Thinking Christianly and Secularly

As I consider life and ministry in a secular world I am taken aback by the need for pastors to help their congregations develop a distinctly Christian worldview or to use the more prevalent term—a distinctly Christian philosophy. In my interactions with Christians since I moved away from the comforts of an evangelical bubble, that is so common around Christian universities and seminaries, I have been struck by how often I meet confessionally or doctrinally faithful Christians, those who profess accurate (orthodox) beliefs, who seem to have given little thought to how their Christian faith impacts the way they vote, shop, what they watch, how they speak, etc. They may be confessionally faithful, but they are cognitively unfaithful. Yet if they profess what all Christians must profess, namely, Jesus is Lord, then they must seek to live a life coherent with this confession.

The Christian Creed

The basic creed of the Christian faith is that Jesus is Lord, and maybe the root of the problem is that we (Christian teachers, pastors, ministers, etc.) often take for granted that those who profess understand what exactly it means to confess this. Allow me, then, to articulate what this means.

To confess that Jesus is Lord is to affirm at least three interrelated truths about the identity of Jesus and his relationship to the confessor. First, to affirm that Jesus is Lord is to acknowledge his authority over you. At its very base Lord is a title of authority and honor, it cannot mean less than this. Second, to confess the Jesus is Lord is, when properly understood in the cultural context, to affirm his deity. The letters of the New Testament clearly use the word kurios (Greek for Lord) in a manner that exceeds mere human authority of a teacher, prophet, or a high ranking religious leader. Third, and building on the last, the use of Lord as the common title applied to Jesus is clearly meant to parallel that of the use of Adonai (one of the names of God) in the Hebrew Old Testament. Understanding these three affirmations means that we need to submit the authority to direct our live to Jesus. Thus theologians who understand this can often be found saying things like…

The message of the Bible has implications for all non-christians because Christ is Lord over each of their lives Christ makes a claim on every human life. If he is Lord, he demands allegiance. He is not just someone you call in or consider if you think you need him. Nor is he someone who makes a claim only on Christians.. His claim extends to everyone. (Vern Poythress, The Lordship of Christ, 12)

This seems extreme to our culturally attuned ears.We are so often guilty of the faulty relativistic thinking that says truth can be subjective to each person’s own experience. This can not be true in the Christian framework. If there is one God who is our sole creator, then he has the right to place requirements in terms of ethics, beliefs, and general life habits upon us. Not only, according to the Bible, does he have those rights, but he has in fact done that. Thus we, whether we believe in him or not, are his subjects and he is our lord.

Thinking Christianly

It is important to begin with the original Christian creed because it is the starting point of both good theology and, therefore, distinctly Christian thinking. We must begin from the same attitude that Jesus had as he displayed submission to the Father:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:4-8)

and

And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”… Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:39, 42 ESV)

Just as Jesus submitted his desires to God’s will so must we. We submit to Christ our Lord all of our lives. This is the fountainhead of thinking Christianly and several things flow from it:

  1. We seek knowledge and truth from God.
  2. We should be critical of what we want to be true until it is proven to be so.
  3. We ought to seek fulfillment in obedience to God not pursuit of personal.

Here is a critical piece, neither of those three things are possible without the Bible. Scripture is the authoritative word on God’s will for our manner of life and the content of our beliefs and how they fit together. To think Christianly is to think biblically. This is not some mere conservative evangelical belief that allows us to adhere to the status quo or to give a way to measure who is going to Heaven and who is going to Hell. Rather the belief in the inerrancy and authority of the Bible comes from Jesus—reject the scripture as authoritative is to reject the clear teachings of Jesus which implicitly and explicitly give scripture a unique and divine authority to speak truthfully about God, humanity, the world, and life. This rubs many, even some who claim to be Christians wrong, consider this trailer for a recently released book:

In this brief video podcaster, scientist, and professing Christian clearly states that he disbelieves the accuracy of the Bible to speak to science and history, and that the conservative Christian view of the Bible is impossible, that the Bible “couldn’t meet the expectations placed on it.” This, as the Youtube comments section shows, makes some people sigh with relief because the commands of scripture are hard, but realize that if the Bible is what he says it is than it is no more a help to our understanding of the universe, ourselves, or God than the Qur’an or Descartes’ Meditations. If the Bible is simply human than it probably contains errors and there is no telling what is accurate and what isn’t. This, too me, is not a hopeful message, but a depressing one. And, I should say, an inaccurate one. I will save comments on the internal consistency of the Bible for another day, but I heartily disagree with Science Mike (I guess that is his nickname).

Thinking Secularly

It is important to start with Science Mike’s perspective because it well encapsulates the thinking of the new secularism as well as providing a warning for Christian pastors, parents, teachers, and others who want those under their care to honor the Bible and see it accurately. Let’s begin with the foundation of secular thinking, here David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons are quite helpful. In their latest book, Good Faith, they write:

Throwing off burdensome traditional mores, people began to imagine life without a bothersome God standing watch… New research…highlights the extent to which Americans pledge allegiance to the new moral code, summed up in six guiding principles. (1) To find yourself, look within yourself. (2) People should not criticize someone else’s life choices. (3) To be fulfilled in life, pursue the things you desire most. (4) Enjoying yourself is the highest goal of life. (5) People can believe whatever they want as long as those beliefs don’t affect society. (6) Any kind of sexual expression between two consenting adults is fine. (57)

Take special note of point (1), the truth about ourselves lies within our own souls or psyches. This is important for two reasons in light of the above video. First, it explains the utter lack of evidence for claims outside of personal experience. Mike makes a lot of assertions, but they have no support. Where does the Bible state things that are scientifically incorrect ? Where does it state things that are historically inaccurate? At best all you can criticize in terms of the science are the place in which there is a debate amongst some as to whether a verse is literal or metaphorical. Yet as metaphor the text remains untarnished. In terms of history, there are several notable authors who have examined the available historical and archeological evidence and have converted to Christianity on the basis of the text’s accuracy. The second thing we should note is the inexplicable desire to remain in some way Christian. Why does Science Mike claim to be Christian and on what basis does he define Christianity without the Bible being divine in its origins? These decisions, what to trust in the Bible and what to reject, and to claim Christianity at all must be based merely on personal decision from introspection.

To state it clearly, if the starting point of Christian thinking is the God’s revelation in the Bible, then the starting point of secular thinking is my existential revelation on the basis of my interpretation of my experience. That is to say, the secular mind believes the truth about the world is revealed not just in its experience, but in how it interprets that experience. This places the authority and the arbiter of truth firmly in the self. How I interpret my experiences is true. Philosophically speaking this is called relativism.

Why Any of This Matters

What we are seeing in this swing of some Christian leaders, authors, and youth into a secular mindset is the something that the church saw in the 1920s through the 1960s. Similar claims were made in the past by theologians classified as ‘theologically liberal’. These claims, interestedly enough, were made on the same basis as Science Mike’s. Specifically, it is claimed that rejecting the inerrancy and authority of the Bible makes faith more accessible. Yet we can now see that such a strategy did not work. As J. Gresham Machen wrote:

What is the relation between Christianity and modern culture; may Christianity be maintained in a scientific age? It is this problem which modern liberalism attempts to solve. Admitting that scientific objections may arise against the particularities of the Christian religion– against the Christian doctrines of the person of Christ, and of redemption through His death and resurrection–the liberal theologian seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting “the essence of Christianity.”

It may well be questioned, however, whether this method of defense will really prove to be efficacious; for after the apologist has abandoned his outer defenses to the enemy and withdrawn into some inner citadel, he will probably discover that the enemy pursues him even there. Modern materialism, especially in the realm of psychology, is not content with occupying the lower quarters of the Christian city, but pushes its way into all the higher reaches of life; it is just as much opposed to the philosophical idealism of the liberal preacher as to the Biblical doctrines that the liberal preacher has abandoned in the interests of peace. Mere concessiveness, therefore, will never succeed in avoiding the intellectual conflict. In the intellectual battle of the present day there can be no “peace without victory”; one side or the other must win.

As a matter of fact, however, it may appear that the figure which has just been used is altogether misleading; it may appear that what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to be long in a distinct category. It may appear further that the fears of the modern man as to Christianity were entirely ungrounded, and that in abandoning the embattled walls of the city of God he has fled in needless panic into the open plains of a vague natural religion only to fall an easy victim to the enemy who ever lies in ambush there. Two lines of criticism, then, are possible with respect to the liberal attempt at reconciling science and Christianity. Modern liberalism may be criticized (1) on the ground that it is unchristian and (2) on the ground that it is unscientific. (Christianity and Liberalism)

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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