The Long, Narrow Way
As a junior in college, I felt an irresistible call to devote my life to teaching and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have given my entire adult life (50 years!) to studying the scriptures, the history of the church, and the greatest minds and truest hearts the church has produced. I’ve not always been certain of my views, likely not always correct, and perhaps sometimes not always pure of heart, but as a whole I believe I have sought God’s will. My assumption in all of this is that I am not a latter-day apostle, that I don’t have a right to craft a Christianity that suits me and keeps me in step with the spirit of the times. Hence, I have tried my best to submit my mind to the words of Jesus, the witness of Paul, Peter, James and the rest of Jesus’s chosen apostles.
Furthermore, I am aware that I am not sufficient of myself—my perspective is too narrow, my knowledge is too limited, and my biases too unconscious—to understand the fulness of the faith. I need help from wise men and women from the church past and present. In my search for reliable partners, I have listened to the teaching of Irenaeus of Lyon, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, John Calvin, and hundreds of others. All of them, too, attempted to submit their minds and hearts to the words of Jesus and the teaching of the apostles. And I have profound respect for the tradition shared by these teachers, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. In fact, I consider myself a biblical, catholic, and orthodox Christian.
I have taught Christian doctrine at the university level for 34 years. Chief among my goals has been to ground the next generation of church leaders in this great tradition. In so doing I hoped to free them from slavery to the winds of change and the spirit of the times. I have tried to teach them to be humble, cautious, systematic, and analytical in their efforts to understand the faith and how it applies to the present age.
I say all of this to place in context my profound consternation at how lightly many of my highly educated acquaintances dismiss that apostolic/catholic/orthodox consensus and embrace a “progressive” form of Christianity. They throw over the original apostles and the saints, martyrs, reformers, and doctors of the church to embrace the cultural fads of the last 25 years as a new revelation, a lately-discovered gospel. According to my progressive friends, the man confronted by the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road and chosen by the Lord to be his apostle, the man who personally knew Peter, James, and many other first-generation disciples of Jesus, and author of much of the New Testament, Paul, was wrong about how to live a Christian life, about marriage, family, and sex. He missed the boat on women’s rights and slavery. These modern apostles know more about what Jesus would do than the ones Jesus chose to be his witnesses. All they need to do is keep step with progressive culture as it gradually erases boundary after boundary set by the Creator.
I’m envious of these new apostles. The knowledge and certainty I’ve sought through cautious, painstaking thought, they attained simply by listening to contemporary culture, which knows nothing of the scriptures and possesses no sympathy for the church. Like the ancient Gnostics, these new apostles attain to gnosis (knowledge) instantaneously without reference to the scriptures or tradition. They know everything they need to know about God and true morality from a source within themselves. Only, the ancient Gnostics at least made a pretense of using reason to deduce their quasi-mythical system. The modern Christian Gnostics don’t need reason, for they know the truth directly from their feelings and desires. Personal experience is their teacher. And if they even bother with scripture and tradition, they use their feeling-derived gnosis to judge and correct them. I am envious indeed! Such knowledge is too wonderful for me! Not being an apostle, I have to rely on the apostolic tradition and the wisdom of the church to learn how to live as a Christian.
While I am at it, let me recommend a book. Recently I read Peter M. Burfeind, Gnostic America: A Reading of Contemporary American Culture & Religion According to Christianity’s Oldest Heresy (Pax Domini Press, 2014). Perhaps I will write a full review later, but let me give you a taste of what Burfeind has to offer. Toward the end of the book, in his discussion of the Emerging Church Movement—an early progressive movement within evangelical churches—he charges:
It’s a Christ abstracted from his humanity and his Church once again…a Christ rarefied from his history and ecclesiastical grounding and reunited with the Self. Ultimately it’s a rebellion against created forms, a rejection of them as idolatrous, the very position taken by the Gnostics (Gnostic America, p. 334).
These comments were written nine years ago. They were true then, and nine years later we can see how prophetic they were of developments that followed.