This past week, I had the pleasure of once again appearing on Point of View Radio Talk Show with my good friend, Kerby Anderson. As always, Kerby does an outstanding job of analyzing issues from an intelligent Christian worldview. At issue was the apparent lack of biblical “discernment” among Christians. While there are a multitude of contributing factors to the present state of biblical and theological ignorance, secularism has been a major contributing factor.
I find there is much confusion about secularism-what it is as well as its impact and origin. In terms of what secularism is, that depends. For some, secularism asserts the right to be free from religious rule, and the right to freedom from governmental imposition of religion upon the people. In short, they believe the state should not interfere in matters of religious conscience. This would be closer to the intentions of our Founding Fathers, who sought to protect against the shenanigans of former British kings who wantonly declared their divine rights over the church and above the law. Thus secularism in this sense refers to an appropriate division of church and state, with the authority of the state being strictly limited in matters of religious faith and conduct.
However, in the seventeenth century a much more pernicious secularism appeared that emphasized the complete exclusion of religion from every aspect of public life. As to the cause of this shift, the church need not look to anything other than itself. Following the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and the later Catholic Counter-Reformation, Europe was thrown into political, military, and economic upheaval as nations descended into wars of religion over doctrinal and theological disputes. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) was both an international religious conflict and a German civil war, involving Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic regions and nations. In direct response to theological disagreements, these wars were carried out by the unholy convergence of church and state. By 1700, Europeans had had enough. The resulting carnage, social disintegration, and economic hardships would open Europeans to an “age of reason” over and against their religious past. As Alister McGrath, Christian theologian and Oxford scholar, points out, “The scene was set for the Enlightenment insistence that religion was to be a matter of private belief” (McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, [HarperOne: New York, NY, 2007]).
In Europe, the sacred–secular split would emerge with the intent being to exclude the sacred from any meaningful contribution to public and political life. Human reason would be divorced from faith and elevated above God as the divine quality within men. Men, without reliance upon God, would attempt to rule themselves through reason, science, and technology-the tools of modernity. Faith, they believed, had failed them and the world in which they lived. Thus God, faith, and the supernatural (in the orthodox Christian sense) would be relegated to the past, articles of antiquity representing the world before the age of reason.
Eventually, these ideas would work their way across the Atlantic. For some like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, their effect would be less antagonistic to religion-albeit favorable to deism. The deistic movement would maintain an allowance for god and even some measure of religiosity but the belief in a personal God who remains involved in the daily affairs of men and history would dissipate. For others such as Thomas Paine, himself an anti-Christian deist, the Enlightenment would foster a more radical secularism intent upon the absolute exclusion of religion from the public square. It is this form of secularism that confounds the church today.
While the tendency may be to focus on the secularizing effects of the religious wars of the seventeenth century, the church has and, I believe, continues to suffer in another way. The period leading up to and following the Protestant Reformation was among the most contentious in the history of the church. The debate over competing theological and doctrinal interpretations was so intense precisely because they were perceived to be of utmost importance. To the Christians of that day, the accuracy of the Christian faith was at stake. The questions turned on the very nature of God and man, the nature of salvation, and the source of theological authority. These remain significant questions that few today can answer accurately. It was only the manner and form that the debate took which was in error, not the act of inquiry. There was an earnest and thoughtful wrestling with the things of God-things deemed so important that men and women were willing to die rather than concede to what they perceived as error. One may say that doctrine is and has been divisive, but never say that doctrine is unimportant. This would be an affront to those who were martyred in obedience to their doctrinal convictions.
Without intention and despite more than three hundred years having passed since the religious wars, the church remains reluctant, if not indifferent, to discussing theology and doctrine. As a result, theology and doctrine-the foundations of our faith-have taken a backseat in the daily life and practice of the church. Many churches have simply become atheological and proud of it. We have opted for personal and corporate experiences rather than intellectual rigor and discipleship that may contest one’s personal theological notions. I use the term theological rather loosely here. The facts are, many American Christians either don’t know anything related to historic orthodox Christian theology or they have accumulated a collection of inconsistent notions about God that blend various theological positions into one that best suits them. Either way, the contemporary church suffers severely from this lack of understanding.
It is time, once again, for the church to examine and discuss (reasonably and with love) the fundamentals of our faith as defined and delineated in the historic creeds, confessions, theology, and doctrines that have come down to us through the centuries. This holds the possibility for contentiousness, because once we wade into these waters we discover the importance of theology and its implications for faith and practice. However, it doesn’t have to be ugly and we should work in the spirit of unity, in obedience to Christ (see John 17), to truly know Christ, what we believe and why. This is the work to which I am increasingly committed and I pray other church leaders will take seriously the role of doctrine and theology in making disciples. An atheological church is a confused church and this confusion fosters error and compromise.