Thursday, May 11, 2017

Escape from Evangelicalism (Part Three)

Evangelicalism does not mean simply 'believing the gospel' any more than nepotism means the worship of nephews. To say all Christians are evangelicals (because they all believe in the gospel) is like saying we are all Pentecostals because we believe in Pentecost or that we are all Calvinists because we are willing to admit the historical existence of John Calvin. But even these parallels are not entirely fair, for a Pentecostal does mean a person who believes a specific thing about Pentecost and its significance, but an Evangelical (in modern America) does not mean someone who believes one specific thing about the Gospel. Rather, Evangelicalism today means a conglomeration of unconnected ideas, tendencies, and attitudes which permeate the mass of Protestant American Christianity. Of the essential idea which kindled evangelicalism, that thing which is the common link between Edwards and Wesley (perhaps best expressed in Edwards' “Divine and Supernatural Light”), I have nothing here to say--first, because there is no space in this article and, second, because I do not think it has very much to do with modern Evangelicalism. Things might be better if it did. There are various teachings which do form essential parts of Evangelicalism which I would be more than happy to attack at some other time--things like Darbyism and “Eternal Security”--but it is not my intention to do that here. My intention is rather to try to build a solid doctrinal center as a starting place for our new path, once the doomed ship of American Evangelicalism has sunk beneath the waves. And to do that, we have to start at the beginning--the beginning of the Christian faith in any meaningful sense--and that is with the Resurrection.

The Resurrection was the cornerstone of the early church; their evangel was that God hath raised Jesus from the dead. Though we still believe in the Resurrection, it has lost its urgency and central importance. In part one of this article, we discussed the fact that without an emphasis on the resurrection, we lose sight of the practical purposes of salvation. Christ did not merely die to put away our sin; He also lives again to give us new life. Along with that, is the doctrine of the church--for Jesus lives not only to give us new life individually, but to give new life for the church which His body. In part two, we discussed the humanity of Christ. It was “that man” whom God raised. (Acts 17:31) Because of the essential and perpetual humanity of Christ there is an essential and perpetual dignity and honor to humanity, as such.

But there is another and more obvious implication of the Resurrection. With Jesus standing alive before the now-empty tomb, the one obvious fact was the fact of victory. Christus Victor. The Resurrection--resurrection, in general, for that matter--is a good picture of victory, bringing up all the emotional tones that gather around the concept of victory. But the Resurrection is not merely involved with the emotion of victory. In the Resurrection, Christ literally and objectively proved Himself victorious, over sin (by bringing atonement), over Satan (by foiling his plans for the world), and over death (obviously). This is the simple fact of what happened in the Resurrection. And while Jesus, as God, was in principle superior to all these things anyway, in His death and resurrection He proved that superiority. He now has not only the right of succession, but the right of conquest. And it can be argued, by the by, that for the New Testament, Christ's rule over this world and especially His final judgment is (now) not in virtue of being the Creator God but of being the Conquering Man, the Second Adam.

But the Resurrection of Christ does not mean His victory alone for we, as His joint-heirs, share in His victory.  “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:57) Because we are in Christ and Christ is in us, His victory becomes our victory.

This can be seen most obviously in the doctrine of our Resurrection. Paul makes it very clear that there is no separating the idea of Christ's Resurrection from our Resurrection. There is a purely rational or apologetic reason for this (since any objection which can be raised against our resurrection would be equally valid against Christ's), but there is also a more fundamental, metaphysical reason. In a certain sense, there is no point in talking about “our” resurrection or “our” victory. The only victory is Christ's victory, but we share in that as we share in Christ. Our Captain alone won the victory, but all the army may share in the spoils. We will be raised because Christ is risen and Christ is in us.

The Resurrection of the Body is a subject which is curiously shoved aside in Evangelicalism though formally taught. It may because of our tendency towards dualism, our tendency to depreciate physical things. It may because of our disregard for humanity and human experience (as we discussed previously) for one of the main points of the resurrection of the body is that it completes our humanity--“for no man is complete, no man can be complete until the resurrection.” (Curtis, The Christian Faith, Chapter 28) Or it may be because in a good deal of folk theology we have run the resurrection and the intermediate state together. (Most pictures, both in scripture and out, of the dead now either in Heaven or Hell are given in physical terms. This is to be expected since we cannot 'picture' non-physical existence. However, this may be the reason why we tend to think of the dead now as being already resurrected.)

I do not want to dwell on the future resurrection of the body, because I have already written a rather lengthy article dealing with this doctrine and its implication. I just want to point out here that our resurrection, like Christ's out of which it comes, is a living testimony of the power of God and the victory of Christ over death. This victory which has been won and which will be enacted is an objective victory. The triumph over death is as objective a fact as the death over which it triumphs. It is not just that Christ give us peace or hope in death. It is not simply that He helps us deal experientially with the fact of death. He does do that, but there are other and better ways. Vain-Hope the Ferryman was able to get Ignorance over the river of death in a much quicker and easier fashion than Christian got over. What Christ gives us is an actual, objective victory over death.

And if Christ gives us victory over death, then what else is there to be afraid of? If Old King Death could not keep Christ in the grave--will not keep Christ's people in the grave--then who can trouble us? This is the hope of the New Testament. It is not solely about the future life, though that future life did have great importance for the New Testament writers (more so, seemingly, than for us). Rather, it is this--because Christ has triumphed, we have victory not just in the future but now.

This ties into what we talked about in the first part of this series. I said there that modern Evangelicalism does not emphasize or even believe in the victory or objective regeneration of the soul--because such a victory is only possible because of the resurrection of Christ which gives us hope both now and forever.

Jesus is reigning victoriously, both as God and as Man. Because of this, we have hope, objective hope. And that is why we are so tragically wrong to live in despair and (what is far worse) to idealize our despair. In certain circles of Evangelicalism, not only does one get an overwhelming sense of desperation about God's work, but even a sense that having such desperation is a sign of spiritual insight. Now, do not take me wrong. I am not trying to gloss over the real problems that exist in the world. Though some of our concerns are probably overrated, I do not blame a man (Christian or not) who looks at the conditions of the world today and is tempted to despair. I only say the proper response to being tempted to despair is “Yield not to temptation.” The fact that a state of mind is easy to fall into does not necessarily prove that it is either accurate or wholesome.

I repeat that despair and hopelessness are two keynotes of modern evangelicalism--a feeling of gloom is one of their primary attributes and, so one sometimes feels, one of their primary standards. It a positive testimony to evangelicals' courage and loyalty that, despite their hopelessness about their own religion, they usually are still willing to stand by it. They think the ship is sinking, they may think a man a liberal or an idiot for saying the ship could be saved, but they are still brave enough to go down with the ship. This sort of hopeless courage (the kind Edgar Rice Burroughs so often celebrated), the determination to fight on in the face of inevitable defeat, the refusal to turn despair into acquiescence--it is one of the truly noble attributes of modern evangelicalism. But that does not mean it is a harmless attitude.

The problem with despair is that it leads to desperation--and desperation can lead to anything. It is the desperate man, fighting with little to no hope, who will do unthinkable things in the battle. If we see the situation as dark, we will be darkened by it. The hungry man will do anything for food--and the hopeless man will do anything for hope. So, for example, in a recent well-known political struggle, certain evangelical leaders said and did thing which some of us and perhaps they themselves would once have said they would never say or do. The most charitable interpretation we can put on these things is that desperate men will do desperate things and if we have no hope but the very small hope which a political leader can give us, then we will do anything for that hope.

Where our despair does not paralyze all action, it tends to spur us into nervous or desperate action. It is the hopeless man, full of fears within and without, who is irritable and “jumpy.” And if one were candidly and charitably to describe the attitude of American evangelicals, to speak of some instances (at least) when they have stood in reaction to particular problems and issues around us, I do not think they could do better than to describe our attitude as irritable and jumpy. I am not here dealing with evangelicals' stands on particular issues--these must be dealt with one at a time in their own place--on some of them they have been right and in others wrong (which is just about par for the course)--my point is about the general attitude, the “scent” and atmosphere of the thing. There is a reason why American evangelicalism has come across to many as ignorant, intolerant, and reactionary--and that reason is that they have lost hope and so are acting and speaking as desperate men. And desperate men seldom make a good impression.

One particular issue is the problem of compassion. For anyone who has listened to the mass of so-called “conservative” evangelical Christianity, it should be obvious that one of their primary failings is a lack of compassion. They are often quiet perceptive and quite right about the evils of our day. One will often hear them (quite rightly) say what and who is the problem with the world. What one almost never hears is any note of love or compassion for the who. This is significant because evangelicals (as Christians) can and would tell you that God loves all people, that we should love people, that we should love even our enemies. That a normal, carnal man would hate the people he sees as dangerous is quite natural. It is pagan, but paganism is quite a respectable occupation. But that Christians who, in theory, know better, should act and speak the same way--should, without guilt and without hesitation, speak and write words of hate or callous scorn even against their enemies--this is the scandal of modern evangelicalism. There could be many reasons--poor theology and worldliness being the most obvious--but for our purposes, I think we can say that the main reason is a loss of hope, a loss of the hope which comes with the victory of Christ in the Resurrection. It is the man who is half convinced already that he will drown who becomes critical and concern about who gets in the life-boat with him. It is the man almost without hope who becomes sharp and caustic about those whom he sees as the cause of hopelessness. It is when Christians have loyalty to God without the hope of God that they become bitter and hateful towards sinners.

But if we remember the Resurrection, we can have hope. Because Christ has been raised from the dead, because we will be raised from the dead, then (as one contemporary song puts it) “There is nothing left to be afraid of.” God is in control of the world, and He requires of us faithfulness--not nervous, irritability about the future. We have hope and hope is the source of courage and energy. As Calvin said, “The hope of eternal life will never be in us an inactive principle...” We can work, we can love, we can even die, because we have hope.

But I conclude this article with a note of hope for another reason. I used to be rather discouraged by the seeming failure of Christianity in our nation, by the disinterest of the world in the Christian faith. After the events of this last year, some of us have begun to realize that a good deal of what passed for Christianity was something else. Not that the people involved in it were not Christians--seemingly they were and only God can know that with certainty, anyway--but that the general tone and attitude of the thing was not the tone and attitude of Christ or the New Testament church. The failure of the world to believe the church must be at least partly attributed to the failure of the church to believe God. If we people try to kill the church, it may be because the church is already dead. And the church may be dead because it does not believe enough in resurrection.

“Men have not got tired of Christianity; they have never found enough Christianity to get tired of.” (G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World, Part 1, Chapter 6)

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