5/29/2008

das Gefühl ad nauseam: Friedrich Schleiermacher's Paradigm for Christian Theology


Although the name Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is notoriously hard to spell, his name appears in every serious treatment of contemporary theology precisely because his theology is just as notoriously hard to expel from the influence of Christian thought. He is not called the "Father of Liberalism" without good reason. His "children" still carry out his basic paradigm in contemporary theological development. If we can speak of the history of Western Philosophy in terms of Pre- and Post-Kantian, then perhaps we could almost just as easily speak of Christian theology as Pre- or Post-Schleiermachian. His influence is not easily exaggerated. How did Christianity go from a reliance on biblical revelation, belief in the supernatural, reliance on a personal creator God, and defining its core in terms of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, to a reliance on philosophy, an allergic reaction to the supernatural, reliance on personal subjective consciousness, and defining its core in terms of grand feeling (das Gefühl) of dependence on the greater whole of existence? Although it may seem quite a leap for Schleiermacher to go from a conservative Pietist upbringing to a completely new paradigm for Christian theology, to be sure, his thought did not develop in a vacuum. By paying close attention to the effect of Enlightenment ideas on his generation, it becomes easier to see how Schleiermacher's views, though a great leap from historical Christianity, was more like a baby step from the sentimental philosophical paradigm which was gaining popularity in his day.
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Romanticism's Apparent Influence on Schleiermacher
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The latter period of the Enlightenment (in which Schleiermacher was born) began to see reactions against reason's claim to supremacy and sufficiency for all knowledge. Many began to look at a reduction of reality to neat scientific and rational formulations as a gross misrepresentation of the complexity of reality. As a result of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century Romanticism, mystery and imagination fought for the honored seat at the round table of legitimate expressions of that transcendant reality. The Romantics, as they were called, did not believe that ultimate reality could be known to finite human minds. Science and formal reason, they argued, are only one kind of "logic" by which humans make decisions of value and truth—and not even the most important kind either. After all, people do not tend to make decisions about love and friendships based on a certain scientific data or after a long and hard-fought deductive method of reasoning. Intuition, inspiration, imagination, and intense emotions that energize the human will, in the view of a Romantic, comprise the real "stuff" of life and ultimate reality. In Schleiermacher's day, there was a new emphasis on the epistemological implications of such realities. Rationality began to be seen as cold and restrictive, much like the Enlightenment thinkers thought of the religious authoritarianism they hoped to overcome.
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In comes Schleiermacher. While Schleiermacher followed Kant in seeing the need for placing theological discussion on a locus other than pure reason (see above essay on Kant), neither did he wish to consider Christianity as a form of knowledge or a system of morality, as Kant implied. Rather, Schleiermacher saw religion as grounded in das Gefühl—an awareness of one's own existence on the one hand (consciousness) with one's dependency on God on the other (God consciousness). For him, then, the role of theology was to explore and explain the implications of that feeling of dependence.
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An Extra-Textual Approach to Defining Traditional Christian Terms
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Of course, if one has come this far down the road over discussions on proposing an alternative to basic trust in the Bible (see previous essay on the Enlightenment), the Bible's teachings about the foundations of knowledge are already considered passé. Thus, for those who were "enlightened" with a new approach to knowledge, if the Bible is to be understood as having any relevance to real knowledge, it must be re-interpreted in light of enlightenment presuppositions. This was an extra-textual approach to theology: starting from a certain adherence to a philosophy derived from outside the Bible, by which one then proceeds to interpret the Bible according to its standards—rejecting or reinterpreting wherever discrepancies exist. Based on this combination of Romanticism and Kantian epistemology, Schleiermacher built an extra-textual approach to Scripture, and built his theology on the foundation of das Gefühl. Anything that could be shown not to have any correspondence to this Gefühl was thereby deemed by Schleiermacher as irrelevant for theology. Thus, while the doctrine of creation was seen as constructive toward cultivating this sense of dependence, the mode of creation had no such convenience to theological development. The Genesis account of creation may or may not be historically accurate—as Schleiermacher himself did not believe it was—but this is not what is important. Even if it were historically accurate, however, it would not necessarily inform our feeling of dependency, and therefore, should never be made into an article of faith which defines the nature of Christianity. Such doctrines are not rejected because they are necessarily incompatible with science, but because they do not bear direct relation to the human experience of Gefühl. Furthermore, doctrinal formulation as such is of secondary importance, since its purpose is to explain and cultivate the all important experience of Gefühl.
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The primary religious truth of Christianity is redemption, which is an experience, not a doctrine. This experience, following the Germen pietistic notions in which Schleiermacher was raised, is the essence of Christian piety—the fundamental basis for theology. For Christianity, however, this is not merely a subjective piety but a corporate one. Christianity, according to Schleiermacher, affords a superior level of God-consciousness than what one might come to on her own or through some other religion. The origins of this heightened piety must be traced back to a sufficient cause: Jesus. Heresy is redefined as doctrine which fails to give an adequate explanation for this sufficient cause. Since Christ's activity has such great effects on producing such widespread and intense God-consciousness, we must give adequate attention to his person to account for this. What kind of person could be such a catalyst for such higher-order piety? A superior to be sure, in two ways: his own level of God-consciousness and his ability to impart this feeling to others. Inadequate attempts to give a sufficient cause, therefore, of Christian origins, play out in either failing to account for his work of imparting this Gefühl to others (the redemptive work of Christ) or in failing to account for what kind of person could be capable of not only having, but powerfully imparting such higher experiences of Gefühl to others (the person of Christ). That is, heresy is the result of failing to ascribe to Christ's person what his activity demands, thus failing to have an acceptable form of Christian faith.
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Schleiermacher's Children: The Birth Of Classical Liberal Theology
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Schleiermacher did not, however, see Christianity as the only source of meaningful theology. The feeling of dependence is universal, and therefore it is inevitable that all religious language would find some way to divulge it. Religious tradition passed on from generation to generation helps people to experience and better understand das Gefühl. In this sort of framework, non-Christian religions, although inferior to Christianity, are not so much "wrong" as they are different and second-rate ways of affirming the one common human experience of das Gefühl.
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Such a paradigm for theology redefined Christianity. This way of doing Christian theology, using the traditional language of Christ, redemption, doctrine, heresy, etc., yet infusing meanings in them foreign to the traditional confessional statements of Christianity (and foreign to Jesus' own first century Jewish framework to be sure) inevitably created great confusion in the church over the real meaning of Christianity. Who is God the Father? The whole of reality. Who is Jesus? The perfect ideal of God-consciousness. Who is the Spirit? An ability to interpret this feeling of dependance in a common way. What is Sin? Lack of God-consciousness. What is the Genesis account of the Fall? A symbol of the lack of God-consciousness. Why should we preach the word? To evoke this God-consciousness to new levels. What is salvation? Connecting with our God-consciousness.
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In this project, Schleiermacher literally carved out a whole new path for being Christian and doing Christian theology. His ideas were not just a new development of traditional Christian thought. They assumed a posture of casual dismissal of such thought and an attempt to subvert the historic Christian faith with something more "relevant" to a Post-Enlightenment world. It would be a careless understatement to say that Schleiermacher's new paradigm was picked up by later theologians. His theology was not just picked up by some. In many cases, it virtually replaced Christianity. His influence was deep and wide. The tradition is known as Classical Liberal Theology. After Schleiermacher's bold move, Christianity was never the same.
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Although those who came after him varied in their own take of the essence of Christianity, all sought to redefine it with extra-textual philosophical frameworks. Several common themes run throughout this classic period of Liberal Theology which might be considered to have followed (in some way) or further developed Schleiermacher's theology: 1) allowing for a disconnect between science, history, and reason on the one hand, and religion on the other, 2) taking for granted that the referents for religious language are sufficiently explained outside of a transcendent reference point (i.e. reducing theology to anthropology), 3) attempting to boil all religions down to some commonality in human experience (i.e. pluralism), 4) attempting to find the value in Scripture by going beyond the original intent of the authors, adapting such texts to current modes of thinking (i.e. extra-textual hermeneutics), 5) accepting Kantian starting points (i.e. anti-supernaturalism, noumena vs. phenomena), 6) downplaying the importance of church dogma (i.e. anti-confessionalism), 7) forfeiting any real hope to establish the uniqueness of Christ (i.e. Christianity as superior in degree rather than superior in kind), 8) holding a naïve optimism with respect to human nature, 9) attempting to get beyond the biblical texts about Jesus to discover the Jesus of history (i.e. the quest for the historical Jesus), 10) reducing world religions down to the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, 11) reducing Christianity to ethical and social concerns (e.g. the social gospel).
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Although Classical Liberal Theology would eventually be challenged, even Karl Barth, arguably one of Classical Liberal Theology's most vocal critics, when asked by Carl Henry whether or not the resurrection was historical, refused to answer the question and downplayed the importance of such questions. This approach to theology of which Schleiermacher is considered the "father," eventually took over much of mainline Protestantism in what is known now as the modernist controversy. The theology of Vatican II in many respects gave way to the spirit of the modernist age, leaving a permanent impact on confessional Roman Catholicism as well as protestantism. In short, Schleiermacher's approach to Christianity spawned a new epoch.

5/20/2008

From Enlightenment to Liberal Theology: How the "Light" Led to the Dark Ages of Theology

These next two posts will be about how the Enlightenment, and reactions to it, eventually played a major causal role (among other causes) in the rise of liberal theology. Overviews of history always distort things; there is no escaping it. I will no doubt (as all do) oversimplify things. Experts on these subjects are welcome to correct me and help me better understand the nuances that my presentation may obscure, or challenge my thesis altogether. However, I am not alone in my opinions here. I am taking my queues from fallable experts:
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Alister E. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology, 1750-1990, second edition (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005).
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Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought, edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishers, 2007).
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After the Darkness, There Were Competing Lights
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"After the darkness, there was light." At least that is how enlightenment thinkers conceived of the radical change that began to take place in the mid-seventeenth century and lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century. Although it might be more accurately portrayed in the plural 'Enlightenments' to underscore the diversity of perspectives during this period, the popular icons of this period sought freedom from superstition and religious authority on the one hand, to reach terra nova through reason and science on the other. It is characterized as an age of optimism. Many from this period had become fed up with years of religious persecution when the church killed "heretics" (anyone who disagreed with the reigning religious persuasion), and were eager to overcome the age-old hostile debates between Catholics and Protestants through reason. This can be seen in the decline of authoritarian institutions such as the nobility and the church and the rise of the middle class and nationalism. Paralleling these more secular drifts of the Enlightenment was a series of evangelical "Awakenings" in

Britain, Jansenism in France, Pietism in Germany, and the Great Awakening in America. Both the Awakenings and the Enlightenments had incredible impacts on the culture, and would ultimately compete for the allegiance of the hearts and minds of Western Culture.
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Alternatives to a Revelation-Dependant Epistemology Proposed
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Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the forerunner for the Enlightenment period. His obsession to find the one true method for settling all disputes about fact and truth would become typical of the enlightenment optimism. He argued for a revolution in the approach to knowledge. He inverted the method of his day, rationalism and deductive reasoning, and argued that one should arrive at the general maxims last, only after beginning anew and rebuilding the foundations of knowledge through an inductive method. Not long after Bacon published his popular book, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582/3-1648) proposed that religion should only accept what is rational. Such a sentiment would become the typical modus operandi for Deism.
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John Locke (1632-1704) influenced the minds of many with his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) in which he tried to provide foundations for knowledge by arguing that ideas were not a priori but rather, each person is born with a tabula rasa ("blank slate") and knowledge comes through sensation and reflection. Locke also pushed for certain political changes, most notably: 1) toleration for all religious persuasions except for Roman Catholics, rather than a state church that enforced its views and 2) democracy based on the consent of the governed. Although John Locke himself was somewhat of a Christian apologist, he gave reason and science the authority in his epistemological system. He denied John Calvin's claim that a basic knowledge of God was a priori, rejected the doctrine of original sin, and saw education as the key to transformation.
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If Reason Can't Demonstrate it, It Aint So

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As rationalism and science gained more authority, deism became more intellectually credible than traditional Christian faith. Although Sir Isaac Newton (1624-1727) himself believed in an open universe, his laws of motion were picked up and used in an ever-increasingly secular model of science in which belief in miracles and the supernatural were considered anti-science. In an attempt to demonstrate that nothing in Christianity was contrary or above reason, Deists like John Toland (1670-1722) and Matthew Tindal (1655-1733) bent over backwards to reduce the central teachings of Christianity to things that can be universally verifiable. This went beyond Locke, who allowed for adherence to truths which were "beyond" reason, and cultivated an attitude that rejected everything that could not be grasped by human reason. If humans cannot explain it, it must not be true—so much for doctrines about the incarnations of a deity, or substitutionary atonements, or miracles such as the rising of the dead. Reason alone will not lead to such notions, therefore, they must be rejected as a naiveté of the primitive thought.
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Wipe Out the Imfamy! (trans-rational religion)

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Voltaire (1694-78) was the leader in the French Enlightenment (along with other men, together known as the philosophes). They escalated the revolution one step further. Whereas the deists were trying to associate their views with traditional Christianity, Voltaire was willing to sever all ties to Christianity and attack every major Christian doctrine with great hostility, chanting, "Wipe out the infamy" (i.e. organized Christianity). Christianity was thought by these men to be antithetical to reason and natural religion, so they sought to break the anciene regime's strong hold on French culture. The French revolution was radical, political, and bloody.

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Taking the Rejection of Revelation to it's Logical End
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By the time David Hume (1711-76) appears on the scene, he represented the British Enlightenment's most radical and skeptical form. He took the culture's rejection of certainty through revelation to its logical conclusion. His Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1758) and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) resulted in a reduction of what people thought of as firm "knowledge" down to habits of association of ideas united by the imagination and given names. He showed that there is no certainty that what we perceive with our senses actually directly corresponds with reality, and that the categories we put on our sense perceptions are also arbitrary habits that cannot be proven to be accurate. Perhaps nothing lies behind our sense perceptions; perhaps reason itself is just an arbitrary habit we humans have. Although Hume was skeptical, this did not stop him from making all sorts of arguments with his reasoning faculties. He gained notoriety for giving a conclusive argument against the possibility of miracles, establishing the empiricist maxim: Whatever books do not have experimental reasoning about matters of fact and existence, Commit them to the flames! He also was thought to have disproved the knowledge of self and God, along with knowledge of cause and effect that served as a basis for science.
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Revelation, Reason, Science, and a Change in Light Posture

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It must be pointed out that science and reason were not discovered during the Enlightenment, but they were developing disciplines long before they took center stage during the Enlightenment. Questions of human existence, the meaning of life, the destiny of man, the existence God, along with questions about metaphysics, ethics, and morality were largely settled by religious beliefs—Christianity in particular. The shift during the Enlightenment was a shift from thinking that the most ultimate questions about human existence were not clearly spelled out in scientific data and must be found in revelation, to a distrust in revelation (long years of religious wars may have helped that along) and an optimism on the ability of science to discover and unravel the ultimate questions of life. To say it another way, theology as the "queen" of science was dethroned by virtue of the dethroning of the king himself—revelation. Although science existed before the Enlightenment, science began to take the place of sole arbitrator of all truth.

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Inasmuch as science was a form of human reason, some pointed out that science itself was dependant on reason and philosophy. This created a competition for the epistemological throne of all knowledge. Empiricism on the one hand championed the inductive method as supreme (as seen in John Locke) while rationalism (as seen in Descartian philosophy) on the other championed deductive reasoning as the only sure method for establishing the credibility of knowledge (even scientific knowledge). Without a great deal of exaggeration we might say that the Enlightenment witnessed a change in light posture. The "light" from science and reason before the Enlightenment was in a posture of humble submission to a divine revelation. After the Enlightenment, science and reason began lording it over divine revelation, forcing that revelation to submit to modern science and human reason—whether that meant an outright denial of revelation's claims, or creative ways of interpreting that revelation so that it still fit what seemed "reasonable" to the modern mind. The most devestating shift for religion was when this came to mean that truth claims in religion not only had to be compatable with science and reason, but had to be verifiable by science and reason. This effectively placed science and reason as the only ultimate grounds for knowing anything for sure. If reason or science can't demonstrate it---it probably aint so! (or at least you shouldn't count your life on it) Note: One can see how easily this transitions to pluralism and the relativization of religious truth claims: We don't really who's right and who's wrong unless science can arbitrate truth claims, yet we can't say that these claims are not true, for they transcend verification principles of science and reason. Maybe they have truth in them which will one day be verified by science and reason, but sceince and reason are "where it's at."

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Can't Reason and Science "Get Along?": Immanuel Kant
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If the Enlightenment can be seen as in great part a struggle for an alternative epistemological foundation to the revelation-dependant framework of traditional Christianity, then it could also be seen as a virtual king-of-the-hill competition between a robust rationalism on the one hand, and a "see it to believe it" empiricism on the other. Following this oversimplification, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) might be seen as the man who broke up the fight and attempted to make peace between these two paradigms by taking the best from each and fusing them together into a system known as epistemological dualism or Rational Empiricism. Although in light of the debates of his contemporaries the genius in which he was able to pull this off is hard to follow for those who are not schooled in Enlightenment philosophy, his basic epistemological outlook is rather simple. He was a rationalist who tried to make room for scientific empiricism. His theory was that the rational mind imposes innate (a priori) categories on all empirical sense perception, thereby interpreting them and playing a more fundamental role with respect to knowledge construction, yet leaving room for meaningful knowledge construction by the scientific method. **If all one had was a series of sense perceptions without categories of the mind to interpret and relate the data, life would be a meaningless string of consecutive sense perceptions that bore zero relation to one another. On the other hand, if all one had were empty "filing" categories without sensory data to be "filed" in them, they remain completely blank. According to Kant, however, if we proceed as though these categories of the mind are legitimate, we can have constructive interpretation of the sensory data resulting in meaningful knowledge.
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Did Kant Leave Us With With a Hole in the Epistemicological Boat?

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It is important to notice that Kant's basic approach involves a posture of skepticism with regard to the certainty of all knowledge. Only if the imposing categories of the mind can be trusted can we be sure our knowledge corresponds to reality. However, as Kant stressed, we cannot prove these categories to be precise. We cannot escape these categories so as to experience reality apart from the mediation of them. If we were able to somehow "cut out the middle man" of our mediating categories, this could be called direct knowledge or Noumena (knowledge apart from the construction of the mind). Unfortunately for Kant, all knowledge construction is based on Phenomena instead—reality as it appears to us by the mediation of our mental categories. As Kant understood it, then, hard science is a combination of sense experience and mental interpretation. However, when this paradigm is extended to Christian theology, Kant believed such theology is mere speculation because knowledge about metaphysics (beyond the physical, beyond matter) is by definition beyond our sense perception. We have never seen, tasted, heard, or felt God by mediation of our senses, thus our language about such things bears no correspondence to any immediate human experience, nor is God one of the 12 inborn categories ("filing cabinets") of the human mind (at least according to Kant). With neither a fundamental a priori grounding, nor a fundamental empirical grounding, God-talk can only be justified from the standpoint of deduction or indirect reasoning (i.e. speculation).
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So what does all this have to do with Christian theology? Everything. Although for Kant all knoweldge is phenomenalogical, and therefore it cannot be ultimately verified, even once one grants that our minds construe sense data with basic reliability, language about metaphysical realities go "beyond" sense perception and are not one of the twelve innate mental categories. God-talk, therefore, is on epistemologically slippery ground. If we adopt Kant's paradigm for knowledge construction, religious language only becomes relevant inasmuch as it is able to capture something of direct human experience. Talk about God, anything beyond scientific verification or that which reason necessitates becomes passé and looked upon as mere speculation.
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The Enlightenment as the Leavening Effect of the Renaissance Era
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If the Renaissance Era (1300's-1600's) saw the "rebirth" of classical texts, which texts began to provide a canon or dialogue point in the educational enterprise, then the Enlightenment might be seen as the fruit of this new canon in the hands of those fed up with religious authoritarianism and looking for an alternative authority for truth. Although initially the revival of classic texts aided the Reformation's conservative views on Scripture, in the long run this revival led to a replacement in European culture of the biblical worldview. When more attention is given to Philosophy and science than the Bible, over time this has the effect, not only of eroding the authority of basic biblical presuppositions and produced radical forms of skepticism, but it also of initiating creative new ways of interpreting the Bible so that it fits with one's pre-commitments to a certain philosophy (whether or not the authors of the Bible ever intended their writings to be interpreted in this way). Nowhere is this leavening effect more evident than in the epistemological revolution that took place in the period of the Enlightenment. It was during the Enlightenment that the Bible began to be interpreted by deists in a creative way that enabled them to stiff-arm the Bible actual teachings in favor of their own philosophy of deism. The supernatural aspects of the Bible are reinterpreted to have only a symbolic and/or ethical meaning, not a metaphysical "dogma." It is this bold step of hermeneutical creativity which can be seen to have given rise to the Classical Liberal Theology in the latter days of the Enlightenment.
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In my next post, I will discuss Romantacism as a reaction to the Enlightenment, and Schleiermacher as case in point of the causal connection between the Enlightenment and Liberal Theology, for he is considered the father of Classical Liberal Theology.

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5/13/2008

T4G 08: Mixed Afterthoughts, pt. 2

Before I make any remarks about my mixed feeling at T4G (a conference which is by now old news to most bloggers), I want to express a few words of gratitude.


I stand on the shoulders of men like John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Mark Dever, and John Piper especially. These men have been examples to me over the years of Christ-centered ministry, preaching, and teaching. Their teachings are invaluable to me. It would be a difficult task to attempt to measure the impact of their faithful ministries on my own life, let alone the hundreds of thousands. I'm agnostic about where I would be today if it weren't for these men (certainly not at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY). These men have fed my mind and heart with the things of God for many years. I don't want to become arrogantly ungrateful by biting these hands that have been feeding me without good reason. Nevertheless, it is also these men who have taught me discernment and frankness in the midst of controversy and disagreement. They model for me how to raise issues to those who you respect when you may disagree with them. These men speak out when they have genuine concerns about trends, practices, beliefs, or attitudes in evangelicalism they see as "not so edifying." Following their example then, I also have developed some concerns over the years that won't go away, and out of the concerns of my heart, my mind churns, my mouth speaks, my fingers type, and my blog post's.

Together for the Gospel or Together for Calvinism?

In my last post, I talked about how deeply Mark Dever's point about not confusing the gospel with non-essentials resonated with me personally. When I first became a Calvinist, I became acclimated to the Reformed flavor of preaching and teaching. I have been a member at churches that regularly bashed other Christian churches on a normal basis from the pulpit as a matter of habit. After attending for a while, I was infected myself and began to think of our Reformed communities as something like the only true remnant of uncompromised and reverent Christianity that took the Bible seriously. Everyone else was entertainment based, man-centered, and unbiblical; influenced either by liberalism or the world. Young Reformed types that come from Southern have a reputation for splitting churches over Calvinism. This is a fact. In disbelief I have listened to devastated church members tell me about how painful it was to see their once tight knit community divorce themselves from fellowship. It can be a whole lot like a family feud: ugly, painful, leaving scars, bitterness and disillusionment.


This is why I said in my last post that I think Dever's words were most significant. It's because the context I come from tends to major on the minors and allow non-gospel issues to be great points of contention, even to find their identity in the Reformed tradition rather than in the gospel. Once our affections become more exercised over our particular church's or denomination's traditions (yes, that includes Reformed teaching about Calvinism, the Lord's Supper, Baptism, the Regulative Principle, Church Membership, Tongues, Preaching Style [expositional preaching vs. topical, etc.], Worship Style [is drama ok? are multi-site churches ok? short sermons? alter calls? etc.], views about women in ministry [egalitarian vs. complementarian]—and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on—than over the gospel, our hearts are out of whack. Though many of these things can effect the nuances we add to the gospel, they cannot be confused with the gospel itself. Though important, they are not the dividing lines between those who believe the gospel and those who don't.

Unfortunately, I thought T4G revealed a blind spot in this area. Though the banner of the conference is "Together for the Gospel," John MacArthur's message was all about total inability (i.e. Calvinism). Now, I would have been more comfortable if his message demonstrated sensitivity to this distinction. Perhaps his message could have been introduced something like this: "I strongly believe that the doctrine of total inability is a strong safeguard for the gospel. Therefore, although we have come together for this core belief, and although I love my brothers and sisters who do not believe in total inability, and recognize them as co-equals together in the gospel, I would nevertheless like to spend my time commending this doctrine because I think it helps protect our basic beliefs in the gospel." But rather than anything even approaching this sort of sensitivity, I was disappointed to hear just the opposite. As he was waxing eloquent on total inability, he compared it to other "false gospels" as if he understood the doctrine of total inability to be the "true gospel." To make matters worse, Mark Dever of all people (just before his message about not referring to non-gospel doctrines as "the gospel"), commends MacArthur's message, referring to it as an wonderful exposition of "the gospel." Surely I wasn't the only one who noticed this apparent inconsistency.


I found Mohler's message on substitutionary atonement, for example, more appropriate for the theme of the conference. Or take R.C.'s message about the theme of cursing—this is also at the heart of our gospel (Christ became a curse for us). Not everybody at T4G was, by my sensitivities, off key with respect to the common cause.

In a context when 1) Seminary students are splitting churches over Calvinism, 2) recent rumors spread about the SBC possibly splitting over Armenian vs. Calvinism issues just before the Calvinism debate between Mohler and Paige Patterson (who wisely spent much time in that debate demonstrating their unity in spite of their differences), 3) close friends of mine are finding it sadly curious that I would go to a church that wasn't "on board" with all the stuff we are learning in seminary, 4) Pastors are finding their churches identity more in Calvinism than the gospel (speaking from my own experience here), the T4G seemed to me to be perpetuating this unfortunate confusion between Calvinism and the Gospel. Note: I'm not saying that John MacArthur would say he didn't think Norman Geisler was a Christian, but it's safe to say that he thinks Norman Geisler, in some sense, has a "false gospel." I wonder how a guy like John Wesley would have felt if he were to enthusiastically volunteer his support of a "Together for the Gospel" conference, only to find the preachers more interested in propagating the younger ministers with Calvinism.

At another point during the conference, I was walking by the booths set up along the side of the bookstore. As I stumbled upon a booth with an eager man representing the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, I began to question him whether his organization was for all evangelicals. "Certainly," he replied with great enthusiasm. But as I questioned further, he seemed to get a little tongue tied. "So ..." I asked casually, " … does your organization try to reach, encourage, and include Arminian churches also, or is this more for Reformed types?" My question seemed to catch the man off guard. He replied something like, "Well … you don't have to agree with us about every point of doctrine to support our organization or give money to it." (notice this does not really answer my question) As I looked at the back of the promotion magazine, I noticed that all the names of the council members I recognized were Reformed. I read one of the articles of faith that represented the alliance. It's doctrinal statement exalted the Reformation and bashed the present day church at large for being worldly and having everything wrong. It summed up all these things like this: "The loss of God's centrality in the life of today's church is common and lamentable." I wondered whether such an alliance was something like an "Alliance of the Confessing Reformed" moreso than an inclusive alliance of all those who confess the common gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (whether or not they are "Reformed").


Relevant Truth: We should never call any church that believes the gospel "shallow" in its theology, unless we wish to imply that the gospel, which they hold to and teach, is itself shallow.

Unfortunate Casualties in the "Truth War"

There also seemed to be an agenda at the conference to stamp a WARNING label on what is known as The Emerging Church. What I have to say here will be briefer than what has come before.

Several attempts have been made to distinguish between different streams of the Emerging Church, so as the distinguish the Reformed and conservative types (like Mark Driscol, Darren Patrick, and others) from those who are apparently (and I stress 'apparently' because even Driscol, who is friends with Doug Paggit, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and all the big wig names [with the exception of Rob Bell], isn't sure what their official stance is on certain controversial doctrines) taking liberal stances on issues thought to set the boundaries for historic Christianity. The former are called "Emerging," and the latter "Emergent." Nevertheless, some evangelicals who are eager to warn Christians of the liberal streams of this movement have not taken care to protect the faithful gospel ministry of the conservative gospel-centered streams of this movement. Harsh things are said about the "Emerging" movement. They are still lumping them all together under the label without taking note of the features of this complex movement. At T4G, if my memory fails me not, Dr. Mohler quoted one of the authors who supposedly represents the "Emergent" crowd (the apparently liberal crowd) on their teaching about the atonement. Steve Chalk, I think, was his name. Chalk apparently called the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, "divine child abuse." After quoting this author, Mohler, if I'm not mistaking, made a comment about how this is the kind of theology coming from the "Emerging" church, and that the "Emerging church" was a threat to the very central tenants of the Christian gospel.


When John Piper invited Mark Driscol to speak at his Desiring God conference a few years ago, Piper testified to receiving harsh criticism over it. It attracted hostility and spawned a bit of controversy. After Mohler's comments, those not up on the debates and distinctions would have left the T4G conference with the impression that the Emerging Church was basically liberal theology on the comeback. Since, however, faithful gospel ministers also labor under the Emerging tag, such comments will be sure to perpetuate the hostility against their ministries that is due to precisely the kind of stereotype comments about how the "Emerging Church" is bad news.

I think we should not only point out bad theology, but also, in light of a T4G banner, to go out of our way to protect from malignment our faithful brothers in Christ who labor for the same gospel we do—and perhaps are laboring harder than us (given the growth spurts of the movement).

Thoughts not limited to but of a similar nature as these caused me to leave T4G wondering whether our "Gospel" is too exclusive; whether we Reformed types are further isolating ourselves from non-Reformed gospel-believing evangelicals (whether intentionally or unintentionally). I left wishing evangelicalism wasn't so polarized, and wishing our T4G conference did not, in addition to its strongly edifying potential, consciously or unconsciously contribute to the polarization effect between different "camps" of evangelicalism. I left with mixed feelings.

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