“Every revolution ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic”
For many years we have seen the growing trend of traditional, Reformation centered Christianity develop into a thriving movement within conservative denominations. Conservatism is not a new idea, nor is it only now taking shape. But the variation gaining prestige and publicity over the past few years, under the banner of New Calvinism, even garnered a mention in TIME Magazine’s 2009 article Ideas Changing the World.
Karl Marx once famously stated history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as a farce”. I feel we are seeing visible signs of a repeated sequence of events and ideological rigidity, but this time with Evangelicalism playing the part of heretic hunter.
There was a period of time in which the Church controlled and managed almost every cultural aspect of life: artists were judged and admonished for their lack of religious themes or for too much vulgarity, science was dismissed for contradictions with orthodoxy, politicians were forced to confess their alignment with ideals relegated with the Church, religious leaders gained prestige for connections to political and industrial leaders, writers and thinkers who deviated from accepted doctrines where admonished as heretics, homosexuals and those of different religions were deemed an abomination, and Church leadership believed they had indeed understood the Holy Scriptures to such a degree that they and those who agreed with them alone were the bearers of the truth handed down by God.
The sentence above applies just as much to the relationship the Church had to culture at the time of the Reformation as it does to the Christianity alive and growing in the US today. Think I’m wrong? Look a little harder. Sure, Evangelical Christianity does not have the power today that Catholicism had in the 15th century. But there should be no doubt that the intention to relegate all ideas separate from their own is alive and well today..
The farce in all of this is that Reformed Christianity, the very group holding firm and renewed to the ideals of Reformation thinkers are now the group so reliant on their own interpretation of truth that they deem heretical any and all ideals not aligned with their theology.
Lets take a closer look. The Reformation opposed a few key ideas of Orthodox Catholicism. Most importantly, perhaps, was a belief that tradition and Papal authority is equal to the authority of Scripture. Essentially you had two means by which you could know truth: Scripture and Tradition (it is indeed tradition that gave power to the Pope). The Protestant movement taught that Scripture alone was the authoritative means of knowing God, often called the formal principle. Doctrine was to be born only of the Scripture.
Where I’m going is that you see a great reliance in Reformed circles on the importance of Reformation theology and doctrine as a means of interpreting scripture. It is as if knowing the mind and intention of God has been worked out in what is now seen as orthodoxy, and it is now simply the job of Christianity to recount and interpret the theology contained within the recognized orthodox tradition and scripture.
This, of course, is a limited view based upon a presupposition that the beliefs and doctrine of Reformation and post Reformation theologians are in fact accurate and sound representations of the intentions and mind of God as presented through scripture. For example, a reading of the popular reviews of Love Wins reveals a secret subtext: I disagree with you because you do not agree with me; but I’m right, because God said I’m right.
Let’s forget the importance of encultured and acculturated cultural constructs in the development of one’s world view. Let’s not discuss the fact that countless generations of Catholics before and after the reformation stood firm to the beliefs of their church as it was engrained into their paradigms.
Reformed Christianity feels that it is it’s job to legislate the truth. You will not see John Piper, Al Mohler, or the writers of the Gospel Coalition come out and say such a thing, of course. But it is not what you say that matters as much as what you do. It matters how you treat people and ideas that are not the ideas that you hold or come natural to you. How quick you are to dismiss a belief or concept different than your own will tell you a tremendous amount about the beliefs you hold about your beliefs.
I have seen over and over in this movement and dialogue an almost obsessive repetition on the idea of humility. From Christian leaders signing their name below book titles on humility to a complete and total dismissal of the works of Rob Bell and other non-orthodox leaders due to controversial ideas, there is what I believe to be a total lack of humility right now in Reformed Christianity. I believe the Love Wins controversy is truly systemic of a lack of humility in Christianity. When you believe you have the truth and know for a fact that the other argument does not without question is neither humble nor loving.
Christianity has a long tradition of pushing away ideas and then backtracking into acceptance. You might think that this culture would learn their lesson and become more sympathetic to new ideas. But this is not the case. “Orthodox’” Christianity would do well to learn from the past and place their theological models in a perspective of both time and culture. Revering the past is only healthy when it is in perspective. Consideration shows strength and wisdom, something I personally feel is lacking greatly in the Church right now.
Mainstream Protestant Christianity is showing the same fierce determination to hold on to its now orthodoxy ideals (it was at one point in history, of course, a new idea!) that imprisoned Galileo for his heretical idea that the world was the center of the universe (evolution, anyone?), an idea central to the theology of the time. The world moves forward with ease it seems despite the angry missiles religion throws out at every shift of culture.
Can Christianity learn from its past limitations? If not I believe we will see more of these controversies pop up with even greater frequency. The Church will loose what validity it has left if it does not start to see the past as a kind of reflection of a specific period and the present for what it truly is. As of right now, I believe the Reformed movement is simply holding on dearly with all of its might to a theology that is not meeting the needs of a highly educated, globalized culture inherently separate and different than the one in which it was first born.
You see, if your denomination or theology was every viewed as heretical by another more powerful group, you should never, ever, ever, ever, ever use the word heretic on anyone else. You can NOT know how the future might favor the opposing position. The fact remains that you are just a human being and all the talk of being humble before God means nothing if you do not practice this sort of humility in your interpretation of Holy Writ. Believing that you know what God said and more importantly meant absolutely and unquestionably is perhaps the worst kind of false humility.