Archive for the ‘Modernism’ Category

Yeah . . . that’s how the receiving end often feels to we Theists.

compiled by Fred W. Anson
A few years ago, the good folks at the Zelph on the Shelf did a fantastic article entitled, “15 Things Ex-Mormons are Tired of Hearing” which was a superb compilation of the bad arguments that Ex-Mormons typically hear from True Believing Mormons (aka “TBMs”). As the author noted in her introduction, these are things that not only don’t facilitate constructive debate, they distract from it.

I loved the article. So did my friends. We ate it up!

Now my friends, like me, are mainly mainstream Christians and most are Ex-Mormons as well. And they suggested that we put together a list of the top 15 things that Christians are tired of hearing from ex-Mormon atheists/agnostics. So I slapped together a crowdsourced poll, posted it on the Internet, and the results will be discussed and considered over this short series of articles.

By the way, if you missed any of the first three parts of this series and would like to read it in order, from the beginning, click here for Part One, here for Part Two, and here for Part Three.

2) “There’s no evidence that Jesus ever existed – it’s all just a myth like the Book of Mormon.”
Well, my atheist friends, I must tell you that scholarly consensus and the historical record both discredit this assertion – and I’m talking about hostile, extra-biblical sources and scholars. Consider, for example, agnostic Bart Ehrmann: In a National Public Radio interview for his 2012 book, “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth” he summarized the issue like this:

I wanted to approach this question as an historian to see whether that’s right or not,” Ehrman tells weekends on “All Things Considered” host Guy Raz.

The answer is straightforward and widely accepted among scholars of all faiths, but Ehrman says there is a large contingent of people claiming that Jesus never did exist. These people are also known as mythicists.

“It was a surprise to me to see how influential these mythicists are,” Ehrman says. “Historically, they’ve been significant and in the Soviet Union, in fact, the mythicist view was the dominant view, and even today, in some parts of the West – in parts of Scandinavia — it is a dominant view that Jesus never existed,” he says…

In his book, Ehrman marshals all of the evidence proving the existence of Jesus, including the writings of the apostle Paul.

“Paul knew Jesus’ brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did,” Ehrman says. “If Jesus didn’t exist, you would think his brother would know about it, so I think Paul is probably pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed,” he says.

In [his book] Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman builds a technical argument and shows that one of the reasons for knowing that Jesus existed is that if someone invented Jesus, they would not have created a messiah who was so easily overcome.

“The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you’re going to make up a messiah, you’d make up a powerful messiah,” he says. “You wouldn’t make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and the killed by the enemies.”
(“Did Jesus Exist?’ A Historian Makes His Case”, All Things Considered, Radio Broadcast, April 1, 2012

Then there is the historical record outside of the Bible from hostile sources:1

Tacitus (55/56–c. 118 C.E.)
[N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts … whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ [Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate … Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.
(Tacitus, “Annals”, XV.44, Written c. 116–117 C.E., as translated in Robert E. Van Voorst, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Studying the Historical Jesus)”, pp. 42–43)

Josephus (37-c.100 C.E.)
“Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.”
(Josephus, “Jewish Antiquities”, XX.9.1. Written c. 93-94 C.E.)

“Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out.”
(Josephus, “Jewish Antiquities”, XVIII.63–64 (in Whiston’s translation: XVIII.3.3); this redacted version of The Testimonium Flavianum is from, Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, “Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide”, pp. 65–66, after deleting the apparent, later, Christian additions to the original text.)

Lucian of Samosata (c. 115–200 C.E.)
“It was then that he learned the marvelous wisdom of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And— what else?—in short order he made them look like children, for he was a prophet, cult leader, head of the congregation and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books, and wrote many himself. They revered him as a god, used him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector—to be sure, after that other whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world…

For having convinced themselves that they are going to be immortal and live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most even willingly give themselves up. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living according to his laws.”
(Lucian, Passing of Peregrinus, §11, as translated in Craig A. Evans, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources,” in Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans, eds., “Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research, 2nd impression, New Testament Tools and Studies, vol. 6”, Boston: Brill, 1998, 1994, p. 462)

Celsus (c. 176) as quoted by Origen:
“Next he makes the charge of the savior that it was by magic that he was able to do the miracles which he appeared to have done, and foreseeing that others also, having learned the same lessons and being haughty to act with the power of God, are about to do the same thing, such persons Jesus would drive away from his own society.

For he says, “He was brought up in secret and hired himself out as a workman in Egypt, and having tried his hand at certain magical powers he returned from there, and on account of those powers gave himself the title of God”’
(Origen, “Against Celsus”, 1.6, 38, as translated in Evans, Ibid, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources,” p.460)

Pliny (c. 61–113 C.E.)
“They [the Christians] assured me that the sum total of their error consisted in the fact that that they regularly assembled on a certain day before daybreak. They recited a hymn antiphonally to Christus as to a god and bound themselves with an oath not to commit any crime, but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, breach of faith, and embezzlement of property entrusted to them. After this, it was their custom to separate, and then to come together again to partake of a meal, but an ordinary and innocent one.”
(Pliny, “Epistles”, X.96, as cited in Evans, Ibid, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources,” p. 459)

Mara bar Serapion (c. 73 C.E.)
“For what advantage did the Athenians gain by the murder of Socrates, the recompense of which they received in famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, because in one hour their country was entirely covered in sand? Or the Jews by the death of their wise king, because from that same time their kingdom was taken away? God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.”
(Mara bar Serapion, “Letter to His Son”, (cited in Evans, Ibid, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources,” pp. 455–456). The phrase “death of their [the Jews] wise king” is believed to refer to Christ.) 

If you still have any lingering doubt on this matter, perhaps you’ll find the modern opinion of famous Jewish scientist, Albert Einstein on this question of some value. When answered the question, do you accept Jesus as a historical figure? This his reply: “Absolutely! No one can read the Gospels without feeling Jesus’ presence. His character lives in every word. No legend is full of such life… No one can deny the fact that Jesus existed, or that His words were enlightened. Even if some of His sayings were said before, no one expressed them in such Godly way like He did.” (Walter Isaacson, “Einstein: His Life and Universe”, p.386)

I think that it’s fair to say given the broad consensus among scholars as well as the compelling body of evidence outside of the Bible that Jesus Christ most certainly did exist as a real, historical figure. So to claim that His existence is as fatuous as comparing the Book of Mormon people to Plato and claiming that they’re equivalent.

Click the above link to see a brief explanation from Bart Ehrman as to why Jesus Christ was indeed a real, historical figure. 

1) “You’re just stupid and ignorant. Once you’re enlightened you’ll be an atheist too!”
Wow! I think that I’ve just had a flashback or have just stepped through a time warp: I’m hearing echoes of my Atheist self from bygone days. Yes, my Atheist friends, you read that right, I am a former Atheist. And I’m not alone. So, at the risk of being accused of a Gish Galloping bandwagon fallacy, you have to admit that I have some pretty prestigious (and in some cases notorious) company:2

  • Steve Beren – former member of the Socialist Workers Party (United States) who became a Christian conservative politician
  • Kirk Cameron – actor noted for his role in Growing Pains
  • Francis Collins – physician-geneticist, noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes; director of the National Human Genome Research Institute; former atheist
  • Ray Comfort – evangelist and author.
  • Bo Giertz – Swedish Confessional Lutheran Bishop, theologian, and writer
  • Simon Greenleaf – one of the main founders of Harvard Law School
  • Keir Hardie – raised atheist and became a Christian Socialist
  • Paul Jones – musician, of Manfred Mann; previously atheist; in 1967 he argued with Cliff Richard about religion on a TV show
  • Kang Kek Iew (also known as Comrade Duch) – Cambodian director of Phnom Penh’s infamous Tuol Sleng detention center
  • Akiane Kramarik (and family) – American poet and child prodigy raised as an atheist and converted to Christianity
  • Jonny Lang – blues and rock singer who professed to once “hating” Christianity, before later claiming to have a supernatural encounter with Jesus Christ which led to his conversion
  • Chai Ling – Chinese student leader of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989; converted to evangelical Christianity in 2009
  • John Warwick Montgomery – renowned Christian apologist, Lutheran theologian, and barrister; as a philosophy major in college, he investigated the claims of Christianity “to preserve intellectual integrity” and converted
  • William J. Murray  – author and son of atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair
  • Marvin Olasky – former Marxist turned Christian conservative; edits the Christian World magazine
  • George R. Price – geneticist who became an Evangelical Christian and wrote about the New Testament; later he moderated his evangelistic tendencies and switched from religious writing to working with the homeless
  • Mira Sorvino – Academy Award-winning actress who had been on Humanist lists
  • Lee Strobel – former avowed atheist and journalist for the Chicago Tribune; was converted by his own journalistic research intended to test the veracity of scriptural claims concerning Jesus; author of such apologetic books as The Case for Faith and The Case for Christ
  • Lacey Sturm – musician, former vocalist and lyricist for alternative metal band Flyleaf
  • Emir Kusturica – filmmaker, actor, and musician; although of Muslim ancestry, his father was atheist; took the name “Nemanja” on conversion in 2005
  • Seraphim Rose – Hieromonk and religious writer; in early adulthood he considered non-theist ideas of God and the Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche that God is dead; became Russian Orthodox in 1962
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Nobel Prize-winning dissident author who converted to Russian Orthodoxy
  • Mortimer J. Adler – American philosopher, educator, and popular author; converted to Catholicism from agnosticism, after decades of interest in Thomism
  • G. E. M. Anscombe – analytic philosopher, Thomist, literary executor for Ludwig Wittgenstein, and author of Modern Moral Philosophy; converted to Catholicism as a result of her extensive reading
  • Benedict Ashley – raised humanist; former Communist; became a noted theologian associated with River Forest Thomism
  • Maurice Baring – English author who converted to Catholicism in his thirties
  • Mark Bauerlein – English professor at Emory University and the author of 2008 book The Dumbest Generation, which won at the Nautilus Book Awards
  • Léon Bloy – French author who led to several notable conversions and was himself a convert from agnosticism
  • Paul Bourget – French author who became agnostic and positivist at 15, but returned to Catholicism at 35
  • Alexis Carrel – French surgeon and biologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912
  • Alfred Döblin, German novelist, essayist and doctor, a former convert from Judaism to atheism
  • Avery Dulles – Jesuit priest, theologian, and cardinal in the Catholic Church; was raised Presbyterian, but was an agnostic before his conversion to Catholic Christianity
  • Alice Thomas Ellis – born Anna Haycraft, raised in Auguste Comte‘s atheistic “church of humanity”, but became a conservative Catholic in adulthood known as Alice Thomas Ellis
  • Edward Feser – Christian philosopher and author, wrote The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism
  • André Frossard – French journalist and essayist
  • Maggie Gallagher – conservative activist and a founder of the National Organization for Marriage
  • Eugene D. Genovese – historian who went from Stalinist to Catholicism
  • Dawn Eden Goldstein – rock journalist of Jewish ethnicity; went from an agnostic to a Catholic, who was particularly concerned with the moral values of chastity
  • Bill Hayden – The 21st Governor-General of Australia. In 1996 he was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. Baptized September 2018.
  • Mary Karr – author of The Liars’ Club; Guggenheim Fellow; once described herself as an “undiluted agnostic”, but converted to a self-acknowledged “Cafeteria Catholicism” who embraces Pro-Choice views, amongst others
  • Ignace Lepp – French psychiatrist whose parents were freethinkers and who joined the Communist party at age fifteen; broke with the party in 1937 and eventually became a Catholic priest
  • Leah Libresco – popular (former) atheist blogger; her search for a foundation for her sense of morality led her to Christianity; she continues her blog under a new name, Unequally Yoked. Her blog readership has increased significantly since her conversion.
  • Arnold Lunn – skier, mountaineer, and writer; as an agnostic he wrote Roman Converts, which took a critical view of Catholicism and the converts to it; later converted to Catholicism due to debating with converts, and became an apologist for the faith, although he retained a few criticisms of it
  • Gabriel Marcel – leading Christian existentialist; his upbringing was agnostic
  • Claude McKay – bisexual Jamaican poet who went from Communist-leaning atheist to an active Catholic Christian after a stroke
  • Vittorio Messori – Italian journalist and writer called the “most translated Catholic writer in the world” by Sandro Magister; before his conversion in 1964 he had a “perspective as a secularist and agnostic”
  • Czesław Miłosz – poet, prose writer, translator and diplomat; was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and in 1980 the Nobel Prize in Literature
  • Malcolm Muggeridge – British journalist and author who went from agnosticism to the Catholic Church
  • Bernard Nathanson – medical doctor who was a founding member of NARAL, later becoming a pro-life proponent
  • Fulton Oursler – writer who was raised Baptist, but spent decades as an agnostic before converting; The Greatest Story Ever Told is based on one of his works
  • Giovanni Papini – went from pragmatic atheism to Catholicism, also a Fascist
  • Joseph Pearce – anti-Catholic and agnostic British National Front member who became a devoted Catholic writer with a series on EWTN
  • Charles Péguy – French poet, essayist, and editor; went from agnostic humanist to a pro-Republic Catholic
  • Sally Read – Eric Gregory Award-winning poet who converted to Catholicism
  • E. F. Schumacher – economic thinker known for Small Is Beautiful; his A Guide for the Perplexed criticizes what he termed “materialistic scientism;” went from atheism to Buddhism to Catholicism
  • Peter Steele – lead singer of Type O Negative
  • Edith Stein – Phenomenologist philosopher who converted to Catholicism and became a Discalced Carmelite nun; declared a saint by Pope John Paul II
  • John Lawson Stoddard – divinity student who became an agnostic and “scientific humanist;” later he converted to Catholicism; his son Lothrop Stoddard remained agnostic and would be significant to scientific racism
  • R. J. Stove – raised atheist, converted to Catholicism
  • Allen Tate – American poet, essayist and social commentator; Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress
  • Victor Turner – A British cultural anthropologist best known for his work on symbols, rituals and rites of passage.
  • Sigrid Undset – Norwegian Nobel laureate who converted to Catholicism from agnosticism
  • Evelyn Waugh – British novelist who converted to Catholicism from agnosticism
  • John C. Wright – science fiction author who went from atheist to Catholic; Chapter 1 of the book “Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion”, edited by Rebecca Vitz Cherico, is by him
  • Joy Davidman – poet and wife of C. S. Lewis
  • Tamsin Greig – British actress raised as an atheist; converted at 30
  • Nicky Gumbel – Anglican priest known for the Alpha course; from atheism
  • Peter Hitchens – journalist who went from Trotskyism to Traditionalist conservatism; estranged brother of the late outspoken anti-theist and Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens
  • C. E. M. Joad – English philosopher whose arguing against Christianity, from an agnostic perspective, earned him criticism from T. S. Eliot; turned toward religion later, writing The Recovery of Belief a year before he died and returning to Christianity
  • C. S. Lewis – Oxford professor and writer; well known for The Chronicles of Narnia series, and for his apologetic Mere Christianity
  • Alister McGrath – biochemist and Christian theologian’ founder of “scientific theology” and critic of Richard Dawkins in his book Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life
  • Enoch Powell – Conservative Party (UK) member who converted to Anglicanism
  • Michael Reiss – British bioethicist, educator, journalist, and Anglican priest; agnostic/secular upbringing
  • Dame Cicely Saunders – Templeton Prize and Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize-winning nurse known for palliative care; converted to Christianity as a young woman
  • Fay Weldon – British novelist and feminist
  • Peter Baltes – former heavy metal musician, member of Accept
  • Anders Borg  – Sweden’s Minister for Finance
  • Julie Burchill – British journalist and feminist
  • Nicole Cliffe – writer and journalist who co-founded The Toast
  • Jeffery Dahmer – serial killer and convict who was baptized by Churches of Christ minister Roy Ratcliff
  • Bruce Cockburn – Canadian folk/rock guitarist and singer/songwriter (former agnostic)
  • Karl Dallas – British music journalist, author and political activist
  • Larry Darby – former Holocaust denier and former member of the American Atheists
  • Terry A. Davis – American computer programmer who created and designed an entire operating system, TempleOS, by himself. Davis grew up Catholic and was an atheist before experiencing a self-described “revelation”. He described the experience as seeming “a lot like mental illness … I felt guilty for being such a technology-advocate atheist … It would sound polite if you said I scared myself thinking about quantum computers.”
  • Andrew Klavan – Jewish-American writer who went from atheist to agnostic to Christian.
  • Nina Karin Monsen – Norwegian moral philosopher and author who grew up in a humanist family, but later converted to Christianity through philosophic thinking
  • Rosalind Picard – Director of the Affective computing Research Group at the MIT Media Lab; raised atheist, but converted to Christianity in her teens
  • Vladimir Putin – current President of the Russian Federation
  • Allan Sandage – prolific astronomer; converted to Christianity later in his life, stating, “I could not live a life full of cynicism. I chose to believe, and a peace of mind came over me.”
  • Rodney Stark – a formerly agnostic sociologist of religion.
  • A. N. Wilson – biographer and novelist who entered the theological St Stephen’s House, Oxford before proclaiming himself an atheist and writing against religion; announced his return to Christianity in 2009

So there it is. It’s quite a list, isn’t it? Further, given the background of many of the personalities on this list, how it is reasonable or credible to claim that true enlightenment – not to mention logic, reason, and evidence – always leads to Atheism? Are we to believe that all the personalities represented here were the type of irrational, fanatical, confirmation bias driven, evidence denying, culturally ensnared dullards that many Ex-Mormon Atheists are so quick to label all theists as? Or could it be that the body of evidence and human experience can and will reasonably lead somewhere else than Atheism?

Click above to watch former Atheist Ray Comfort’s answer to his former worldview and belief system.

Speaking only for myself, that initial rush of Atheist liberation after growing up in what I perceived as oppressive, irrational religious fanaticism (is this sounding familiar my Ex-Mormon Atheist friends?) eventually faded. And I soon found the relativism and worship of one’s own perceptions and opinions, unfulfilling, and unsatisfying. Atheism, at least for me, was like ordering a pizza and eating the box that it came in rather than the pizza itself. The rational Christianity that I chose (or perhaps better said, “choose me”) after Atheism only keeps getting richer, deeper, more satisfying, more fulfilling, more nuanced, and, yes, more rational.

The gaping hole that I found in Atheism was the lack of recognition for transcendence, wonder, or mystery in life. I knew that there had to be more than just pure, raw, logic, reason, and evidence interspersed with moments of pleasure-seeking. This was especially apparent when I experienced true romantic love and knew that it was more than just some kind of evolutionary impulse to mate bond in order to create a stable society so that the species could survive – as the atheist voices that I heard claimed. It was far deeper and far more profound than that! It was, simply stated, transcendent, even spiritual.

Thus, and stated plainly, not everything can be entirely explained by empiricism, logic, and reason – which is why, I think, many hardcore Atheists are just as likely to buy into whacky non-theistic schemes and conspiracy theories – as the Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, “Look Who’s Irrational Now”, The Wall Street Journal article cited way back in Part One of this series documented so nicely. But perhaps Atheist cum Evangelical Christian and renowned physician-geneticist, Francis Collins said it best when he said of hardcore, militant Atheism:

I think strong atheism, of the kind that says, “I know there is no God,” suffers from two major logical flaws. And the awareness of those flaws might be reassuring to believers who are somehow afraid that these guys may actually have a point.

The first of those is the idea that anyone could use science at all as a conversation-stopper, as an argument-ender in terms of the question of God. If God has any meaning at all, God is at least in part outside of nature (unless you’re a pantheist). Science is limited in that its tools are only appropriate for the exploration of nature. Science can therefore certainly never discount the possibility of something outside of nature. To do so is a category error, basically using the wrong tools to ask the question.

Secondly, I think the logical error that atheists of the strong variety commit is what English writer G.K. Chesterton calls the most daring dogma of the universal negative. I often use a visual analogy to explain this. Suppose you were asked to draw a circle that contains all the information, all the knowledge that exists or ever will exist, inside or outside the universe – all knowledge. Well, that would be a pretty enormous circle. Now, suppose on that same scale, you were asked to draw what you know at the present time. Even the most assertive person will draw a rather tiny circle. Now, suppose that the knowledge that demonstrates that God exists is outside your little circle today. That seems pretty plausible, doesn’t it, considering the relative scale? How then – given that argument – would it be reasonable for any person to say, “I know there is no God”? That is clearly going outside of the evidence.
(David Masci, “The ’Evidence for Belief’: An Interview with Francis Collins”, Pew Research Center website, April 17, 2008)

Amen Brother Collins, amen!

Click on the link above to watch Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, former Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, describe his personal journey from atheism to Christianity when he was a young doctor and an aspiring academic.

NOTES
1 An important primary source for this section was Purdue Bible Scholar Lawrence Mykytiuk’s superb article, “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible”,  Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2015. For those interested in a more comprehensive treatise on this subject than was possible in a short article, I highly recommend considering this primary source – especially the endnotes which add much-needed depth and nuance to the cited historical sources and their provenance. Mr. Mykytiuk’s final answer to the question of Christ’s existence is wonderfully understated, but yet pointed, in regard to the evidence deniers: “As a final observation: In New Testament scholarship generally, a number of specialists consider the question of whether Jesus existed to have been finally and conclusively settled in the affirmative. A few vocal scholars, however, still deny that he ever lived.”

2 Wikipedia, “List of converts to Christianity from nontheism”

Again, if you missed any part of this series and would like to read it in order, from the beginning, click here for Part One, here for Part Two, and here for Part Three.

 

The Difference a Vowel Makes
"Communion of Saints" (stained glass window)

“Communion of Saints” (stained glass window)

by Keith A. Mathison

The twentieth century could, with some accuracy, be called a century of theological anarchy. Liberals and sectarians have long rejected outright many of the fundamental tenets of Christian orthodoxy. But more recently professing evangelical scholars have advocated revisionary versions of numerous doctrines. A revisionary doctrine of God has been advocated by proponents of “openness theology.” A revisionary doctrine of eschatology has been advocated by proponents of full-preterism. Revisionary doctrines of justification sola fide have been advocated by proponents of various “new perspectives” on Paul. Often the revisionists will claim to be restating a more classical view. Critics, however, have usually been quick to point out that the revisions are actually distortions.

Ironically, a similarly revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura has arisen within Protestantism, but unlike the revisionist doctrine of sola fide, the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura has caused very little controversy among the heirs of the Reformation. One of the reasons there has been much less controversy over the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura is that this doctrine has been gradually supplanting the Reformation doctrine for centuries. In fact, in many segments of the evangelical world, the revisionist doctrine is by far the predominant view now. Many claim that this revisionist doctrine is the Reformation doctrine. However, like the revisionist doctrines of sola fide, the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura is actually a distortion of the Reformation doctrine.

The adoption of the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura has resulted in numerous biblical, theological, and practical problems within Protestant churches. These problems have become the center of attention in recent years as numerous Protestants have converted to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy claiming that their conversion was due in large part to their determination that the doctrine of sola Scriptura was indefensible. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists have been quick to take advantage of the situation, publishing numerous books and articles devoted to critiquing the doctrine of sola Scriptura. One issue, however, that neither the converts nor the apologists seem to understand is that the doctrine they are critiquing and rejecting is the revisionist doctrine ofsola Scriptura, not the classical Reformation doctrine. In order to understand the difference, some historical context is necessary.

Unknown Artist, "The Great Cloud of Witnesses" (20th Century)

Unknown Artist, “The Great Cloud of Witnesses” (20th Century)

Historical Observations
Part of the difficulty in understanding the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura is due to the fact that the historical debate is often framed simplistically in terms of “Scripture versus tradition.” Protestants are said to teach “Scripture alone,” while Roman Catholics are said to teach “Scripture plus tradition.” This, however, is not an accurate picture of the historical reality. The debate should actually be understood in terms of competing concepts of the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and there are more than two such concepts in the history of the church. In order to understand the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura we must understand the historical context more accurately.

The Reformation debate over sola Scriptura did not occur in a vacuum. It was the continuation of a long-standing medieval debate over the relationship between Scripture and tradition and over the meaning of “tradition” itself. In the first three to four centuries of the church, the church fathers had taught a fairly consistent view of authority. The sole source of divine revelation and the authoritative doctrinal norm was understood to be the Old Testament together with the Apostolic doctrine, which itself had been put into writing in the New Testament. The Scripture was to be interpreted in and by the church within the context of the regula fidei (“rule of faith”), yet neither the church nor the regula fidei were considered second supplementary sources of revelation. The church was the interpreter of the divine revelation in Scripture, and the regula fidei was the hermeneutical context, but only Scripture was the Word of God. Heiko Oberman (1930-2001) has termed this one-source concept of revelation “Tradition 1.”1

The first hints of a two-source concept of tradition, a concept in which tradition is understood to be a second source of revelation that supplements biblical revelation, appeared in the fourth century in the writings of Basil and Augustine. Oberman terms this two-source concept of tradition “Tradition 2” (Professor Oberman had many gifts. The ability to coin catchy labels was apparently not one of them). It is not absolutely certain that either Basil or Augustine actually taught the two-source view, but the fact that it is hinted at in their writings ensured that it would eventually find a foothold in the Middle Ages. This would take time, however, for throughout most of the Middle Ages, the dominant view was Tradition 1, the position of the early church. The beginnings of a strong movement toward Tradition 2 did not begin in earnest until the twelfth century. A turning point was reached in the fourteenth century in the writings of William of Ockham. He was one of the first, if not the first, medieval theologian to embrace explicitly the two-source view of revelation. From the fourteenth century onward, then, we witness the parallel development of two opposing views: Tradition 1 and Tradition 2. It is within the context of this ongoing medieval debate that the Reformation occurred.

When the medieval context is kept in view, the Reformation debate over sola Scriptura becomes much clearer. The reformers did not invent a new doctrine out of whole cloth. They were continuing a debate that had been going on for centuries. They were reasserting Tradition 1 within their particular historical context to combat the results of Tradition 2 within the Roman Catholic Church. The magisterial reformers argued that Scripture was the sole source of revelation, that it is to be interpreted in and by the church, and that it is to be interpreted within the context of the regula fidei. They insisted on returning to the ancient doctrine, and as Tradition 1 became more and more identified with their Protestant cause, Rome reacted by moving toward Tradition 2 and eventually adopting it officially at the Council of Trent. (Rome has since developed a view that Oberman has termed “Tradition 3,” in which the “Magisterium of the moment” is understood to be the one true source of revelation, but that issue is beyond the scope of this brief essay).

At the same time the magisterial reformers were advocating a return to Tradition 1 (sola Scriptura), several radical reformers were calling for the rejection of both Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 and the adoption of a completely new understanding of Scripture and tradition. They argued that Scripture was not merely the only infallible authority but that it was the only authority altogether. The true but subordinate authority of the church and the regula fidei were rejected altogether. According to this view (Tradition 0), there is no real sense in which tradition has any authority. Instead, the individual believer requires nothing more than the Holy Spirit and the Bible.

In America during the eighteenth century, this individualistic view of the radical Reformation was combined with the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the populism of the new democracy to create a radical version of Tradition 0 that has all but supplanted the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura (Tradition 1). This new doctrine, which may be termed “solo” Scriptura instead of sola Scriptura, attacks the rightful subordinate authority of the church and of the ecumenical creeds of the church. Unfortunately, many of its adherents mistakenly believe and teach others that it is the doctrine of Luther and Calvin.

"The true rule is this: God's Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so." (Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, p.15)

“The true rule is this: God’s Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.”
(Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, p.15)

The Reformation Doctrine of Sola Scriptura
To summarize the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, or the Reformation doctrine of the relation between Scripture and tradition, we may say that Scripture is to be understood as the sole source of divine revelation; it is the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative norm of faith and practice. It is to be interpreted in and by the church; and it is to be interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the rule of faith. As Richard Muller observes, the Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura did not ever mean, “all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text.” That this is the Reformation doctrine of Scripture, tradition, and authority may be demonstrated by an examination of the reformers’ writings, only a sampling of which may be mentioned here.

Martin Luther is well known for his declaration at the Diet of Worms: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Many point to this statement as evidence that Luther rejected Tradition 1, the teaching of the early church, but other factors must be considered before coming to such a conclusion, namely, the historical context of this statement and the fact that Luther said and wrote much more on the subject. As simply one example, in a 1532 letter to Duke Albert of Prussia about the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, Luther wrote the following:

This article moreover, has been clearly believed and held from the beginning of the Christian Church to this hour – a testimony of the entire holy Christian Church, which, if we had nothing besides, should be sufficient for us. For it is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything against the united testimony, faith and doctrine, of the entire holy Christian Church, as this hath been held now 1,500 years, from the beginning, unanimously in all the world. Whoso now doubted thereon, it is even the same as though he believed in no Christian Church, and he condemneth thus not only the entire holy Christian Church as a damnable heresy, but also Christ himself and all the apostles and prophets.

The second-generation Lutheran scholar Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), writes along similar lines in his Examination of the Council of Trent:

This is also certain, that no one should rely on his own wisdom in the interpretation of the Scripture, not even in the clear passages…. We also gratefully and reverently use the labors of the fathers who by their commentaries have profitably clarified many passages of the Scripture. And we confess that we are greatly confirmed by the testimonies of the ancient church in the true and sound understanding of the Scripture. Nor do we approve of it if someone invents for himself a meaning which conflicts with all antiquity, and for which there are clearly no testimonies of the church.

Another of the magisterial reformers who addressed this issue was John Calvin. In the 1559 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, for example, he writes:

In this way, we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors-in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen.

And further:

We indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined.

To sum up the traditional Protestant view, the words of the nineteenth-century Reformed theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878) are appropriate:

Again, Protestants admit that as there has been an uninterrupted tradition of truth from the protevangelium to the close of the Apocalypse, so there has been a stream of traditionary teaching flowing through the Christian Church from the day of Pentecost to the present time. This tradition is so far a rule of faith that nothing contrary to it can be true. Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed. They constitute one body, having one common creed. Rejecting that creed, or any of its parts, is the rejection of the fellowship of Christians, incompatible with the communion of saints, or membership in the body of Christ. In other words, Protestants admit that there is a common faith of the Church, which no man is at liberty to reject, and which no man can reject and be a Christian.

hipster

“The reformers’ appeal to ‘Scripture alone,’… was never intended to mean ‘me alone.'”
— Keith A. Mathison

The Revisionist Doctrine of “solo” Scriptura
In contrast with the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, the revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura is marked by radical individualism and a rejection of the authority of the church and the ecumenical creeds. If we compare the statements made by advocates of “solo” Scriptura with the statements of Reformational Christians above, the difference is immediately evident. It is also important to observe the source of this doctrine in early America. As Nathan O. Hatch notes, the first Americans to push the right of private judgment over against the church and the creeds were unorthodox ministers.

The liberal minister Simeon Howard (1733-1804), for example, advised pastors to “lay aside all attachment to human systems, all partiality to names, councils and churches, and honestly inquire, ‘what saith the Scriptures?'” In his own effort to overturn orthodox Christianity, Charles Beecher (1815-1900) denounced “creed power” and argued for “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.” The universalist minister A. B. Grosh (d. 1884) declared in a similar way, “In religious faith we have but one Father and one Master, and the Bible, the Bible, is our only acknowledged creed book.”

The radical American version of “solo” Scriptura reached its fullest expression in the writings of the Restorationists as they applied the principles of Democratic populism to Enlightenment Christianity. In 1809, the Restorationist Elias Smith (1769-1846) proclaimed, “Venture to be as independent in things of religion, as those which respect the government in which you live.” Barton Stone (1772-1844) declared that the past should be “consigned to the rubbish heap upon which Christ was crucified.” Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) made his individualistic view of Scripture very clear, declaring, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them to-day, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.” As the Reformed Princeton theologian Samuel Miller (1769-1850) rightly observed, “the most zealous opposers [of creeds] have generally been latitudinarians and heretics.”

Why “Solo” Scriptura Must Be Rejected
The revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura has become so entrenched in the modern church that many Protestant Christians today will sympathize more with the sentiments of the liberal and sectarian clergymen quoted above than they will with the teaching of the reformers. The doctrine of “solo” Scriptura, however, is as problematic and dangerous today as it was in previous centuries. It remains unbiblical, illogical, and unworkable. Here I will address some of the more obvious problems.

The fundamental problem with “solo” Scriptura is that it results in autonomy. It results in final authority being placed somewhere other than the Word of God. It shares this problem with the Roman Catholic doctrine. The only difference is that the Roman Catholic doctrine places final authority in the church while “solo” Scriptura places final authority in each individual believer. Every doctrine and practice is measured against a final standard, and that final standard is the individual’s personal judgment of what is and is not biblical. The result is subjectivism and relativism. The reformers’ appeal to “Scripture alone,” however, was never intended to mean “me alone.”

The Bible itself simply does not teach “solo” Scriptura Christ established his church with a structure of authority and gives to his church those who are specially appointed to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2-4). When disputes arose, the apostles did not instruct each individual believer to go home and decide by himself and for himself who was right. They met in a council (Acts 15:6-29). Even the well-known example of the Bereans does not support “solo” Scriptura (cf. Acts 17:10-11; cf. vv. 1-9). Paul did not instruct each individual Berean to go home and decide by himself and for himself whether what he was teaching was true. Instead, the Bereans read and studied the Scriptures of the Old Testament day by day with Paul present in order to see whether his teaching about the Messiah was true.

In terms of hermeneutics, the doctrine of “solo” Scriptura is hopeless. With “solo” Scriptura, the interpretation of Scripture becomes subjective and relative, and there is no possibility for the resolution of differences. It is a matter of fact that there are numerous different interpretations of various parts of Scripture. Adherents of “solo” Scriptura are told that these different interpretations can be resolved simply by an appeal to Scripture. But how is the problem of differing interpretations to be resolved by an appeal to another interpretation? All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. The only real question is: whose interpretation? People with differing interpretations of Scripture cannot set a Bible on a table and ask it to resolve their differences. In order for the Scripture to function as an authority, it must be read and interpreted by someone. According to “solo” Scriptura, that someone is each individual, so ultimately, there are as many final authorities as there are human interpreters. This is subjectivism and relativism run amuck. The proponents of “solo” Scriptura rightly condemn the hermeneutical tyranny of Rome, but the solution to hermeneutical tyranny is not hermeneutical anarchy.

The doctrine of “solo” Scriptura also faces historical problems due to the fact that it cannot be reconciled with the reality that existed in the first decades and centuries of the church. If “solo” Scriptura were true, much of the church had no standard of truth for many years. In the first century, one could not walk down to his local Christian bookstore and buy a copy of the Bible. Manuscripts had to be hand-copied and were not found in every believer’s home. The first books of the New Testament did not even begin to be written until at least ten years after the death of Christ, and some were not written until several decades after Christ. Gradually some churches obtained copies of some books, while other churches had copies of others. It took many years before the New Testament as we know it was gathered and available as a whole. Even then, it too was hand-copied, so it was not available in the home of every individual Christian. If the lone individual is to judge and evaluate everything by himself and for himself by measuring it against Scripture, as proponents of “solo” Scriptura would have it, how would this have possibly worked in the first decades of the church before the New Testament was completed?

"Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed." Charles Hodge

“Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed.”
— Charles Hodge (1797-1878)

One of the most self-evident problems related to the doctrine of “solo” Scriptura is the question of the canon. If one is going to claim that Scripture is the only authority whatsoever, it is legitimate to ask how we then define what is and is not “Scripture.” Proponents of“solo” Scriptura claim that Scripture is authoritative but cannot say with any authority what Scripture is. The table of contents in the front of the Bible is not itself an inspired text written by a prophet or an apostle. It is, in a very real sense, a creed of the church declaring what the church believes to be the content of Scripture. One way to illustrate the problem “solo” Scriptura faces in connection with the canon is simply to ask the following: How would “solo” Scriptura deal with a modern day Marcion? How, for example, would a proponent of “solo” Scriptura argue with a person who claimed that the real New Testament includes only the books of Luke, Acts, Romans, and Revelation? He can’t appeal to the church, to history, or to tradition. A self-consistent adherent of “solo Scriptura” would have no way to respond to such a view because, as one such consistent adherent informed me in personal correspondence, it is the right and duty of each individual Christian to determine the canonicity of each biblical book by and for himself. This is the only consistent position for a proponent of “solo” Scriptura to take, but it is self-defeating because it destroys any objective notion of Scripture. One cannot appeal to the biblical authority of Romans, for example, if each believer determines for himself whether Romans is in fact to be considered a canonical and authoritative biblical book.

The question of the canon is not the only theological problem caused by “solo” Scriptura. Another serious problem is the fact that the adoption of “solo” Scriptura destroys the possibility of having any objective definition of what Christianity is and is not. “solo” Scriptura destroys the very concepts of orthodoxy and heresy. If the authority of the ecumenical creeds is rejected, and if each individual believer is to determine all questions of doctrine by and for himself, then the definitions of orthodoxy and heresy are completely relative and subjective. One man judges the doctrine of the Trinity to be biblical. Another deems it unbiblical. One judges open theism biblical. Another deems it unbiblical. The same is true with respect to every other doctrine. Each man defines Christianity as it seems right in his own eyes.

Finally, it must be realized that “solo” Scriptura ignores reality. The Bible simply did not drop out of the sky into our laps. We would not even be able to read a Bible for ourselves were it not for the labors of many others including archaeologists, linguists, scribes, textual critics, historians, translators, and more. If “solo” Scriptura were true, it should be possible to give untranslated ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of biblical, apocryphal, and pseudepigraphal texts to some isolated tribe member somewhere on earth, and with no one’s assistance, that individual should be able to learn the Hebrew and Greek languages, read the various manuscripts, determine which of them are canonical, and then come to an orthodox understanding of the Christian faith. The reason this is not possible, however, is because “solo” Scriptura is not true. It is an unbiblical distortion of the truth.

The revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura has been a source of great damage to the cause of Christ. The magisterial reformers were right to reject the early versions of it that appeared in the teaching of some radicals. Contemporary heirs of the reformers must follow the magisterial reformers here. The fight must be fought on two fronts. We are not only to reject the Roman Catholic doctrine (whether the two-source doctrine of Tradition 2 or the sola ecclesia doctrine of Tradition 3), which places final autonomous authority in the church. We must also reject the revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura, which places final autonomous authority in the hands of each and every individual.

“Communion of Saints” by Elise Ritter (October 2010)

“Communion of Saints” by Elise Ritter (October 2010)


1 For more information on Heiko Oberman’s concept of Tradition 1, see his work The Dawn of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986), p. 280. For background information on Tradition 0, see Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 144. For other background information on “solo” Scriptura see Nathan O. Hatch, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in The Bible in America, ed. N. Hatch and M. Noll, pp. 59-78. The quotation from Richard Muller is taken from his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), p. 51. Luther’s letter to Duke Albert of Prussia is cited in Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1964 [1845]), pp. 116-117, note). Chemnitz’s quote can be found in Examination of the Council of Trent, tr. Fred Kramer, Vol. 1, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971), pp. 208-209. The quotations from Calvin are taken from his Institutes, 4.9.8 and 4.9.13. Mr. Mathison has taken his quotation of Charles Hodge from Hodge’s Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 113-114. Comments from Nathan Hatch on the revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura are taken from “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in The Bible in America, ed. N. Hatch and M. Noll, p. 62. The quotation from Samuel Miller is found in The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions (Greenville, SC: A Press, 1991 [1839]), p. 15. For a fuller discussion on this topic, Mr. Mathison refers readers to his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001).

Keith Mathison

Keith Mathison

About the Author
Keith Mathison is associate editor of Tabletalk and author of The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001).

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2007 edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556 FREE. All rights reserved.

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modernism_header-EDITEDIntroduction When the “I’m A Mormon” ad campaign hit the shores of Australia in 2011, frequent Mormon Expression board commentator Martin Jacobs was prompted to consider it’s message in light of trends he saw emerging in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at that time.  What’s striking is how fresh and relevant his analysis still is today. — Editor

Hi, I’m Zelph and I’m a Modernist
by Martin Jacobs
The tag line “I’m [insert name here], and I’m a Mormon” superbly clinches the current advertising campaign by the Mormons. However, I suggest that the message that it projects is not the gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s not even the gospel of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith; it’s modernism.

“I’m A Mormon” ads in a New York Subway Car

It’s a smart campaign. It aims at normalizing the religion by overcoming perceived stereotypes through the faces of ordinary, likable Mormons. It’s exactly what well-paid and successful PR companies would advise, with good reason; it’s a tried and tested formula for raising the profile of the brand. Put simply, it works.

My objection is not with the delivery, nor even with its modernist message (which has merits of its own within its own frame of reference). My objection is that the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth and his immediate followers, which Mormonism claims to have restored, was not modernist.

I don’t think I have the definitive angle on modernism, or on the species of modernism presented in the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, or even on Christianity, for that matter. However, I do see some profound differences in these competing perspectives, and contrasting them is not simply instructive, it deeply challenges our inherited, modernist sense of self-identity.

In a nutshell, the modernist sees himself as the author of his own story, and it’s a story that starts with his own advent. The ancients, by contrast saw their story as part of a continuum of history stretching back to the creation of the Cosmos, and forward to the end of this age. Both see their lives as a vindication of the respective authors of these stories. To the modernist, that author is himself, but to the ancient Christian, the ultimate author is God.

An

An “I’m A Mormon” billboard in Colorado Springs, Colorado

To contrast the ancient Christian perspective with the modernism that we are so familiar with, consider a curious part of the gospel that was taught by one of Jesus’ immediate followers;

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God (1 John 4:2)

My first observation is that if you find the Bible hard to read, it’s probably because you’re a modernist.

Discovering that you’re a modernist might be something of a revelation to you. You didn’t choose modernism, you didn’t convert to modernism, and you didn’t apostatize from anti-modernism (whatever that may be). Yet, you are a modernist, nonetheless.

Another revelation to you might be that modernism has a history. You probably think that people all through the ages think just like you. However, that’s actually not the case, and the fact that you have assumed it is a tell-tale sign that you are a modernist. Professors of the History of Philosophy put the genesis of modernism around the time of the French Revolution. From there, it took a grip on the Western World, and its fruit is found in you, whether you willed it or not.

Modernism is not simply an optimistic view of what lies ahead. It insists that nobody really knew anything until we arrived on the scene (and by “we” I really mean “I”) and started to call things what they really are.

You've read the article, now read the book.

You’ve read the article, now read the book. (click for details)

The downside of presuming that you are the author of your own story is that it gives you license to re-write the book according to your own agenda, without the inconvenience of checking what happened “in the flesh”, as John puts it.

Hence, the winsome characters in the “I’m a Mormon” campaign appeal to us with the sub-text of “I am Mormonism”. Not what others may have seen as those loony “old school”, ignorant polygamists in the Utah desert, nor those simpletons from a by-gone age following those “old school” prophets bearing revelations that have drifted down from heaven, but me, because I get to determine what Mormonism is, and I am the nice, modern, informed, more evolved guy (or girl) from next door who makes up their own mind as to what and what isn’t Mormonism.

This is most evident in the fact that the “I’m a Mormon” campaign has little time for Joseph Smith, the most important character in the Mormon story. Why? Joseph Smith set the agenda for Mormonism, and Mormonism is stuck with it until it becomes something that is not Mormonism. It appears that those who are driving the campaign want to re-write the book according to the nice guy next door, which is a distinctively modernist thing to do.

An excellent primer on modernity can be found in an interview with Thomas Oden in 1990, who described modernism as the “idolatry of the new”. It is reproduced in a Christianity Today on-line article here. I am particularly struck by the second characteristic of modernism that Oden defines; autonomous individualism, which assumes that moral authority comes essentially from within.

An

An “I’m A Mormon” Billboard in London

It describes “us” more accurately than we’d like to think. How many Disney movies have taught our kids to “trust their heart”? What does contemporary Mormonism teach (along with a plethora of other religions)? If I read John rightly, this make-it-up-according-to-the-dictates-of-your-own-prejudices grates against his warning to base your sense of reality according to what has happened “in the flesh” in history, and it leads us into dangerous territory.

Please hear me carefully here. I’m not arguing that a person’s individual experiences and agenda are unimportant, uninteresting or irrelevant. It would be the height of churlishness and ignorance to dismiss the real stories behind the “I’m a Mormon” campaign as meaningless. They are not, thank God. (No, really, thank God that no human life is worthless and meaningless, even the ones that you and I might not particularly admire).

The problem I have is that the modernist-believer looks inward for signs of God. These signs are consigned to, and validated in the internal world of the believer’s internal psyche. There, they can be manipulated, unlike the signs “in the flesh” of John’s enigmatic diagnostic.

John’s strange comment is not the only Biblical text that tells us to look beyond our own lives and into the “flesh” of God’s public, historic and auditable acts. The Ten Commandments open with a statement of God’s redemption of Israel (Exodus 20:2). Jesus constantly validated what he was doing by appealing to “what was written” (Matthew 4:4 etc). Paul, who was probably the most didactic of New Testament authors, never got round to telling us how we should live our lives without framing it in the context of the history of the Old Testament, and the observed life of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11, for example).

“The Stoning of Stephen” by Gustave Dore’ (1832-1883)

Consider Stephen’s testimony in Acts Chapter 7. He’s on trial, and the words he chooses next will determine if he lives or dies. Does he say something like “I asked Jesus to come into my life, and he made me into a better person”? No. Stephen gives a history lecture to the people holding the rocks. It’s only when the stones are going to fly that Stephen finally tells them what it means to him.

Stephen, like the first Christians and authors of the New Testament, did not evaluate the Gospel of Christ by what it meant to him, but by what God had already done “in the flesh”. It only meant something to him on a personal level because he saw himself as a small, but important component of that history. It was this history that called both him and his interrogators to account.

They didn’t feel comfortable with Stephen’s message of accountability, like modern modernists, and they had more freedom to express their emotional perturbation than us, which they did by killing him. Their moral authority was based firmly on what they saw within themselves, and not on what God had done “in the flesh”, as Stephen forcefully testified.

Contrast this scenario with the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, and it’s focus on the believer. The message of the New Testament, which reliably sets out the important and distinctive ethos and teachings of the first Christians, consistently looks beyond the self of the believer to Jesus Christ, and what he did “in the flesh”. It even does so to the detriment of the believers, who made up its authors and most of its principal players.

If we were serious about “restoring” the ancient Christian Faith, we ought to be mindful of the dominant voices of modernism in our environment that could derail our venture. We ought to be very wary of our (modernist) tendency to validate our chosen religion by the feelings that we experience within our hearts.

Screen shot from the

Screen shot from the “I’m A Mormon” website

The ancient Christian Faith had an entirely different frame of reference. The first Christians validated themselves by what they saw God doing “in the flesh”. Central to their vision was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom they regarded above all else as the tangible, definitive expression of God (see John 1:14, Colossians 1:10, Hebrews 1:1-4).

This expression of God in Christ then set the agenda for their lives (see Philippians 2:5-11) in a way that revolutionized the world. The rest, as they say, is history, and it’s well worth exploring if we want to understand why we are where we are today.

If we were to restore this ancient Christian faith, we would come to a place where we can no longer say “I believe in an [imaginary] Jesus because he has appeared in my heart”, but a place where we affirm that he has appeared “in the flesh”, as John says. Crucially, Christianity looks beyond the self of the believer and this is Good News because Christians have a redeemer who is not dependent on their efforts to make Him “true”.

Nothing you or I will do, say or feel will change this Jesus of the Flesh, contrary to the ‘gospel’ of modernism. God forgive us for ever believing otherwise.

(As originally published on the Mormon Expression Blogs website on November 14, 2011)

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