Friday, September 16, 2011

A Doctrine-less “Christ” and the Coming New Age

In his most recent book, The Future of Faith, liberal professor emeritus of the Harvard Divinity School, Harvey Cox, celebrates the shift in Christianity away from fundamentalism and its emphasis on doctrine to “spirituality” and social activism. He favors a doctrine-less faith – a faith we experience and perform, not something we believe.

Indeed, a doctrine-filled Christianity, if it has little relevance to our lives, would be an unbiblical abomination. However, Cox suggests that the Biblical revelation is entirely unnecessary. He asserts that one can be a “practicing Christian, but not necessarily a believing one.” This makes the teachings of the Bible irrelevant, and Christianity merely becomes a matter of works, and salvation a matter of personal attainment. Furthermore, in describing his liberation from his Baptist roots, he explains:

• I also became friends with several students who seemed to me to exemplify the Christian life better than some of the taut fundamentalists, although they were not particularly concerned with being doctrinally correct. (16)

For him, this constituted proof of the irrelevance of Biblical doctrine. However, is Cox warranted to make such a judgment? God informs that we humans are confined to seeing only the outer man. Therefore, uncertainty must prevail over our judgments as to who’s in and who’s out. This is because we wear skillfully designed, deceptive facades and are also grossly self-deluded (Proverbs 21:2).

Besides, Cox reasons that “Beliefs come and go.” Therefore, we shouldn’t be deemed “Christian” based upon our fluctuating beliefs. Cox also protests that,

• We have been misled for many centuries by the theologians who taught that “faith” consisted in dutifully believing the articles listed in one of the countless creeds they have spun out. (18)

However, the faith against which Cox protests isn’t a Biblical faith. A true Biblical faith isn’t sterile but obedient. A faith or belief that doesn’t produce fruit isn’t a real faith (James 2:19-24). If we truly trust in God, we will do what He tells us to do. Furthermore, Christianity isn’t about earning our salvation through social activism (Eph. 2:8-9; Romans 3:20-28). It’s about what Christ has earned for us and our receiving the gift of faith to believe this Gospel.

Nor have we any reason to believe that Christ was an Eastern guru, training His disciples in various techniques to experience God. Instead, His message followed on the coattails of the Old Testament prophets who wrote about the primacy of “knowing and understanding” God (Jeremiah 9:23-24). Instead of freedom coming as a product of practicing certain spiritual disciplines, for Jesus, freedom was a product of imbibing in faith the truths (doctrines) of God:

• To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)

Nor did we enter into a saving relationship with God through practicing techniques to experience Him. Instead, the vehicle of salvation was the teachings (doctrine) of Jesus. Even those under the Mosaic Covenant had to believe what Jesus had claimed about Himself:

• I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins. (John 8:24)

A disciple had to receive the entirety of Jesus’ teachings. When He sent them out to evangelize the world He instructed:

• Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Jesus’ teachings also had the power to transform, not the methods of the spiritual formation movement. He prayed:

• I have made you [Father] known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them." (John 17:26)

Nor did Jesus warn His disciples against the spiritual techniques of the Pharisees, but rather their teaching:

• Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. (Matthew 7:15)

• "Be careful," Jesus warned them. "Watch out for the [doctrinal] yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod." (Mark 8:15)

Technique was not His concern, but teaching. If doctrine could build us up in the faith, then false doctrine would tear us down. Our response to our Savior had to be one of faith and belief in His teachings. We are both transformed and blessed in every conceivable way through Biblical teachings:

• Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)

• Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:2-3)

Trying to separate faith from belief is also illogical. After all, everyone has faith – whether in themselves, their attainments, nature or in another god(s). What distinguishes these various faiths are their doctrinal content. A faith in Jesus is also a belief in His Gospel.

In fact, attempting to separate faith and doctrine, as Cox tries to do, leads to absurdity. While he preaches a doctrine-less Christianity, he has written volumes – all about doctrine (teachings). In fact he is applauded for his teachings. New age guru Deepak Chopra declares, “Cox has been a voice of both reason and faith in our cynical times.” Sound’s like he approves of Cox’s TEACHINGS!

Emergent Church guru, Brian McLaren, writes about this book. “It has also motivated me to keep working to help make actual the possible [belief-less] future Cox envisions.” He too seems to approve of Cox’s teaching-less TEACHINGS!

Besides, how are we to engage in social activism without the guidance that comes from the truths of doctrine and teachings? Nevertheless, doctrine can seem cold and irrelevant. However, this did not remain the case for Martin Luther. In his Commentary on the Book of Galatians, he describes the impact of the truth of Scripture:

• My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner, troubled in conscience that my merit would satisfy Him. Therefore, I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him…Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement, “The just shall live by his faith” [Romans 1:17]. Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, by grace and the share mercy, God justifies us through faith. Therefore, I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressively sweet…This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.

Previously for Luther, Scripture was an object of his hate. It then became “inexpressively sweet…a gate to heaven.” Rather than rejecting doctrine, we need to pray that our Savior would open for us this very gate.

For Cox, it remains closed. He understands Jesus as an ethical teacher who condemns us if we don’t visit the sick and feed the hungry. Of course a true faith will want to please their Savior. If we believe, we will do what He tells us to do! However, we’ll also fall short of His example. We therefore will always need His mercy, a mercy He promises to all who believe:

• If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. (John 15:7)

This includes forgiveness! During my years of severe depression, the Word (doctrine) came to me clothed in glorious power. I can relate many such experiences, but I’ll simply mention one. From the midst of depression, I couldn’t love or accept myself. I therefore projected that others – and this included God – couldn’t love me. Like Luther, I tried desperately to win God’s love and approval. However, the harder I tried, the more I’d became convinced that I was unlovable and unacceptable. Not only that, but I also carried a strong and unshakeable feeling that I was condemned by God. In the midst of this, I read:

• Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

With the power of an explosion, this truth broke upon my consciousness driving away my sense of condemnation as a wind drives away the clouds.

Cox celebrates the death of doctrine. It reminds me of how the Ukrainians celebrated Hitler’s advance and victory over the hated Stalin to find that they now faced an even worse extermination. Cox likewise has no idea of the new doctrine-less, religiously-pluralistic age that he heralds in. However, Luther did understand! About the doctrine of justification-by-grace-through-faith-alone, he concluded:

• This doctrine can never be taught, urged and repeated enough. If this doctrine becomes lost, then is also the whole knowledge of the truth, life and salvation gone and lost. If this doctrine flourishes, then all good things flourish: religion, true service to God, the glory of God…We have to fear lest Satan take from us the pure doctrine of faith and bring into the Church again the doctrine of works and men’s traditions. Wherefore, it is necessary that this doctrine be kept in continual practice and public exercise both of reading and hearing.

I am not a prophet, but I think that Luther’s words were truly prophetic. Once “this doctrine becomes lost,” the West will once again descend into a world of barbarity.

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