosophy, but the end of religion achieves nothing in itself. It merely clears the decks for what must now come about. The great critic of religion sets himself the task of replacing religion, providing an alternative to it. Against all expectations , the death of God is experienced not as a cause for despair, but as the occasion of hope. The outcome is not Schopenhauerian pessimism, but Dionysian affirmation.[2]

Nietzsche voices this optimism in many places in his writing, but perhaps nowhere as eloquently as in On the Genealogy of Morality:

[W]hoever pauses over the question [of the valuation of values] and learns to ask, will find what I found:—that  a vast new panorama opens up for him, a possibility make him giddy, mistrust, suspicion and fear of every kind spring up, belief in morality, all morality, wavers,—finally, a new demand becomes articulate. So let us give voice to this new demand: we need a critique of moral values, the value of these values should itself, for once, be examined. (On the Genealogy of Morality, Preface, 6, p. 7)


Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity is first and foremost an attack against the remnants of Christianity after the Enlightenment had stripped it of its contents. But it would be disingenuous to claim that he misunderstood Christianity completely. Some aspects of genuine Christianity were clearly understood by Nietzsche, and yet rejected. Westphal’s attempt to put a positive spin on Nietzsche from a Christian perspective is simply not realistic. Fraser challenges Westphal’s interpretation by reminding readers of some of Nietzsche’s more vicious attacks, such as those in The Antichrist:

Christianity is based on the rancour of the sick, the instinct against the healthy, against health. Everything well-constituted, proud, high-spirited, beauty above all, hurt their ears and eyes…God on the cross—have people still not grasped the gruesome ulterior motive behind this symbol?—Everything that suffers, everything nailed to the cross is divine…We are the only ones who are divine…Christianity won, and with this,  a nobler sensibility was destroyed,—Christianity has been the worst thing to happen to humanity so far (The Antichrist, 51, p. 50-51).

With this passage Fraser reminds Westphal that Nietzsche despised the central belief of Christianity—the cross. “What Nietzsche hates, above all, is the cross and the Christian story of redemption.”[3] The cross is one of the Christian beliefs that most clearly demonstrates Nietzsche’s understanding and confusion at the same time. Unlike so many Enlightenment philosophers and theologians, Nietzsche accepted that Christianity truly taught that Jesus claimed to be God, and that his death was, in reality, the death of God on the cross. At the same time, Nietzsche clearly does not understand the purpose of the cross, and even if he did, he rejected the interpretation that historic, orthodox Christianity provided. “This is what brought him to the cross: the proof is written on the cross. He died for his own guilt—no matter how many times people say it, there is simply no evidence that he died for anyone else’s guilt” (The Antichrist, 27, p. 25). Contra Nietzsche, Jesus did claim to die on behalf of sinners (Mark 10:45). Nietzsche rejected this view, again, not from a logical or philosophical objection, but because he found it aesthetically distasteful.

Nietzsche rejects Christianity for its core beliefs and for its exclusivity. “Nietzsche’s critique of religion is first and foremost a critique of a specific kind of religion, namely, of that type that succeeded most of all in establishing one single interpretation of the world and humanity.”[4] The dogmatism of Christianity is especially distasteful to him because he saw such an approach as a tool of oppression. This is one reason why he proclaimed that he did not want disciples and that his views were merely perspectives. The words of Jesus claiming to be the way, the truth and the way would especially anger Nietzsche. Nietzsche saw this dogmatism as intrinsic to every religion, and therefore he rejected them all, though Christianity was especially troubling to him.

Nietzsche’s foresight into Christianity’s end is remarkable considering the current state of the kind of liberal Christianity in Germany in his day. Mainline denominations have continued a trend of decline that began with their adoption of Enlightenment-depleted Christianity shortly after the start of the 20th century. Those churches and sects that have continued to cling to the husk of Christianity stripped clean by Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel and Schleiermacher, and so ably predicted by Nietzsche, are the embodied fulfillment of Nietzsche’s extraordinary vision o the future.

As prophet of modern Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche was both a man of his time and a man before his time. “A prophet is not a person who makes eccentric guesses about the future, but one whose antennae are so sensitive as to be able to pick up the first tremors, the earliest hints of events which one day will become manifest.”[5] Nietzsche was that prophet who, while eccentric, and eventually went insane, was also all too human in many respects the picture of sanity. He was dynamite in his day and a destiny in ours.

[1] Giles Fraser, Redeeming Nietzsche: On the Piety of Unbelief (NY: Routledge, 2002), 2.

[2] Kee, Nietzsche Against the Crucified, 37-38.

[3] Fraser, Redeeming Nietzsche, 21.

[4] Paul J.M. Van Tongeren, Reinterpreting Modern Culture: An Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophy (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2000), 273.

[5] Kee, Nietzsche Against the Crucified, 33.

How do systematic theology and biblical theology relate?

Systematic theology and biblical theology have traditionally been conceived as somewhat disparate disciplines, constituting entirely different approaches to theology. Biblical theology is held by some to be somewhat suspect, since it originally arose among critics of the Bible. Systematic theology is considered the way to do theology in most institutions, although most who feel this way really can’t tell you why. The answer is rather simple: since the time of the Protestant Scholastics, theology has been structured along the lines of the scientific method. This approach allowed theologians to divide doctrines into separate sections in order to develop a comprehensive body of propositional knowledge of what the Bible teaches about a given subject.

One of the drawbacks of this approach is that Scripture tends to be used in snippets. Removed from their contexts, verses are sometimes used to support theological propositions that they don’t genuinely support. Also, the various topics of systematics can be presented in a manner similar to a child’s blocks—they may be able to be arranged in an interlocking pattern, but they have no organic connection to one another. One of the correctives of the weaknesses of a purely systematic approach is the integration of biblical theology into systematics. This allows the various topics of systematic theology to be more organically related—similar to a tree where the roots feed the trunk, branches and leaves. This idea has recently found more support from systematicians who have been frustrated by the segmentation of the traditional approach.

In his recent book, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church (Crossway, 2010), Michael Lawrence proposes ways that a synthesis of these two approaches to theology might be attained. He suggests two ways systematic and biblical theology relate to one another. First, they are related through a common trajectory of authority. Scripture is the authoritative and normative source for theology. Moving from exegesis through biblical theology to systematic theology, Lawrence shows that systematic theology is rooted in sound biblical theology. In this construction, “biblical theology tends to be more foundational, while systematic theology both builds on the results of systematic theology and is itself guided by the interpretive horizons established by biblical theology” (p. 91).

Second, the two approaches are related through a trajectory.

Biblical theology immerses us in the storyline of the Bible in order to describe the Bible’s teaching in its own terms. It is a hermeneutical discipline; a way of reading and studying the Bible. The end of biblical theology, therefore, is an internally coherent understanding of the Bible. Systematic theology synthesizes the Bible’s worldview…The end of systematic theology, therefore, is an externally rational articulation of the truth (p. 91-2).

In the end, says Lawrence, we can’t have one without the other.

Biblical theology is how we read the Bible. Systematic theology is how the story of the Bible is shown to be normative in our lives. To say that you want one but not the other simply shows that you understand neither. Everyone has both a systematic theology and a biblical theology, whether they realize it or not. What we want, though, is for both to be faithful to the Scriptures—the biblical story and the biblical worldview. We won’t understand that worldview if we don’t understand the story out of which it arises. But if all we have is a story, how will that story ever engage the contemporary concerns of our own lives? (p. 92)

The proposal, then, is not to do away with systematic theology, but rather to integrate biblical and systematic theology more intentionally, so that the biblical narrative and the unfolding of progressive revelation shape our approach to systematizing theology. If you want to see a biblical theology that takes systematic theology into consideration, see D. A. Carson’s new book, The God Who Is There (Baker, 2010). If you want to see a systematic theology that integrates biblical theology, you’ll have to attend theology classes either online or in residence at Calvary Baptist Seminary where I teach!

What Role Do Culture, Religion and Politics Play in Global Conflicts?

My contention, however, is that the primary cause of most present conflicts in which the West is now engaged is not religion nor foreign policy, but culture. Culture is the radix of which the individual conflicts over specific aspects of Western policies are often enough merely symptomatic, and which lends them an aspect of bitterness and terror. It is this “clash of civilizations” that makes the protagonists implacable–and the resultant conflicts potentially far more deadly. Mere interests can “cut a deal”; cultures, however, cannot compromise their key characteristics without ceasing to exist.

Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, (IVP, 2004) 28.

What Is a Presupposition?

A presupposition is not a belief that one must have before (temporally speaking) one comes to believe in other things; rather, it is a belief that is independent of some other knowledge and governs that knowledge to some extent.

John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (P&R, 1995), 132 n5.

Elsewhere, Van Til ably demonstrates that EVERYONE has presuppositions which govern their thinking. A major task of apologetics is exposing the presuppositions of unbelievers (because they often keep them hidden, or are unaware of them), and demonstrating them to ultimately be irrational (which all presuppositions apart from Christian theism are).

Philosophy Fridays: Nietzsche as Prophet of Modern Christianity, Part 5

As a result of Enlightenment thinkers, Christianity had become just a shadow of its former self. “This sea change in perspective unleashed tidal waves of destructive nihilism which Friedrich Nietzsche, in moments of philosophic lucidity, had prophesied as a result of living in an ‘unsponsored’ universe.”[1] With each instance of surrendered territory, philosophical naturalism pressed for more conquest until European Christianity had given up most of its foundational beliefs. Baumer notes that,

It is possible to discern, amidst the disagreement [over the nature of God], certain new developments that changed rather drastically the conception of deity as traditionally held in Christian Europe. To put it another way, God, still identified by most with the God of Christian revelation, now acquired new attributes (and lost others) in response to, not only the skeptical crisis and the desire for religious peace but also the new cosmology [of Descartes and Locke].[2]

Christianity had been understood as a supernatural life that was based on an eternal, divine personal Being who had condescended to reveal himself to created human beings, both verbally and in the historical incarnation of the Son of God, who then died to remove the curse of sin from humankind and rose again to bring abundant life in the here and now and eternal life in the hereafter. European Christianity in the 19th century had devolved into a cold, static state of dead morality based on admitted myths that were ahistorical, but useful for maintaining the power of religious authority. Almost nothing was left of historic orthodox Christianity but the forms of religion, the dead husk of appearances with no substance behind it.

Nietzsche was alarmed that people had not perceived the “mortal danger” of Kant’s categorical imperative, the ethical view of impersonal duty. He asked, “What could be more destructive than working, thinking, feeling, without any inner need, any deeply personal choice, any pleasure? as an automaton of ‘duty’? It is almost the recipe for decadence, even for idiocy” (The Antichrist, 11, p. 10). He understood that with the death of God, morality was no longer tied to a transcendent being, but rather was the tool of human authorities to manipulate gullible people. Nietzsche was disturbed by the lack of insight in his fellow man. He was even more disturbed by those who understood this, and yet still clung to religion in spite of their understanding. Kee tries to explain the dilemma. “It is not difficult to see why people who lose religious beliefs ignore the full implications of their new situation. It could be inconvenient: they do not want to lose the comfortable and familiar elements in their social lives, or their careers and professional status.”[3] This upset Nietzsche tremendously. He saw how this turned a person against herself, robbed her of life and sickened her.

Parasitism as the church’s only practice; drinking all the blood, all the love, all the hope out of life with its ideals of anaemia and ‘sanctity’; the beyond as the will to negate every reality; the cross as the mark of the most subterranean conspiracy that ever existed,—against health, beauty, against anything well constituted, against courage, spirit, goodness to the soul, against life itself… (The Antichrist, 62, p. 66).

Enter Nietzsche who acts as coroner to declare the demise of God and as artist to paint a picture of the glorious future. “Perhaps Nietzsche attacked a Christianity whose vision had become severely blinkered, a faith which allowed for too little in the way of joy and beauty, and so distorted eternity and wisdom.[4] In Nietzsche’s perception, Christianity was the enemy of life, vitality, instinct and the will to power. He saw that the ravages of critical scholarship had forced Christianity whimpering into a corner with nowhere left to run. Christianity had been exposed as non-historical, empirically unverifiable and irrational. As a result, its metaphysics were nothing more than superstition, its epistemology a charade, and its ethics nothing more than a tool of priests with which to manipulate and oppress the herd who still believed.

What Nietzsche saw when he examined Christianity was the bloated corpse of a host that had been attacked and overcome by parasites until it too became a parasite sucking the life out of people and cultures. The reason behind this, said Nietzsche is the inherent ressentiment of Christianity that seeks to overthrow the strong (On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, 10, p. 20-21). Hence, Christianity overtook Rome, spread around the world, each time assimilating elements of pagan culture and religion, changing itself with every successive accommodation. “Every time Christianity expanded to greater and cruder masses of people whose presuppositions were increasingly remote from the presupposition under which it arose, it became increasingly necessary to vulgarize Christianity and make it barbaric,—Christianity soaked up doctrines and rites from all the subterranean cults of the imperium Romanum and bits of nonsense from all kinds of sick reason” (The Antichrist, 37, p. 33).

Nietzsche was not the first to proclaim the death of God. Thirty years before his own proclamation, Max Stirner had written, “man has killed God in order to become now—‘sole God on high.’”[5] Later, Ludwig von Fuerbach would argue that the concept of god is the product of human invention in The Essence of Christianity.[6] Finally David Strauss wrote that Christianity was based on an “ideal” Jesus, not the historical Jesus. This led him to ultimately reject Christianity altogether.[7] Nietzsche, however, took the ideas of Stirner, Fuerbach and Strauss to their logical conclusions and was the bridge to a new dawn. He was a force, a destiny, dynamite. “I know my lot. One day my name will be connected with the memory of something tremendous—a crisis such as the earth has never seen, the deepest collision of conscience, a decision made against everything that has been believed, demanded, held sacred so far. I am not a human being, I am dynamite” (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am a Destiny,” 1, p. 143-4).

Nietzsche was right to see himself as dynamite. His writings accelerated the direction of the philosophy and culture of Europe, especially in Germany. In theology, his predictions achieved a certain measure of fulfillment, culminating in the “death of God movement” in America in the 1960’s, which was led by Thomas J.J. Altizer and Paul Van Buren.[8] Interestingly, this movement coincided with a recovery of sorts within philosophy of God as rational explanation of metaphysics. Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds, published in 1967, sparked a revival of interest in the topic of God, and paved the way for his later books, which have reinforced the idea that it is as rational to believe in God as it is to believe in the existence of minds besides one’s own.[9] The effect of Plantinga’s writing was that a philosopher could ply his trade again without having to deny or downplay his belief in God. This was the contradiction of Nietzsche. He could both predict the direction of theology, while at the same time failing to anticipate the future of philosophy.

The last part of this essay will present Nietzsche’s antidote to Christianity and conclude with a final observation on his role as prophet of modern Christianity.

[1] Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept, 188.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kee, Nietzsche Against the Crucified, 30.

[4] Stephen N. Williams, “Dionysus Against the Crucified: Nietzsche Contra Christianity, Part II,” Tyndale Bulletin 49:1 (1998), 150.

[5] Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own, ed. John Carroll, trans. Steven T. Byington (London: Cape, 1971), 25; cited in Benson, Graven Ideologies, 73.

[6] Ludwig von Fuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Elliot (NY: Harper & Row, 1957).

[7] David Strauss, The Life of Jesus: Critically Examined (Kessinger, 2008); The Old Faith and the New (Holt, 1873).

[8] Representative of their works is Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966).

[9] Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967).

The New Tolerance is Intolerance: Why the Rest Hates the West, Part 2

Where the old tolerance allowed hard differences on religionand morality to rub shoulders and compete freely in the public square, the new variety wishes to lock them all indoors as matters of private judgment; the public square must be given over to indistinctness. If the old tolerance was, at least, a real value, the new, intolerant “tolerance” might better be described as an antivalue; it is a disposition of hostility to any suggestion that one thing is “better” than another, or even that any way of life needs protected space from its alternatives.

Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (IVP, 2004), 12.

How does this affect the distinctiveness of a certain culture? It muzzles and destroys it. I experienced this first hand a few years ago while taking a doctoral class in philosophy at a Catholic university. After stating my objections to language games and irrationality in postmodern philosophy, I was informed by the Goth female sitting next to me that my dogmatism was oppressing her. If I could just view the world from the bottom of the ladder, as she had to from her post-colonial and feminist perspective, instead of the top of the ladder as a white man, then I would understand why my insistence that truth was better than falsehood was tyrannical and oppressive.

How does this relate to global rage? Peoples around the world have seen an influx of this kind of culture-destroying tolerance coming from the West.

With this shift, the threat to distinctness becomes greatly exacerbated. It is not just totalitarian ideologues who will come into conflict with us Westerners; anyone who cares about their culture, and has enough exposure to us and our way of doing things to be affected by us, will feel threatened (p. 12-13).

This passage by Pearce reveals one reason why there is global rage–the intolerant tolerance of the West erodes the distinctions of culture. And for people that greatly value their culture, this constitutes a threat to be fought.

The next essay from Pearse’s book will address American Common Sense, and how foreign our common sense is to the rest of the world.

Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Growing Animosity of the Rest of the World Toward America, Part 1

As an American who grew up believing that the United States of America was the beacon of freedom in the world and that people all over the world envied our democracy and liberty, I could never understand why other countries would want to attack us. As a teenager, it was the Russkies and Chicoms that threatened us with their totalitarian aspirations. Today the threat comes primarily from terrorists, but hatred for our country seems to seethe from every corner of the globe. For many Americans, including me, this seems inconceivable. What motivated people all around the world to celebrate when the Twin Towers came down on 9/11? Why did so many dance in the streets and celebrate the worst attack on American soil in half a century?

In his book, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, Meic Pearse tries to help Americans understand the “roots of global rage” against Western democracy. In the introduction he views American tolerance, which many of us consider one of the cornerstones of our liberties, from another side. In this passage he is not referring to tolerance as moral relativism, but tolerance as the principles of freedom of religion, speech, press, etc.

The currency of the term tolerance has recently become badly debased. Where it used to mean the respecting of real, hard differences. It has come to mean instead a dogmatic abdication of truth-claims and a moralistic adherence to moral relativism—departure from either of which is stigmatized as intolerance.

Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (IVP, 2004), 12.

Christians decry this kind of tolerance, too, but we often fail to remember that this kind of moral relativism came from the West. We would rather imagine that we have only ever exported the virtuous kind of tolerance, which seems self-apparently superior not only to relativism, but also to the kind of restrictions on freedoms one finds in most of the world. How could anyone argue against the intrinsic goodness of a free democratic society? Pearse, however, describes the ability of tolerance to erode cultural and religious distinctives.

[Tolerance] is an agreement that a previously monolithic society makes with a minority: we will tolerate you and your strange ways for reasons that seem good to us (because we think it just, or because the advantages of doing so outweigh the disadvantages—or whatever) at the price of our overall culture being a little less sharply and rigidly defined than it has been before. Now, we agree to smudge the edges so that we can include you. (p. 11)

Pearse reminds us that many in the world see the impact of Hollywood, consumer culture, and crass capitalism (in contrast to principled capitalism) to be destructive to their culture. Instead of seeing the positive aspects of American culture that truly exist, many around the world are more inclined to see the glass half empty. It is hard to argue against the legitimate complaints concerning the corrosive power of American culture. Don’t we, in fact, preach against it in the church all the time? Why do we defend American culture against the rest of the world while we curse it in our own pulpits?

The truth is, the moral relativism that has been tolerated in America, especially in the last century, has invaded many countries around the world. Many of these countries had high moral standards, even if they were distorted and included practices we would find objectionable. Our relativism has worn away the edges of their cultures, captured the hearts of their young, and threatens their way of life. We may not agree with elements of various cultures around the world, but we certainly can’t deny that our “tolerance” has done this. And this is just one reason why many in the world hate the U.S. I don’t find the hatred completely justified, but the goal of this series of essays is understanding, not necessarily agreement.

The Idolatry of Success

More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we are god, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength and performance. To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.

Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (Dutton, 2009), 75

Philosophy Fridays: Nietzsche as Prophet of Modern Christianity 4

Nietzsche’s Christianity

The European expression of Christianity in Nietzsche’s day is key to understanding his critique of it. “Nietzsche was living at a time when the balance was still in favor of the religious, but prophetically he could anticipate a coming age in which the balance would tip in favour of the irreligious.”[1]

Many Christians are put off by his verbal assaults without remembering that he was writing against a certain form of Protestantism and Catholicism that may, upon closer examination, be significantly different than the form of Christianity that many in the world today practice. There is no doubt that he did write many things that Christians of all ages would find offensive. And he certainly attacked the heart of the Christian faith in addition to the peculiarities of German Lutheranism in his day. It would be a mistake, however, to reject all his criticisms of Christianity outright. Nietzsche had an uncanny grasp of what the Enlightenment had done to Christianity, and some of his censure is unparalleled in its accuracy. “Enlightenment denarrativization came at a high human cost, and nobody has understood that cost better then Friedrich Nietzsche.”[2] Nietzsche’s love for Greek tragedy sprang, in part, from a sense of loss that both Socrates and scientific naturalism had introduced—a loss of the great myths that made life fascinating, enthralling and interesting. While initially confident in science and its ability to explain away “the god of the gaps,” he eventually came to see faith in science as also contributing to the stultifying of life: “But you will have gathered what I am getting at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests” (The Gay Science, Book 5, 344, p. 201). Myth was necessary for the reenchantment of life, for without it, there would be no Dionysus. Without myth “all cultures lose their healthy, creative, natural energy; only a horizon surrounded by myths encloses and unifies a cultural movement. Only by myth can all the energies of fantasy and Apolline dream be saved from aimless meandering” (The Birth of Tragedy, 23, p. 108).

In contrast, cultures that had lost or done away with myth were life-denying and pathetic.

Now place beside this type of mythical culture abstract man, without guidance from myth, abstract education, abstract morality, abstract law, the abstract state; consider the rule-less wandering of artistic fantasy, unbridled by an indigenous myth; think of a culture that has no secure and sacred place of origin and which is condemned to exhaust every possibility and to seek meager nourishment from all other cultures; that is the present, the result of Socratism’s determination to destroy myth. Now mythless man stands there, surrounded by every past there has ever been, eternally hungry, scraping and digging in a search or roots, even if he has to dig for them in the most distant antiquities (The Birth of Tragedy, 23, p. 108-9; emphasis mine).

This was Nietzsche’s evaluation of Europe in his day, especially Germany. The loss of an inspiring and noble myth by which people could interpret their lives resulted in “feverish and uncanny agitation” in which hungry people greedily grabbed and chased after nourishment. What Nietzsche was not as keen to recognize, however, was that the same disenchantment that plagued European culture also plagued Christianity. The same Enlightenment that had demythologized science and the humanities had demythologized Protestant Christianity.

The Enlightenment had dealt a severe blow to Christianity as its status as unchallenged presupposition gave way to a brutal historicist, empiricist and rationalist attack smashing the foundations of Western civilization. The response by European Christians ran the gamut from fideistic entrenchment to surrendered accommodation. Specifically among intellectuals, accommodation seemed to be the “enlightened” way to deal with these challenges. As a result of the philosophical and theological developments from Descartes and Hume to Kant, Hegel and Schleiermacher, Christian theology progressively capitulated for the sake of retaining its respectability.[3]

Descartes introduced “the first truly magnificent philosophical system of the modern period.”[4] He wanted to know what could be clearly and distinctly known without uncritically holding what his philosophical predecessors had accepted without justification. He doubted everything until he found the one thing he could not doubt—himself—as famously preserved in his dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” In doing so, Descartes introduced a massive philosophical and cultural shift from God as Subject to the autonomous rational human being as Subject. “The self that becomes the star performer in modern European philosophy is the transcendental self, or transcendental ego, whose nature an ambitions were unprecedentedly arrogant, presumptuously cosmic, and consequently mysterious…the transcendental self was nothing less than God, the Absolute Self, the World Soul.”[5]

The starting point for knowledge, then, became man, and not revelation. Descartes intention, however, was not to reject God. A solution had to be found to preserve belief in God. Descartes developed what is essentially a variant of Anselm’s ontological argument—that since one can conceive of a perfect being (a being than which nothing greater can be thought), that being must exist. The significance of Descartes’ project is that God’s existence is no longer accepted upon the testimony of the Christian Scriptures, but is now accepted because the notion of God is innate in man’s mind. That is, man can autonomously reason to God. This set the stage for the “crisis of major proportions” that marked the transition from the seventeenth century to the eighteenth. “Supernatural revelation faded out early as a primary proof” and reason “overshadowed revelation in the early eighteenth-century debates.”[6] Additionally, the living, personal God of the Reformation had degenerated into a corpse of impersonal substance, from which succeeding generations of vulturous thinkers would strip its flesh.

As a radical empiricist, David Hume rejected the concept of innate ideas and restricted human knowledge to analytical truths (i.e., all bachelors are unmarried men) and synthetic truths (i.e., 2+2=4). Any claim to truth that did not meet these qualifications was to be considered nonsense, even if it helped people to practically live day to day. Yet at the same time, “he used a set of devastating arguments to show that the unqualified faith of the Enlightenment in the powers of reason and experience was limited.”[7] The effect of Hume’s philosophy was the introduction of a flood of skepticism that would only partly be dammed by Kant.

Immanuel Kant “awoke from his dogmatic slumbers” after reading Hume. As a devout Lutheran, he was greatly concerned that Hume had so completely made Christian faith seem irrational. His mission was to provide the foundations for once again deeming faith to be rational. By separating the noumenal from the phenomenal, Kant thought that he had protected God from the critiques of Hume and scientific naturalism. In The Critique of Pure Reason he expanded the notion of the self that Descartes had introduced. The self was no longer the passive recipient of knowledge or sense data; rather, the human mind became the active subject, imposing order on nature. In The Critique of Practical Reason Kant reversed the order of morality and religion, positing that morality produces religion, not vice versa. Morality was innate for Kant, and was not motivated by religion, but rather was the motivation for it. From this Kant developed his famous categorical imperative—“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”[8] For this morality to be virtuous, however, it must be motivated not by any selfish interests, such as love or pity, but purely out of a sense of duty. “In Kant we can see the forces of Nietzsche’s comment that ‘morality is anti-nature’, a rejection of the instincts and passions.”[9] Kant’s impact on nineteenth-century European Christianity, is twofold: first, while God can be rationally believed once again, he is virtually unknowable; and second, Christianity is reduced to morality.[10]

As an absolute idealist, G.W.F. Hegel posited a principle of absolute unity that comes to particularity through a process in history. Every individual mind is an aspect of the grand mind of the absolute (or God, as Hegel saw him), a corporate consciousness. The absolute comes to consciousness by negation (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis), which brings more concrete knowledge. The absolute has greater universal knowledge of the concrete realities of the world. The absolute, by means of Hegel’s dialectic, comes to perfect knowledge and becomes the true concrete universal, knowing reality perfectly in its concreteness. At that time all things become one with the absolute at the omega of history. Unity and diversity are in a dynamic, reciprocal and eschatological relationship with one another when perfect consciousness is realized by the universal. It will include all finite minds in its attainment of the one indivisible Geist. Through his construction Hegel succeeded in erasing one of the key distinctions of Christianity—the Creator/creature distinction, in which God eternally remains other than creation. By making everything (including God) a monadic reality, God becomes indistinguishable from human beings.[11]

Friedrich Schleiermacher carried Kant’s epistemological principles to their logical conclusion, while at the same time rejecting his religion within the limits of reason alone. “Like so many of his contemporaries, Schleiermacher thirsted for the Infinite, which was something quite different from trying to reconcile religion with reason, or to reduce it to ethics.”[12] One could not attain knowledge of God through human intellect. Rather, a feeling of absolute dependence is the means by which people come in contact with God. In place of the autonomous human intellect of Descartes, Schleiermacher set up autonomous human emotion. This is nothing more than religious phenomenalism. One is religious not by adhering to a body of knowledge or doctrine, but by experience. “Thus Schleiermacher individualized, as well as psychologized and emotionalized religion. Each individual was an embodiment of the All, and experienced the All in his own unique way. If Schleiermacher’s God was not pantheistic, he was certainly immanent, to be found in the world, more particularly in man’s soul.”[13] Religion was, finally under Schleiermacher, a radically subjectivized human experience whose sole expression was some kind of morality.

The next part of this essay will explore what effect these philosophers and theologians had upon the Christianity with which Nietzsche was familiar.

[1] Alistair Kee, Nietzsche Against the Crucified (London: SCM Press, 1999), 28.

[2] David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 299.

[3] Although there were many other philosophers and theologians who contributed to the decline of Christianity in Nietzsche’s day (most notably Kierkegaard), for the purpose of this essay, only the five mentioned above will be examined. Interestingly, Nietzsche mentions the impact of Descartes, Hume, and Kant (among others) that culminated in Schopenhauer, giving Germany its “first admitted and uncompromising atheist.” This atheism was “a victory of the European conscience won finally and with great difficulty; as the most fateful act of two thousand years of discipline for truth that in the end forbids itself the lie of faith in God.” (The Gay Science, Book 5, 357, p. 219)

[4] Donald Palmer, Looking at Philosophy, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006), 154.

[5] Robert C. Solomon, Continental Philosophy Since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self, A History of Western Philosophy vol. 7 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 4.

[6] Franklin L. Baumer, Modern European Thought: Continuity and Change in Ideas, 1600-1950 (New York Macmillan, 1977), 185, 188.

[7] Solomon, Continental Philosophy Since 1750, 13.

[8] Readers of Nietzsche can certainly see the similarities between Kant’s categorical imperative and Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, while at the same time appreciating the differences.

[9] Solomon, Continental Philosophy Since 1750, 39.

[10] Robert Solomon mistakenly associates Kantian moralism with Christian ethics. He states, “Nietzsche’s nihilism is a reaction against a quite particular conception of morality, summarized in modern times in the ethics of Kant. Quite predictably, much of Judeo-Christian morality—or what is often called Judeo-Christian morality—shares this conception.” See Robert C. Solomon, Living with Nietzsche: What the Great “Immoralist” Has to Teach Us (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 123. One only need read key theologians in the history of Christianity, such as Augustine, John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, to know that there is a world of difference between Kantian ethics and Christian ethics.

[11] This distinction is lost on Gilles Deleuze who mistakenly thinks that Christianity is Hegelian: “What has been discovered in Hegel’s early writings is in fact the final truth of the dialectic: modern dialectic is the truly Christian ideology;” Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (trans. Hugh Tomlinson; NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 18. Throughout this volume Deleuze ties Christianity with a Hegelian dialectic, but he is grossly mistaken, as Hegel is one of historic Christianity’s most destructive enemies.

[12] Baumer, Modern European Thought, 278.

[13] Ibid., 278.