Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Romans 3:4 -- Is Christianity intellectually respectable?

Some people, because of their commitment to a naturalist point of view or other forms of unbelief, are not able to entertain the Gospel. For the Gospel to reach them, the other ideas must first be smashed out of their heads. (By the way, God has raised up some “smashers” here and there. John Ankerberg is one who debates the world’s views with care and integrity. The late C. S. Lewis was also an important and outspoken opponent of worldly philosophy, and his works continue to inform. A particularly able champion today is University of Southern California philosophy professor and author, Dr. Dallas Willard.) God will take care of that, as He wills, according to His plan. It is the evangelical Christian’s task to present the facts as accurately and faithfully as they are known. Inevitably, this leads to the Bible record.

Liberal theologians, like Bultmann and others, have denatured the Bible and Christianity itself so that it can become intellectually respectable, in their view. In doing so, I think that they have lost the Gospel. One phrase that occurs over and over in Liberal theology and writing that concerns the Resurrection is “Jesus was raised into the meaning of God.” (...taken in this instance from Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong’s essay, "A Call for a New Reformation," twelve theses about the end of theism. This was paraphrased from Bultmann in an essay by E. Ellwein, cited by Paul Althaus in his commentary on Bultmann, Fact and Faith in the Kerygma of Today [1959].) This phrase is meant to suggest a substitute interpretation of the Resurrection, one in which the role of the believers is thought to have carried out a transformation and placed the figure of Jesus in a transcendent state (I hope I do their views no injustice), so as to make the Resurrection palatable to those who cannot abide miracles but still want religion. But the heart of the Gospel is that Jesus’ return from death was not metaphorical or analogical or parabolic, but actual (Rom. 10:9). So what does that do to Christianity’s intellectual respectability?

Still, people will judge Christianity by external standards, because mankind is sinful and has not adopted the Paul’s worldview. The wide acceptance of this kind of thinking is another indication of how firm a grip paganism still possesses on the popular intellect. Nevertheless, if one starts with the assumptions of humanism, that all religion is an attempt by men to ascertain the transcendent, and that all conclusions about transcendence are subjective, Liberal theology is what one arrives at with Christianity. It rests on the assumption that Christianity is a religion, that it represents the projection of human thoughts toward God.

Jesus turns that viewpoint around completely: “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Christianity witnesses to the fact that God has revealed Himself, that He has projected Himself into history, has declared Himself master of it, in fact, and has entered into the lives of believers particularly. It is a completely different viewpoint from religion.

I would turn the question we began with around: Is intellectual respectability a Christian idea? In one sense, it is: intellectual integrity is the basis for intellectual respectability, and intellectual integrity is a natural extension of the honesty and truthfulness that Christianity has always taught, false witness being one of the primordial sins. In another sense, though, intellectual respectability is a worldly value if it makes one distort or fudge on the truth for the sake of retaining the good opinion of one’s colleagues. (No sin is so easily excused or entertained in today’s intellectual professions. C. S. Lewis describes the approval of colleagues in his novel, That Hideous Strength, as having the power to “make one do very bad things before one has become a very bad man.”) In most people, one would suppose, it is an ideal that must, from time to time, be bent or forced to accommodate more important values. The City would like, and in fact it strongly promotes, the exchange of intellectual integrity for intellectual respectability, because the latter is far easier to corrupt.

Whatever the conclusion from such a controversy, Paul’s insistence, “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” (Rom. 3:4) gives a powerful answer. It is God to Whom we must look for truth (if we are truly interested in finding it), not sinful man. Hence Luther’s insistence that “It is for Christ's sake that we believe in the Scriptures, but it is not for the Scriptures' sake that we believe in Christ.”

The City’s response is, “Let’s vote on it. By the way, I own the ballot boxes.”