The title of this article seems to suggest an approach that is both heartless and offensive, if not sub-Christian. But I am speaking solely and exclusively about the fact that conservatives and liberals in no way draw essential nourishment from each other when attempting to develop a systematic relation between human existence and ultimate reality. This deliberately restricted frame of reference must be understood and appreciated; otherwise I shall give the impression of being a plain fool. I want to make as plain as the English language can put it that I would be among the first to contend that conservatives and liberals must work hand in hand whenever means can be devised to improve the general good of mankind. We might think, for example, of the promotion of social justice, the stabilization of political and economic forces in the nation, the improvement of public education, the cultivation of friendly ties between neighbors, and the offer of help to victims of a disaster.
Certainly it is a cause for no small sorrow that Protestantism is divided into such ideologically competitive camps as conservatives and liberals. What joy would result, if all who professed to be followers of Jesus Christ were to arrive at the unity of the faith.
Existing divisions in theology do not excuse acts of personal hatred, for the responsibility to love all human beings is repeatedly set forth with such solemnity in Scripture that an unloving Christian is a manifest contradiction in terms. Christians are confronted with a universal duty to love at the very moment they surrender their lives to him who died a sacrificial death on the cross. Consequently, the law of love may not be taken lightly, as if we have the privilege of deciding whether to be loving or unloving, depending upon how a particular person happens to affect us. Christians are commanded to love all men, everywhere. And if we ever have occasion to doubt this, we need only remind ourselves that Jesus Christ defended the law that we must love even our enemies.
Taking their eyes off their own inconsistencies, however, liberals now and then seem to derive a measure of consolation from the charge that conservatives are not true to the ideal of Christian love. This can be illustrated by the energy expended to see that the Reformers themselves are openly criticized. The crux of this criticism, whether valid or not, is that the Reformers labored so hard to develop a systematic interpretation of Scripture that they not only credited their interpretation with a finality it did not deserve but went on to vilify those who understood Scripture in a somewhat different way.
The Reformers’ Fallacy
Actually, the only charge against the Reformers that is relevant is that they tended to be somewhat inconsistent when they went about the task of translating their philosophical and theological presuppositions into useful daily guides. After rigorously defending the divine quality of Scripture, they occasionally entertained the fallacy that love for a dissenter carried with it approval of the dissenter’s error. Fallacies of this sort continue to tincture the testimony of the conservative.
Still, this in no way places the conservative in need of the liberal. It is a plain and observable fact that consistent, contemporary conservatives readily admit that they have no more than a partial grasp of God’s whole counsel as revealed in Scripture. Moreover, this admission tends to make them more charitable toward those who, after no small dedication of mind and spirit, view the system of Scripture in a somewhat different light. Not all conservatives are charitable, of course, but neither are all liberals. Whenever the right conditions for it prevail, hatred rears its ugly head in every race under the sun: red, yellow, black, or white.
It should be pointed out, however, that the limited perspective which accompanies finitude is at best only a secondary reason why love toward all human beings is a basic imperative. The primary reason is the ethical teaching of the Christian system itself; and the conservative finds no justifiable ground for turning from this system. Jesus Christ loved God and neighbor with the whole of his person, and it is the sacred responsibility of all who profess the name of Jesus Christ to do likewise. Moreover, the Apostle Paul set forth a definitive list of love’s attributes in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. His language is so lucid that there is no need for supplementary standards. Some parts of Paul’s epistles are difficult to understand, of course. Even the Apostle Peter acknowledged this. But it is quite enough if both the nature and the necessity of love are revealed through language that is easily understood.
True love for a person implies an act of unconditional acceptance. All human beings are made in the image of God, and the solemnity of this fact is in no way invalidated by the tendency of some people to think evil thoughts and perform evil deeds. Even those who put our Lord to death on the cross were made in the image of God, and Jesus Christ set a perfect example for all Christians when he manifested love for his slayers.
Status By Negation
Unless this biblically revealed distinction between a person and his conduct is seriously accepted, misguided zealots—conservative or liberal—may end up clothing themselves with the garments of a new Phariseeism. In other words, they will presume that they are righteous because they are not like others. This is no innocent error. Its substance may justly be called status by negation, and negative status, the most highly developed claim of a Pharisee, owes nothing to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. If personal righteousness can be acquired by the trivial fact of not being like others, any reference to the Gospel, however pious and eloquent, is little more than idle talk.
With this description of the ethical primacy of love before us, let us now turn to a brief discussion of the rational primacy of truth. This will help us put a cap on the topic under consideration.
As a convenient transition, let us reflect on an ideological error that some naive conservatives commit in handling Christian truth. They bow their heads and solemnly assert that the quality of religious infallibility is confined to Scripture, only to turn right around and piously presume that their particular interpretation of Scripture is also infallible. Such an error seriously disturbs the liberal mind, and rightly so. As a direct fruit of this error, these conservatives complacently imagine that they enjoy a monopoly on Christian truth and that nothing whatever would be gained by entering into exploratory conversations with others who are also sincerely attempting to understand the meaning of Scripture as the revealed Word of God.
Since this kind of an error traces to inconsistency, however, it is a warning that conservatives should be more faithful to their own presuppositions, and not a sign that conservatives need liberals.
The Irrelevant Present
This leads to another matter. Since conservatives are dedicated to the conviction that the Bible contains a divinely revealed system of truth, they tend to become so absorbed with yesterday’s world that they pay little attention to issues peculiar to the world of today—so the liberal charges, anyway. Or to put it another way, the changing features of life are seemingly thought irrelevant. The present is neglected because the past is absolutized, and this supposedly spells the end of Christianity.
From all of this, it would seem to follow that conservatives need liberals, for liberals presumably will not rest until they have made a conscientious effort to see that the claims of the Christian faith are stated in such a way that they are relevant to the peculiar needs of modern man.
But this inference carries no force, because it is meaningless to speak about the claims of the Christian faith unless we are first of all persuaded that these claims are objectively true. This is why the conservative dogmatically insists that love and truth must be simultaneously respected. Christian truth accounts for the Church’s time-tested conviction that God inspired holy men to declare the plan of salvation on divine authority. This conviction not only embodies the precise, systematic teaching of Scripture itself but also gratifies a basic need that the soul senses the moment it entertains judgments about the nature of God and God’s relation to the human race. Unless our religious convictions grow out of a divinely revealed system of truth, we shall have no means by which to be certain that anything is holy, not even love itself. This is probably the crucial reason why a conservative refuses to surrender his conviction that Scripture contains the only infallible rule of faith and practice. If God fails to disclose the manner in which he plans to deal with his creation, human beings have no more of a rational basis for faith and hope than does a tree.
In other words, nothing possesses ultimate authority and importance unless it can be validated by divinely revealed truth. The reason for this ought to be rather obvious. Suppose we have great wealth and enjoy perfect health; suppose we exercise awesome talents and wield immense powers; still, unless we are able to rest in a divinely validated answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?,” everything about us is hollow and empty.
Thus it is fallacious to say that conservatives and liberals need each other, for liberals simply do not believe that a divinely validated plan of salvation has been entrusted to the Church. Liberals are so dedicated to the vision of making the Christian religion relevant to the supposed needs of modern man that they consider it a handicap to be checked by the rights of language in Scripture. Conservatives may now and then overlook new means and methods by which to confront modern man, and for this oversight they deserve criticism. But the fact remains, despite this just ground for criticism, that conservatives are sincerely trying to make peace with the revealed will of God.
Liberals doubtless mean well, but they invariably nullify the divinity of the Gospel by the manner in which they subordinate the data of Scripture to data drawn from contemporary science and philosophy. This may strike some readers as a rather prejudiced and heartless judgment, but actually it is nothing more than a plain statement of fact. It is true that liberals sometimes claim to experience an encounter with God through the reading of Scripture, but this should never be confused with a whole-soul submission to the rights of language in Scripture.
If the Church has been entrusted with a plan of salvation that is true on divine authority, then the relevance of Christianity is automatically established by the fact that it is true. To try to impose any other standard of relevance is manifestly wrong. What God says is final; even the slightest mishandling of Scripture is altogether out of order.
Love’S Highest Act
Liberals heavily emphasize love, and they often translate their convictions into praiseworthy acts of love. But they are less concerned to show how the highest act of love correlates with the highest statement of truth. If it is true that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save sinners, have we any right to say that we love sinners if we fail to confront them with this truth? And where can we find a divinely validated account of this truth apart from Scripture? In sum, we can express no higher love to lost humanity than to preach the Gospel in the precise form in which God has been pleased to reveal it.
The intimate tie between love and truth can easily be illustrated. Let us suppose that some miners are sealed underground because of a huge landslide. Although communication with the trapped men is established, it seems inevitable that they will die of suffocation. But suppose an engineer in town is aware of a cave through which the trapped miners can crawl to escape their apparent doom. Unless the engineer shares this information clearly and accurately, he has no right to say that he loves the helpless miners.
No doubt someone will challenge our concept of highest love by citing John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The challenge can be met if we agree that Jesus is speaking of the greatest expression of love between friends. Certainly the last and highest proof of love for a friend is the act of substitutionary death. But a state of true friendship does not exist between a Christian and lost sinners when a Christian deliberately withholds the good news of the Gospel. This follows from the fact that personal reconciliation with God is more important than earthly security. Earthly security is temporal, while reconciliation with God is eternal.
Change: Sign Of Progress?
It might seem that liberals, in their zeal to make Christianity relevant to modern man, would derive some sort of stabilizing element from the conservative position. It is rather well known that liberalism tends to identify Christianity with the latest viewpoint, a procedure doomed to continue forever. But in fairness to the liberal position, it should be pointed out that dedicated liberals consider changing conditions of truth as worthy of praise, not scorn. Change, according to liberal standards, is a healthy sign that the human race is making progress. This is why the liberal becomes suspicious whenever he is confronted with the claim that material truth can be developed to the point where it is the same for all generations.
Hence the inference simply cannot be avoided that conservatives and liberals do not need each other. Since liberals look with disdain on fixed material truth, they also look with disdain on conservative presuppositions. When something is not needed, it is altogether futile to argue that it is needed. This is such a crucial part of the thesis under discussion that it merits restatement in another paragraph.
A consistent conservative, as we have pointed out above, believes that Scripture contains an account of a plan of salvation that is true on divine authority. Now, unless a liberal forthrightly and emphatically repudiates this particular view of Scripture, there simply would be no such person as a liberal in the first place. Therefore, since the very uniqueness of liberalism comes into existence with the repudiation of all claims to fixed and final truth as indispensable elements in the Christian faith, how can it be claimed that liberals need conservatives?
The only thing liberals really need is the steady flow of evidences that comes from daily thought and experience. Certainly conservatives do not believe that such evidences are sufficient to answer man’s questions about the nature of God and of God’s will for the human race. But the convictions of conservatives, when treated by liberal standards, bear no essential relation to the particular issues that concern modern man; and thus they may be dismissed as irrelevant.
When all is said and done, therefore, it is just about as meaningful to say that palm trees and icebergs need each other as it is to say that conservatives and liberals need each other. Certainly some element of mutual need exists, but the need is not essential.
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