For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.—2 Corinthians 11:4
Are we in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LC-MS) perhaps just trying to cling to a dissipating social respectability in America – when being unmistakably faithful should be our goal (I love the last paragraph of this post!)?
Growing up in America, I came to consider the God that we speak of in this country to be not necessarily something less than the Christian God, but rather a step towards Jesus Christ. In other words, the “anonymous God” idea was a polite nod to the natural knowledge of God that Paul discusses in Romans 1 en route to Jesus Christ. It only goes so far, opening the door for persons of all religions not to be excluded from the American experiment*, but to also hear more as they come to this great land – this land built largely by Christian people.
Maybe at one time that was a reasonable interpretation, but perhaps it is becoming less reasonable. As I understand the Boy Scout controversy between the LC-MS and the WELS from the 1950s, the WELS basically insisted that the Boy Scouts were a type of junior Masonry – and that by participating in the Scouts one was necessarily choosing to participate in a false understanding of God where the “anonymous God” actually took a definite form. In other words, it is not so much that the people in it disagreed about who God was and felt others had a “right to be wrong”, but that the whole thing necessarily had to mean – would inevitably come to mean? – that there was just one God and we all believed in and worshipped him.
One of the things about the new CTCR document on the natural knowledge of God (see here) is that it does not really address the questions that many of us are asking today. I hear quite a bit about people having not so much a false, but rather deficient view of God – they “only know a God of the Law” we might hear. Can a person – in some sense – believe in and worship the one, true God while lacking truly spiritual belief and worship? It would seem so, because we know that there are those in true churches who say they uphold the orthodox teaching about God that nevertheless do not have true faith. But for Christians, this has historically meant that these persons in part believed, albeit wrongly, in the Son of God who took on human flesh in history. Now, this notion of an externally correct but internally false belief and worship in the one true God seems to have expanded somewhat.
Does the person who has a general and vague belief in “one God” have a false god or should we just say they have a deficient view of God – perhaps one that is “theologically imprecise”? We really should get more specific: should we say that a person who insists that God has not come into history in the flesh as Jesus Christ has a false god or only a deficient view of God? What if the person asserts that Jesus Christ is God but they are to? What if they insist that Jesus Christ, the man in history, is divine and is to be worshipped but is not fully God? Do we say false or just “deficient”? And a related question: should we insist that we can definitively say what is and is not worship?
If we use a term like “deficient” this raises all kinds of questions. Are we saying that a person will still be saved or might be saved if words like those spoken above accurately reflect the hearts that speak them? Or are we just trying to be polite in civil society? If so, can we think of other ways of being polite and respectful while still giving an unmistakably clear Christian witness? I think these are the kinds of questions we need to address.
Of course we do not want to deny that each individual may indeed possess somewhat unique beliefs over and against the wider culture or religious groups in which he is found. What cultures or official religious teaching says and what individuals believe often varies. We do have the story of Melchizedek in the Bible, for example. We might also think about Cornelius, whose view of and faith in God was certainly incomplete (deficient?), even as it was true (see here). That said, are there things that we can say, generally speaking, about the lay of the land that we now inhabit in early 21st century America? How should we live with our neighbors who do not know Christ? How shall we speak with them?
In the past, when people in this country had more uniform ideas about what the natural knowledge of God was based on their knowledge of the Bible (quite a bit in this country), Christian evangelists thought that it made sense to go to the core of the Bible, Jesus Christ, right away. Here we think of what Walter A. Maier and Billy Graham did. Does it make less sense to do this now? In a culture that is increasingly paganized and immoral should we be giving more or less weight to the natural knowledge of God? As I wrote in my last post about this issue (see here), I think we should be focusing more on Divine revelation, specifically getting to the matter of the Risen Judge whom the Father has proven true by His resurrection from the dead. Directing out attention to that, among other things, I think we can avoid preaching a “different Jesus”.
“Every knee shall bow” can be sweet Gospel to us Christians, and hopefully we can say it like it is! I am so glad that Jesus is the only true God! I am so glad that He and He alone reveals the truth about who God is! I am joyful that He is the one worthy and no other!
Some who do not believe may be caught up in that and eagerly hear the message not just of His resurrection but His cross. But of course we know that many will not. Still – I think that there is power in this bold message. Is there power in the message of the natural law to? Perhaps there is… but maybe that comes in the context of preaching God’s law like its something we assume people know at some level? (instead of emphasizing how we can see how clear it is by the reason God has given us**) That said, it seems to me that if we were more bold in our public messages about God’s Law and the Risen Judge many of those just might say to us: “I liked it better when you focused on that ‘natural law’ thing you talked about… Shut up about this other stuff, why don’t you…”
Here’s what I think: maybe that is the kind of reaction we need to be hearing more of. Not because we want to, but because that is what happens when you preach according to what the times demand.
*Of course, the idea of God should also make people think of judgment and curb sin. This contributes to religion’s role as “social glue”. This aspect of “under God” in America seems to have dissipated quite a bit as well.
**Years ago, I wrote the following:
Certainly, man has always sought to dethrone and play God, but in the past, it was perhaps easier to argue that since man exhibited a common design, any wide-spread commonalities in morality that existed in the world could and should be upheld. Now, however, with at least the illusion that all the “laws of nature” can be fundamentally changed or altered, man grows bolder still at the dawn of the “brave new world”. As much as I, for example, might want people to accept the argument that a human embryo is a human person by virtue of the hard, physical evidence of its genetic code[i], other scientists point to what they say are more genuine criteria – ideas which to me hardly seem to be more universal, clear, distinct, sensible… For whatever reason, practical, cold, hard, detached, objective materialistic science seems to be convincing only a few these days. Although Enlightenment rationalism of its agnostic and atheistic varieties may still put forth its occasional brave and enthusiastic convert who finds its tenants to be both valuable and convincing[ii], this is increasingly rare. What is less rare is people tacitly assuming that though the Western world “works” better than other modes of life, they long for less individualistic and more holistic mental models, and so this is argument is hardly compelling and satisfying to them.[iii] Evidently, in the minds of many, the factual and the ethical / religious are both important, but are completely separate realms.[iv] It seems that however humanity is to be transformed, whether according to God’s or man’s design, the old ideas about reality – and even reality itself – need to be not merely renewed, but rather destroyed before being rebuilt.
[i] I think this is a very big deal. Is it not entirely reasonable to ask the following?: “Given that, physically (genetically) speaking, there is a common humanity, why is it that if we deny the other personhood we think we can confidently maintain our own? On what basis (by what concept?) do we do this other than our own will to power – in short, to create the reality we desire?” Of course, in order to avoid this conclusion, one may posit a radical dualism, namely, that matter is evil or of no consequence while the “soul” alone counts. This can also be done in order to deny any distinction between the sexes, i.e., perhaps I experience myself as a male and my friend as female, but this duality is not real and should become one. In addition, if we believe the physical body to be an illusory self (this is basic Eastern religion which would say the same of the multiplicity of particulars that we see around us, and further, in Buddhism, we find that the notion that we exist as individuals is the source of our suffering) this idea, of course, will have consequences in the [illusory] physical world. Further, if we believe the psychological self (soul?) to be an illusory self, and therefore resort to talking only of the importance of useful fictions for our lives, how can this not result in unending power struggles – “red in tooth and claw” – for personal recognition?
[ii] The intriguing book Infidel, by the former Dutch politician and Muslim-turned-atheist-rationalist Ayan Hirsi Ali, comes to mind here.
[iii] Perhaps even here there are echoes of Christian influence. People are wary of an overly particularistic, nationalistic view of life that seems to not really have the whole world in mind. They sense that it is incomplete, some kind of self-serving “theology of glory” that, in the interest of surviving and perhaps even thriving, does so only at the expense of a thoughtlessness and parochialism towards the rest of the increasingly known world. To them, the argument that Western civilization, capitalism, democracy, or “Christianity is the worst culture, economic system, form of government or religion – except for the others ones” (to paraphrase Churchill) may be true, but it also seems profoundly hollow as well – and rightly so.