Pastor Stephen Feinstein
Over the last few weeks, I have been summarizing Francis Schaeffer’s Christian Worldview series. We have seen that Western Civilization has fallen below the line of despair, and it happened in this order: 1) philosophy, 2) art, 3) music, 4) general culture, and 5) theology. Today, I will explain how theology eventually fell below the line.
If we looked at all of the non-orthodox and errant schools of theology individually, we would find a great deal of diversity in terms of thought and belief. Therefore, Schaeffer realized it makes more sense to focus on the single factor that unifies the errant theologies that live below the line. In so doing, he noticed something similar to the other disciplines. Within theology, there previously existed an optimistic attitude toward humanism and rational thought. This optimism was undoubtedly birthed by the Enlightenment Era. And this optimism was later followed by a thinker who served as the doorway to the line of despair. And afterward, those who followed entered the doorway and traveled below the line of despair.
Remember, the line of despair refers to the belief by most people that there are no real absolutes, especially with regard to truth. In fact, truth as a concept is divided between rationalism and faith. Rationalism and science are seen as objective, but abstract concepts like truth, justice, right, wrong, etc., are taken off a leap of faith because there is no real or absolute meaning to anything. Those who think like this are thinking below the line of despair.
So how could theologians descend below this line? How could there be a doorway from within our camp to this? How could we end up with liberal theology and Neo-Orthodoxy (this will be explained shortly)? And how could have the field of theology descended to the awful point that we see today where “Christian” theologians hold to an embarrassing amount of variety on key theological issues? Today on the subjects ofgay marriage, abortion, the theory of evolution, original sin, human nature, salvation, the person of Christ, etc., there is far too much disagreement within the umbrella of Christianity and the historic denominations. This diversity demonstrates that far too many Christians view truth exactly as the world does; as a matter of synthesis. Apparently, truth is a melting pot of whatever we want to throw together. This is not right. Truth exists, and it exists absolutely. In fact, the truth is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:6).
So how did it come to this? Well, let’s first look at the doorway. But before we do that, first let me say that those who traveled below the line were never part of orthodox Christianity in the first place. They were people who accepted the Enlightenment rejection of biblical truth. They believed the Bible had errors and was scientifically inaccurate. They believed science and reason were where truth and progress were to be found. They accepted the “closed-universe” model, which teaches that the universe is a closed system that operates off of unchanging predictable laws. In a closed universe, miracles are not possible. If there is a God, He would have no power to alter, change, or break these laws of nature. From this assumption, the theologians moved toward liberalism. When they said the Bible was filled with errors, what they meant was that since it contained miraculous events in it, it must not be true. This was not the result of investigation, but instead it was the natural conclusion to the ASSUMPTION of a closed-universe.
The Bible holds to the open-universe model, which means since God is the creator of the universe, He is sovereign over it. As such, He can alter, change, or break the laws of nature whenever He sees fit. He can raise people from the dead. He can split
He can send ten plagues onto Egypt.
He can do any of the things mentioned in Scripture. This is quite logical. If
by mere words He spoke the universe into existence, then it would be far easier
for Him to do miracles within that world He created. Unfortunately, these
theologians rejected this, and instead followed the lead of the Enlightenment
philosophers. Their goal was to find out what really happened in the biblical
narratives. They searched for the historical Jesus. After a century and a half
of failing at this, they were ready to give up their optimism just as the other
disciplines did. They were ready to enter the doorway that was previously
opened by philosophy.
However, it is fair to note as I did with the philosophers, that a choice was before them. When their Naturalistic theology failed, there were two possibilities for them to choose from. They could either throw away their Naturalistic assumptions of a closed-universe and surrender to the biblical theology of the Reformation, or they could embrace the nihilistic assumptions of no absolutes. I am sure you can guess which choice they made. Just the like philosophers should have abandoned their atheistic assumptions rather than absolutes, the liberal theologians should have abandoned their naturalistic views rather than biblical theology. Well, what the theologians did is they attempted to create a third way, very similar to the philosophers. They agreed with Kierkegaard that a leap of faith is necessary. They agreed that truth is separated into rational and non-rational categories. They believed solid fact belonged in the rational category (the sciences) and that anything else is in the non-rational category and simply amounts to whatever a person wants to believe. This is the leap of faith. There is no true objective meaning, but we can define our own meaning and it will be “real” to us. Theologians bought into this, and thus traveled below the line of despair.
Kierkegaard was the doorway by dividing truth into rational and non-rational categories. Kierkegaard himself was religious and thus from him existential religion was born. However, the theologians were decades behind in terms of accepting his view. They still clung to the Naturalistic optimism of the Enlightenment. The philosophers, however, jumped on this idea quickly and created their atheistic existential ideas that influenced art, music, and the general culture. Afterwards, liberal theologians would jump on the bandwagon. The door had been opened for sometime, and as the secular existentialism savaged the old romanticism in all of the secular disciplines, liberal theologians were getting weaker and weaker in their optimistic commitments. All it took was for one theologian at the right time to push theology below the line of despair.
That theologian was Karl Barth (1886-1968), the founder of Neo-Orthodoxy (though he did not like this label). Barth sought to defend many of the orthodoxdoctrines of Christianity, but he did so in a way that cost us much. He rejected the old liberalism and argued in favor of many of the Reformed doctrines. This was great. It was necessary that the old liberalism be destroyed in the seminaries. However, Barth’s understanding of the nature of truth caused him to reject the inerrancy of Scripture. He believed the Bible did have errors, both scientifically and historically. To Barth, the Word of God is Jesus Christ alone. It is true that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, but true orthodoxy also believes that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Barth’s rejection of this was quite costly. He was forced to separate religious faith from the rational fields of study. Secularists were fine with this since it would keep Christian doctrine out of their universities. In a sense, this way of thinking reinforced the idea that theology itself is a non-rational and unnecessary subject. It has no place with the sciences or social sciences. It allowed for Christians to happily believe the doctrines of the Bible and live in our own bubble where we define our own meaning for ourselves based on the Bible. This is how the unbelieving elites see us.
Barth’s intentions may have been good, but his commitment to synthesis and his agreement with Kierkegaard pushed theology below the line of despair. Many men, far less orthodox, came after him. Furthermore, the New Liberalism movement emerged in the 1930s, and those below the line were ripe to fall into it. We who are orthodox have been dealing with this ever since. This is the consequence of professing Christians denying that the God of the Bible is the grand unifying theory. Those who do this separate theology from science, and see no unity between the two. Politically and socially the consequences are obvious.
The unbelieving world definitely agrees with this development in theology. They want us to keep our faith out of politics and education. I remembered watching Ray Comfort debate the hosts of the Atheist Experience TV show, and he asked them why they cared if he believed what the Bible teaches. One of the hosts answered that he cares when Christians bring their faith into the public sphere and use their beliefs to prohibit certain groups from marrying. It was clear he was referencing gay marriage. This host awarded himself the position to declare what beliefs are acceptable for public life and which ones are not. On the one hand I wanted to call into the show and demonstrate to him his hypocrisy. But on the other hand, I also realized that Christians brought this on themselves. By agreeing to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, and then allowing for decades of secularization of public life without putting up a fight, we are left in a situation where unbelievers uncritically accept the idea that religious people are to keep their beliefs private.
Had orthodox theologians pushed the antithesis from the beginning and demonstrated the total irrationality of atheism and existential thinking, this could have been avoided. Had Christians lived Christ-centered lives where the Christian worldview informs all parts of their lives, then we would have resisted the move below the line of despair. Instead, most Christians have bought into it. Most Christians compartmentalize Christ and simply add Him to the other parts of their lives. This is wrong. He is the center of our life, the single unifying factor that ties all aspects of us together.
So what are we to do? Christians, place Christ at the center, stand up for antithesis rather than synthesis, and let’s push back against the world. They are hopeless, meaningless, and contradictory in their thinking. We have the truth. We have the gospel. May we go forth in a thunderous march and proclaim God’s truth to this hopeless and broken world!