Carl Henry surveys today’s theological landscape for the hazards and guideposts that lie between here and the kingdom.
Theology speaks to me first of silence—silence in heaven and earth, silence that only God can shatter. Above that silence we hear his voice: “Elohim said, ‘Let there be!… and there was …” (Gen. 1:3ff.); “Hear the word of Yahweh, O nations, and declare it … afar off” (Jer. 31:10).
We need to tune our spirits, battered by today’s mass media barrage, to God’s heavenly talk show: to the God who speaks his own word, and who supremely shows himself in Jesus Christ. This divine Speaker is waiting for people to converse with him, to spend unhurried time with him. This God of the Ages, this Eternal One, wants more than just a three-minute long-distance call, or a five-minute parking stop for a “hello” and “goodbye.”
Activism today so hurries evangelical worship, prayer and Bible reading, theological study and reflection, that we risk becoming practical atheists steeped in this-worldly priorities. Theological renewal is a farce apart from time for God in his Word. Is it too much to ask Christians in favored North America, in their struggle to be evangelically authentic, to do their theological homework once again? We must feast on mighty truths that can rebuff the blows of an ungodly age, to learn biblical lessons before the sword and dungeons overtake us. “Be still,” says Yahweh. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).
Let us consider five living and abiding “words,” words of the Word become flesh, and apply them to the eighties.
A Word About Christ
Counterfeit theologies inundate our earth. Theologians of the absurd espouse paradox. Mix-master theologians entangle the Creator in space-time. Cataclysm theologians trust violence to turn the world right side up. These modern theologians, however, retain too few biblical components to speak to our deepest needs.
But does this modern proliferation of nonbiblical faiths differ greatly, after all, from the plethora of mystery religions, strange philosophies, and exotic cults that haunted the ancient world of Christian beginnings? Did not Jesus himself warn: “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive” (John 5:43)?
“I am come,” Christ declares (John 10:10), calling all mankind to acknowledge the Messiah who was to step into fallen history. Christianity centers in Christ’s person and work. But it is, of course, more than Christ, though without Christ there can be no Christian and no Christianity. One is left simply with the itty-bitty: promise without fulfillment, sacrifice without atonement, death without resurrection, godhead without triunity. “I am come!”
If Christ is excised or moved to the margin, theology fails both Christianity and the eighties. The eternal Christ alone supplies history’s midpoint and will return to define its endpoint. All who search for a constant in this age of relativities—relative to power, to time, to culture—can be assured, can know that I am has come and that he who has come endures: “Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
A Word About The Church
Perhaps evangelicals just now need most to hear Christ’s word, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). It is true that many evangelical churches have shown marked growth; their members are biblically literate, they support evangelism and overseas missionary causes, are devoted to humanitarian programs of world relief, development assistance, and prison reform; their members have become increasingly active in politics.
There is, however, something disconcerting about the growing stress on local superchurches and superpastors. This stress often neglects the organic unity of the whole family of believers. Do evangelicals really care what Jesus Christ says about the church? Does it matter as much to us as what he says about evangelism? Can a church divided and subdivided and subsubdivided truly be Christ’s church? Does merely rejecting or absolving oneself of an ecumenical institutional badge justify the lack of evangelical interrelationships and of coordinated fellowship? Does not a society succumbing to secularism demand a comprehensive local and national witness? More important, does not the biblical ideal of the church demand more of us?
Why do some clergymen who are disenchanted with pluralistic ecumenism, and also some conservative evangelical young people, seriously consider a return to Rome? In more instances than we admit, it is because evangelicals do not seem to take seriously the unity of Christ’s church. We feel privately that a united evangelical orthodoxy would not only move mountains but could perhaps even rescue a spiritually mired planet. But how do we translate this conviction into ecclesiastical reality?
Every appeal to an inerrant Bible should humiliate us before the inerrant Christ’s insistence on the unity of his church. When at Caesarea Philippi Peter affirms Jesus to be the Christ, Jesus says: “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18)—not many but one. As Sheldon Vanauken remarks, Christ spoke of his church “in the singular” and not in “the 10,000 sect plural.” When Jesus prays for the Holy Father to keep his disciples “one as we are one” (John 17:11) he bars our easy escape to fragmentation. Does the degree of unity current among evangelicals truly reflect the unity of the Godhead?
I am in no way suggesting that organizational conglomerates or institutional megadenominations fulfill Christ’s requirement. But do we support a deeply united ecclesiastical entity? Do we in principle oppose the endless proliferation of splinter groups? Is it any gain for the Bible’s view if we reject pluralistic ecumenism but at the same time approve pluralistic evangelicalism? And we do. In Washington, D.C., for example, 3,000 active ministries spending over $1 billion annually have little to do with each other.
And at the local level, does the sense of evangelical family and the treasure of Christian fellowship prevail? Do not millions of Protestants, many evangelicals among them, choose and change their churches as they do their airlines—for convenience of travel, comfort, and economy? And what of multitudes who have made crusade decisions but have not become members of local congregations? Must we not address with new resolve the question of the character of the one regenerate family that constitutes Christ’s church? Can we transcend the perception of evangelical chaos and rivalry by laying hold of something more identifiable as brotherly love?
The early church was known for continuing steadfastly “in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Do we fully mirror this Pentecostal model? Would the apostles give us a passing grade? Will we allow Christ’s own word to interrogate us? Will we let the Holy Spirit melt our irresolution? Will we make ecclesiology a chief item of theological concern in order to show more of what it means to be Christ’s one church?
A Word About The Bible
Another mighty word for this decade is Jesus’ pronouncement, “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
Neither social activism, nor evangelical world congresses, nor charismatic experiences will gain much in the long run if the Bible is forsaken or neglected.
The focus of the Bible debate has shifted beyond inerrancy to interpretation and to the issues of revelation-and-culture. For some scholars, Scripture functions authoritatively not by conveying fixed doctrinal truths, but only by changing believers internally. We are indeed to be “doers” and not simply “hearers” of the Word (James 1:22); our profit-oriented society flinches at Jesus’ disconcerting question: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). But even these truths we know simply because Scripture is a body of revealed information about God and his purposes and deeds; it is profitable, among other things, for doctrine. For others, the Bible represents but the thought-forms of ancient cultures. Bruce Nichols, however, properly insists in his Contextualization: A Theology of Gospel and Culture that all the revealed transcultural truths are nonnegotiable: those about God himself, his creative and redemptive work, his cosmic and historical purposes, his mighty commands and Great Commission.
We are too much preoccupied with the Bible’s existential impact and the private encouragement it affords us in times of personal crisis. To be sure, the preached Word must intersect human life at its most critical moments. But instead of channeling the biblical text only into internal congregational response, we must relate it also to nature and history, and to conscience. We need an expository ministry that brings forward into the crisis of our civilization the lessons of God’s actions in the biblical past. We need to hear of God’s truth and power for our age. We must not blur the emphasis on God’s external providence in history and the cosmos, nor fail to stress that naturalistic science, philosophy, and ethics rest on false assumptions about the real world.
The preached Word must speak to society in general, to great modern cities whose clichés about urban renewal are fading into discouragement. Beset by crime and vice, callous to death, trapped in poverty, aching with joblessness, besieged by inflation and taxation, our cities look to lotteries more than to the Living Word. Who dares to suggest that the Big Apple may be rotten at the core, that proud centers like Seattle, Toronto, and Philadelphia may meet the fate of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Almost no one today speaks of these metropolises as Jesus spoke of Tyre and Sidon; almost no one weeps over them as Jesus wept over Jerusalem. Almost no one seems aware that they may be but hurried whistle stops on God’s judgment trail. Who today trumpets the theme that God is sovereign in the city, that the great universities and fearless mass media are answerable to him? Who declares that the Judge of all the earth requires just judges, impartial law enforcement officers, fair news reporters and editors?
Biblical truth—transcultural as it is—proclaims the gospel to a generation that is intellectually uncapped, morally unzipped, and volitionally uncurbed. Biblical ethics boldly addresses the abyss of immorality engulfing our technological civilization; it speaks to greed for money, to lust for sexual pleasure, to crime, murder, terrorism, arson, and other hallmarks of our warped society. It confronts all of modern life with its mythology of technocratic utopianism, its triumphal evils.
Our evangelistic courage dare not be broken by the immensity of these problems. We are entrusted with proclaiming the inviolable Word of God, so we must constantly reinforce both the ineradicable sense of God, and also the surviving basic sensibilities of ethical decency. The gospel must remain central.
Consider the subject of death. Can evangelical deathstyle perhaps witness to this generation about God as much as evangelical lifestyle? As portrayed in the Bible, death is a transition from life to life—that is, from creation life to resurrection life. The quality of that life, moreover, depends on redemption.
Scripture cannot be broken, says Jesus: the apostolic message is what the Bible teaches. We need a generation devoted to biblical priorities, not to personal predilections; we need to banner the apostolic message, not the trendy come-ons of our age. The latest fads will all be shattered, but Scripture has timeless durability.
A Word About Public Duty
Christ said, “Occupy till I come.” This leads us to missiology. Some will think at once of the Great Commission. A church without evangelism invites extinction; it raises doubts, moreover, about its spiritual vitality. Recruiting, replacing, and supporting missionary forces is of prime urgency.
Too often, however, the church’s mission has been limited to preoccupation with personal evangelism at the expense of public concerns. In the parable of the nobleman, the servants are instructed to carry forward the master’s business during his absence in the far country. The Greek term is pragmateúomai: to do his thing, that is, to be about the master’s affairs. All of us know the King James translation: “Occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13). The idea accommodates the conception of an army of occupation that challenges the power of Satan, who is really a squatter. We think too seldom of the cosmos and of human history as arenas where God’s people are to resist satanic forces and to advance God’s truth.
The eighties may erupt into a decade of supercrises involving crippling energy depletion, ecological polution, military aggression, and political enslavement, moral and spiritual decline beyond imagination. As Peter writes, men will “promise … freedom” while “they themselves are slaves of corruption” (2 Peter 2:19).
We must address the world’s skepticism over moral norms, its distaste for work, the soaring crime rate, the need for prison reform, mushrooming pornography, and weak obscenity laws. The fact that two billion people attend porno films weekly curdles the soul. Advertising sells its wares by titillating envy, greed, and lust. The grey mist of secularism stupefies the sense of holiness. In the words of Barbara Nauer, it has become good to be bad.
Modern learning is powerless to challenge this beguiling mood. Most college classrooms now deny God equal or any time, and disavow the idea that he will reward good and punish evil. The positivists in anthropology say the values of all cultures are equal, and process theology thinks all that happens is streaked with divinity, while scientism can validate no moral norms whatever.
Most are oblivious to how fixed moral values are menaced by the growing notion that a truly democratic society must allow, even require, ethical diversity and a tolerance of immorality. Those who promote this theory argue that moral judgments are a private matter only, that an emphasis on ethics in public affairs represses democratic attitudes and processes, and that ethical absolutism is the handmaid of totalitarianism.
Our Christian duty includes a public proclamation of the standards by which the Coming King will judge all men and nations. If Christ’s church does not publicize the criteria by which Christ will judge the world, how will the world know them? If Christians are to be politically relevant, they must support useful legislation, even if such bills are less than ideal and may require early revision. And we must guard against dividing the church body over political issues that Scripture neither requires nor prohibits.
Yet the evangel does have obvious implications for public life and public affairs. We are confident that God works providentially in the history of nations and that we are to seek a good conscience in fulfilling our duties. So we should feel impelled to greater responsibility. If Christians fully recover and carefully balance their evangelistic mandate and their public duty, they may help turn the rumors of endtime into the realities of springtime.
What of poverty and oppression? To say that “rich Christians” hold the solution is an exaggeration. But should we, unlike the Bible, never excoriate profligate politicians or the greedy or the worldly wise? We may fail here because we secretly have too much in common with them, or because we enjoy the status symbols of a disordered society, or because we spend too little time in the company of Jesus. God is calling evangelical Christians to a fulness of love and action that will not freeze in winter.
In his recent autobiography, Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski, who also was chief prosecutor for the Nazi war crimes trials, says, “The Church militant is the only antidote.” He emphasizes that “without a militant membership … the church cannot fulfill its God-given responsibilities.” “Occupy till I come”—that is Jesus’ word to us.
A Word About Preparedness
Finally, Jesus exhorts us to be ready (Matt. 24:42). The parable of the one who comes like a household thief begins with the householder’s sudden return.
In our materialistic age of scientific advance and moral retreat, millions protect their possessions behind triple locks and costly security systems. No society in history has lived in such constant fear of the household thief as does modern America. There is no reason or excuse, therefore, to miss the point of Jesus’ warning: “Watch therefore; for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.” He continues, “If the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched.… Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh” (Matt. 24:42 ff.).
Those who ask no eschatological questions because they think the divine answering service is dead are in for a surprise. Our interim age is not open-ended; it carries an expiration date. There is hard news ahead for those who regard inflation or sexual impotence or Communist expansion as the most frightening thing in life. While eschatology is good news for the Christian, it is a doomsday message for the rebellious and ungodly.
No one can negotiate or determine his or her rites of passage into the world to come. On the judgment seat, at the portal between this life and the next, sits one whose hands have borne the uncomely nail-prints of crucifixion for 2,000 years. His eyes are “like a flame of fire” (Rev. 1:14). “Behold … every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him” (Rev. 1:7). All the nations—united nations and divided nations, developed nations and developing nations, free world nations and totalitarian nations—will gather for judgment before the Coming King. All races will be held accountable for their doing or undoing of God’s will. All the hostages will come home; Christ the Risen Lord will vindicate the good and the godly.
For Paul and the other apostles, Christ’s second coming is the heart of the future. I agree with those who insist that the Book of the Revelation centers not in dates or places but in the risen and returning Lord, in the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world for sinners, in the One Sovereign over space and time. The apostolic core-message still gives us the best perspective for preaching on the edges of eternity; it emphasizes Christ’s incarnation, sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, and personal return in judgment of men and nations, and his glorious kingdom.
“I am come,” “my church,” “Scripture cannot be broken,” “occupy,” “be ready!” These themes take us from here to eternity. Even on a cloudy day, they enable us to see forever.
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