On Why We Need An Evangelical Reformation
It is a peculiar irony that those who are often the most strident proponents of literal six-day creationism—and the most ardent antagonists of evolution—are what could be described as theistic evolutionists when it comes to the dogma and traditions of the Church. In this, I can only speak from my observations of my own camp (evangelical Protestantism); of which, as a pessimist, I am inclined to be the most critical the most often. Evangelicals, led by figures like Ken Hamm and his Answers in Genesis, have been generally consistent proponents of literal six-day creationism. A striving for biblical inerrancy and sensus literalis in the face of higher criticism a few decades ago (a worthy endeavor, to be sure) had the unfortunate effect of perpetuating some bad theological tendencies (i.e. anti-confessionalism, anti-traditionalism). Another piece of collateral damage has been the disregard of the varying genres of biblical literature as having any hermeneutical effect. This has certainly been evident in the creationism debates, but I do not aim to pass judgment on this particular issue at present.1
A Glaring Inconsistency
What interests me is a glaring inconsistency of thought on part of literal six-day creationists (who are often evangelicals) as pertains to the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the life of the Church. It seems that most evangelicals live with a sort of functional theistic evolutionism (and/or Darwinism) when it comes to the creation of the Church. No evangelical would deny the real involvement of the Holy Spirit in the Acts account of the Church’s emergence, nor that God indeed did something new in redemptive history therein. Yet, contrary to their belief about the moment of the Genesis creation—in which God not only began the work but completed it, and continues to sustain it—their beliefs about the Church suggest that God was merely the clock winder. After the mechanisms were set in place, God took a hands-off approach and apparently focused more on individual believers (the parts rather than the whole). As such, any further development of the Church’s tradition and doctrine is not evil or useless per se, but is man-made innovation in the eyes of the evangelical. God may be watching, but just like in theistic evolutionary theories, he is not intimately active. Developments in the post-apostolic church may be helpful— surely some smart guys have occupied churchly positions in the past—but their work is akin to a pirate’s code: they’re more like guidelines than actual rules.
Post-Pentecost, the operation of the Holy Spirit, for evangelicals, seems to be confined to the spiritual life of the individual rather than to the church as an institution, and more importantly, the Church’s doctrine. Thus, doctrine and practice outside of the individual are inherently suspect. For evangelicals, doctrine and belief are developed and strengthened on the basis of the individual believer, or perhaps not developed at all—at least, not by any hierarchical authority. This coincides with the broad distrust of traditional institutions and historical formulations of belief (creeds and confessions) on the part of evangelicals. Presumably this is because the ecumenical creeds and the historical Protestant confessions assume a larger and more authoritative role for the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. This, thereby, necessarily diminishes the individualistic, decisionistic mindsight that has come to dominate evangelical thought. Though, to be clear, no confessional Protestant would place said creeds and confessions on the same level of authority as Scripture itself; neither would he see them as inerrant or inspired in the same way that the holy text is, but rather are a reflection of approved textual understanding and summation. The bottom line is that evangelicals do not see the church (institution) and its doctrines as a creation that receives the continual attention of the Holy Spirit as a whole, nor as a conduit for continuing and completing redemptive history.
The Theory of Everything
Like Darwin, evangelicals implicitly affirm that God is present in nature (the Church) as a guiding force that works according to the governing laws of science that he set in motion at an earlier date. It is presumably only in dire circumstances that he intervenes in any discernible way.
I think the miraculous and continual faithfulness of God to his Church is lost on many evangelicals because the majesty of the inception of the Church is lost on them. To many of us, the mysterious grace that is in the hypostatic union, virgin birth, atonement, and resurrection— indeed, all of redemptive history—is muddled, and subsequently, so is that miracle in the words of Peter via the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It truly was a momentous moment, one that this Gentile sinner is eternally indebted to and thankful for. However, it is not a miracle to many Christians, but rather a mere happening in the course of human events. Perhaps this attitude is connected to the stripping of the Church of (appropriate) authority. If she is not necessary, but merely like the rest of authority structures, something to be overcome, then the day of her birth is hardly significant beyond being an intriguing event for historians. And so, with the divine miracle taken out of the equation, evangelicals become Darwinian materialists. Sure God is present in nature as a sort of bumper rail, but he works according to the laws of nature, and only when he violates said laws is it a noteworthy moment. Even if the establishment of the Church was a unique work of the Holy Spirit, as Acts tells us, surely that was the end of it on the institutional level, which was very loose at that stage. Subsequent development was primarily governed by chance and the will to power of men within the confines of the laws of nature.
But of course, God is a loving God. And Christ promised to be with us until the end of the age. But these are certainly promises geared toward to the individual, the evangelical church-Darwinist postulates. Therefore, he surmises that the development of the Church as an institution must be both subjective and at least partially irrelevant.
Hence, the power of Christ’s promise (Matt. 18:20) of faithfulness and the reality of the Triune omnipresence, a promise meant for comfort to those Christians in lonely times and places, becomes the rule by which the life of Christ’s bride is governed. And the life of the Church as an institution and culture following its birth has been a string of spontaneous generations, to borrow a Darwinian phrase, with God occasionally filling the gaps with something extraordinary.
But who would want to serve a God who does not shepherd his flock? I am confident that most Christians of any stripe would not. The evangelical descent into this Darwinian view of the church is not so intentional as it is careless. But with culture strictly relegating religious life and morality to the individual, these Biblical promises of God’s faithfulness alluded to above have been similarly and voluntarily limited. Thus, the life of the Church itself can be considered largely independent of God in its development. Perhaps this theory has sprouted out of a noble effort to absolve God of culpability in the less than stellar moments of church history. But the theory as a whole does not comport with his self-representation of his own sovereignty throughout redemptive history, the template being Israel of the Old Testament. Though God permits much evil to persist, all events take place as a direct result of his divine, foreordained decree outside of time, a decree that paradoxically includes both his absolute sovereignty in all things, and the ordained contingencies that are real human decisions. A truth that should cause us to remain in awe, prostrate in worship.
A Convenient Fantasy
Church Darwinists-materialists have conveniently and selectively stripped all of the divine and mysterious (and indeed, “foolish,” to invoke 1 Cor. 1:27) character from the Church but maintained it in their individual spiritual lives. This, in part, as I have touched on elsewhere, must be an outgrowth of Enlightenment thinking in Christianity, the glorification of the autonomous individual and the degradation of institutional authority. God surely is ever-present in my individual life, modern evangelicals surmise, guiding my every step through the means of my individual emotions and convictions that are allegedly arrived at a priori, but he can’t possibly be doing the same thing in and through an institution. Institutions are inherently oppressive and man-made, and God is the opposite, so the thought goes. And much less would he use the context and authority of the Church to influence my autonomous, objectively neutral thought. Rather, the developments of the Church must be nothing more than a conglomeration of human efforts.The Church to the Darwinist-materialist Christian is, at best, a facet of the American volunteerism and philanthropy so esteemed by Tocqueville. At worst, it is not just a dysfunctional social contract, but history’s greatest institutional demagogue.
“Man makes religion, religion does not make man.” Karl Marx famously said.
“Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion… Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”2
In assenting to the spirit of this statement, substituting the “institutional Church” for “religion” in Marx’s formulation, the modern evangelical has become not only a Church Darwinist, but also a Church Marxist. Where the Holy Spirit is absent, only man’s selfish ambition remains. Christ came to liberate us from such things, they posit. Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship, they say. Development of doctrine and tradition under the tutelage of the Church is untrustworthy then because it necessarily took place outside of my personal faith in Christ, and at the whims of some really nasty, manipulative people, no less (“God, I thank you that I am not like other men…”). We need to get back to basics without all the baggage of Church history and dogma, they decide.
A “Dangerous” Method
In the end, the evangelical Church-Darwinist/Marxist has no choice but to cast off the traditions and dogma of the church; anything that has been developed outside of their own personal relationship with Jesus, or that seems strictly necessary to it. But there is another, more “dangerous” way that evangelicals should dare to consider.
Carl Trueman, known as “the most dangerous man in Christendom,” has noted, in a reflection on Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua,3 that an evangelical Protestant is faced with two extreme views: “a view of revelation as incapable of development, and a view of development as incapable of being revelation.” Presented with these two extremes, the evangelical is thrown back into himself; his autonomous reason and preference becoming the judge of true revelation. The individualistic evangelical is then tempted to contemn the institutional church, for his best interest (of the self) is found in alteration and consolidation—as Russell Kirk said, “forces that are inimical to tradition”4 —and an entrepreneurial spirit more of modernity than of the first century.
A more favorable alternative, Trueman suggests, is that “faith [was] delivered definitively to the Church, yet… the Church [is] a historical entity developing through time.” This is an “affirmation of [both] apostolic fixity and historical development.” Trueman’s alternative to the predominate evangelical view coincides with the traditional Baptist concept of the “continuing light” within the Church through the Holy Spirit. This is the idea that the Holy Spirit persists in operation in both the parts (individuals) and the whole (the Church), developing her belief and doctrine not beyond the foundational truth established in the New Testament, but deeper and with increasing clarity (fides quaerens intellectum).5
Moreover, the Church’s doctrinal development (not doctrinal overhaul or wholesale change, mind you) affirms that the Church is historical and the recipient of the Holy Spirit. Doctrinal stagnation would negate both of these attributes as well as the Church’s authority. “The Church herself and her authority to teach provide crucial warrants for seeing a developing doctrine as the deepening of a continuous, unchanging revealed truth.” says Trueman. Indeed, even in the most venerable things some change is good. “All human institutions alter to some extent from age to age,” said Russell Kirk, “for slow change is the means of conserving society, just as it is the means for renewing the human body.”6
This formulation of the relationship between the Church and development of belief is immensely practical. “When we speak of God we speak of what we know and we know what we have received and we receive what is given through the Holy Spirit.” says Robert Louis Wilken.7 “Receiving” has an experiential element to it but also an ecclesial one. “[T]hinking about God [i.e. theology] begins with language that is given in the Scriptures and with convictions formed by the church’s practice.”8
Here we can employ a popular-level analogy from constitutional theory. The Church, like the originalist (e.g. Antonin Scalia), seeks the original (and linguistic) public meaning of the text at the time it was enacted.9 At the same time, concerning its activity or effect, the text itself tells us that it is living and breathing (Heb. 4:12). Thus, the function of Church dogma becomes one primarily of construction rather than interpretation as such. Construction being the process of determining the effect and application of meaning already clear from Scripture on its face (“… unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”)10 or as ascertained and established by tradition (e.g. the Trinity). Though, obviously, semantic or linguistic vagueness often calls for a more active approach to interpretation, as well for the sake of clarity, but never in service of alteration of Scripture, “the scaffolding on which to construct the edifice of Christian thought.”11
The process of construction includes “deductions” established and received by “good and necessary consequences… deduced from Scripture.”1213 This approach is what, as theologian Robert Letham has put it, “mandates theology.”14
Theological work cannot be done rightly unless the Church is willing to deduce from Scripture “good and necessary consequences” in order to bring about doctrinal clarity and construction. Louis Berkhof pointed out that “the word dogma is derived from the Greek verb dokein… [which means] not only, ‘it seems to me’, or, ‘I am of the opinion’, but also, ‘I have come to the conclusion’, ‘I am certain’, ‘it is my conviction’. And it is especially this idea of certainty that finds expression in the word ‘dogma’… religious dogmas are based on divine revelation (either real or supposed), and are therefore authoritative.”15 Hence, the “good and necessary” function finds its basis in God’s authoritative revelation, and subsequently, the Church finds the authority for her dogma therein as well.
This idea and function of authoritative dogma is not novel, nor is it confined to modern Protestantism. Three centuries prior to the Westminster Assembly, William of Ockham stated that faith is founded on “what is said in holy Scripture, or what can be inferred therefrom through necessary reasoning.” 16 Our rules of faith and hermeneutics, are of course drawn from Scripture and then “reverberated back on the Bible as a key to its interpretation.”17
Scripture has fixed meaning but infinite depth, so the saying goes. Therefore, our dogma derived from Scripture is subject to increased depth commensurate with our deepening understanding. But this deepening is a function of man’s understanding, not of the holy text, which in God’s economy has a fixed meaning. Because of the promise of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and the gift of Scripture, we can have confidence in prudential deductions and constructions by “good and necessary consequence.” The majesty, consistency, and truth of (most) of the Church’s dogma over the centuries could not be possible outside of Divine Providence. As a Reformed Protestant, I would predictably suggest that when and where the Church has erred (for even “the purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error”), there has been provided a corrective measure—along with fundamental teaching and practices—to draw her back to her roots: that enduring, “continuous, unchanging revealed truth.”
Evangelicals have maintained the subjective experience of their faith but ignored the received, ecclesial element. It is no wonder, then, that the ecclesially received things of orthodoxy (not self-evident on the face of Scripture) have been diminished, and thus no wonder that beliefs like subordinationism, nestorianism, and Pelagianism have resurfaced. Without both facets of the received things, the gift of knowledge through the spirit and the practice of the Church, we have no hope of knowing “the nature of God who is known in Christ.” Gregory Nazianzen said, “Theology reaches maturity by additions.”18 This is the story of redemptive history: “the truth arrives through time.”19 Though we certainly witness God’s actions and experience his love, let us not be stagnant in our dogma because of slothfulness or self-indulgence. But, let us follow Augustine in seeking God’s face, finding him more and more. It must be remembered that “[t]he Bible is… oriented toward a future still unfolding… the restoration of all things.”20
Evangelicals must now reform themselves. They must shed not only their individualistic and postmodern outlook on theology—where nothing outside the self is trustworthy—but also, their functional Church Darwinism/Marxism, where the Church has been abandoned by the clock-winder and all post-Pentecost developments are mere manifestations of the will to power, rather than prudential, biblically faithful deductions.
Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash
(1) See Benjamin Winter’s recent CP article, “Genesis, A Literal Account of Creation?” for his perspective on the topic.
(2) Marx, Karl, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (1844), available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_Critique_of_Hegels_Philosophy_of_Right.pdf. (emphasis added).
(3) Such scandalous activity from a confessional Protestant undoubtedly being the reason for his “dangerous” reputation.
(4) Kirk, Russell, The Conservative Mind, (Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2001), 227.
(5) See generally Trueman, Carl, “The Importance of Not Studying Theology,” Themelios, 35:1 (2010), available at http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-importance-of-not-studying-theology, (stating that “[t]he study of theology is not a chase after something or a movement beyond where we start our Christian lives; it is rather a reflection upon the foundations of where we already are. The end term is, strange to tell, the beginning. I start by confessing with my mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in my heart that God raised him from the dead, and I never actually go any further.”).
(6) I have referenced this elsewhere.
(7) Wilken, Robert Louis, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 88.
(8) Id., 89.
(9) This is not to deny allegorical exegesis as well. See generally the chapter entitled, “The Face of God, For Now,” in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought.
(10) Second London Baptist Confession (1689), 1.6.
(11) Spirit, 77.
(12) Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), 1.6, available at http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/.
(13) This is a rare instance where I favor the WCF of “good and necessary consequence” language over the LBC, “necessarily contained”.
(14) Westminster Assembly: Reading its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009), 139.
(15) Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2012) 18.
(16) William of Okham, “Dialogue against Heretics,” bk. 2, chap. 5 in George H. Tavard, Holy Writ or Holy Church: The Crisis of the Protestant Reformation (London: Burns & Oats, 1959), 35.
(17) Spirit, 67.
(18) Id., 108.
(20) Id., 67.