Monday, October 15, 2012

Which Comes First: Orthodoxy, or Orthopraxy

I have now been a Christian for over ten years. That has been sufficient time to see much change, both in my own life, and in the world of Christian things and people at large. One of the more startling changes, however, has been that of people I know, love, and respect abandoning their faith, or at least coming close to that. Of course, this happens for many reasons, but the gist of it seems to almost always be the same thing--they step off of the foundation of the Bible as the only rule for all of life and then lose their footing in a slippery and messy hodgepodge of ideas and -isms.

Objective vs. Subjective Foundations

Something that first triggered my thoughts on this subject is that old people, in general, grow theologically soft as they age. Even those who were filled with fire in their youth later fall prey to the sentimentalism that comes with old age. In this video Billy Graham shows the effect of decades of compromise in his crusades. This compromise came largely in the form of Graham's partnering with theological liberals and non-Christian religious leaders in his famous evangelistic crusades, and that in the name of getting the gospel to the largest population possible. And, last year I heard Chuck Swindoll, in a radio interview, talk about his great passion in life. What was the great passion that this amazing preacher had  come to realize in his retirement years? Public speaking.

I was shocked to hear a man who had nourished not only his own congregations through his teaching over the years, but also thousands of other Christians all over the world, confess that public speaking was his great passion. I expected him to say expository preaching, or something along those lines. Surely, as the interview proceeded, he would qualify that statement? But I waited in vain as he spoke about his new book that would help people become better public speakers.

The other major event that got me thinking about why some Christians leave the faith, or at least begin to compromise in serious ways, was the uproar occurring around the release of Rob Bell's book Love Wins. I know, I'm about two years behind on this one, but this post is not a critique of Bell's book, but rather an attempt at tracing how it was that he arrived at a place where he could actually write it and believe what he wrote. For the best, and most fair, review of Love Wins, see Kevin DeYoung's thoughts here. Bell, in the famous promotional video released prior to his book, questioned what has long been an accepted as an essential Christian doctrine--the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead, Bell claimed that not expressing faith in Christ is not a certain indicator of a person's eternal fate. We just can't put ourselves in the position of Judge and think that Ghandi could be in hell. Surely, as Billy Graham acknowledged in the above link, there must be a wideness in God's mercy that all allows people from all faiths to be part of the Bride of Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not.

But what is common between these three examples? My proposed answer is that each of these men headed down the road of compromise as soon as they began to judge the world around them by their feelings, which are highly subjective, rather than by the Scriptures, which are objective. Graham and Bell have been outspoken as to how their experiences with people of differing faiths led them to their conclusions of the wideness of God's mercy. This response is a natural one. Of course, when you befriend a Buddhist or Muslim that is kind, generous, and genuine in their affection for you, you don't want to imagine that they remain in a state of condemnation before God. It's even harder when you recognize that they exhibit many 'Christian' behaviors.

What is often considered to be 'Christian' behavior, though, is really just moral behavior, and here Christians can't take the high road. God has given a sense of morality to every culture, though some societies choose to suppress or emphasize one aspect or another at various times. In this way, when Billy Graham's Muslim friends sincerely loved him, he shouldn't have been surprised. After all, not all Muslims are violent extremists. Nor should Rob Bell be surprised that in a predominantly Hindu country there would be a man who once stood up for justice. But where they go wrong is in assuming that because these men do things that we tend to associate only with Christians they must therefore be Christians, whether they know it or not. What happens, then, is that in order to make sense of their experience, Bell and Graham drastically change their understanding of salvation in order to appease their conscience regarding their friends.

God's justice must bow the knee to our experience.

But again, moral behavior is not necessarily 'Christian.' Graham and Bell need not look further than the Bible to see this truth. Jesus, in Matthew 5:43-48, describes one reason why Christians should not only love their own, but also their enemies. He says, "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matt 5:46-47). Everybody loves those who love them. What is difficult is loving those who hate you and persecute you.

Here, Graham, Bell, and all those who have fallen for the "how can God not save these people? They are good people" line of reasoning have forgotten that God has given us an objective standard by which we must judge and evaluate all of life and our experiences--the scriptures. And, in regard to this issue it speaks loudly and clearly.

Romans 3:9-18

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: 
“None is righteous, no, not one; 
11  no one understands; 
no one seeks for God. 
12  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; 
no one does good, 
not even one.” 
13  “Their throat is an open grave; 
they use their tongues to deceive.” 
“The venom of asps is under their lips.” 
14  “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 
15  “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 
16  in their paths are ruin and misery, 
17  and the way of peace they have not known.” 
18  “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 

Acts 4:11-12
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” 

All people are sinners before a Holy and Righteous Judge, and there are none who escape His judgment who don't do so through the means of faith in Jesus Christ.

Our experience of life is subjective and prone to lead us into a form of naive sentimentalism, drawing us away from the hard truths of God's objective revelation. But, as He is infinitely wise and gracious in His dealings with us, we must subject all of our experiences and thoughts to His word, acknowledging that He knows best. We must fight against the tendency to think that God is unjust to judge all those who are outside of Christ. Our lives must be firmly planted in the fertile soil of the Scriptures. To let our roots spread into any other soil will only result in the withering and drying of our souls, as well as the possibility of being carried away in the mudslides of postmodern relativism.

Objective vs. Subjective Interpretation

At this point, I'm sure that some, who are sympathetic to Graham and Bell's theological softness regarding salvation, would respond to my previous thoughts by pointing out the subjectivity of our interpretation and experience of the Bible and life. What I have tried to communicate in the above was that in understanding our experience of life, God has given us an objective, external source on which to ground our lives. When faced with conflicting feelings in our life, such as that of non-christian friends who are sincere in their ethic and love for others, we mustn't make our goodwill toward them the standard of judging the eternal state of their souls, rather, we must submit to God's revelation to us in the Bible.

Here, however, those in line with Graham and Bell might counter by directing us to the subjective nature of all of life, including our interpretation of the Scriptures. They too would claim to be consistent in evaluating all of life and in reaching their conclusions based on scriptural revelation. In fact, Bell's book is an attempt to justify his views based on the Bible.

But where they are in error is in their starting point. That's why I have chosen to label the previous section "Objective vs. Subjective Foundations." True, they attempt to justify their conclusions biblically, and even consider themselves to be orthodox, evangelical, Christians in many senses. But, the order of their hermeneutic is flawed. A Christian should be someone who looks into God's revelation in the Scriptures first, and then attempts to form and evaluate his experience of life according to that truth. The soft Christian, however, puts their experience first.

It's true that the interpretation of Scripture is a subjective endeavor that is colored by preexisting factors such as culture, language, and place in history. As many missionaries (hopefully) know, much of what is exported from America is not necessarily Christian, but American Christian. Much of how we think about Jesus' teaching regarding the poor, or money, depends on our nationality and are socio-economic status. But, this subjectivity takes place at a different level, or in a different manner than the way soft Christians apply it. As we read the Bible, it is of first importance that we try to minimize to the greatest extent possible these prejudices that we carry with us. In this way, the Bible becomes the means God uses to correct us, and to strip us of all that extra baggage. The goal should be to judge our subjective experiences by the objective word, rather than judging the objective word by our subjective experience. So, while they may claim to be faithful to biblical teaching, in fact they are trying to mold, or conform, the Bible according to their experience.

When confronted with the fate of our non-Christian friends, we are tempted to say, "God would never send such a good man to hell?", and subsequently look to the Bible to justify our sentiment. When personally confronted with this dilemma, I am continually forced to direct myself back to the objective revelation of God, and to submit the feelings of what I wish were true, to that which is actually true. It's not easy, but it is essential if we are to guard our souls against falling away. 

The order in which we relate our theology to our everyday life is extremely important. It is the only thing keeping us from sliding down the slippery slope of pluralism which has claimed so many well intentioned believers. We must first seek to have a firm, objective foundation in order to then be able to rightly judge our subjective experience of this world. A healthy orthodoxy must inform and direct orthopraxy.

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