Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Escape from Evangelicalism (Part 1)

I will believe in the Redeemer when the Christian looks a little more redeemed.
--Friedrich Nietzsche--

It was high time to go...
--Lewis Carroll--

The events of this year have been largely tragic or comic (depending on how much one cares about the future of Western civilization), but they have been beneficial in one respect--they have alerted many of us to one staring and obvious truth. The truth we have been brought to face is that the S. S. Evangelical has sailed into very dangerous waters and its days are numbered. As its few stalwart survivors are invariably dashed upon the rocks of secularism or sucked into the whirling vortex of nihilism, it is advisable that those of us (especially from the Wesleyan tradition) who were already uncomfortable stowaways start thinking of leaving. It is permissible for the rats to leave the sinking ship, because they were never welcome passengers anyway.

But before we get too far involved, we'd better stop to clarify our terms. Evangelicalism can mean all sorts of different things to different people and at different times. In some other countries, for instance, evangelical simply means 'not-Catholic.' As such, it is not within the scope of this article. Traditionally (and still in some contexts), it could be defined as believing in the Witness of the Spirit. As such, Wesleyans are evangelicals and arguably bear the honor and the guilt of having created evangelicalism. But this is not the meaning assigned by most people now to the word. (And when was the last time you heard either a Wesleyan or an evangelical talk about the Witness of the Spirit, anyway?) As the word evangelical is used today, it does not refer to one specific idea, but rather for a general movement. This movement is held together by certain shared doctrines--the authority of Scripture as the source of absolute truth, the necessity of a “personal” relationship with Jesus Christ as the means of salvation, believer's baptism, Creationism of some form or another, and (especially) the necessity of social and political action being based on the truths of Scripture. However, these doctrines do not entirely define the movement and it is not these specifically which I am writing this article to attack. But any movement which grows out of specific doctrines will spread far beyond those doctrines, as a tree sends its branches far away from its base. And, judging by the fruit of this particular tree, somewhere there is a corruption in the sap which is driving it farther and farther from its roots. So, by evangelicalism, I mean the mass of Christianity in America (I have no experience to speak of other places) which holds to some degree of historical orthodoxy, emphasizes a personal experience, and insists on political and social action based on Scriptural principals--it is this mass of Christianity which, whatever its ideology and whatever its intentions, has wandered far away from the path of truth and righteousness and is becoming a scandal and an embarrassment to the rest of the Christian community. I could discuss the symptoms which prove this to be true, but I think they should be obvious and, in any case, I think that would take us too far afield.

I cannot be absolutely certain what the root cause of all this is or whether there even is a single root cause. However, while I cannot with certainty state the cause, I think I can suggest a cure. If we are to go forward from the shipwreck of American evangelicalism, we must take seriously and joyfully the fact of Jesus' resurrection--something that has been lost from evangelicalism. Not that evangelicals disbelieve in the Resurrection--belief in it could be taken as an essential part of evangelicalism--but they have ceased to take it seriously, have lost the central and vital importance of it. For all intents and purposes, the evangel of the New Testament church was the Resurrection. This was the good news. Paul was accused of preaching strange gods at Athens because he preached Jesus and the Resurrection. The crucifixion was not without its importance, but over all and surpassing all was the Resurrection. And the truth is that for the modern Evangelical, the Resurrection does not have this all-surpassing importance. And without this, we have lost the secret of New Testament Christianity--the secret which give the early church its power.

In most modern Christian teaching, the Resurrection plays not functional role in the Atonement. Our salvation was purchased by the Crucifixion while the Resurrection only validates Christ's divinity but has no real relation to our salvation. I do not say that if you asked an evangelical thinker they would deny the importance of the Resurrection--I only say that if you do not ask, you will probably never hear of the importance of the Resurrection; at least, not as it specifically relates to the Atonement. Especially in the more “conservative” circles of evangelicalism, the Atonement is explained solely in terms of debt and payment. Jesus “paid a debt He did not owe.” In the crucifixion, Jesus suffered in our place to pay our debt to God. I do not argue with this story in so far as it goes--but the overpower message of the New Testament is that this story does not go far enough. Christ did not merely die for us; He also rose again for us so that as He lives, so we to may live. Whatever the formal theological statement of the matter, the New Testament makes this much clear--our Atonement consists in sharing both in Christ's death and His resurrection.

And this is not an academic distinction. It makes a vital difference for this reason: when we are saved, it does not merely mean that our past sins are taken away by Christ's blood shed on the cross--though it does mean that. Salvation is not merely forgiveness; it is not simply the canceling out of the past. Salvation means that we share in the resurrected life of Christ. Salvation is not merely a legal fiction affected in the courts of heaven. It involves an actual, metaphysical union with God Himself. This is the point where Wesleyans differ sharply and irrevocably with Evangelicals. For the most part, modern Evangelicalism teaches that salvation is a one-time, irrevocable event affected by faith, which has a moral but not an essential relation to the rest of life. (So going through the process of naturalization makes you a citizen, but it does not in-and-of-itself make you a good citizen though hopefully it causes you to make yourself into one.) Over and against this Wesleyans teach that salvation is the beginning of a new life, a life which must be maintained or it will be lost, as with our old life. But even within Wesleyanism, this doctrine is becoming muddied because of a confusion regarding the role of Entire Sanctification and other issues, so that many Wesleyans now seem to teach that this new life does not begin at salvation but at some point subsequent to salvation. But against both these doctrines is the clear message of the New Testament: “He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again... Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:15; 17)

Jesus did not die and rise again simply to affect legal pardon or to save us from some kind of penal sentence--that might have been possible in some other way. What was not possible in other way was what He accomplished--He gave us life, because He gave us His own life so that we can honestly say: “I am crucified with Christ and yet I live; yet not I, but Christ who lives in me.” Irenaeus put it this way: "Because of His boundless love, He became what we are in order that He might make us what He is." Salvation is not merely a legal fiction, it is an actual reality; Jesus did not give us a “Get-out-of-Hell-free card” which is useless at the moment but which we hold unto we land on that final space of life. Jesus came that we might have life--new life--His life--life more abundant and free. The technical name for this is Regeneration and though this word is still volleyed back and forth across the courts of Evangelicalism, if we are ever to move forward, it must become not a word but a reality in our doctrine and in our hearts.

There is a secondary consequences of this. With salvation divorced from regeneration (or, to put it another way, with the crucifixion divorced from the resurrection), the Christian life becomes a secondary matter and, more often then not, it is assumed that it is affected by our own effort, not by the power of God, which is assumed to be at work only in justification. I do not mean to say that evangelicals do not teach the importance of the Christian life--for the most part, they do. What they do not do is teach that the Christian life is essentially connected to being a Christian. What they (to some measure) fail to teach is that our life as Christians is bound up part and parcel with the resurrected life of Christ. More often than not, in Evangelicalism (and even in Wesleyanism) the Christian life is presented solely in terms of our “witness.” And while this witness is clearly important, it is an out-flowing of the essential life of Christ--not the other way around. In Wesleyan circles, sometimes living a Christian life is watered down to simply “because if you don't, you'll go to Hell” which, though true, also misses the point. Saying: “You'd better live because otherwise you'll die” is technically true but seems somehow to have things backwards. In either case, the same mistake is being made.

God did not redeem us simply so He could put a check-mark next to our name in His account book; we do not live a Christian life simply so we don't flunk out of Heaven. These mistakes are serious, since they ignore they deep-rooted eternal plan of God. “[God] hath chosen us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” (Ephesians 1:4) “Living the Christian life” is not an optional thing we do to impress the world, nor is it an additional necessity we must fulfill in order to get into Heaven--it is the fundamental driving force of the entire work of God in this universe. From the very beginning, the whole point of the plan of redemption was that we should be made like God, that we should be caught up into the life of God, which is possible only through the Resurrection of Christ.

But even though the Christian's union with Christ and life in Christ is a metaphysical reality, that does not mean that living a Christian life happens automatically, any more than the metaphysical reality of physical birth means that you need do nothing the rest of your physical life. Because God is alive in us we must live for God; you must “work out your own salvation” precisely because “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Philippians 1:12-13) The technical word here is Edification. As one puts care and effort into constructing a building so that it will fulfill its potential and be what it was designed to be, so as Christians were are to be built up into what God intends us to be; that they may be complete or perfect: “Teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.” (Colossians 1:28)

And that invariably brings us to another important concept which evangelicalism has treated with a strange coldness--and that is the doctrine of the church. The fundamental atmosphere out of which modern Evangelicalism arose “stressed the individual's direct access to God apart from any church, defining the Christian life primarily in terms of individual devotion and holiness.” (Pearcey, Total Truth, 257) This is not to say there are not voices within evangelicalism emphasizing the church; nor that certain matters regarding the church are not in high emphasis within their circles--but fundamentally, the belief of evangelicalism is that "spirituality is an intensely individual relationship to God" and that any corporate aspect of Christianity is merely an additional aid or bonus feature. (LaHaye, How To Be Happy Though Married, 45)

But this is not the belief of the New Testament.  In New Testament thought, to speak of being a Christian was to speak of the church. "New birth may be--in a restricted sense--an individuals experience, but it is not, for John [and for the all the writers of the New Testament], an individualist conception: it connotes membership, and loving membership... in the divine family." (White, Open Letter to Evangelicals, 190) As Hodge said, "A solitary Christian is but half a Christian!"

I think it could be argued that this emphasis on the church was because of the emphasis on the Resurrection--death is a very individual matter and in so far as we are saved by Christ's death, we have an individualistic religion; but live is a very public and corporate matter, and in so far as we are saved by Christ's life, we have a public, corporate religion--but whether or not this is the cause, it is quite certain that the entire New Testament is built around the church; that, for New Testament writers, the church was the plan of God. The writer to the Hebrews says that Christ's work was "bringing many sons unto glory" and adds that "both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren." (Hebrews 2:10-11) When Paul explains the work of Christ in Ephesians 5:26-27, he does not say that it was for individual Christians that Christ worked but for the church: "That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." Over and over again we are told that Christ's work in atonement was for His people, His bride, His church. God's purpose in atonement was to create “a personal organism of holy men” (Curtis, The Christian Faith, Chapter 23)

There is a direct connection between the lack of emphasis on the church and on edification since, throughout the New Testament, the church is seen as the locus of edification. But this fact is based on the essential reality of what the church is. The church is not a hot house, but rather a garden--not a place where things grow artificially due to human ingenuity, but a place where things out to grow naturally with help from human assistants. The church “is a living thing” (Kennedy, A Servant in the House) because it is the body of a living Head. Just as individual Christians have life because they share the lift of Christ so the church as an organism has life because it shares the life of Christ. And if much of modern evangelicalism seems dead, it may be because it has failed to take seriously and personally its own life, the life by which we all live.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of the resurrection, I've made it a strong point in my preaching and just discussion as the chairperson to tell people of its importance the last couple of months. It is great that Christ died for us on the cross, but without a resurrection there would be no hope, His death would be in vain. Very interesting article.