STUDY ELEVEN: ANTI-SUPERNATURALISM IN THE CHURCH
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2015
The isms we have studied so far are ideas that have developed outside the church. While they have impacted the church and individual Christians they have been secular ideas that in their essence made no claim to be Christian. We move now to teachings that have arisen in the Christian church from the inside. Some of these obviously result from the impact and ideas of secular philosophies, as people within the church embraced and tried to accommodate and adapt concepts about the Bible and concepts in the Bible to the predominant secular views.
Under the influence of humanism and evolutionary science what became known as ‘modernism’ and ‘liberalism’ developed in some areas of theology. In an attempt to make Christianity more attractive and palatable to the world the concept of the Bible as the inerrant, supernaturally-given word of God was replaced by the concept of the Bible as a fallible human book. From that starting point of liberalism in the theological halls of Germany in the1800’s the church has never really recovered.
A. THE ‘FAMILY TREE’ OF LIBERAL THEOLOGY
Even before the dominance of secular humanism and evolution there were theological ideas abroad that tied in easily with these two concepts, and facilitated the powerful and destructive rise of liberal theology.
The Enlightenment: In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Emphasised free will, human reason, the goodness and perfectibility of human nature, and human ability to make progress in all things, including religion. Applied methods of rational inquiry to religion and ethics.
Romanticism: stressed necessity for feeling and intuition in human life.
Schleiermacher: [c1768 - 1834] - “father of liberal theology” – doubted the authenticity of the synoptic gospels; pioneered scepticism about the historicity of the Scriptures; taught that religion describes internal religious experiences; it does not define external religious truth; religion is based on feeling, not knowledge or morality. ‘Self-consciousness’ determines what one will do with the three basic themes of God, self and the world. Sin is blocking the ‘God-consciousness’; the pinnacle of religion is to surrender oneself to the universe. Essence of religion is not revelation outside of oneself but feeling inside of oneself – a feeling of absolute dependence on God brought about by an extreme self-consciousness. Religion changes with time and circumstance.
Hegel: [c1770 – 1831] – rejected the idea of thesis and antithesis as two irreconcilable opposites, and proposed concept of synthesis by which the two could co-exist as equal truths. Influenced Darwin and Marx.
Soren Kierkegaard: [1813 – 1855] – father of existentialism (which we will study later); introduced concept of a ‘leap of faith’ – faith not based on the intellect, reality and reason, and with no guarantee of fulfilment.
Ritschl: [c1822 – 1889] – emphasized love of God to all; rejected divine wrath and justice; sin and grace reduced in meaning.
Brunner: [1889 – 1966] - Brunner taught that the Bible is full of human error; denied the physical resurrection and bodily ascension of Jesus; denied that Christ had two natures; taught that we know God by personal experience, and that experience, not Scripture, authenticates our knowledge of Christ.
Bultmann: [1884 – 1976]: - tried to ‘demythologize’ the Bible; believed we can know next to nothing of the life of Jesus. Bible is about people rather than God.
Discuss the above background factors. Which would seem to have the greatest impact in undermining confidence in the Bible as the inspired, inerrant word of God?
Method of approach to Scripture: [these summaries are from a website no longer on line]
Higher Criticism: ‘Critique of the Bible first appearing in the late-1800's, and based on naturalistic and modernistic presuppositions. Anything supernatural being perceived as a mythical element in Scripture requiring a cultural or natural explanation. The agenda of the so-called "Higher Criticism" is to de-mythicize the Bible by casting doubt on its authenticity. This most often being attempted by
(a) making its authorship seem later than it is, and (b) attributing to it varied and improbable authors.’
Form Criticism: ‘Examination of Scripture seeking to discern meaning by dividing the Bible into units based upon the "form" or genre of each. Form Criticism became popular in the early-1900. It presupposes that Scripture was transmitted orally for extended periods prior to being committed to writing. By analysing the various "motif elements" in a form unit, it is thought that the Bible can be understood as a "developing tradition" rather than discrete divine revelation.’
Redaction Criticism: ‘Examination of Scripture seeking to discern the meaning and significance of the Bible through the ways it has been edited and changed over time. Presupposes that God's Word is a mere tradition manipulated over the centuries by men.’
Historical-critical method: ‘Hermeneutic in which Scripture is analysed from the perspective of textual criticism, form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, and historical criticism. A hermeneutic utilized by unbelieving "scholars" as a tool to question the validity and inspiration of the Bible.
Frequently denies the traditional authorship and dating of books of the Scriptures, alleges that Biblical passages have been altered or corrupted or outright fabricated, and presumes much of God's Word is culturally conditioned rather than divinely inspired!’
Discuss the above approaches to the Scripture. Write a description of the nature and trustworthiness of the Bible that would result from accepting all of these approaches.
Related secular ideologies:
Secular Humanism: rejected concept of God as a supernatural; man the centre and measure of all things.
Philosophical Materialism and Naturalism: Physical reality is all that there is. No ‘supernatural’ therefore Bible just a human book.
Evolution: No god. Implications: accuracy of Biblical records denied; Bible reduced to a human and fallible book.
B. COMMENTS FROM SCHAEFFER
B.1 On the impact of the Enlightenment on theology
‘In general (the Enlightenment) was an intellectual movement which emphasized the sufficiency of human reason and scepticism concerning the validity of the traditional authority of the past. [Schaeffer then quotes from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church]:
“The Enlightenment combines opposition to all supernatural religion and belief in the all-sufficiency of human reason with an ardent desire to promote the happiness of man in this life…. Most of its representatives … rejected the Christian dogma and were hostile to Catholicism as well as Protestant orthodoxy, which they regarded as powers of spiritual darkness depriving humanity of the use of its rational faculties … Their fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature, which blinded them to the fact of sin, produced an easy optimism and absolute faith of human society once the principles of enlightened reason had been recognized. The spirit of the Enlightenment penetrated deeply into German Protestantism [in the 19th century], where it disintegrated faith in the authority of the Bible and encouraged Biblical criticism on the one hand and an emotional “Pietism” on the other.”
Schaeffer continues: ‘This could be summarized in a few words: The central ideas of the Enlightenment stand in complete antithesis to the Christian truth. More than this, they are an attack on God himself and his character. In the late nineteenth century it was these ideas which began to radically transform Christianity in America. This started especially with the acceptance of the “higher critical” methods that had been developed in Germany. Using these methods, the new liberal theologians completely undercut the authority of Scripture. …. Despite the efforts of (men who held the full inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture) those holding the liberal ideas of the enlightenment and the destructive methods of biblical criticism came into power and control in the denominations and the battle was all but lost.” [Vol 4:p317,318 – The Great Evangelical Disaster]
C. WHAT DOES LIBERALISM TEACH?
Apart from denying that the Bible is the absolute and inerrant word of God, a denial that impacts all other aspects of faith, liberalism eliminates the supernatural elements from the Christian faith:
Miracles are explained away by physical or psychological causes
Deity of Christ denied
Virgin birth and literal, physical resurrection denied
Jesus was killed because of his humanitarian efforts and did not rise physically
Optimism about the goodness and perfectibility of mankind
Mankind is evolving spiritually
Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man is the ultimate goal
Salvation is of society not of individuals
Much of the gospels is eliminated as later constructions; they are not accurate, historical records
The second ‘coming of Christ’ is not a literal return of the person, Jesus Christ, but an era in human history where the ‘will and principles’ of Christ will be implemented by humans on earth.
D. HOW HAS THE CHURCH RESPONDED TO LIBERALISM?
Liberal theology impacted the major protestant denominations [and also Catholicism] during the first half of the 20th century, dividing denominations and churches, decimating the faith of many, and, for many, reducing Christianity to a ‘social gospel’ and the Bible to a fallible human book. This impact was extremely widespread. It was not that the ordinary people suddenly changed their opinions, but that the men being trained in the theological schools and seminaries were taught these ideas and then they in turn taught them to their congregations. Apart from leaving the old churches and/or denominations and starting new ones there was nothing much that the people in the pews who realized the errors of this theology could do.
Between 1910 and 1915, a group of men seeking to uphold the historic view of the Bible published a series of volumes called the ‘The Fundamentals’ in which they affirmed the fundamental doctrines that have been held right through the history of the Christian faith. These fundamentals included five essential truths:
1. the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible
2. the deity of Christ and his virgin birth
3. the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death
4. the literal resurrection of Christ from the dead
5. the literal return of Christ.
Also included in The Fundamentals were the doctrines of the Trinity, justification by faith alone, and the necessity of sanctification.
The men who proposed these ‘fundamentals’, and those who continued to believe in these fundamentals became known as ‘fundamentalists’. From a Biblical viewpoint, it is a good thing to be, but from the viewpoint of those who oppose the concepts of the Bible as inspired and inerrant, ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘fundamentalism’ are terms of contempt.
Discuss the extreme significance of each of the above five ‘fundamentals’.
What would be the impact of denying each? What would be left to believe in?
 Inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible
 Deity of Christ and his virgin birth
 Substitutionary atonement through the death of Christ
 Literal resurrection of Christ from the dead
 Literal return of Christ
John MacArthur comments:
‘… the early fundamentalists used sound doctrine to defend true Christianity – against the liberals, who insisted that the only issues that really mattered were practical, not theoretical. A well-worn liberal slogan was “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine”. The fundamentalists correctly argued that true Christianity is a doctrine that affects all of life.
‘So in contrast to those who were willing to enlarge the designation “Christian” to embrace the broadest possible spectrum of beliefs, the fundamentalists sought to identify the core of objective truth that was absolute and non-negotiable. That body of sound doctrine, they claimed, is the very foundation of all genuine Christianity. Every brand of religion that rejected the fundamentals was regarded as pseudo-Christian or non-Christian.’ [p94,95, Reckless Faith]
Concerning the practical success of the fundamentalists, MacArthur records:
‘Fundamentalists were not able to recover most of the mainline denominations from encroaching liberalism. But they did manage to establish new schools, new denominations, and new churches faithful to historic biblical truth. Those institutions have enjoyed a century of vigorous growth and spiritual influence while mainline denominational churches have suffered severe decline.
‘Sadly, however, the fundamentalist movement began to unravel almost as soon as it had experienced its initial successes. One wing of fundamentalism, desperate for academic respectability, could not resist the pluralism of the modern age. Schools that had been founded to counter theological liberalism were overexposed to liberal theology and began to compromise on the issue of biblical inerrancy, capitulating at the very point where early fundamentalism had taken its strongest stand.’ [p95]
‘The polemical spirit of early fundamentalism is all but dead. Modern evangelicals are too willing to downplay doctrine … many today are perfectly agreeable to the suggestion that true Christianity ought to be broad enough to accommodate widely differing – even contradictory – belief systems. Many evangelicals are seeking to forge spiritual alliances with Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, charismatic extremists, and even rank liberals – without regard to the fundamental doctrinal differences.’ [ibid p96]
Schaeffer points out that just as the theologians of the late nineteenth century accommodated theology to the then contemporary humanism and evolutionary science, so evangelicalism today is accommodating the spirit of the age in matters of truth and morality. He wrote:
‘First, there has been accommodation on Scripture, so that many who call themselves evangelicals hold a weakened view of the Bible and no longer affirm the truth of all the Bible teaches – truth not only in religious matters but in the areas of science and history and morality. As part of this, many evangelicals are now accepting the higher critical methods in the study of the Bible. Remember, it was these same methods which destroyed the authority of the Bible for the Protestant church in Germany in the last [19th] century, and which have destroyed the Bible for the liberal in our own country from the beginning of this [20th] century. And second, there has been accommodation on the issues, with no clear stand being taken even on matters of life and death.’ [p320,321 -ibid]
Discuss each of the factors below that have resulted from the acceptance of liberal ideas in contemporary evangelical churches. Include reference to actual examples of each. Suggest ways in which you could encourage a return to confidence in the Bible as God’s infallible Word.
 Reduced confidence in the Bible
 Bible seen to contain mistakes
 No concept of objective, absolute truth
 Inner personal feelings or ‘inner witness’ replaces the Bible as the criteria for belief content and morality
 Bible is seen as relative and ‘culturally oriented’ rather than absolute. Because of this the Bible is bent to conform to contemporary culture, rather than allowed to stand in judgment over contemporary culture.