July 27, 2008 Commentary:
Who Needs the Church?
Hello and welcome to another edition of the White Horse Inn. In our last couple of programs we have been talking about Pelagianism, its history, the nature of the heresy of Pelagianism, and the way it cashes out in contemporary American Christianity. We were talking in the last program particularly about how consistent the 19th century revivalist Charles Finney was in applying his theology to practice. He actually believed that essentially we save our selves, by following the example of Christ; exactly as Pelagius taught, and he totally transformed the view of the ministry in order to be consistent with that theology. "Sinners bound to change their own hearts" summarizes his theology - that was the title of one of his sermons. Since the Gospel in his view is a call to moral improvement and the church is a moral transformation society it only stands to reason that the criterion for the methods employed is pragmatic success. Where, for example, the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us that the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments. Finney was convinced that faith and repentance could be induced, as he put it, by the most efficient means. And therefore, his "New Measures" as he called them replaced the means of grace. Christians, he said, must be frequently converted which means there must always be new excitements to move people to ever higher levels of commitment and activism - this is precisely the logic of the righteousness that is by works, the Theology of Glory, to which Paul refers in Romans 10, striving to bring Christ down from heaven or up the dead as if he was not as near as the Gospel he proclaims to us.
If salvation is in our hands then the means are in our hands. If it is up to us to save ourselves, then it's up to us to build the church. Finney said, "The Great Commission just said 'Go' it did not prescribe any forms. And the disciples' object was to make known the Gospel simply in the most efficient way so as to obtain attention and secure obedience of the greatest number possible. No person can find any form of doing this laid down in the Bible." Which means of course do you not only have to ignore a whole lot of passages, but that basically its all up to the charismatic, clever evangelist and his circle to come up with the methods that can accomplish the glorious results that evidently the Gospel's preaching and delivery through the sacraments doesn't obtain.
Defining the church as a society of moral transformers Finney consistently related what he regarded the mark of the true church to its mission, where Reformation Christianity identifies the true church with God's activity through his means of grace, preaching and sacrament, for Finney the true church is identified with our activity. And all of this leads finally to the point where George Barna has argued recently in a number of books that we have reached the place of the "Revolutionaries," "Millions of believers" he says, "have moved beyond the established church and chosen to be the church instead. Based on our research" Barna relates cheerfully, "I have projected that by the year 2010 10-20% of Americans will derive all of their spiritual input and output through the Internet. Ours is not the business of organized religion" he says, "corporate worship or Bible teaching. If we dedicate ourselves to such a business, we will be left by the wayside as the culture moves forward. Those are fragments of a larger purpose to which we have been called by God's Word, we are in the business of life-transformation." That's what we are talking about folks. How far will this Pelagianism go? How far will the new excitements that spring us up that ladder to pull Christ down out of heaven, how far will this theology of Glory go? What's the end of the line? According to George Barna it ends with the end of the church. That's what we will be talking about in this particular program, the means of grace being consistent with the message of grace.
July 20, 2008 Commentary:
The Glory Story
Hello and welcome to another broadcast of the White Horse Inn. In the last two programs we've taken a look at the history of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. First of all, in the context of its fifth century incarnation and then also in 19th, 20th, and current fascination with self-help theology in the United States today. In this program we're going to look at what's called "The Glory Story" and I'll explain what that is in just a moment as we transition from the faith of Pelagianism to the practice. Our goal in this program and the next two programs is to show how Pelagianism can be embraced in practice, tacitly, even where it is denied explicitly in doctrine.
If moralism represents a drift toward the Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian heresy, enthusiasm is an expression of the heresy known as Gnosticism, which we have talked about before-a second century movement that seriously threatened the ancient churches. Gnosticism tried to blend Greek philosophy and Christianity. Everything in Gnosticism is about what happens inside of us, so you put those two things together and you get a moralistic therapeutic deism. Pelagianism and Gnosticism are different versions of what Gerhard Førde, the Lutheran theologian, called "The Glory Story." Following Luther's Heidelberg Disputation which itself was following Romans 10 and 1 Corinthians 1, the Reformation contrasted the theology of glory with the theology of the cross. As Førde explains, "the most common, over-arching, story we tell about ourselves is what we will call 'The Glory Story.' We came from Glory and are bound for Glory. Of course in between we seem somehow to have gotten derailed whether by design or accident we don't quite know, but that is only a temporary inconvenience to be fixed by proper religious effort. What we need is to get back on the 'Glory Road.' The story's told in countless variations, usually the subject of the story is the soul, the basic scheme is what Paul Ricoeur had called 'the myth of the exiled soul.'"
In neither version does anyone need to be rescued; assisted, directed, enlightened, perhaps, but not rescued-certainly not through a bloody cross. Both versions of the "Glory Story" drive us deeper into ourselves identifying God with the inner-self instead of calling us outside of ourselves to look to Christ for salvation. In the 1950's Yale's H. Richard Niebuhr offered a scolding description of Protestant Liberalism's message as, "a God without wrath brought men without sin into a world without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." "The Cross Story" and "The Glory Story" represent not merely different emphases but entirely different religions as J. Gresham Machen pointed out in his controversial book in the 1920's Christianity and Liberalism.
July 13, 2008 Commentary:
Hello and welcome to another edition of the White Horse Inn, we are continuing our series "Christless Christianity." As we look around today we listen to a lot of sermons in mainline churches, in conservative Evangelical churches, in Reformed churches, in Lutheran Churches, in Baptist churches, really across the board regardless of what people believe on paper, this message of self-help--which really is Pelagianism at its heart-is what we find really quite pervasive and it has its roots in our own desire to be self-saviors. It is the natural heresy of the human heart. Whenever we are sort of lax in explicitly teaching the Gospel and the doctrines of the faith we will always go back to our default setting which is Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism.
We did that in American religious history as well and in a lot of ways today's Protestantism, whether it is Liberal or Fundamentalist, came from the legacy of Charles Granderson Finney. Of course he wasn't the only one, but he was a very important figure in the history of American Evangelicalism; ever since the Second Great Awakening, especially evident in the message and methods of evangelist Charles Finney, American Protestantism has been more Pelagian than Arminian, in fact Arminian theologian Roger Olson made just that point in one of his books and on this program. Denying original sin, Finney asserted that we are only guilty and corrupt when we choose to sin, Christ's work on the cross couldn't have paid our debt but could only serve as a moral example and influence to persuade us to repent and be obedient. "If he had obeyed the Law as our substitute then why should our own return to personal obedience be insisted upon as a sine qua non of our salvation?" So Finney goes on to write, "the atonement is simply an incentive to virtue," rejecting the view that "the atonement is a literal payment of a debt" Finney can only concede it is "true that the atonement of itself does not secure the salvation of anyone." Justification by the imputation of Christ's righteousness Finney says, "is not only absurd, but undermines all motivation for personal holiness. The new birth is not a divine gift, but the result of a rational choice to turn from sin to obedience." In fact, his most famous sermon was "Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts." Christians can perfectly obey God in this life if they choose and only in this way are they justified. In fact, he adds, "Full present obedience is a condition of justification. No one can be justified while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him."
Finney declared concerning the Reformation formula "simultaneously justified and sinful," "this error has slain more souls I fear than all the Universalism that ever cursed the world. For whenever a Christian sins he comes under condemnation and must repent and do his first works or be lost. As I have already said," he writes "there can be no justification in a legal or forensic sense but upon the ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to Law. The doctrine of an imputed righteousness or that Christ's obedience to the Law was credited as our obedience is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption. For Christ's righteousness could do more than justify himself, it could never be imputed to us. It was naturally impossible, then, for him then to obey in our behalf. Representing the atonement as the ground of the sinner's justification has been a sad occasion of stumbling for many." Referring to the framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith and their view of an imputed righteousness Finney writes, "If this is not antinomianism then I don't know what is."
Folks, this is exactly the heresy that we have identified from the church councils of the fifth and sixth centuries. It is remarkable that the catholic church in fifth and sixth centuries recognized these very positions as outside the bounds of the Christian faith, while Billy Graham can say of Charles Finney that he was the greatest evangelist since the Apostle Paul. And this is a concern that is hardly limited to a few grumpy Calvinists and Lutherans. "Self salvation is the goal of much of our preaching," complains United Methodist Bishop William Willimon and he says in this respect, "we are heirs of Charles G. Finney who thought that conversion was not a miracle, but a purely philosophical result of the right use of constituted means. We have forgotten," says Willimon, "that there was once a time when evangelists were forced to defend their new measures for revivals; that there was once a time when preachers had to defend their preoccupation with the listener response to their Calvinist detractors who thought the Gospel was more important to listeners. I am here arguing that revivals are miraculous, that the Gospel is so odd, so against the grain of our natural inclinations, and the infatuations of our culture that nothing less than a miracle is required in order for there to be a true hearing. My position is therefore, closer to that of Calvinist Jonathan Edwards than to the position of Charles Finney. Nevertheless," Willimon continues, "the homiletical future, alas, lay with Finney rather than Edwards. Leading to the Evangelical Church marketing guru George Barna who writes, 'Jesus was a communication specialist. He communicated his message in diverse ways and with results that would be a credit to modern advertising and marketing agencies. He promoted his product in the most efficient way possible by communicating with the hot prospects. He understood his product thoroughly, developed an unparalleled distribution system, advanced a method of promotion that has penetrated every continent and offered his product at a price that is within the grasp of every consumer.' Alas," adds Willimon, "most evangelistic preaching I know about is an effort to drag people even deeper into their subjectivity rather than an attempt to rescue them from it. Our real need whether we feel it or not," he says, "is that we systematically distort and ignore the truth. That's why we need an external word. So in a sense we don't discover the Gospel, it discovers us. You did not choose me, but I chose you." Willimon concludes, "the story is euangelion 'good news' because it is not about me it's about grace. Yet it's also 'news' because it is not common knowledge, not what nine out of ten average Americans already know. Gospel doesn't come naturally, it comes as Jesus."
July 6, 2008 Commentary:
The Gospel According to Pelagius
Hello and welcome to another broadcast of the White Horse Inn as we are continuing our series "Christless Christianity," and at the heart of Christless Christianity throughout the centuries has been a heresy known as Pelagianism. I know we've talked about it on the program, sort of assuming that people were familiar with it. In this program we want to actually focus on the historical heresy that is identified with a fifth century monk who came from somewhere in Britain, probably Ireland, a lay monk arriving in Rome and he attracted a following for his austere and ascetic piety. At first Pelagius, who was never ordained, engaged in itinerant teaching, primarily on Christian virtues. Eventually he became impatient with the lack of moral earnestness among Christians in Italy, and credited apparent laxity to the influence of a certain bishop from Northern Africa named Augustine.
Pelagius began writing polemical works included a commentary on Paul's epistle to the Romans which explicitly championed the views for which he would be well-known. Denying original sin, Pelagius held that every one after Adam was born just as he was created, able to sin or not to sin, and so to merit God's acceptance by their own obedience. Human beings are, by nature, good not sinful. The only thing we inherit from Adam is his bad moral example. Consequently he goes on to argue we are saved by following Christ's good example. By imitating Christ's virtuous life we can finally obtain by free-will rather than by grace eternal life. Grace is helpful Pelagius said, but not necessary.
Furthermore, he argued that the law is as saving in its revelation as the Gospel. Now no one was more aroused to rebut Pelagius more than Augustine. Converted from a life of moral license, Augustine was deeply conscious of his sinfulness and the need for grace. All human beings are born in sin which means that the will is in bondage to sin and incapable of fulfilling the obligations that God requires. So no one can merit salvation by nature, but must be given God's grace freely as a gift. Augustine took seriously Paul's statement that salvation does not depend on human decision or effort, but on God's mercy. Pelagius appeared before a church council, but claimed that he didn't hold the views he was accused of holding and subsequently left Rome for Palestine where he was supported by the heretical bishop of Antioch, Nestorius. Pope Innocent I condemned Pelagius' views and subsequent church councils also did so with representatives from the East and the West.
Although Pelagianism was condemned, a mediating view known as Semi-Pelagianism grew. Unlike full-blown Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagians taught that salvation is a cooperative process of free-will and grace. This view too was declared heretical by the Council of Orange in 529 and was supported by several popes. Throughout the Middle Ages debates erupted over the relationship of free-will and grace and election. The 14th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bradwardine reports his own conversion to the doctrines of grace. In seminary days, he said, he heard nothing but the celebration of the power of free-will and how we can do all things by the power of our choice. He says then he began reading Romans, and "I saw there," he writes, "how everything is to be attributed to God's grace in election that all that was mine in truth was misery and all that is Christ's was perfect truth and righteousness, and the gospel became exceedingly sweet and gracious to me then." As Archbishop he took up his pen to author a powerful tract, "The Cause of God Against our New Pelagians." There were other noble examples, great defenders of the Gospel in the Medieval period, but Medieval piety at least was characterized by a hazy moralism that can only be described as Semi-Pelagian at best. Into this fog a handful of ministers defended the doctrines of grace, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote winsomely of the marvelous exchange where our sins are transferred to Christ and his righteousness is transferred to us. In the late 15th Century the head of the Augustinian order of Germany, Johannes von Staupitz wrote The Truth of Scripture Concerning Eternal Predestination and Grace. In that work Staupitz defended original sin, unconditional election, Christ's substitutionary atonement, effectual grace, and the perseverance of the saints. You can even detect in that work the seeds of a more consistent doctrine of justification through faith alone that would come to full flower in the ministry of one of his most troubled and favorite monks, Martin Luther.
We have never really done a program on the historical background of Pelagius and his views, although we have referred to this heresy repeatedly as a key element in the Christless Christianity that pervades the religious landscape in our day especially. So in this program we are going to do a little bit of historical theology providing the background for better understanding our contemporary situation, the Pelagian captivity of the American Church. Undoubtedly Pelagius was a decent man with remarkable virtue, in fact that is a point Augustine respectfully observed. But Christ came into the world to save sinners, not those who believe that they are righteous. In his book What's So Amazing About Grace, Evangelical author Philip Yancy offers a terrific insight to begin our discussion. He concludes, "Pelagius was urbane, courteous, convincing, and liked by everyone. Augustine had squandered away his youth in immorality, had a strange relationship with his mother, and made many enemies. But Augustine started from God's grace and got it right, whereas Pelagius started from human effort and got it wrong."