Engaging the What? (III)
Is Christianity As We Know It Outmoded?
There are voices today that would have us believe that Christianity has seen better days and that if we’re going to relate to and engage our modern culture, we’re going to have to “do church” a lot differently. This really should not surprise us, since this mentality is traceable and discernible much earlier. This accusation falls under the “Nothing New Under the Sun” accusation.
As we continue to investigate what Herman Bavinck, one of the best Reformed theologians ever, had to say about this, we’re focusing on his discussion of Revelation and Culture, which was included in his book Philosophy of Revelation, but was never delivered at his Stone Lectureship series in the academic year 1908-1909 at Princeton. In his time (1854-1921) Bavinck noted that there were those who suggested that “Christianity has had its day, and can no longer live with our present-day culture.” Why would someone come to such a conclusion? Clearly, there are a wide variety of reasons why (progressive) secularists and philosophers would hold such an opinion, but it is more disconcerting that those who claim to be theologians of the Christian faith would follow suit.
Usually, Bavinck writes, such a “paradigm shift” occurs slowly, almost without perception. That is to say, it is usually a gradual process where what are offered as “legitimate questions” are raised. Whereas the loci of theology may not be attacked as a whole, Bavinck’s concern is that Christians are aware that the “most unkindest” attack of all is in Christology, since this locus is pivotal, essential, and indispensible for our understanding and comprehension of the other loci of theology.
Responding to the cultural despisers of Christianity in his time, Bavinck notes that in “the estimate of the person of Jesus an important change has slowly taken place.” Ironically, that shift in his day has interesting parallels to our time. Influential thinkers such as Ernst Renan (philosopher), Heinrich Holtzmann (theologian), and David F. Strauß (philosopher/theologian) “took indeed a humanitarian view of the life of Jesus.” How can the propositions of these men best be summarized? In the first place, using higher critical methods, these men denuded Christ of his deity. He was not truly the Son of God, but remained “the true, ideal man, who established the pure religion by his word and deed.” To their collective minds, Jesus descried ceremonial worship, purified morals from all legalism, “who as a human man shared in all the pleasures of life, and presented a moral ideal which deserves our admiration and imitation to-day.”
For the discerning and concerned Christian, there is a great deal in what Bavinck just described that is applicable for us today. In the last installment, we asked how much modern Christians are willing to compromise in order to present the gospel to Paul and Patty Pagan (or their good friends, Simon and Sylvia Seeker). This is an essential question for us and our modern culture. There are some who believe that evangelism trumps everything. That is to say, whatever “works” and gets them into the pews is fair game. What they need is a kinder, gentler Christianity; a Christianity without the “rough edges” and unreasonable demands. Schleiermacher knew a lot about this approach and it is alive and well in the 21st century in spades.
A friend and I were discussing economics last Wednesday after our men’s Bible study and he offered that we have just scratched the surface economically regarding how bad this economic downturn is going to be. I concur, especially in light of President Obama’s disastrous proposed “solutions.” If he implements what he’s promised, he will make Herbert Hoover and F.D.R look like fiscal conservatives. I use this illustration to predict that we have yet to see just how bad what we call evangelicalism is going to look down the road. It has not yet reached its spiritual nadir, but it is plummeting fast. With all the unspiritual and unbiblical ballast its carrying now, twenty-four feet per second per second looks like slow-mo.
Hybels has admitted that he blew it, but decided to try emergent theology rather than orthodoxy. Schuller—well, what can you say? God loves you and so do I. Anyone who would call his program the Hour of Power definitely has some ego and spiritual problems. Warren’s theology is awful, but probably not as bad as Osteen’s and better than T.D. Jakes, but that’s not a compliment. Every time I catch snippets of their broadcasts I cannot help but hope that the people sitting there are computer generated. It’s inconceivable to me that people would actually watch that spiritual gruel let alone drive to the actual location and hassle for a parking space to be present. The Church of Christ has lost a generation in the mega-church. For the most part, the attendees at these and other venues are spiritually illiterate with no spiritual legacy to pass on to their children (Ps. 71:17-18).
Enter the emergent church. While the desire for community is both understandable and reasonable, people such as McLaren, Bell, Pagitt, Burke, Miller and others have only substituted one type of spiritual consumerism for another. The bottom line is that as much as they disdain the mega-church, they are serving the same old spiritual gruel. They just walked the chicken through the pot one more time. What do I mean? Allow me to explain.
Bavinck believed that prior to his birth and thereafter “There were those who looked so kindly upon culture that they failed to do justice to the rights and requirements of the Christian confession.” Emergent non-leader leader types have eschewed Bavinck’s premise from the outset. The only creeds that matter or carry any weight are the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. One can only guess why, but that is another story for another time. Once McLaren became the proclaimed darling of the Emergent church movement, he methodologically began to chip away at the Christian faith. He was so cool and hip and said all the right things that the children of the mega-church parents wanted to hear. He pointed out the hypocrisy in the Christian Church—of others, of course; not his own—and the uninitiated, who know nothing of history lapped it up. For those of us who have been around the block a few times, this was a re-run of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Church. Hypocrisy was a big word then too. While it was raining cats and dogs regarding sexual immorality in society, it began to drizzle in the Church as well and the drizzle turned into a steady rain that morphed into a downpour.
McLaren knew that, so he needed to introduce some elements that the 60s and early 70s lacked. I know, he thought, let’s try some nifty, spiffy labyrinth prayer, breath prayer, and contemplative prayer like the Roman Catholic mystics used to use. He openly admitted his openness to other religions, a thesis that has been worked out into universalism as he progressed (or regressed) in his writings. Claiming to be a Calvinist (Chapter 12), which was one of the funniest chapters in the book, he also claimed, “I am consistently oversympathetic to Roman Catholics, Eastern orthodox, even dreaded liberals, while I keep elbowing my conservative brethren in the ribs in a most annoying—some would say ungenerous—way.” (p. 35.) Just for the record, I wouldn’t call it ungenerous, just uninformed. Also, just for the record, the main annoyance seems to be Bri’s, when conservatives elbow back. He retreats into silence and refuses to answer legitimate questions. In the meantime, the uninitiated, who received no spiritual legacy from pa and ma think this nonsense is the best thing since canned beer.
Once Mr. Birkenstock laid his cards on the table and no one in the emergent camp knee-jerked, he proceeded. The worst was over and now he could simply implement his blueprint because no one in the emergent camp was discerning enough to get it. Gradually, carefully, he made forays into homosexuality, the atonement, and his latest debacle: a nonviolent Second Coming. The pacifists in the Emergent church movement think he’s making some genial statement about war, but what he really means is a Second Coming without judgment. In other words, Bri’s teaching universalism. So we can all stay home and watch our discounted DVDs of Emergents Gone Wild, because we’re all going to make it anyway.
Bri, Wallis, and the other emergents (yes, I know they all don’t think exactly the same way! Ho-hum!) believe that orthodox Christianity has had its day and whereas the mega-church moved in the direction of CEO-esque “pastors,” comfortable auditoria, and entertaining drama and praise bands, the Emergent church movement has substituted labyrinth prayer, mysticism, feel-good community, and uncertainty for the mega-church accoutrements. In reality, it’s a cheap exchange although neither provides much that’s in any sense substantive. The underlying emergent asceticism borrowed from Buddhism is fodder for the Social Gospel views concerning the planet, Mother Earth, global warming, and global poverty, and a garden variety of social ills. These “concerns” are really thinly veiled slams at orthodox Christianity. The Jesus of orthodoxy and his worldview are not, according to the Emergent church and earlier liberals, “suitable for our time and circumstances.” As much as emergents purport to despise the thinking and thought forms of modernism, underlying the emergent program is a Nietzschian logical aristocratic anarchism. What will truly free men is not the stuffy, stale doctrines (gag!) of orthodoxy, but ridding the earth of man-generated Carbon Dioxide. Those who think along these lines are the enlightened and are far superior to those who don’t drive hybrid cars or who don’t believe that wind and solar energy is truly efficient. Oh, yes, they’re also the ones who think ethanol is a bad idea, since it takes a gallon-and-a-half of gasoline to make a gallon of ethanol.
The emergents have long since abandoned an ideational mentality (if they ever possessed one in the first place) and have opted for identification with a sensate mentality. What are those mentalities? It is important to know, for they will continue to play important roles in our further discussions of Bavinck’s chapter on Revelation and Culture. Quite simply, “The ideational mentality sees spiritual truth and values as virtually the only truth and values worthy of the name. God and the divine world are the highest and truest realities; the good is what God wills.” Clearly, the overwhelming majority of emergents have eschewed this notion almost from their inception. What do they substitute then? In the course of their writing and speaking it is evident that they hold to a more sensate idea of theology and life. Brown describes their position this way: “The sensate mentality is the exact opposite of the ideational mentality. It is interested only in those things, usually material in nature, that appeal to or affect the senses.” In subsequent installments, we will develop more specifics regarding these two mentalities and how they function in theology and ethics.
In our next installment, we’ll move on to listen to how Bavinck actually describes the word “culture,” which is a profitable undertaking that few have found important. For example, in the ostensibly PCA magazine byFaith, there has yet to appear a working definition of what culture actually is, although we’re encouraged by its editors and contributors to engage it. Therefore, next time we’ll listen to what Bavinck has to say on this matter—if global warming doesn’t kill us by then, but then with forty-below temperatures in Michigan, maybe there’s not too much to worry about.
 Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (
 See Evangelisches Kirchen Lexicon, Bd. III, (Heinz Brunoth & Otto Weber [hrsg.]), (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1958), pp. 627-628.
 EKL, II, 195-196 & Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, (Kurt Galling [hrsg.]), (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1959), pp. 435-436.
 EKL, III, 1172-1173; RGG, VI, 416-417; Helmut Thielicke, Glauben und Denken in der Neuzeit, Die großen Systeme der Theologie und Religionphilosophie, (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1983), pp. 16, 68, 120, 393.
 Bavinck, TPR, 247.
 Ibid., 244.
 See McLaren’s chapters in A Generous Orthodoxy, “Why I Am Charismatic/Contemplative,” & “Why I Am Mystical/Poetic.”
 Ibid., 248.
 Ibid., 249.
 Harold O.J. Brown, The Sensate Culture, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1996), p. 9.
Labels: Bavinck and the Culture