Volume 24 - Issue 3

School for Scandal

By Carl Trueman

Perhaps the most important question facing evangelicals at the moment concerns the importance of evangelical beliefs. Is doctrine a matter of ultimate indifference? Do doctrinal statements merely reflect our own religious aspirations and ambitions? Can we interpret historic creeds and confessions in any way that we fancy? Or is doctrine vitally important, something which we cannot afford to ignore? The issue is, of course, a hugely complex one and raises a whole host of questions about the nature of Christianity and the function of belief, with which a brief editorial cannot hope to deal in any adequate way. Nevertheless, a few words are in order, given Themelios’ peculiar status as a journal that identifies itself as distinctive precisely because of the doctrinal position to which it is committed and which it seeks to maintain. That position is epitomised in the UCCF statement of faith, a statement of faith understood by its authors and UCCF itself not as open to any individual’s private interpretation but, in the words of the Tyndale Bulletin, as being consistent with the ‘consensus of the Confessions of the Protestant Reformation’.1

One of the key issues in the debate concerns the relationship of theology and history. In recent decades, much play has been made by some high-profile individuals of the separability of the historical truth of a doctrinal statement from its theological significance. The result of this distinction is, of course, that the meaning of doctrinal statements is radically transformed: one can now believe in the resurrection as a theological truth without having to believe in it as an historical event. Such a transformation in meaning makes a wax nose of the creedal tradition and points towards an understanding of the essence of Christianity which ultimately assigns no real significance to any particular doctrine.

One of the most helpful books on this issue is now over 75 years old, but still has much to say to us today. It is the little volume written in 1923 by the American scholar and church leader, J. Gresham Machen, entitled Christianity and Liberalism.2 The book, a mere 189 pages (including index) in the Eerdmans edition on my shelf, is a passionate and cogently-argued plea for historic Christianity over against the liberal theology which Machen saw taking such a heavy toll upon the life and thought of the church in his day.

Central to Machen’s case are two fundamental points. First, Christianity is built upon, and inseparable from, real, historical events. Thus, for example, when the Bible speaks of Christ’s resurrection, it speaks of something that really happened to the incarnate God in space and time. It does not speak of something that is simply a metaphorical reflection of the early church’s religious experience of ‘the Christ-event’, whatever that slippery term may itself be seen to symbolise. Secondly, doctrine matters—the historical events of God’s dealings with people in history, and, supremely, his gracious saving action in Christ, have a universal significance which the church articulates through its doctrinal formulations founded on Scripture. Thus, to say that Christ died is to state a historical fact; to say that Christ died for our sins is doctrine. History and doctrine, history and the faith that grasps the doctrine, are therefore bound together inseparably. Machen’s own conclusion—dramatically stated, yet one with which I find myself unable to disagree—is that, ‘without these two elements [of history and of doctrine], joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity’.3 As a result, this basic point, the inseparability of doctrine and history, provides a vital touchstone for those engaged in the task of Christian theology. To abandon either is effectively to surrender the very essence of the historic Christian faith—and that is not simply the view of Machen: it is nothing less than the view the Bible itself expresses.

The lesson is a hard one—and particularly so for those of us, teachers and students, who live and work within the academic, scholarly environment. The separation of faith and history has become a basic axiom within certain traditions of theological endeavour, and this has inevitably spilled over into the wider church environment. Nevertheless, we must be absolutely clear what is at stake here: nothing less than the very essence of Christianity itself. The historicity of an event like the resurrection is absolutely axiomatic to Christianity, and it is not just Machen who claims this, but no-one less than the Apostle Paul himself. One has only to turn to 1 Corinthians 15 to see what Paul regarded as the consequences of a denial of the resurrection: ‘If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’. Paul continues: if Christ is not raised then he, Paul, is a false witness; more than that, he is to be pitied above all people as someone who has built his life upon a false hope. Paul considers the historical fact, the physical resurrection of Christ, and the doctrinal truth, the salvation and the general resurrection to which all believers look forward, as being bound so tightly together that one cannot deny the former without denying the latter.

This is hard teaching. At the very least it means that any system of thought which denies the historicity of the physical resurrection of Christ has effectively excluded itself from any right to the title of Christian. It is quite clear that Paul did not regard the difference between himself and those who denied the resurrection as one of a difference of emphasis or of two different but legitimate approaches to Christianity. No. For Paul, it was the difference between the true witness and the false witness, between those who have real Christian faith and those who do not. This is the point which Machen reaffirmed so eloquently in Christianity and Liberalism, and which we all, teachers and students alike, need to remind ourselves of again and again if we are to be faithful witnesses for Christ in and through our work.

This is not, of course, to argue that Christians should be obscurantist and deliberately avoid interacting with, or even learning from, those whose views are antithetical to the gospel. The best Christian theology has never taken refuge in a ghetto and engaged simply in a self-affirming monologue. The early church Fathers, the great scholastics of the Middle Ages, the Reformers and, perhaps supremely, the Puritans all engaged with the wider intellectual environment. One has only to think of Augustine’s use of Platonism; Aquinas’s interaction with Aristotle; Calvin’s engagement with Cicero; and John Owen’s interest in Maimonides to see that Christian orthodoxy has, at its best, always sought to engage with non-Christian thinking, even, to appropriate such where this is possible without a basic betrayal of the gospel. The challenge today is to do the same, but to do it in a way that resists the almost unbearable pressures to blur the boundaries which we all feel in a world which delights in pluralism, difference and its own peculiarly intolerant brand of tolerance.

Such pressures come from a variety of sources. At one level, church politics makes some of us unwilling to state the obvious concerning church leaders who deny the physical resurrection. At another level, the sheer amiable pleasantness of some theologians makes us feel awkward about criticising their views, lest we seem to have launched a narrow-minded personal attack on otherwise perfectly decent individuals. The need for the student to appease a supervisor who is, more than likely, hostile to orthodox Christianity, can prove an irresistible motive to cutting doctrinal corners. And the scholars’ desire to gain credibility in the academic community can be similarly seductive. This is particularly so today when evangelicalism can, with just a little modification and moderation, become in some contexts almost respectable. Such pressures are not to be sniffed at and none of us can be complacent and trust in our own strength. This is why we must be absolutely clear about what are at stake: reputations, finances, grades, and positions are all desirable—and none are wrong in and of themselves—but at what cost? The unity of history and doctrine, of history and faith, which lies at the heart of Paul’s gospel does have eternal consequences—for those who affirm it and, let us not forget, for those who deny it. If we allow the fundamental legitimacy of the viewpoints of those who deny, for example, the physical resurrection, we make of ourselves false witnesses to the truth which all people, liberal theologians and radical church leaders as well as our next door neighbours, need to hear. Evangelical theology must never decline to the pitiful point where it becomes respectable—if it is faithful to the gospel, then it is always going to be foolishness to those wise in their own wisdom—and we must be careful that credibility in whatever sphere we work is not bought at the cost of evacuating Christianity of precisely those foolish, scandalous elements which constitute its very essence.—Something that can be done either by linguistic shifts such as that from ‘resurrection’ to ‘Easter event’ (as pointed out by Gerald Bray in the last issue), or by the uncritical admiration, endorsement or appropriation of the views of those who think nothing of denying the very foundations of the faith.

This union of faith and history is outrageous to the non-Christian—outrageous precisely because it makes unavoidable the broken Messiah hanging on the cross and the empty tomb in the garden. The scandal of this outrageous act of grace is the real scandal of the evangelical mind. Beliefs do matter—especially the scandalous ones—and we must beware of striving to make our evangelicalism too respectable. On the contrary, let us make our theological work, and our Christian lives as a whole, not a context in which we build others and ourselves into potential pillars for the theological or ecclesiastical establishment, but a school for scandal and for future scandalmongers.

1 From 1966 to 1978 the Tyndale Bulletin, also a journal operating under the auspices of UCCF (in 1966 known as the IVF), contained the helpful statement that ‘contributions are expected to be compatible with the doctrinal basis of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship and the consensus of the Confessions of the Protestant Reformation’. This is a wonderful declaration of the fact that the statements of faith are not wax-noses, subject to endless private interpretation, but have the limits of their meaning defined by the Christian creedal tradition within with they stand.

2 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996). Reprinted from the original 1923 edition.

3 Christianity and Liberalism, 27.

Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.