Mary as Mediatrix: An Incarnational View


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Many Christians find the notion that Mary played a role in our salvation extremely blasphemous. They particularly find the ascription of the title Mediatrix to Mary, found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, offensive.  In their eyes this ascription stands in direct opposition to Jesus’s role as the sole mediator between God and man. After all, Sacred Scripture is crystal clear on this matter:

“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6 NKJV).

While I completely embrace these words from St. Paul, I deny that they constitute a defeater for Catholic Marian dogma. I contend that the aversion to Mary’s role in our salvation, endemic in so many Christians, is a form of Neo-Docetism. I further maintain that shedding this Neo-Docetist attitude, and embracing an incarnational approach to theology, will help us to understand Mary’s soteriological importance.

The Neo-Docetist Attitude

To be sure, Jesus is the One Mediator between God and men. For it is only through the Word who, “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (John 1:14) that we can be united to God. Mediation is the very point of the incarnation. God, in His love, united Himself to His creation so that His creation might be united to Him: this is the ultimate act of reconciliation. It is, also, the cosmic destiny–or telos–of the universe. As St. Paul states:

“For he [the Father] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).

But many Christians fail to see any of this.  They fail to see the fundamental importance of the incarnation; and fail to see the work of Christ as including the redemption and renewal of the body and the physical/material world in general.  In consequence, the work of Christ is often narrowly construed. The matter of greatest importance, for many Christians, is that Jesus came to satiate the wrath of the Father so as to take away the punishment necessitated by sin (i.e., Penal Substitutionary Atonement).

Mediation, on this view, only happens through the cross; everything hinges upon the death of Christ. As such, the incarnation plays little to no role in the process and is almost a peripheral issue. This implicit denial of the incarnation lies at the heart of the Neo-Docetist attitude. Unlike Classical Docetism, which explicitly denied the incarnation, Neo-Docetism minimizes the importance of the incarnation to the point where its relevance to soteriology is indiscernible.

As I have argued before, this attitude also leads to the rejection of a sacramental worldview; one in which God works in and through the corporeal world to bring about its renewal. Everything in the Christian faith, given the Neo-Docetist perspective, becomes over spiritualized. Baptism looses its efficacy and becomes just a symbol. The Eucharist is no longer the real presence of Christ, but a sentimental ritual that we perpetuate out of obedience. Works of love play no role in our salvation, which is wrought through faith alone (i.e., a mental assent or acknowledgment of Penal Substitutionary Atonement).

Penal Substitution and Mary

Obviously, if one adopts a Neo-Docetist attitude, Mary can play no role in the mediation between God and man. For if (1) mediation is narrowly construed as Penal Substitutionary Atonement and (2) salvation is merely a sort of mental assent to this doctrine, then it is utter lunacy to ascribe to Mary the role of Mediatrix. Clearly, Mary didn’t take the sins of the world upon herself and die on the cross, thereby satiating the wrath of the Father towards mankind. It must be admitted, therefore, that if we adopt this limited conception of mediation, it makes sense to oppose Catholic Marian dogma. On this view, the very notion of Mary being a Mediatrix is nonsense.

Incarnational Theology and the Role of Mary

If, however, mediation is understood in a broader incarnational sense, the role of Mary becomes crystal clear. For it is through Mary that the Word became flesh; it was in her womb that the Creator and sustainer of the universe took on human nature.

God did not force Himself upon Mary against her will either. As Peter Kreeft is fond of saying, “God is not a rapist.” Mary didn’t have to accept the message from Gabriel; she didn’t have to submit herself to what the Lord was intending to do in her life.  Mary, like you and I, had a real choice to make when she heard the message: she could either choose to reject God, as Eve had done in the garden, or choose to fully submit to His will and trust in Him.  To all of creations great relief, Mary chose the latter saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Like us, Mary’s faith in the Lord was made possible by the grace of God; and it was through the grace and love of God that Mary was emboldened to open herself to receiving the Lord. Likewise, it was the power of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Virgin, that made it possible for the Word to take on flesh; and it was through the incarnation of the Word that God united Himself to man.

It is in this context, the context of the incarnation, that Mary is said to be Mediatrix. For it is through her openness to God that the Lord was able to make his abode among men. As Hans Urs von Balthasar so eloquently explains:

“[in Mary] we see readiness, a receptivity that is totally unreserved: body, soul, and spirit are utterly open, “openings” to God. Here the essential thing is that the body is involved; that the handmaid’s consent echoes right through her, down to the lowliest and most unconscious fibers of her being; her whole self, in its materiality, from its lowest level upward, makes itself a womb for the Wholly Other, for God’s self utterance (and hence his “substance”). Never before had this substance taken up its abode within the straitened dimensions of a mortal body.”

Through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord, human nature has been restored to its former dignity and purity, and it is once again possible for the creation to be fully united with its Creator.

In all of this, there is but One true Mediator, and that is God. For it is God who creates and sustains the world, and it is God who saves. Mary, on her own, has no power to mediate. This is why the Catechism says:

“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it. No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source” (CCC article 970).

Considered in this light, it is clear that Mary plays a substantial role in salvation history and that her role in no way threatens Christ’s position as the One mediator between God and man.

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Penal Substitution, Sola Fide and the New Docetism


Isaac Gutiérrez Pascual ©2010

Earlier this month I spoke about the cosmic importance of the Incarnation.  Today I’d like to build upon this reflection.  As I noted before, many Christians fail to see the Incarnation as the cosmic destiny or telos of creation and, likewise, fail to see the work of Christ as including the sanctification, redemption, and renewal of the body and the physical/material world in general.  For many, the work of Christ is narrowly construed.  It was merely to satiate the wrath of God the Father so as to take away the punishment necessitated by sin (i.e., Penal Substitutionary Atonement).  This popular view of the atonement is accompanied by another important doctrine classically referred to as Sola Fide or “salvation by faith alone.”  It is this doctrine which teaches that belief—often understood as a sort of mental assent—in Jesus’ work on the cross is the sole means of our salvation.

I submit that both Penal Substitutionary Atonement (henceforth, PSA) and Sola Fide represent a form of “Neo-Docetism.”  Unlike classical Docetism, which explicitly denied the Incarnation (that the Word actually became flesh), Neo-Docetism places such little significance on the Incarnation, and such heavy emphasis on Sola Fide (i.e., a mental assent to the propositional truth of PSA) it implicitly denies the Incarnation as being absolutely necessary for our salvation.  Unfortunately, when we fail to view theology, and especially soteriology, through the lens of the Incarnation we run into major problems.  Before we elaborate on this point, however, let us first take a closer look at Docetism as it was originally espoused.

Classical Docetism

Classical Docetism rejected the Incarnation outright and, in consequence, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (which was overwhelmingly accepted by all orthodox Christians for over a thousand years).  Evidently, the original Docetist’s also rejected works of mercy as being crucial or necessary aspects of true faith in Christ.  We learn this from the letters of St. Ignatius—who, consequentially, knew St. Peter and was installed as the Bishop of Antioch after St. Peter traveled to Rome .  In his letter to the Smyrnaeans these three common threads of Docetism–the rejection of the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and works of mercy—are made very clear.  St. Ignatius writes:

“But look at the men [i.e., the Docetist’s who deny the Incarnation] who have those perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ which has come down to us, and see how contrary to the mind of God they are.  They have no care for love, no thought for the widow and orphan, none at all for the afflicted, the captive, the hungry or the thirsty.  They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness afterwards raised up again.  Consequently, since they reject God’s good gifts, they are doomed in their disputatiousness.  They would have done better to learn charity, if they were ever to know any resurrection.”

Neo-Docetism

By minimizing the soteriological importance of the Incarnation, and, in fact, failing to make it the measure of their theologizing, the Neo-Docetist’s appear to follow the same pattern as their ancient predecessors.  They reject the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist—and, thus, renounce the sacramental worldview held by the earliest Christians.  In so doing, they fail to see how the love of neighbor (in tangible ways) is of soteriological importance.  In point of fact, Sola Fide flatly rejects the idea that works of love and mercy are necessary for authentic faith and, thus, for salvation.  For some the Neo-Docetist attitude has morphed into a full blown Gnosticism which views the human body as superfluous (e.g., we’re just “spirit-beings” waiting to escape the body), considers matters of social justice of secondary importance, and almost completely ignores the environment.  Interestingly, these Neo-Docetist/Gnostic tendencies play a major roll in why Millennials seem to be drifting away from evangelicalism.

Incarnational Theology 

In contrast, theology viewed through the lens of the incarnation recognizes the broader implications and importance of, “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  It recognizes creation as being essentially good (Genesis 1:31) and as originally intended to be in full communion with God.  It knows that nature is ultimately designed to direct us to its Creator.  It thus maintains a sacramental worldview which acknowledges the Holy Spirit works in and through the created world to sustain and renew it.

It further understands that sin has subjected all of creation to futility because sin estranged the creation from its Creator.  Affirming with St. Paul that:

“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” (Romans 8:20-22).

Incarnational theology understands that, by taking on a real body, the Word of God, through whom and for whom all things where made (Colossians 1:16), sanctified the flesh and ushered in the renewal of creation.  As a real man Christ lived a life of perfect faith—obeying the will of the Father, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the hungry, turning men away from their sin— admonishing us to do the same.  Saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  Thus, showing us that to have a living faith is to be like Christ; to love the world as He loved it; to obey the will of the Father; to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  This is why St. James says:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).”

Thus, salvation understood in light of the Incarnation is holistic–encompassing the whole of man.  Jesus requires we give God everything we are.  It is the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:36).  Mental assent given to a set of propositions about Jesus (i.e. Sola Fide) is not enough; for, “even the demons believe–and shudder” (James 2:19).  Faith certainly has a knowledge component but is not merely knowledge.  Faith is tangible–it is played out through us as we live our lives in the corporeal world.

The Eucharist 

In accordance with everything that has been said, incarnational theology also recognizes the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  It embraces the most controversial of Jesus’ teachings because it knows that He desires to draw us—in our entirety, body and soul–into full communion with Him; for this is the very point of the Incarnation.  Thus, it understands what Jesus means when He emphatically states:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56).

The Word became flesh to give his flesh for us; to transform us; to redeem us; to restore us to what we truly are: men and woman made in the image and likeness of God.  What amazing grace this is–that the God who formed the universe would unite Himself to it in order to preserve and keep it.  This is the Gospel message–the kingdom of God is at hand!  The Almighty God who created the heavens and the earth draws near!  Intimately and, some might say, uncomfortably near.  It is the most provocative message ever proclaimed by any teacher in all of history.

The Cosmic Importance of the Incarnation


Why did God become man?  Was this simply a reaction to Adam and Eve’s fall into sin?  Is the Incarnation merely contingent upon this event?  Or is there more to this story?

When I was a Protestant I often focused exclusively on one aspect of the Incarnation–namely its leading to the death of Christ and the atonement for sins.  While this is obviously of central importance (Christ most certainly did come to lay down his life for the world) it can lead to some misconceived and even detrimental notions.  One of them being that the Incarnation was simply an “accident”; namely, that it was not absolutely essential for the redemption of creation.  For many Protestants (not all) the Incarnation is viewed as merely a reaction to a particular event – the Fall of man into sin – rather than part of the cosmic destiny of creation itself.

I had this conversation in a course in philosophical theology I took last Fall.  Having read multiple essay’s written in defense of Calvin’s notion of penal substitutionary atonement we engaged in a rather lively class discussion.  Several of my classmates seemed to view the Incarnation itself as superfluous to our salvation and destiny.  Everything, for them, hinged upon Christ taking our sins upon himself, dying on the cross, and satiating the wrath of God.  Some didn’t even seem to find the mode of Christ’s death necessary–it was merely the “best possible way” to both satiate God’s wrath and offer an example for us to live by.  To be fair, this view was not held by everyone in class, but did seem to be the predominate view of the author’s we were discussing.

This stands in marked contrast to the Catholic (and I include here Eastern Orthodox as well) tradition which understand’s the Incarnation to be more than a contingent event; a mere accidental happening in the history of the world.  Consider this statement made by Peter Kreeft:

“Jesus is not merely the universe’s savior; He is the universe’s purpose.  The Incarnation was not a last-minute fix-it operation.  And it was not undone in the Ascension.  He is still incarnate, still with us.  He is with us in different ways.  He is with us through the material things, for He created them and He sanctified all matter by incarnating Himself in matter.”

From the perspective of Catholic theology it has always been God’s intention to unite creation to Himself in an intimate way.  In this sense the Incarnation was inevitable.  Consider this, often neglected passage, from St. Paul:

“For he [Christ] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).

While the Incarnation clearly has soteriological implications, leading to forgiveness of sins and personal salvation, it is also a cosmic event.  It is God’s plan to unite all things, in heaven and on earth, to perfect creation, and to offer creation a share in His eternal reality.

In the words of St. Maximus the Confessor:

“Because of Christ–or rather, the whole mystery of Christ [i.e., the Incarnation]–all the ages of time and the beings within those ages have received their beginning and end in Christ.  For the union between a limit of the ages and limitlessness, between measure and immeasurability, between finitude and infinity, between Creator and creation, between rest and motion, was conceived before the ages.  This union has been manifested in Christ at the end of time, and in itself brings God’s foreknowledge to fulfillment . . .”

Christ is not only the creator of the universe but its telos, its end and purpose.  From this standpoint the Incarnation has much broader implications than the forgiveness of sins (although this is surely a central part of it).  The Incarnation is not simply a reaction to the Fall of mankind but is mankind’s destiny.  It is only from this perspective that we can arrive at the necessity of the Incarnation and appreciate the full scope of God’s redemptive work.

Quote of the Day: Peter Kreeft


“You can see the nature of ultimate reality when you look at a crucifix.  There is more metaphysical wisdom in that simple gaze of the simple Christian child than in the highest mystical experiences of the sage or guru, and more than in the finest philosophical systems of a Plato or an Aristotle.  They may have known the experience of Being or the concept of Being, but the Christian child sees Being’s face.”

Understanding Apophatic Theology (Part One)


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/  Apophaticism is an essential feature of Eastern Catholic theology but is often misunderstood by Western theologians and thinkers.  This is the first of a two part series designed to introduce apophatic theology to those who are unfamiliar with it . . . It should also prove useful for those who have a negative aversion to negative theology (pun intended).   /   

Apophatic theology, within the Christian tradition, is grounded in the Incarnation–the mystery of the eternally begotten Word made flesh and born of the Virgin Mary.  It is this paradigmatic paradox that highlights both God’s transcendence and immanence.  In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar:

The “I” of Jesus Christ is the measure of God’s distance from and nearness to man, that unimaginable nearness of him who is, and remains, even more unimaginably sublime above everything in the world (in similitudine major dissimilitudo)–and both things are equally true.  We shall never be in a position to encapsulate the mystery of this “I”, with its nearness and its distance, in a concept or a formula, for at its heart lies the mystery of the relationship between God, the Absolute, and man, the relative.

This antinomy is most clearly expressed in the first chapter of St. John’s gospel which proclaims that, “No one has seen God at any time.  The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18); and affirmed also by St. Paul who states that Christ is, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1: 15).  Thus, the Incarnation is at once God’s ultimate and most intimate revelation of Himself to His creation and a fixed reminder of the mysterious and ineffable nature of the God who remains unseen and invisible.

As we shall see Christian apophaticism is not synonymous to agnosticism; it is not an attempt to eradicate positive statements about God or deny our personal experience of God (as some believe).  Aristotle Papanikolaou explains that, “there is always a gap between our language about God and what God is.  In an apophatic approach, theology, attempts to stretch language in order to express the central antinomy revealed in the Incarnation–God’s transcendence and immanence.”  Apophaticism is, therefore, an acknowledgment of the complete transcendence and utter incomprehensibility of the Divine Nature and the humble admission that human beings lack the noetic capacities and linguistic tools needed to grasp or properly communicate the infinite, eternal, Godhead.  Furthermore, it is the acknowledgment that God loves His creation and condescends to make Himself known in spite of our limited capacities.

This fact–the radical ontological distinction between the creature and the Creator, the unknowability of God’s essence, and God’s desire to make Himself known–is vividly portrayed in the account of Moses on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament.  Scripture tells us that:

On the third day in the morning, there were thunderings and lightnings and a dark cloud on Mount Sinai; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, and all the people in the camp trembled.  And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because God descended upon it in fire.  Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the people were exceedingly amazed . . . and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.  Then God spoke to Moses, “Go down and solemnly charge the people, lest they break through to gaze at God, and many of them perish” (Exodus 19:16-21).*

In this passage we see that God, in his unfailing love and desire for communion–and in order to initiate a covenant with Israel–manifested His presence in a physically provocative way; thus condescending to our human nature.  Yet what God is, His essence, is symbolized by the impenetrable cloud of darkness, thick smoke, and fire; for God is invisible and His nature a mystery.  His presence, if directly beheld by man, is so overwhelming that God warns Moses not to let the people ascend the mountain lest they gaze directly upon Him and die.

The inadequacy of creaturely language–with regard to its ability to describe God–becomes even more obvious as we read Moses’ own account of his experience on the mountain in the presence of God in chapter thirty-three:

But He [God] said, “You cannot see My face; for no man can see My face and live.”  Moreover, the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me you shall stand on the rock.  So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.  Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20-23).*

For surely the Divine Nature is not a body–possessing hands and a face–but is incorporeal.  Our language is simply unable to explain that which transcends all creaturely categories; thus, Moses, writing metaphorically, speaks of God having a ‘face’ and ‘hands’ and a ‘back.’  As the Lord Himself declares in this passage, “no man can see My face and live”–which is to say that no man can peer into the very essence of God; this knowledge is too great for us.  Yet, mysteriously, God allows Moses to experience Him indirectly; allowing him to see His “back.”  This, itself, is unhelpful for those who seek to understand what God is because there is know way for us to understand what it means to gaze upon the Lord’s back.  Here, again, human language fails us; Moses’ own experience was virtually indescribable (even to himself).

The stark contrast that we find in these passages and, throughout the Bible, between the creature and the Creator, are exactly what led the earliest Christian theologians to promote apophaticism.  For the Greek philosophers (namely those in the stream of Platonic and Aristotelian thought) believed that being or existence could be grasped by the human intellect and explained using purely human categories.  Christians, however, embracing the ontology of Scripture, recognized that Existence Himself, the great “I AM,” stood outside of all creaturely thought.  As Fr. John D. Zizioulas explains:

The message of apophatic theology was precisely that the closed Greek ontology had to be broken and transcended, since we are unable to use concepts of the human mind or of creation, for signifying God–the truth.  The absolute otherness of God’s being which is found at the heart of biblical theology is affirmed in such a manner that the biblical approach to God contrasts acutely with that of the Greeks.  Apophaticism rejects the Greek view of truth, emphasizing that what we know about being–about creation, that is–must not be ontologically identified with God.

Plato’s famous analogy of the cave makes the difference between Greek and Christian thought explicit.  For in Plato’s account truth can be grasped when we stop looking at the mere shadow of being on the wall–i.e., the imperfect copies of eternal forms–climb out of the cave, and fix our gaze directly on the sun–the good;  the immaterial and immutable realm of the forms; the, “cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything”  In Plato’s ontology, gazing directly at the good is possible through purely human intellectual effort.  In contrast, Christian theology teaches that the Good transcends all human distinctions and categories; the Good is completely other and, hence, unknowable by means of purely human effort.  For the Good says, “no man can see My face and live” (Exodus 33:20).*

Such considerations are what spurred Pseudo-Dionysius, that great champion of apophatic theology to proclaim:

Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process.  Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being.  Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name.  It is and it is as no other being is.  Cause of all existence, and therefore itself transcending existence, it alone could give an authoritative account of what it really is.

*All Scripture quotations are taken from the Orthodox Study Bible which utilizes the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).  Therefore, the chapter and verse numbering might not correspond to those found in translations, e.g., ESV, NIV, KJV, etc., which utilize the oldest available Hebrew and Aramaic texts.

Previously posted on Truth is a Man (in a slightly different format)

75 Years Ago Today…


The great Christian writer and thinker G.K. Chesterton passed away. Chesterton is easily one of the most quotable authors of the 20th century, possibly of all time. He was simply a master of the English language, but his quick wit and ability to see through hype also aided him in his writing endeavors.

I find it appropriate that on the 75th anniversary of the passing of Chesterton that I came across something Al Mohler wrote concerning Kirby Godsey. Some have decried Mohler’s post as excessive and mean-spirited. Mohler points out that Godsey has denied Christ’s divine nature, denied that we should worship Christ, and rejected the authority of Scripture. I have yet to read Godsey’s book, so I will withhold all judgment on Godsey’s work.

I will say, however, that if Mohler is telling the truth (and we have no reason to believe he’s lying, seeing as how others have taken the same opinion of Godsey’s work) then Mohler is correct. Mohler is not being bigoted in his response, rather he is drawing a line in the sand, or rather recognizing a line in the sand that has been drawn, and pointing out that crossing the line means that one had deviated from historical Christianity. In fact, pointing out such a line is what Chesterton did for most of his adult life.

The problem that Mohler points out is the same problem that Chesterton dealt with, namely that when we have no foundation then we have nothing. If Christianity is simply a giant collection of people who want to see social change in the world and take care of the poor, but a “Bring Your Own Doctrines” policy, then Christianity will die. We’ve seen this in mainline denominations and we’re seeing it now in many evangelical denominations (even conservative ones). In Christianity, our central truths are found in a Person, so when we deny the Person or attempt to deny the idea of central truths, we lose everything that makes Christianity unique. When we bow to the world and abandon our doctrines and abandon the mystery of Christianity, we cease to follow what was set forth by God. When we bow to the world and offer flashy churches that are meant to fit a certain niche, we cease to follow what was set forth by God.

Today, Chesterton is more relevant than he was 75 years ago or even 100 years ago during the primacy of his writing. We have many Christians who are abandoning the central tenets of Christianity with the claim, “Well it’s okay to ask questions, right?” But they go further than asking questions. It would seem that Godsey has gone further than asking questions and Mohler has called him on the carpet for this. It is okay to ask questions, it is okay to doubt, but it is never okay to deny. Some might declare this as arrogant, but I would ask them why it’s okay to question my creed, but not the creed of others. Or, as Chesterton once wrote, “These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own.”

So in remembering the passing of Chesterton 75 years ago, I also applaud Al Mohler for standing on the authority of Scripture and Christian tradition in upholding one of the most central doctrines of Christianity (the Incarnation). We should never abandon orthodoxy, but pursue it and get lost in it.

 

 

The Failure of Evangelicalism: How Evangelicals are Killing Their Own Religion


To anyone who isn’t a stalwart conservative or burying one’s head in the sand, it’s quite clear that the Evangelical community is facing a drastic shift in direction. I would contend that while the shift was inevitable, it’s not a good shift. It’s trending towards a more liberal theology, a more anti-intellectual philosophy masquerading as intellectual, and growing in incredulity towards anything traditional or ancient. I’ve lamented it many times before, but it seems to be a growing problem, specifically for the younger generation.

What really hit me was yesterday when I was looking for books on deep theology concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation. It dawned on me that I couldn’t go to a Lifeway or other typical Christian bookstore (ones that are generally associated with evangelicalism). Instead, in order to find the books I needed I had to go to a store that caters to Eastern Orthodox. Once there, I looked for what I needed and of all the books I looked through, not a single evangelical author was available. This is not due to the bookstore bias against evangelicals (they had plenty of books by evangelicals and even supported some of these books…in the spirituality department), but because in order to find a qualified theologian on the Trinity who isn’t neo-orthodox or liberal you have to turn to the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholics. In fact, the last great intellectual thinker for evangelicals who wasn’t neo-orthodox or liberal would be Francis Schaeffer, but even he claimed to be more of an evangelist than an academic (though there’s no denying that he was influential for many in the evangelical tradition). Likewise, this isn’t to say that there are no orthodox evangelical thinkers in the world of theology, merely that the most authoritative voices for the conservative movement tend to be Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

Certainly there are some great minds in the evangelical church, but these minds are usually geared towards apologetics (which tends to be weaker among the Orthodox), and many of these great evangelical philosophers are extremely weak when it comes to theology. Why is this? I would contend that because evangelicals have had either a fearful view of the patristics (or at least an apathetic view of the patristics), so fearful that they’ve avoided reading this essential material. For many evangelicals, Christianity apparently began around the time of the Reformation, thus ignoring a wealth of historical teachings that we need to pay attention to. When we abandon our history and tradition we begin to seek anything that is new; but truth is immortal and ancient, truth is without time, truth is before our existence, so we should never need to find anything new, for whatever is new is not truthful.

But this is merely the intellectual side of the faith. On the existential side of faith (which is a different side of the same coin), all three branches are failing, but evangelicals are failing the hardest (or so it seems). Why is it that evangelicals are trending towards a more watered-down faith? Along with the anti-intellectualism running rampant in evangelical circles (conservative and liberal), there’s an apathetic approach to holiness. Holiness seems to be a list of rules rather than a lifestyle we live. For conservatives, holiness is a matter of avoiding drugs, avoiding sex before marriage, avoided alcohol, avoiding certain types of music, avoiding saying the wrong words, and is purely individualistic and internalized. For the more “progressive” branch of evangelicals, holiness is about avoiding oppressing the poor, avoiding oppressing anyone perceived as oppressed, avoiding making absolute statements (for absolute statements are absolutely wrong), and looks more towards the community and how we act in it to determine how holy we are.

In both cases, both sides are right and wrong. The “emergent ethic of holiness” is really just an overreaction to the conservative ethic that we’ve seen for so many years. While we should be personally holy, which means abstention from certain actions, being holy is also contingent upon how we act towards our fellow humans, specifically those who are economically oppressed or oppressed by their status in life.

The failure of Evangelicalism is two-fold; it is an intellectual crisis and an existential crisis. We cannot reach the minds of a young generation, nor can we reach the hearts of a young generation. We’re still stuck offering simple platitudes of the faith, avoiding the deeper issues of the faith and casting such teachings to seminary (where many seminarians are beginning to fail to understand these essential doctrines). At the same time, we’re holding “prayer drives” thinking that if we pray for someone that it’s enough, even though the Bible says such an attitude is wrong. James 1:22-25 reads:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

He goes on in 2:15-17 to write,

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

When our churches raise money for bigger and better sanctuaries (or “worship centers” if your church wants to be cool), when our churches create ministries that cater to members rather than asking members to cater to those in need, when our churches become more concerned with the size of the church rather than the heart of the church, is it any wonder that young people are abandoning the evangelical church in droves? When they see people bicker over how to best fix a broken clock in the sanctuary, do we really expect them to stay? If we aren’t putting our beliefs into practice, then what value do our beliefs really hold to us?

If evangelicalism is to survive, then it must grab hold of the ancient faith that it has abandoned and begin to practice it as well. It must lose its love of numbers, it must abandon all hope of having a megachurch, and instead focus on truly helping people in the neighborhood who need help.

We need pastors to start preaching sermons on the Trinity and how the Trinity applies to our lives. Same with the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and other essential doctrines in the faith. We need churches that tell the members, “We don’t have a ministry to help you, but we have ministries you can help.” Will this cause our numbers to take a nose-dive? Absolutely. But that is what is needed; we need to lose some excess weight. If evangelicalism is to survive, then its adherents must begin to live like Christ, otherwise it will quickly die out. And if it can’t follow Christ both in thought and deed, then it is a death I welcome with open arms.