"We are praying for you."
This was said to me by a Russian pastor to whom I had just secretly delivered Bibles in a city called Leningrad in what was the Soviet Union, locked behind an "Iron Curtain." We had spent the morning drinking coffee in the basement of his church, discussing the oppressive political realities of seeking to faithfully serve Jesus Christ in his country at that time. When I sought to encourage him by reporting that Christians in the West are praying for him, he earnestly responded with this statement. I was compelled to ask him what he meant-how could it be that a church living under the daily hardships of persecution is so concerned about us who enjoy life in relative freedom? His answer became the occasion for much personal reflection over the years: "We clearly see the ways our common Enemy persecutes us through the atheistic communist propaganda and practices of our government; our Enemy persecutes you just as ruthlessly, except you don't see it."
Certainly, in our "Christian nation" we do not experience perse-cution in the same sense as our brothers and sisters who live in societies with systemic ties to hostile ideologies or religions. In fact, I often hear American evangelical Christians lament or criticize our own lack of such persecution, as if it would somehow purify us, or as if the natural and supernatural enemies of Christ and his church were now somehow leaving us alone. Rather than romanticize persecution in a way that keeps us from seeing things as they really are in our culture, we should reflect on the question: In our "Christian nation," are we evangelicals actually living under a persecution that escapes our recognition?
As a means of addressing this question, let us explore the issue of Christian orthodoxy on a more basic level than the identification of its content; but this is not to marginalize the critically important responsibility for Christians to know, trust in, and act out what are taken to be the orthodox teachings of our religion. In correct response to the relentless assault on the content of our Christian faith over the centuries, the "good fight" (1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7) for God's people is defined as "guarding" what has been entrusted to our care on the one hand (1 Tim. 6:29), and "contending" for it within contemporary culture on the other (Jude 3). Beneath the important debates over its content, however, is a deeper conflict between two powerful narratives struggling to define our orientation to the very concept of Christian orthodoxy itself. I will refer to these as the narrative of evangelical objectivism and the narrative of Enlightenment subjectivism. To more clearly define this struggle in terms of these two narratives will be to uncover a true persecution that evangelical Christians experience in our culture and have been experiencing for a long time.
The word 'orthodox' as I am using it here comes from the terms orthos, meaning 'correct,' and doxos, meaning 'opinion' or 'belief.' To be orthodox in a general Christian sense means that one's own beliefs (and practices) are in conformity to the established beliefs (and practices) of Christianity. This concept of Christian orthodoxy denotes fidelity to the historical Christian belief system as set forth in Holy Scripture, and as it has been reproduced throughout the centuries in the creeds and confessions of the Christian church. Basic to this concept of orthodoxy, and particularly defining for evangelicalism, is its objectivist orientation. Here the judge of what is correct Christian belief and practice is established 'outside' the subject (that is, the believer). This external judge is found in the uniquely normative revelation of God in Holy Scripture and the derivatively normative witness of Christian tradition that aids us in our efforts to properly understand and apply Scripture. As a result, in this sense of Christian orthodoxy, one's own reason, conscience, feelings, insights, worldview, society, culture, etc., are allowed to be checked and corrected by Holy Scripture and the creeds and confessions of the Christian church.
The narrative of objectivism that informs this concept of orthodoxy has its modern roots not in the Enlightenment but in the post-Reformation period (1570-1680), known as Protestant Scholasticism, within which the classical Reformed and Lutheran theological systems were formulated. Although sometimes overlooked, this period is part of the heritage for much of American evangelicalism, developing as it did out of the Old Princeton theology of the nineteenth century that in turn drew directly from the systematic theology of the late Protestant Scholastic Francis Turretin. Here the basic question "How can God be known?" is answered not through an examination of the capabilities and possibilities inherent in humanity, but by slightly changing the perspective: how God can be known must be determined by the way in which he actually is known, by the creative event of his self-revelation. The endeavor here is to begin with God and not with humanity; with what is possible with God, not with what is possible for humanity. Thus, the primary and comprehensive interest is in what God says about himself, taking very seriously the wise advice of Ecclesiastes:
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. (Eccles. 5:1-2)
In this objectivist narrative, God's act of self-revelation is the single indispensable prerequisite for our knowledge of God. Yet, because God infinitely transcends us (Job 11:7; Ps. 145:3; Isa. 55:8-9; Rom. 11:33) and because we are sinners (1 Tim. 6:16), divine revelation is not suitable to be communicated to us without accommodation. John Calvin first used this word to describe the process of divine self-revelation in terms of a great rhetorician whose precise aim is to adjust or adapt his language in a way that would be suitable to the intended audience. This loving act of accommodation is fulfilled in the knowledge of God we receive through Jesus Christ (John 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2:6-16; Eph. 4:13). The incarnation makes possible for us a true revelation of God that is comprehensible, able to be discussed in our language, and-because it consists of redemptive acts-able to be received by us as the good news of the gospel.
This powerful narrative is centered on Jesus Christ and the blessings of his gospel that are now proclaimed and communicated to the world through the Word of God. This is a twofold reality, consisting of the external Word of God (the inspired, self-authenticating, sufficient, clear, and infallible Holy Scriptures), and the internal Word of God (the Holy Spirit's creative work that reclaims our sinful condition and gifts us with new possibilities for understanding and obeying this external Word). The activity of the Word of God is also twofold-it creates the church as the location of the redemptive realities and benefits that Jesus Christ accomplished and communicates to believers; and it regenerates and sanctifies believers themselves, bestowing knowledge of God and a loving delight in God.
With this understanding of the present twofold reality and activity of the Word of God, the objectivist narrative unequivocally affirms that knowledge of God is possible only because God has both established this knowledge of himself externally to us and because he has made it internally possible for us to understand and desire it. And in the same way that God does not keep his self-knowledge "shut up in his own bosom" but graciously sends it forth in revelation, so also the church does not keep this knowledge of God to herself. The church enters this narrative as that which is called into existence by the Word of God as a "great cloud of witnesses" to that Word (Heb. 12:1). Our witness is our human interpretation, explanation, or rational discourse on God, proclaimed and lived out before the world in words and deeds, beliefs and practices. What enables and frees our human response to be true or correct is not its conformity to our own reason, conscience, feelings, insights, and social and cultural norms. On the contrary, our witness to God is made free to become true by the act of God's Word, the act of God revealing himself, which we hear and to which we attempt to conform in faithfulness and obedience. This narrative of evangelical objectivism is essentially a brief commentary on 1 Corinthians 2:10-13:
For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
To see how this evangelical narrative contrasts to another defining narrative of our contemporary culture, one only needs to compare it to an eighteenth-century definition of the modern Enlight-enment out of which it flows:
Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! 'Have courage to use your own understanding!'-that is the motto of enlightenment." (Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?)What Kant and other thinkers of this formative period of the Modern Age meant by "guidance from another" was guidance from the received pre-modern texts, traditions, and institutions-the authority and trustworthiness of which was then being brought into question. This was not limited to, but certainly included Christian orthodoxy. In fairness to some of the great intellectual leaders of this movement-such as Descartes, Locke, Newton, and Kant-the project was not (and is not) necessarily anti-Christian, but rather the attempt to re-establish Christianity on what would come to be thought of as a more promising subjectivist orientation. Here the judge of what is correct Christian belief and practice is established in accordance with the natural capacities and possibilities 'within' the subject (the believer). The perceived need for such a radical shift came as the optimistic ad fontes of the Renaissance and the expectant sola Scriptura of the Reformation ultimately collapsed into the religious wars and conflicts of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Out of the skepticism of this turmoil rose the light of the cogito, the new science, and the new Christianity.
The powerful ensuing narrative now announced a resurgent optimism based on the courage to allow one's own reason, conscience, feelings, insights, and social and cultural norms to check and if necessary correct the received texts, traditions, and institutions. This Enlightenment subjectivist narrative is centered on autonomous humanity and all the new possibilities that our self-asserted freedom from externally imposed authorities will bring.
This Enlightenment narrative is still entrenched in our contemporary culture as it continues to profoundly influence Western Christianity. It has been well argued that our continuing subjectivism is one tradition of modernity left relatively intact by the penetrating criticisms of postmodernism (even though the 'self' as the subject has given way to the broader human categories of community and culture). This key aspect of Kant's challenge has only been expanded by Nietzsche's 'open sea' and Derrida's différance. Regardless of the new distrust of metanarratives, the narrative of Enlightenment subjectivism continues unabated to propagate the promises of human autonomy. Where the church informed by this Enlightenment narrative has not dismissed the concept of Christian orthodoxy altogether, there has continued an unyielding effort to restate or even reinvent the faith in accordance with contemporary subjectivist categories.
Not-so-subtle examples abound. In the eighteenth-century "Age of Reason," it was asserted that "God cannot demand us to adore what we cannot rationally comprehend or verify." In the nineteenth century, the attempt was made to reconstruct Protestant Christianity in terms of Romanticism for the purpose of demonstrating to the "cultured despisers" the usefulness of Christian symbols in making sense of humanity's deep feeling of absolute dependence. At the turn of the twentieth century, the essence of Christianity was articulated as merely God's universal love for us and our moral responsibility to participate in his wonderful plan for world history. Later in the twentieth century, the German Christians integrated the goals and teachings of the Third Reich with the goals and teachings of Christian orthodoxy. And already in the twenty-first century, many have taken recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court as a sign that the Spirit is leading the church into the "full adulthood of inclusion" with the ministerial ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians.
While these obvious examples highlight the contrast between the concept of orthodoxy as it is informed by an evangelical objectivist narrative and by an Enlightenment subjectivist narrative, the question still remains: How is it that these two clashing narratives manifest actual persecution against the evangelical church in our culture today?
The persecution we experience as evangelicals in our contemporary culture comes to light with a conceptual analysis of the nature of our church's existence between "the already and the not yet." Even within the dynamic reality of our interrelationship with culture, we still seem to exist between two distinctive poles consisting of an objectively established Christian orthodoxy on the one side and the many facets of a culture informed by Enlightenment subjectivism on the other. This bipolar reality is created by the sanctifying work of the Word of God itself, permitting our own stories to be deeply defined for a time by the narratives that inform each of these poles. Furthermore, within this tension we hear the clear call to humble, prayerful, and diligent obedience to God's Word in reflecting on, articulating, proclaiming, and confessing the Word of God, in being witnesses of Jesus Christ, and in being agents of God in this culture with both our words and deeds: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
We recognize that our witness will not be totally without the subjective influences of our culture, history, or contemporary thought forms on its reception, articulation, and also its self-understanding. Yet, we see our primary task as faithfulness to God's self-revelation, even as we seek to navigate between these poles by challenging contemporary culture in a meaningful way and by allowing contemporary culture to challenge our ideas as well. Thus, an evangelicalism defined by this narrative of objectivism will risk a holy discretion in relating to culture by engaging contemporary languages, thoughts, mediums, and expressions-always careful not to alter the essential content of divine revelation authoritatively established for us as Christian orthodoxy.
The constant choice before us then is to which pole we give the primary weight of authority. Of course, the answer that logically follows from the evangelical objectivist narrative would have to be the pole of Christian orthodoxy. However, we are constantly compelled by the Enlightenment subjectivist narrative to exercise our autonomy in asserting ourselves over this pole as its judge. Giving in to this pressure always leads us to a situation where we affirm theoretically what we deny practically. Even in our most conservative evangelical churches, the authority and integrity of Christian orthodoxy are often practically denied in subtle ways. This of course includes but also goes well beyond the moral inconsistencies we all struggle with as sinners. We judge the merit of the particulars of Christian orthodoxy according to the subjective categories of our own feelings, personal philosophies, social norms, or according to their usefulness in the development of our own culturally defined successful life. We substitute for orthodoxy our deeply held cultural beliefs such as "God helps those who help themselves," or we rationalize our disinterest and disengagement with orthodoxy as manifesting our own notion of a different, deeper spirituality. While we rightly agree with our post-Enlightenment culture that the last century has taught us-and current events continue to remind us-how dangerous it is to uncritically embrace traditional beliefs and practices; we tend also to fear faithfulness and obedience to an externally established Christian orthodoxy, seeing it as a blind conformity rather than the new possibility of true freedom created for us by the Word of God.
We also deny the authority and integrity of Christian orthodoxy when we rush toward integration with other academic disciplines, business models, political ideologies, and entertainment mediums, judging the outcome in terms of effectiveness and relevance rather than faithfulness and obedience. Believing that conflict and division are worse than heresy, we allow subjectivist concepts of pluralism and relativism to become normative over our objectivist concept of Christian orthodoxy. Here we forget that doctrinal differences and debates are necessary and healthful for a church that is able to "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). With nostalgia we seek to repristinate some past era of the church, forgetting that Christian orthodoxy itself teaches that the whole church belongs to the Spirit and that "between the already and the not yet" the golden age of Christianity always awaits us in the future. We say "no creed but Christ" as if the creeds and confessions of Christian orthodoxy are not themselves gifts from Christ that aid us in properly understanding and applying Holy Scripture (Eph. 4:11-15). Here we forget that our creeds and confessions are authorities over us even as Holy Scripture remains in authority over them. In all these examples and more we take the risk of accepting and affirming the concept of an externally established Christian orthodoxy, and then deny its authority and integrity in the way we seek to engage it, articulate it, integrate it, and live it out in culture.
The immediate consequence of this subtle transgression of the First Commandment is the descent of our evangelical witness into a conflicted and impotent hypocrisy. For this reason, a hundred times a day-through all the mediums of society and culture informed by Enlightenment subjectivism-our enemy comes to us and asks: "Did God really say...?" (Gen. 3:1). Like the methodical propaganda of an atheistic communist government, we clearly see this as an attack on Christian orthodoxy. What we evangelicals do not recognize so clearly, however, is the Enemy's equally relentless pressure on us to misuse our freedom and respond from a subjectivist orientation:
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Gen. 3:6)
This is starkly contrasted by the humility of Christ's objectivist response to the same persecution: "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'" (Matt. 4:4).
The risk of Christian orthodoxy is the risk of a knowing and humble conformity to an externally established authority in a culture that is dead set on doing the opposite. The very real persecution that compels evangelicals to p ractically affirm human autonomy by employing our own reason, feelings, insights, and social and cultural norms to judge and deny the authority and integrity of Christian orthodoxy is often something that escapes our recognition. This is not some romantic notion of a purifying persecution, but rather a necessary consequence to be embraced by a community of faith that has already been sanctified by the Word of God. Living within the tension of these clashing narratives is the oppressive reality of seeking to follow and faithfully serve Jesus Christ in our culture at this time. Yet it is by God's grace that we withstand this persecution and affirm Christian orthodoxy both theoretically and practically in fulfillment of our calling as obedient witnesses until the return of our Lord (2 Thess. 2:13-17).
In the meantime, it is an encouragement to know that our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world-who are experiencing only different forms of persecution from our common Enemy-are praying for us.
Peter Anders (MA, Wheaton Graduate School; MAR, Yale Divinity School; DPhil candidate, Oxford University) is lecturer of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Massachusetts).
Issue: "Beyond Nostalgia: The Risk of Orthodoxy" Sept./Oct. 2008 Vol. 17 No. 5 Page number(s): 37-41
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