Creeping Lutheranism? December 14, 2009
I have no interest in making my non-believing readers feel uncomfortable, but I did reserve a Theology category in this blog. And you may not understand everything I write about theology, but I hope you find it entertaining. My wife, in her career at the Register, was able to make religion stories interesting, entertaining, and relevant for outsiders. I apologize if I don’t do as well.
There actually is a fair bit of Christless Christianity around. Leadership Magazine recently published a report on a survey that classified “five types of Christians” each of which composed about one fifth of those claiming to be Christian in America. Two of these said “`accepting Christ as Savior and Lord’ is the key to being a Christian,” but the other three kinds said that “`believing in God’” was, so in essence they are sort of Unitarians or Arians. I have met moderate Muslims who have hoped that, because the so-called Unitarian Universalist Church has moved so far to the left, that a moderate Islam might appeal to these conservative semi-Unitarian people.
But that, apparently, is not what Dr. Horton is talking about. He is more concerned about the church that does believe in Jesus; that it is putting too much stress on what you can do, and what God can do for you now, and not enough on the eternal salvation through Christ, which is “The Gospel.” John Frame, the reviewer, does not entirely trust secular accounts of how bad off Christianity is in terms of knowing the Bible and other matters. For statistics are not neutral (how postmodern). (As far as how this affects journalists, may I insert here a shameless and blatant plug for the website getreligion.org and the book which my wife helped write, Blind Spot: Why Journalists Don’t Get Religion.)
John Frame notes a shift in the last fifty years, but he considers it “not as unfaithfulness, but as a shift toward more application of Scripture to people’s external situations and inner life. There is a greater interest in sanctification (not just justification), on Christianity as a world view, on believers’ obligations to one another, and in the implications of Scripture for social justice.” So in the last 50 years, and especially under the influence of so called Generation X, those born in the 60s and 70s, the church has moved away from what the Reformed often called “pietism” and I like to call Great Commission Utilitarianism. I can testify that one reason I was captivated by Christian Reconstructionism in my younger years was that they were the only significant non-leftist source speaking to a broad variety of issues. Now you get a broad variety of options. Frame defends the church focusing partly on things like “discipleship, spiritual disciplines, life transformation, culture transformation, relationships, marriage and family, stress, the spiritual gifts, financial gifts, radical experience of conversion” . . . . but if God (and yes Jesus) is still the Creator of the Universe, and as I like to say, has not retired from the universe business to go into full time ministry, should He not be interested in these things? Another thing that I can testify to about the church in the 70s is that they had generally left behind the don’ts – don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, etc. – but at that time they tended to take one’s performance in some of the means of grace – especially Bible study, private prayer (the so-called “quiet time”) and sometimes service in the church – to be gauges of one’s growth in sanctification. We have now had, I think, somewhat of a backlash to that view, as we explore what “spiritual disciplines” are really supposed to be. Colossians 2:20-21 is the best text on this subject, and I don’t think that even Dallas Willard has addressed this text adequately.
Frame observes that the Reformed branch of confessional Christianity, even where they avoid the excesses of “Reconstructionism,” have always been open to what is called the “third use of the law,” that the law is a guide to believers as to how they should live, provided it is strictly understood that one cannot earn one’ s salvation by keeping the law. The Lutheran tradition, and increasingly the dominant view at Westminster Escondido – which some of us nowadays are starting to call “Concordia Escondido” – is that the function of the law is always a condemning one, to force us to trust all the more in Christ, and not as a guide to life. This is why I entitled the essay “Creeping Lutheranism.”
Frame further observes that “For Horton, . . . . the relation between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a zero sum game.” I had always understood the Reformed Tradition as the one which emphasized God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, and popular evangelicalism often reversing this so that human action or prayer has the power, not, it is emphasized, to do anything on our own, but to turn God’s power on and off, as we would use a light switch or a dimmer. This was the ground of my problem with a lot of popular evangelicalism.
Horton defines Gnosticism as concerned with “not the public, historical, visible, and messy world . . . . but the private, spiritual, invisible, and manageable world of the inner spirit.” (186) I must say I have always found my “inner spirit” harder to manage than the outside world! Congratulations to Dr. Horton if he has managed to get beyond that – of course he would never write a “how to” book on it, even if he could tell us how he did it. And Dr. Horton has just spent pages complaining that the church was spending time trying to apply “law” to “the public, historical, visible, and messy world” instead of preaching the saving Gospel! Um. Creeping Gnosticism, or, on the other hand, creeping Lutheranism calling its opponents Gnostic?
Frame goes on to say, “When Chuck Smith says `We meet God in the realm of the Spirit,’ Horton finds Gnostic influence (178). That is extremely doubtful. The distinction of spirit and body is biblical.” I would say yes, unless one holds to soul-sleep, or the view that we have no consciousness between our death and the resurrection of the body, which of course is the ultimate hope, not our spiritual survival in the current “heaven.” I am concerned about dualisms myself, but they are not all Gnostic. We all know about the soul-body dualism, but no one has done a real history – and I would like to see one – of the trichotomous “spirit vs soul” dualism that prevails in most evangelical circles today. Its effect is to make the directly intuited matters of the “spirit” superior to the reasoned matters of the “soul” – a very different fruit from the old soul-body dualism. Horton also charges that “it is Gnostic to say, as in the gospel song, that Jesus lives `within my heart.’” Well, He does live within my heart. The problem I have with that song is that the fact that He lives within my heart is not the only way I know He lives. There is a lot of objective evidence for the fact that He lives. And furthermore, popular culture confuses the “heart” with the “gut” or the seat of our emotional life. I certainly hope that Jesus lives within my “gut” at least some of the time, and He also lives within my “head,” as He ought to as well. And yes, for Jesus to live only in my “head” is not sufficient. I accept that. I think it is OK to say that we have a “relationship” with Christ. What I have a problem with is that evangelical culture, somewhere about 1980, decided to stop talking about “faith” and “trust” and substituted the word “relationship” for these as the shibboleth of what makes evangelicalism, and Christianity, distinctive. Two things to say to that. First, our “relationship” with Christ is first of all, though not only, covenantal and legal, as Horton himself would agree. Second, if Christianity is the true faith and Jesus is the One Way, then a “relationship” with God is a unique reality for Christians, but my understanding of other religions prevents me from saying that a “relationship” with God or the divine is a uniquely Christian claim – and pop evangelicalism often, in its apologetics, asserts precisely that only Christianity claims a “relationship” with God. This is highly inaccurate.
I would furthermore agree with Horton that the role of the institutional church and of the sacraments has been excessively minimized in pop evangelicalism. (And that fact may have helped give rise to the Private Christians, one of the segments in the Leadership Journal survey that tended to define faith in terms of “God” rather than of “Christ.”) The institutional church, in my view, can mediate Law, but cannot in the end mediate Grace. There is only one Mediator of Grace. The institutional church can guard the purity of the church through discipline, excommunication, and guarding baptism, but in the end it cannot itself shut the grace of Jesus off from me. Excommunication may be a sign that I have rejected God’s grace; it does not itself cut me off from it.
Are there no earthly blessings from knowing Christ? “Health and wealth” are not guaranteed – no particular earthly blessing is guaranteed – but I have had many blessings, mostly not material. And people are being saved all the time from sins and addictions. God’s sovereignty means that it isn’t guaranteed that if we do this, we will get that. There is a serendipitous quality to God’s blessings that includes “answers to prayer” but sometimes “beyond what we could ever think or ask.”
Carl Ellis, a Christian scholar of Islam in the African American world, has said that the three things that Islam offers to young black people are Significance, Dignity, and Identity. I believe that the gospel, properly preached, does in fact give a better and more real Significance, Dignity, and Identity than Islam. But the sentimental gospel offered in most black churches and a lot of white ones offers nothing but Love. The “great great love of Jesus” is all He has to offer. And young males have a felt need for Significance, Dignity,
and Identity, even without Love, more than they have a felt need for Love without Significance, Dignity, and Identity. And Allah offers them Significance, Dignity, and Identity, without Love, but that’s fine with the young men.
Dr. Horton has no desire to preach a gooey sentimental gospel. But a gospel that fundamentally leaves us as God’s lap dogs with no useful or significant role to play is in effect the same thing. I believe Jesus does not merely save me but empower me. The error of pop evangelicalism is the opposite; that in the end, we empower God. As for Lutherans, I love them dearly, but on their own turf, please!