Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. Hebrews 1:1 -3
The hearing of voices from the other side has become a major industry in our day and age. Celebrity psychic mediums like John Edward pocket millions as a result of their alleged ability to communicate with the dead, whilst books documenting conversations with God, trips to heaven and meetings with angels constantly top the bestseller charts.
We all want to hear what God has to say, and the reason is obvious: God has created in us an insatiable appetite to commune with him. Our thirst for supernatural revelation is as strong as our survival instinct, for it paves the way to survival beyond the grave.
Where can a person find the voice of God? According to the Old Testament Scriptures, God spoke to his people in three primary ways: Through the prophets, the law and the angels. According to the opening statement of the letter to the Hebrews he now speaks through the Son, and so the first few chapters of this remarkable book conclude, quite logically, that the Son is superior to the prophets, the angels and Moses.
As “the exact imprint of his nature” the Son is a clearer disclosure from God than any revelation from the other side, no matter how fantastic or sensational. It as though God is saying “never before have I been represented so perfectly.”
Do you want God to speak to you? Forget about psychic mediums, angels, visions and traveling prophets. Focus on the Son. He is the eternal Word of God in the flesh.
(Bloemnews 22 February 2008)
The little front wave ran up on the sand
and frothed there, wildly elated
“I am the tide,” said the little front wave
“And the waves before me are dated!”
There was a time, not too long ago, when it was fashionable to accuse evangelicals in the West of having holier-than-thou attitudes. The charge was intended to convey condemnation, not praise, and was sometimes deserved (when religious arrogance and spiritual pride were referred to) and other times not (when serious efforts at sanctification caused the offense). Whatever the case, it seems that those days are disappearing. A more accurate description of current evangelical attitudes would be “trendier-than-thou”. “Hipness” is now seen as a greater spiritual accomplishment than holiness, and to be cool is better than to be consecrated.
As Society goes, so goes the church…
Theological shifts of this magnitude do not take place in a vacuum, of course. Evangelicals have seen a number of them over the past few decades, and almost without exception they have occurred as a result of mind shifts in the secular environment. “As society goes, so goes the church,” observes Michael Horton in Made in America, his landmark book on modern American evangelicalism. We could add “As the American church goes, so goes the church in South Africa”, which is why Horton’s book should be read by every serious evangelical in our country, and especially by ministers and seminary students.
Horton is not the only author of note who has documented the Christian church’s history of tagging behind the world like a little brother following in the gang’s footsteps. In the late sixties Francis Schaeffer wrote The God Who Is There and Escape From Reason, showing us how trends in secular philosophy have shaped and reshaped theological thinking over the centuries. Neil Postman famously pointed out in Amusing Ourselves To Death how the “Age of Show Business” replaced the “Age of Exposition” toward the end of the nineteenth century, and how this transition influenced the Protestant concept of the worship service. Dan McConnell’s A Different Gospel exposed the modern Word Faith Movement by revealing that its initiators were merely aping the early mind-over-matter gurus and founders of what became the positive thinking movement, and that they have never had a theological leg to stand on.
And so it goes on. The materialistic eighties gave us the prosperity movement, the emancipation movement preceded the drive to allow women into the ministry and the homosexual hot potato landed in the lap of the church after the world had grown tired of passing it around.
The Drive to be Relevant: Spiritual or Carnal?
When we look at these examples our understanding of how worldliness operates in the church is broadened, but we also begin to see through a modern myth, namely the belief that the current obsession amongst evangelicals to be relevant for their target audience is a spiritual one. As in each of the cases mentioned above, the roots of this particular new fashion are undeniably secular and carnal, and have been well documented not by hysterical critics of the church growth movement, but by astute scholars like Marshall MacLuhan, Christopher Lasch, Neil Postman and others. When we study the works of these men it becomes glaringly obvious that the origins of the new Christianity can be traced not to the teaching of Christ and the apostles, but to the marketing revolution of the previous century that gave us modern advertising and the dreaded television commercial. This was when the customer became king, when product research became market research and, as Postman has pointed out, when advertising oriented business away from making products of value towards making consumers feel valuable.
In church terms we could say that the audience became sovereign, an ecclesiastical paradigm shift of gigantic proportions clearly articulated by the World Council of Churches’ pronouncement in 1966: “The world must set the agenda for the church.” The world has been more than happy to do this, and so was birthed the notion that the gospel must be packaged differently for each segment and subculture of society according to their particular preferences. This has led to a fascination with terms such as Generation X, Boomers, Busters and so on. Each generation needs to be studied, understood and approached differently, we are told, or the gospel won’t have any effect on them.
And so we find ourselves with a philosophy of ministry that changes as often as its temperamental audience, with the average minister finding it impossible to keep up. Naturally, we also find ourselves with a new kind of ministerial elite, for those who do manage to keep up are the new pundits, cutting-edge possessors of information needed by the rest of us to do ministry effectively.
A Subtle Substitution at a High Price
Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of Screwtape’s devious advice to his understudy, Wormwood: “If they must be Christians, let them be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing. The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart.” It seems that Wormwood has been busy lately.
We could join the world and bow before the god of novelty, yes. We could confess that newer is better and spend our ministerial lives feverishly chasing after each trend, fashion and new wave. But when we do this, let us remind ourselves that what is deemed most relevant in theology is often moldy in a few days, as Thomas Oden has wisely cautioned. And let us not forget Dean Inge’s chilling warning: He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower.
Centuries ago, Vincent of Lérins expressed the standard of Christian orthodoxy as “that which has been believed everywhere and always by everyone.” His words remind us that the gospel is ageless and exalted above the tides of change in this world. It has never been fashionable, and it cannot go out of fashion. Like its Author, it is the same yesterday, today and forever.
(This article was first published in Baptists Today)
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice…. Hebrews 5:12 – 14
In a recent media article Doug Scott, the famous British mountaineer, criticized “a new breed of climber who wants pleasant rock”. “Pleasant rock” refers to a rock that has bolts all over it in order to make the climb safe and easy. Battery-driven drills are used to set the bolts all over crags, and so the need for real skill and experience is removed. The problem, according to Scott, is that it ruins the rock for anybody wishing to climb it traditionally.
Do I detect a parable for the church in Scott’s disapproval of this new trend? Mountains have always been a striking metaphor to symbolize the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and so it is not difficult to see the analogy: “Pleasant rock” is like easy Christianity, designed for the lazy pilgrim who wants to get to the top, but with the aid of easy steps worked out and passed down by someone else.
This lethargic dependency on a formulaic Christianity is reminiscent of the Biblical symbol of milk: The nutrient of the immature. Milk is predigested food, ideal for those who cannot do their own digestion. Meat, on the other hand, is for those “who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice.”
Forget about easy steps and how-to’s. Maps for the narrow road do not exist. Spiritual discernment is not handed down, but comes through practice.
(Bloemnews 26 10 07)
There is something wickedly satisfying about arriving first in life. This I learned at a tender age after my first success in beating my older brother to the kitchen table in our house in Namibia. Our lunchtime races down the long passage had become somewhat of a ritual, and, being the smallest, I was usually the last one to arrive. But when success did come it came sweetly. After all the thrashings, I enjoyed his defeat even more than my victory.
This is why I call it wickedly satisfying, for joy derived from another’s misfortune is wicked indeed. The Germans speak of “Schadenfreude” (leedvermaak in Afrikaans), that is, that warped sense of relief we experience when something bad happens to others instead of us. It explains why humans enjoy gossip and are morbidly fascinated with vehicle accident scenes, and it reveals something of the universal human drive to end up on top of the heap, to always win, to die with the most toys (See Ecclesiastes 4:4). The rat race is indeed an apt description of life on planet earth.
Ego-death a Non-negotiable
Many prophets and sages have warned for millennia against running this race, and they have done so in the names of many gods. Take Buddhism, for instance. The Buddhist authorities in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan have banned advertising. If you remove the source of envy you also remove unhappy and resentful feelings about others’ possessions, they say. There are many similar examples.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, has a completely different approach to the matter. Instead of warning us against running the rat race, it tells us that we are rats. We are, therefore, perfectly consistent when we behave in the crazy ways we do. It is not our behavior that constitutes the problem, it is our identity. Hence the New Testament’s one and only prescription: The annihilation (read crucifixion) of the competitive rat.
Without this event, we can call it ego-death, any effort at Christianity is as sensible as attempting to climb Everest by staying at home. It simply cannot be done. The cross is no different to the guillotine, the noose or the electric chair. It is an instrument of death and serves the explicit purpose of executing the criminal. What a silver bullet and wooden stake are to a vampire, the cross is to the ego. The funeral of baptism is the funeral of self, and so 2 Corinthians 5:17’s “new creation”, resurrected in the image and the likeness of Christ, is a creation that seeks not to win but to serve, for this is what Christ came to do. It was Adam and Eve, under the inspiration of the serpent, who thought that equality with God was something to be grasped, not Christ (See Genesis 3:5 and Philippians 2:6).
A Religious Masquerade
Egos, of course, hide well, and they hide best under cloaks of righteousness, which is why we so constantly run into them in churches. In the Bible religious self exaltation is personified by the sect of the Pharisees: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others… they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” Their dress code, behaviour in the religious assemblies, status and titles all conspire to elevate them above the masses, giving them the bizarre privilege of fusing the religious pilgrimage with the ego-trip, impressing God and people simultaneously, obtaining heaven with earth still in their pockets.
Winning means arriving first, as my early races down the passage taught me. To win one must have arrived, and winning religiously implies having arrived religiously. For clerical supremacy to survive some sort of arrival is required, and, as it happens in churches, a fitting doctrine is needed to prove and clarify the arrival.
A doctrine of arrival, put very simply, is a theologically constructed idea which proposes some final insight, experience or realisation of promise. It distinguishes the one who has arrived from those who are still on their way. It also offers a circumvention of the painfully humbling business of believing, hoping and waiting. Proud people do not wait well, which explains why God employs time so successfully in humbling his servants. Forcing arrival by fabricating a destination is humanity’s attempt to appear victorious and to bypass the discomfort caused by the impatience of the ego.
The Error of Realised Eschatology
There is no heresy as deceitful as the one which offers a shortcut to the Promised Land. Such impatience led to Adam’s sin, to Esau forfeiting his birthright, to the Israelites constructing a golden calf and to the Prodigal leaving the family home. Every time the underlying philosophy is the same: We want it all. We want it now
Since the time of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who taught “that the resurrection has already happened”, doctrines of arrival have littered the ecclesiastical landscape. Theologians speak of “realised eschatology”, that is, the erroneous and dangerous view that the blessings linked to the resurrection of the saints, the Lord’s return, the visible and final coming of the Kingdom and the restoration of all things are to be appropriated somehow in this world and age.
There are many modern day examples of this age-old heresy, for instance prosperity theology (the restoration of our finances and possessions), extreme teachings on healing (our bodies and health have been restored), obsession with signs and wonders (natural laws have been made subject to us), the conviction that doctrinal perfection is possible (we understand perfectly), elitist churches who believe that they have a perfect understanding and practice of “fellowship” (we love and meet perfectly), post-millennial Reconstructionism or “Kingdom Now” theology (we have the perfect political system) and the belief in sinless perfection (we are perfectly holy).
All of these, of course, are just different and novel ways of proclaiming “we have arrived”.
The Biblical Doctrine of Waiting
It was David who said “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” This principle runs like a golden thread throughout Scripture. Abraham had to wait for the promise of a son to be fulfilled. Moses had to wait 40 years in the wilderness before God called him, and then another 40 years before he was afforded a glimpse of the Promised Land. The disciples had to wait for the promised Holy Spirit, and in the letter to the Romans we read that we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
The Kingdom has come in part but not fully. We haven’t arrived yet, and the pain of the planet is one of God’s most efficient tools to remind us of this and to build our faith. The heroes of Hebrews 11 were all looking ahead to a heavenly country. They were not perfectly healed, prosperous, organised or, if you look closely, sinless. Their ‘perfection’ beckoned from a heavenly country.
The ironic thing is: To the degree that we want to drag heaven down here we cease to find it in our hearts, we cease to live by faith, in other words. Perfectionism in its many guises is nothing but veiled materialism. It is an insistence to make the intangible tangible, a refusal to live by faith.
The answer to all of these is quite simple:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18 – 25)
Christianity is a waiting religion. When we wonder why this is so, we are reminded by Scripture that we are “saved in hope”, and that “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Ultimately all waiting experiences are intended by God as exercises to strengthen us for the great wait: The day of his coming. Through them we are taught and reminded that the gratification of Christianity is not instant but deferred. Through them we learn to live by faith, not by sight.
(This article has also been published in the Auksano magazine)