According to the great liberal church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), there were two rival theological tendencies in early Christendom, the Hellenistic and the Judaistic. The Hellenistic tendency was primarily concerned with “knowledge” (in reality often exotic philosophical and mystical speculation), while the Judaistic tendency was preoccupied with the Law and with ethics. The extreme form of Hellenism within Christianity took the form of Gnosticism, was pronounced heretical by the early Church, and after flourishing briefly in the second century gradually became extinct. The legal-ethical tendency, after losing some of its most extreme elements (the so-called Judaizers), triumphed as what we now call early Catholicism. In Harnack’s view, this was unfortunate, because the Church lost the cosmic vision of the Gnostics and became rather too practical and humdrum.
Those who know something about the Gnostic movement with its incredible creations compounded out of the most diverse spiritual and material elements—what the early Christian theologian Irenaeus satirized as “the delirious melons on Valentinus”—will not share Harnack’s regrets. As a matter of fact, we now know that his rather Hegelian theory of a Judaistic thesis and Hellenistic antithesis does not fit the facts; the whole picture is more complex than Harnack thought. But he was certainly right in his recognition of the importance of ethics to early Christian orthodoxy.
When this preoccupation with the ethical had developed over a period of centuries, it led to a distorted view of salvation labeled “works righteousness” by its opponents. Whether or not works righteousness was as integral to Roman Catholic theology as the major Reformers thought, their tempestuous attacks on good works as a means of grace or salvation were never intended to result in indifference to good works or the practical course of the Christian’s life. Both Luther and Calvin had to contend with antinomians and “libertines,” and both of them devoted a substantial part of their writing and preaching to offering practical guidance in the ethical and moral decisions of daily living to those already justified by faith.
Within the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican traditions, systematic approaches to ethics were developed. There were variations, but in general these systems had much in common with the major ethical emphases of the older Catholic (and Orthodox) traditions.
The Protestant Reformation, then, although it rejected the error that good words can earn salvation, preserved the basic continuity of Christianity’s ethical tradition as a guide to Christian living. Major attacks on the substance of Christian ethics came later, especially through eighteenth-century rationalism and nineteenth-century romanticism. Rationalism, which was opposed to the very concept of special revelation, was hostile to any ethical standards that claimed to be derived from the Word of God and not from human reason alone. The Christian ethical tradition was so all-pervasive in the West that the ethics produced by such rationalists at first hardly seemed to differ in content from biblically-based Christian ethics. But with the passage of time, it moved farther from its original roots and finally degenerated into the moral relativism of our own day.
It was largely in reaction to rationalism that the romantic movement arose; chiefly literary and artistic, it also had a theological phase, represented by the highly subjective theology of feeling associated with the name of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Here too at first practical rules for conduct inevitably corresponded closely to those of the older Christian tradition, but the principle of total subjectivity again tended to produce an ethical relativism devoid of objective norms.
The disastrous spiritual legacy of rationalism and romantic subjectivism in the lands of Western Christendom is beginning to be overcome today. Individuals, congregations, and sometimes whole denominations are once again recognizing the validity of objective, propositional revelation and its absolute indispensability to a full and solid Christian faith. Wider and wider circles of nominal Christians have seen the necessity of knowing, believing, and obeying what the Bible says, and are thus becoming committed believers.
Unfortunately, this recovery of biblical authority has not adequately touched all aspects of Christian life and thought. The evangelical movement of the last century and a half has been primarily concerned with conversion and personal commitment; in the ethical realm, evangelicalism has tended, just as did the Reformers some centuries earlier, to accept the existing body of traditional Christian ethical teaching. But whereas in 1517 that body was healthy, since 1800 it has been gravely weakened through rationalism and subjectivism. In consequence evangelicals today are often at a loss to provide believers with a consistent biblical ethic to match their theology. Where the Bible is explicit in its commands and prohibitions, evangelicals will seek to be obedient and will reject contrary counsel from worldly sources. But once off the solid ground of explicit biblical precept, contemporary evangelicals tend to become unsure of themselves and to absorb, chameleon-like, the ethical coloring of their surroundings. These are predominantly relativistic, hedonistic, and utilitarian.
Many evangelical teachers are completely befuddled when confronted with demands for answers to questions that are not exhaustively dealt with in Scripture. In their bewilderment, they frequently resort to paraphrasing worldly opinions, occasionally interpolating a pious thought or two. Thus many evangelicals come close to sounding like utilitarians, situation ethicists, or even Marxists when confronted with hard questions from the contemporary world—questions of war, capital punishment, abortion, revolution, exploitation.
We know that evangelical faith needs to be formed and supported by a distinctively Bible-based evangelical theology that is full and comprehensive, and not limited to the repetition of selected Bible texts. Indeed, the theological tradition of the Church Fathers, the Reformers, and biblical theologians closer to our own day has found a substantial and worthy continuation in many mature evangelical theologians on the contemporary scene. Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said for Christianity’s ethical tradition. The onslaught of rationalistic liberalism was directed first at Christian doctrine, and it was necessary to defend it with vigor. That battle, while not over, has certainly been successful to date. But in the meantime the ethical front, with some exceptions, has been all but abandoned.
According to historian Karl Heussi, one of the greatest attractions of the early Church to ancient pagans was the clarity of its beliefs and the consistency of its actions in the ethical realm. Evangelicals today need to make contact again with the solid substance of the Christian ethical tradition, and to do some new systematic, creative thinking as well, in order to be able to face the powers of this world not merely with a way of thinking but also with a consistent and biblically valid way of life.
On Free Exercise
If pro football is a religion, as is half-seriously suggested sometimes, then Congress showed a disestablishmentarian bent in enacting legislation that outlaws local blackouts of sold-out home games. What the government has actually done is to remove some of the public protection of policies the sport has enjoyed. Ultimate separation of sport and state must wait until players win the right to bargain with whatever team they choose.
We should be thankful for religious liberty. Imagine the National Council of Churches conducting an annual draft of seminary graduates. Imagine the Shakers, now down to 13 (all women), having first pick. Imagine the United Methodist Church trading Oral Roberts to the Reformed Church in America for Norman Vincent Peale and an undisclosed amount of cash …
Death Before Birth
According to recently published figures for 1972, the number of abortions performed in the nation’s capital exceeded the number of live births by almost two to one—38,868 legal abortions, 21,579 births. This was before the United States Supreme Court, in a decision of January 22, 1973, in effect legalized abortion on demand throughout the country. Thus there may be reason to think that the ratio of approximately two abortions to one live birth in the District of Columbia will not be maintained in the future. (Of course, the figure of 38,868 abortions in 1972 includes only legal abortions, and while figures on illegal abortions are lacking, it is generally assumed that they have taken place in considerable numbers.)
The statisticians tell us that 75 per cent of the abortions were performed on patients from other jurisdictions, while 60 per cent of the live births were to women residing in the District. This would mean that approximately 9,720 abortions were performed on District residents compared to 12,950 live births, a ratio of approximately three abortions per four live births for District residents taken separately. Several of the atheistic, totalitarian states of eastern Europe have had to recognize the long-range social consequences provoked, in part at least, by a policy of abortion on demand (e.g., declining population, aging work force, breakdown of family structure), and have consequently cut back on permissions for abortions as a partial remedy to alarming social trends. Since they evoke no pious claim to trust in God, as the United States does on its debased coinage and devalued currency, perhaps the Communist nations are showing an awareness of purely secular drawbacks to their policy to which we, in hypocritical piety, remain blind.
As for those in the United States who see no reason for disquiet either in the widely evoked religious arguments or in the emerging statistical picture, there is no better description than Paul’s: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22).
Pressure On The Kremlin
Anyone who regularly reads newspapers in the West knows of Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn and Andrei D. Sakharov, but who has ever heard of Boris M. Zdorovetz? These three Soviet citizens have in common the courage to say what they think. Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov are so-called intellectual dissidents who through courageous liaison with the Western press won a measure of tolerance from a perturbed Kremlin. But Zdorovetz has no such leverage. He is an evangelical preacher, popular in his own country but not known anywhere else. He last preached on May 2 at an open-air service, reportedly to 2,000 people. It was his undoing: last month a court in Kharkov, Ukraine, gave Zdorovetz a stiff prison sentence (see News, page 67).
Commendably, opinion leaders in the free world are beginning to take up the cause of those in Communist lands who have been denied basic human rights. The proposed Jackson Amendment insists that the Soviet Union ease its emigration policy in exchange for trade benefits from the United States. Even officials of the World and National Councils of Churches who for years have kept silent on religious persecution are now showing sensitivity.
Another welcome development is the broadening of concern on the part of Jews. Harold Light, head of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, has expressed eagerness to work in behalf of all who have been harassed by the Communists. Jewish protests have been relatively successful in recent years (while Christians have done little). They have shown that although democratization of the Soviet Union may be out of reach, some compromises are possible.
Church And State And Fire
This is Fire Prevention Week (October 7–13), and hence we are led to reflect upon a predicament faced by local governments. As everyone knows, they are increasingly strapped for funds to provide the myriad services citizens have come to expect. The basic source of revenue on the local level has traditionally been the property tax, from which churches and other non-profit organizations have been exempt. Fire protection has usually been financed from general revenues. Now some localities have decided to charge a fee (a better term, in this context, than “tax”) to all property owners to help support the local fire department.
Predictably some churchmen have raised the cry of state infringement upon the rights of the churches. We are told that “the power to tax is the power to control or destroy.” Now, we do not take a back seat to anyone in insisting that government should keep free from needless entanglement with religion. However, paying one’s fair share of the cost of fire protection is much like paying government-controlled water departments for the use of water. All churches, presumably, pay their water bills. They should also be willing to pay for such readily calculable benefits as garbage collection and fire protection. Of course, unlike regularly performed services, one hopes never to have need of fire fighters. But when they are needed, we can be glad they’re available—and well equipped.
Congregations already have to obtain zoning-board approval and building permits to erect church buildings. If governments had wanted to “destroy” churches, as alarmists say, they could have been doing it through long established means.
Instead of opposing government fire-protection fees, churches and other non-profit organizations should ask themselves why they did not long ago begin voluntarily to “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”
Repentance That Leads To Salvation
When he was elected president of Chile three years ago, Salvador Allende promised to do something new: to lead his country to “socialism” (Marxist variety) by democratic means. Loved by a large segment of the Chilean population and a favorite of leftists abroad, Allende was bitterly distrusted by much of Chile’s middle and upper classes and was from the outset the target of domestic and foreign hostility and opposition. At the same time his own relatively moderate policies were criticized and thrown into disorder by more radically Communist elements seeking instant revolution.
In three years under Allende, Chile’s once flourishing economy was reduced to a shambles. Allende’s last days must have been heavy with sorrow as he viewed the nation to which he had sought, perhaps in misguided or impossible ways, to bring prosperity and justice, tumbling into economic ruin and civil war.
Perhaps we shall never know whether Allende killed himself in despair during the September 11 coup d’ état, was killed by his opponents, or even—as some have suggested—was callously turned into an instant martyr by unscrupulous members of his own camp. If he died by his own hand, then his melancholy end may stand as a symbol of the enemy that stalks all hopes and plans that count on man alone and leave out God: despair.
Paul speaks of a worldly grief that produces death (2 Cor. 7:10). When the worldling’s plans collapse into dust and ashes, then the higher and nobler they were, the deeper the despair. How different this is from Paul’s “godly grief”! If we understand, as the secular materialist does not, that there is a God who judges and who is willing to forgive, then ruined plans cause us sorrow but not despair. The man who, like Adolf Hitler, seals the ruin of his life’s work by self-destruction, seeks to die as he sought to live, by making himself his own highest and ultimate authority. Such a man dies self-condemned, for he cannot save himself and will accept no other saviour. We can only hope that before the end, in the ruin of his own ambitions, Salvador Allende knew not worldly despair but the sorrow that leads to repentance, and turned to the Saviour whose title he himself bore as a name.
A Prize For Wycliffe
Even evangelicals might overlook the significance of a singular honor recently paid to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, more commonly known as Wycliffe Bible Translators. On August 31 in Manila this growing team of missionary linguists received the Philippines’ coveted Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, widely regarded as the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize (see September 28 issue, page 57).
Notwithstanding the obvious good done by thousands of missionaries around the world, this is the first time a missionary organization has received an international peace prize. It is doubly significant that a Third World country bestowed the award, since nationalistic rhetoric regularly denounces missionaries as tools of colonialism. This charge is echoed by the World Council of Churches, which in recent years has been systematically downgrading missionary efforts.
Armed with the conviction that every tribe and nation must hear the Gospel in its own tongue, Wycliffe’s 3,100 missionaries and support personnel approach, on an average, a new tribe every other week. First they reduce the language to writing, and then they put the Word of God into the newly developed medium. As this goes on, native, sometimes savage people are transformed by that Word. With spiritual transformation come other liberating aspects, for knowing how to read and understand gives people a better chance to rise out of ignorance and poverty. No country could fail to appreciate this byproduct of Wycliffe’s presence, even if it were not grateful for the spiritual thrust.
Can those churches that for one reason or another are pulling back their missionaries by the hundreds learn from Wycliffe? Despite all the nationalistic rhetoric, the Magsaysay Award is an encouraging sign that at least some missionaries, in some places, are greatly appreciated.
Spreading The Word With Impact
The American Bible Society’s “Good News for New Readers” project (described in a news story on page 60) deserves the support of all persons and institutions that respect the Word of God. It puts Scripture into the hands of spiritually destitute persons, and does so in a way that can help them out of physical deprivation as well.
There are still 783 million illiterates in the world, and this staggering figure does not include people fifteen and under. Neither does it include those who have lapsed back into illiteracy because they had nothing to read. In many countries, the lapse rate is said to be more than 50 per cent. It is hard for people in the West, where there is such a glut of printed materials, to realize that in large portions of the world people cannot put their hands on a single piece of literature! Every UNESCO conference concerned with literacy has cited the lack of materials designed for new readers as the major block keeping those who have learned to read from actually doing so.
At the heart of the “Good News for New Readers” program is a series of brief stories from the Bible especially translated and printed for the newly literate. Some highly complex procedures are used in an effort to be sensitive to the particular intellectual and cultural states of the target audience. Minor modifications of the content are involved, and the translators must be trusted to overcome the temptation to “improve” upon Scripture.
This effort has such wide appeal and great potential that Christians should rally to its support literally by the millions. Enormous sums will be required if substantial impact is to be made, and if the hardly affluent Bible societies are not to curtail other Scripture-distribution programs. The rising cost of paper will make progress even more difficult. We hope that not only individuals but also major denominations that have been losing interest in the Bible societies will now be prodded to increase their giving.
The Parameters Of Prayer
A number of passages in the Bible strongly declare how much can be accomplished by prayer. God wants us to express our needs to him in specific terms, and not be inhibited by how hard the task may seem in human terms. What we call the Sermon on the Mount includes the exhortation of Jesus, “Ask, and it will be given you.…” As if to underscore the point, Jesus said on more than one occasion that all things are possible with God.
Very early in the life of the Church, however, this point must have been misinterpreted, for James was inspired by God to observe that a person can “ask amiss.” On the one hand we have the tremendous potential in prayer. On the other we have the temptation, as James puts it, to consume it upon our lusts. We need to be aware of both these factors if we are to have a wholesome prayer life.
Some people—including, unfortunately, many Christians—are so intimidated by a scientific world-view that they refuse to grant the possibility of anything but what to them are clearly repeatable phenomena. The creators of Godspell, tracing the life of Jesus as recorded by Matthew, omitted all the miracles. We do the same thing in our hearts when we let unbelief get the best of us. God is not tied down to what the mentality of our times is willing to grant him.
Our petitions must come out of a proper perspective supplied to us by the Holy Spirit in regeneration. This framework is based upon the Word of God as a whole and not upon a single phrase, sentence, verse, chapter, or even a whole book of the Bible. God’s promises to answer prayer are not to be understood as a willingness to cater to our every whim. Prayer is no Aladdin’s lamp. The God-man relationship is that of master and servant; we must never think that we can tell God what to do. If we could, God would not be God.
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