Thursday, May 01, 2008

Better Learn Some History Before It's Too Late - The Lessons of the Past for Current Practice

Henry Ford is famous for his frank assessment:
"History is bunk." The more I read of church history, the more it illuminates my current understanding of doing church. As we look at the bewildering array of spiritual movements and conflicting advice for pastors on how to "do" church, we might pause for a moment to look back.

In 1521, the Zwickau prophets had become extremely active during the time of Luther's forced exile in the Wartburg Castle. During the absence of the lion, the rats came out of the woodwork. Under their influence, the Bible became an unnecessary "paper pope," standing between the believer and the immediacy of Holy Spirit inspiration. Rather than accepting that God mediated his grace through the Word, they formed communities united in their sense that the Spirit spoke more freshly unfettered by the impediments of Scripture. Even the formidable Andreas Carlstadt, Luther's colleague at Wittenberg, fell under the spell of these enthusiasts. Carlstadt discarded his study of the Word in favor of circulating with the "people" where true truth could be ascertained--by osmosis evidently--in the context of 16th century version of "missional communities."

The Magisterial Reformers of the 16th century argued that the Lord speaks through the Spirit through the Word. Spiritual knowledge is, therefore, mediated, not immediate. The Zwickau prophets opted for the excitement of experience. Luther rightly condemned their heretical efforts and even said of his friend Carlstadt, "He has swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all." In an important sense the Zwickau prophets show a marked affinity for some of the trends within evangelicalism today. I am struck by the prophetic words of WSCAL's Scott Clark:

The evangelical convulsions over justification mean this: Van Til was correct. The fundamental principle of the evangelicals, at least in the Modern period, is religious enthusiasm. Because this is so, religious experience trumps truth every time.

If you follow the popularity of the New Perspective on Paul (cf. Sanders, Dunn, and Wright) in the academy and the reactions of evangelical scholar's such as Westmont's Bob Gundry (my former prof who gave me 32 semester units of his wisdom and officated at my wedding) who have disputed the Reformational sense to justification by faith in our day (cf. John Piper's entire book, Counted Righteous in Christ, written to counter Gundry), you can see how we are meandering toward the precipice again. Rejecting the objectivity of Reformational Christianity's solas, we inch ever closer to the chaos of seeking truth in immediate religious experience.

Without a confessional anchor (remember the old 1689 London BAPTIST Confession of Faith with its solid doctrinal core?), we have nothing left but religious experience (great shades of Schliermacher!). In such a context, "evangelicalism" will devolve into the shallowness of Osteen-esque "spirituality" without a cross, the exploitation of the latest in scientific technique (e.g. the wholesale appropriation of the most recent business school insights and methods to pastoral ministry), or an honest rejection of Christianity as vapid and devoid of rational content. The kinds of experience I recorded in the last post makes complete sense in a world where Reformation lessons are set aside for "quick fix" techniques governed only the omnipotent principle of "what works."

Somehow, rather than the quote by the great master of pragmatic application of knowledge to the mass production of automobiles, I prefer the prescience of George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."


revdrron said...

I appreciate your reference to the confessional anchor (e.g., 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith). But may I quote a slightly altered Barthian muse. "From the Protestant side, there is no compensating basic principle, and no teaching office of the Church to safeguard its authority and enforce its observance, and thus to prevent the headlong fall into all kinds of popular Pelagianism."

Specifically, with reference to religious experience (Schliermacher being a modern harbinger) or what might be seen as the ongoing pollution of Reformed Theology (as old as the Middle Ages). “It has happened more than once in the history of Protestantism that an element which had a scholastic form in the Middle Ages has won a place in Protestant doctrine. And more than once this element which seems so alien in its original form has had to be eliminated for the survival or revival of the Reformation Church.” - Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church dogmatics, Volume II The doctrine of God, Part 1. (pp.576ff)

Dave Miller said...

Nice couple of posts Dennis.