What Has Been Will Be Again, There Is Nothing New Under The Sun

Sensing the rumblings of social discontent in the 1870s, as gauged by popular economist Henry George and others, the architects of the social gospel emphasized justice and physical redemption in this present world over spiritual salvation in the life to come. Consequently, they interpreted Christianity in terms of behavior rather than doctrine. They condemned moribund orthodoxy for its impractical talk of binding creeds and standards of faith, while they instead emphasized good deeds and standards of living. In his memoirs, Dean Shailer Mathews of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School contrasted the two competing views of man and redemption. “The older evangelical orthodoxy,” he wrote, “regarded the gospel as the message of forgiveness of sins by virtue of belief in Jesus as the atoning sacrifice. Faith in him was of course to be followed by moral life but the good news of salvation was not primarily moral.” In contrast, the social gospel “was aggressively ethical. It naturally produced moral discontent rather than spiritual complacency.

In order to make the church “aggressively ethical,” the social gospel required that Christianity redefine its theology of man and society. In The Gospel and the Modern Man of 1910, Shailer Mathews argued for the new solidaristic view of man in society. Mathews believed that social consciousness had become an inseparable part of the modern mind, a mind guided by a sense of historical process, the immanence of God in human events, and the empirical basis of truth. He further argued that the condition of the social order itself would determine the agenda of “really vital religious issues” facing the contemporary church. This new solidarity meant that both sin and salvation, historically matters of supreme importance for the individual, were now social concepts. For Mathews, the new perspective—like the growing ideal of “service”—was attributable to historical development; society was moving inexorably from individualism toward collectivism, changing the very definition of sin. “As civilization develops,” he wrote, “”sin grows corporate. We sin socially by violating social rather than individualistic personal relations.

Richard M. Gamble, The War for Righteousness (pgs. 60-61)

The spirit of historical-theological revisionism of Shailer Mathews more or less lives on in Bloomington, IN. where so-called “Gap Issues” have allegedly forced the accent of sin to be placed on social rather than personal conditions. Evidently, something like the doctrine of justification—how men and women are right with God—has been eclipsed in importance in our day and what is instead needed is a doctrine of man: 

In battle, the breach in the wall is the point at which the enemy has concentrated his attack and has gained a foothold. Faithful soldiers flock to the gap, ready to stand firm and defend the fortress while cowards flee. In the days of Athanasius, the battle raged over the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ. While others fled, Athanasius stood in the gap and contended for the faith. In the days of Augustine, the gap issue was original sin. While the world followed after Pelagius, Augustine relentlessly contended for the truth. In the time of the Reformation, men like Calvin and Luther contended with the Roman Catholic Church for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And in the time of Machen, the battle was engaged over the authority and inspiration of Scripture.

Each of these conflicts arose from pervasive, demonic heresy inside the Church—that is, from among God’s own people. And God used each of these conflicts to purify His Church and to clarify what the Bible teaches. That this kind of attack is constantly coming from inside the church should be no surprise to us, as the Apostle Paul warned the elders at Ephesus:

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Acts 20:28-30, NAS95.

Heeding the Apostle Paul’s warning, each of these men recognized the points where God’s enemies were attacking His truth and they were faithful to contend for the faith. In their day, they stood alone—abandoned and ostracized. We are called to nothing less. If we are to follow in their footsteps, we must not pretend that there are no more savage wolves among the flock, or men in the church speaking perverse things.

Today the church is facing an attack on the doctrine of man. It is a subtle attack, and it has crept into the church virtually unnoticed. This makes it particularly dangerous. Many souls have been led astray by false teachers in our midst. Therefore, anyone who desires to be a faithful shepherd of God’s flock must publicly stand and fight for the truth of this doctrine.

God has inextricably bound our understanding of ourselves with our understanding of Him. As such, we can’t understand one without understanding the other. As John Calvin observes, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

For this reason, the doctrine of man is central to the Christian faith. Failing to understand it destroys our ability to see the connection between who God is and who He made us to be. This, in turn, distorts our understanding of how we are to relate to one another. In other words, if we lose the doctrine of man, we also end up losing both the doctrine of God and all practical Christian obedience.

Because the doctrine of man bears on almost every major issue in the church, it has massive implications concerning what our practice teaches the watching world about God. Consider the relevance of the following issues:

1. Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia. From the point of conception—that is, the point of fertilization—man is given the honor of bearing God’s image and this distinguishes us from all other parts of God’s creation. In other words, man is not endowed with humanity by virtue of his mental or physical capacities, but ontologically—by virtue of his being. For this reason, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are all forms of murder. And murder in all its forms, is an assault on God Himself.
2. Fornication, Adultery, and Divorce. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, He blessed them with a mysterious one-flesh union. This union was intended from the very beginning to be a picture showing us the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church. This is why fornication, adultery, and divorce are so heinous. They are not merely sins against others. They are blasphemous lies about Jesus and the covenant relationship He shares with the Church.
3. Headship and Submission. The relationship between a man and his wife is to be a reflection of Christ’s relationship with His Church. Scripture commands husbands to love, provide for, protect, and lay their lives down for their wives. Similarly, wives are commanded to honor, respect, and obey their husbands. None of this is optional. It is fundamental Christian obedience that is explicitly commanded in Scripture and flows directly from the gospel. If we reject these commands, we are despising Jesus, His sacrificial love for His Bride, and the Church’s response of honor, respect, and submission to Christ.
4. Fatherhood and Fatherlessness. When God made Adam, He imprinted on him the nature of His own perfect Fatherhood. God, our true Father, rules over his creation with all authority and with tender care. For men, this imprint of divine Fatherhood comes with both authority and responsibility in every realm of human existence. And just as husbands who refuse to love their wives lie about Christ’s love for the church, men who refuse to be godly fathers lie about God the Father. The lack of godly fathers in Christian homes and in the church has left us with a culture of orphans and illegitimate children struggling to understand God’s fatherly goodness.
5. Sexuality. God exists in three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—distinct in their personhood, one in nature, and fulfilling different functions. From the beginning, God made man male and female. There is a reason why God did not give Adam a dog or another man for his helper. Somehow, this is a reflection of God’s relationship with Himself in Trinity. God made Eve from Adam’s flesh, and He made her with corresponding parts and corresponding abilities. More than that, God gave them each distinct responsibilities that are based on their sex. This means that sexuality is biological in nature—it is not a function of societal constructs, but a function of God’s good creation. And so it is also meant to teach us about God. All ways of rejecting this basic reality of human existence—sodomy, lesbianism, transsexuality, bisexuality, bestiality—fundamentally deny what it means to be created “male and female”, and consequently, what it means to be made in God’s image.
6. Fruitfulness and Contraception. When God made Adam and Eve, He commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply.” In the same way that God, from the abundance of His love, created the earth, mankind was intended to procreate. This is one of the primary reasons that God gave us the gift of sex. This becomes more evident when we look at the relationship between Jesus and the Church: the “fruit” of their love is spiritual children. This does not mean that contraception is always and necessarily wrong in all circumstances, but it does teach us that contrary to popular opinion, children are the fruit of a loving and healthy marriage and a blessing from God that we are commanded to seek.
7.When God made man in His own image He wrote deep and profound truths about who He is into our very nature. When He wrote Fatherhood into Adam’s nature, He wrote of Himself. When He made Adam and Eve in the Garden, He wrote mysteries into their relationship that are really about who He is, how He relates to Himself, and how He relates to His people. When He held Adam accountable for the sin in the Garden and punished mankind in Adam as our federal head, He laid the foundation for the work of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, in whom we find redemption, the forgiveness of sins. And when God made man male and female, He defined the most basic category of human existence: our sexuality. We process everything we do (consciously or unconsciously) through our sexuality, including how we are to obey God. Without the doctrine of man, we have no gospel.

Unfortunately, in our day we have cultivated a willful blindness to the connections between the doctrine of man, Christian obedience, and the doctrine of God. And not content to be blind ourselves, we have even changed our Bible translations to hide these truths from others. We have made peace with Satan and the world. But there is no peace. This blindness is destroying our churches, our families, and our culture.

The church today needs faithful men who will stand firmly on the biblical doctrine of man, contending for the faith—men who, as the fathers and husbands God created them to be, will rise up to protect the souls that are being led astray. This is the breach in the wall.

To boot, is it any wonder, then, that ClearNote Non-Denom (previously Good Shepherd Presbyterian) takes a decidedly latitudinarian stance on that aspect of creedal Christianity that has a great tendency to divide, namely baptismal sacramentology? But in moralistic cultural Christianity’s worldview what is vital that the church push back not on sacramental latitudinarianism but on social egalitarianism. When some culturalists want men to know that the world is flat, other worldviewists wants women to know their place. Sacramentology has a penchant for distraction and simply gets in the way of such a project. Hence:

Baptism was instituted by our Lord. It is a Sacrament of the Church marking those who are members of the New Covenant community. Like the other Biblical Sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism does nothing by itself. Saving faith is necessary for us to receive grace through this visible sign. This much we are agreed upon with Reformed Protestant brothers down through the centuries.

However, Protestants have been divided over the proper time and mode of Baptism. Concerning time, a compelling Biblical case can be made for baptizing only those adults who make a credible profession of faith. But a compelling Biblical case can also be made for baptizing the believer’s children. Some of the most respected fathers of the Church have stood on opposite sides of this debate. Martin Luther and John Calvin believed children of believers should be baptized. John Bunyan and Charles Spurgeon believed only adult believers should be baptized.

Concerning the proper mode of Baptism (how and where the water is applied), Scripture is silent. Recognizing how divisive these issues have been across Church history, we are committed not to divide over them.

It is not unusual for those who conceive themselves as “conservative” to balk at the idea that they carry on the grand liberal tradition of applied Christianity. Perhaps it is applied in a rightist direction, but that doesn’t make it any less liberal.

This entry was posted in Applied Christianity, ClearNote Fellowship, Culture War, Richard Gamble, Social Gospel. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to What Has Been Will Be Again, There Is Nothing New Under The Sun

  1. Joseph Bayly says:

    It doesn’t matter how loud you yell it, Abortion, Infanticide, Euthanasia, Fornication, Adultery, Divorce, are personal sins, not social or political problems.

  2. Pooka says:

    I can only comment that Christianity made no sense to me until I understood that the whole point was found in doctrine not do-octrine. When I believed a proposition, it all started to fall into place, fast. And it’s still coming together, like a time-lapse video of building a Lego castle. The more I look at it, the less I’ve done and the more the creeds, confessions and doctrine have done.

  3. Zrim says:

    Joseph, if that’s true then how do you explain “A Sermon for the President“? Talk about politicizing personal sins and bully pulpiteering.

  4. Paul M. says:

    What if the via media is that they’re *both*?

  5. Zrim says:

    Paul, then the via media makes things safe for social and political gospel. But I don’t see how the spirituality of the church can co-exist with social gospel anymore than Calvinism can with Arminianism. The via media is the ecclesiastical version of the soteriological phenomenon of “Calminianism.”

  6. dgh says:

    Zrim, now that the Baylys have left Presbyterianism, will they land in Rome? After all, Rome stands on the right side of all those “gap” issues (though they look more “wedge” than “gap” to me).

  7. Zrim says:

    Darryl, that would seem to make sense. But since Rome is all ecclesia, the deliberate move away from ecclesiastical Protestantism to low-church evangelicalism would seem to suggest they won’t be swimming the Tiber any time soon. Maybe just Evangelical and Catholics Together or The Manhattan Declaration will suffice for them?

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