03 April 2009

Musing on evangelicalism's coming collapse -- Part Three

(Part One, Part Two)

In thinking about the collapse of evangelicalism, I've wondered about the role of evangelicalism's summation of the doctrine of justification sola fide, which pits idea against idea, as I mentioned in Part Two. There is, in my estimation, another problem with that summation. Sola fide -- faith alone -- has come to mean my faith alone. But the popularized conception of sola fide pays scant attention to the doctrine of union with Christ, without which there is no justification. (Indeed John Murray, in his Redemption: Accomplished and Applied [Eerdmans, 1955], 161, says that failing to take union with Christ into account makes our presentation of redemption defective and "gravely" distorts "our view of the Christian life". "Nothing," he says, "is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ.") This "defective" conception of faith (without union with Christ) easily becomes my faith alone in my Christ alone.

How is this so? Because the only thing in operation here is the professed believer's faith in Christ. And faith, despite protestations to the contrary, really does mean, by and large, mental assent to a statement of faith, together with any qualifications one wishes to stipulate based on one's judgment regarding the facts in the case. This is, after all, my faith. There is (for practical purposes) no attendant conception of the believer's union with Christ, and, therefore, with all other believers by virtue of their union with Christ. We are all "spiritual Lone Rangers", as my parents' old pastor used to say. (See Mom? I was listening. I just didn't believe.) And when that is the case, one can hardly perceive his communion with his brothers and, hence, does not need the church, which Calvin exhorts us to hold dear as our Mother. We really do not need the sacraments. Worship services are shared "Jesus and me" sessions, or theology lectures sandwiched between hymns and prayers, and, every now and then, some bread and grape juice handed round for a sanctified memorial snack (I speak as a fool, if you take my meaning). The Church, therefore, has no authority to prescribe for me who Christ is, and certainly no authority to lay any burden on me, such as set times for corporate prayer and fasting (especially since any burden laid upon me is legalism; and I'm saved by faith, don't you know).

(Naturally, of course, we will continue to speak of the Church as The Body (ha!) of Christ. It is easy to see why it is the parachurch organization, not the Church, which is the center of evangelical life. This is the notion of the Invisible Church on crack cocaine! Since Christ really doesn't have a plan for the parachurch, I'm not surprised that Spencer predicts difficult times for these organizations. In Spencer's article the coming plight of the parachurch organization is a lamentable result of the collapse. Also, he mentions the conversions of evangelicals to Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Noteworthy is the fact that for these two bodies the Church is central to the life of Christians. Growth of their parachurch organizations; the amount of money given to these organizations; the number of parishioners who depend upon these organizations for the bulk of their spiritual lives -- these are not symptoms of a healthy Church for the Catholic and Orthodox. Demise of their parachurch organizations would not be considered symptoms of bad health.)

This (christianized) individualism, which is probably worse than either christianized Platonism or christianized Aristotelianism, can never have withstood secularism. Indeed, this individualism is perfectly consonant with secular individualism, and, for that reason, powerless against it. The church, which St. Paul likens, among other things, to an army, is, in popular evangelicalism, an army of individuals (and not even an army of individual Davids ), all generals, no privates -- no platoons, no companies, no battalions, no divisions, but each a Special-Forces-A-Team-of-one, claiming to answer directly to the King. And together with its bastardized version of sola scriptura, asserting no place for the Church as Mother to exegete, interpret and apply Scripture, leaving it all in the hands of the individual, evangelicalism makes the individual Christian his own personal ecumenical council. And should the Church assert the authority to act as our spiritual Mother, we'll probably just go elsewhere. And when we get elsewhere, we'll still be wondering why evangelicalism is collapsing. Few, I think, will consider the possibility that there is never any victory without discipline.

Obedience brings victory. And victory is life. (I couldn't resist. I didn't try very hard, either.)

Here, in my estimation, is how this conception of faith -- my faith -- alone weakens evangelicalism. It accepts a secular presupposition, namely, that the individual human is not only capable of, but warranted in, judging of Divine matters. This includes judging of even the existence of God, which, though it seems "rational" enough, is very problematic. Whereas the commandment says, "Have no other Gods before me", the secular conception of the requirements of rationality, has it that the God who commands this be held not to exist until His existence has been established by Reason, and a non-theistic conception of Reason at that. (But see Psalm 14.1.) So the commandment may be violated until the individual human, who has irrationally determined himself a competent judge of the matter, establishes the existence of the God who commands it.

The faith, therefore, that the individual Christian has, really is his and his alone; and it consists only of those elements which he, himself, has established as true to his own satisfaction. One's own satisfaction, is one of the many things secularism seeks. The Self, in evangelicalism, is raised to the same height as the Self in secularism. (And we wonder why the lives of Evangelicals don't look much different than those of non-Christians! What shall we do for an encore, hit ourselves in the heads with hammers and express shock and dismay that our heads ache? But I digress.) And this faith, on this view of the matter, really cannot be shared with other Christians, not just Christians of other denominations but with fellow evangelicals. What they really share is the fact that they have come to the same answers to a set of questions. It is like two people who prepare their own meals, but sit together at the same table and call it a shared meal.

Also, this placement of the Self means that the disposition of the Self, regarding the truth value of the proposition, God exists, (or the contents of creeds, confessions, statements of faith) , by virtue of being the Self's internal disposition, can accomplish things for God. So, by accepting the same (anthropocentric) view of rationality, and the position of the Self, as secularists, evangelicalism set itself up for failure against secularism.

Don't shoot the messenger, folks.

Note: I realize that this part of the discussion raises the question, "What is faith?" I don't have time or space for that question, however.

Part Four

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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