The Validity & Value of Confessions

The tensions were high. In June of 1922, the Northern Baptist Convention convened under the theme, “Agreed to Differ, but Resolved to Love.” One might dispute whether the resolution was successfully carried out. But no one will debate that they “agreed to differ.” The tensions were high. Continue reading “The Validity & Value of Confessions”

Dr. Bob Gonzales on the Validity and Value of Confessions

To continue the theme begun by Jeff Johnson regarding the importance and necessity of confessions (here and here), I would like to bring to your attention some articles by Bob Gonzales at his new blog, It Is Written, where he has been writing a series of posts on the validity and value of confessions. There are three:

1) The Validity & Value of Confessions: Defining Terms

Bob reworks Philip Schaff’s definition of a creed and offers this modified definition:

A creed or a confession of faith is the church’s doctrinal standard in written form, identifying and expounding those doctrines of Scripture that are essential for salvation, as well as those doctrines of Scripture that are necessary for the spiritual well-being of the Christian and of the church.

Sounds good to me!

2) The Validity & Value of Confessions: Biblical Basis

After stressing the importance of our publicly confessing our faith, based upon such passages as Matt. 10:32-33 and Romans 10:9-10, Bob states:

How does this square with the claim that faith and religion are personal and private matters? Many people today, especially politicians, claim to have faith and religion; yet they studiously avoid any public affirmation of what that means. Contrary to this practice, the Bible calls God’s people to confess their faith unashamedly and publicly. This is precisely what we do by publishing and affirming a written confession of faith. We are proclaiming to the world and to one another both the reality and the substance of what we believe.

Bob establishes three points summarized by him thusly:

To summarize, a confession of faith is valid because (1) the Bible commands the public affirmation of our faith, (2) the Bible commends the interpretation and application of Scripture, and (3) the Bible contains seminal creeds and confessions of faith. Far from discouraging creeds, the Bible validates their composition and use.

These points are based firmly upon a Scriptural foundation and are clearly and succinctly argued.

3) The Validity & Value of Confessions: Objections Answered

In this post Bob responds to three common objections to the use of creeds or confessions: 1. “Confessions undermine the authority of Scripture.” 2. “Confessions contradict the sufficiency of Scripture.” 3. “Confessions intrude upon liberty of conscience.”

After responding to each objection, Bob rightly concludes that “a public confession of biblical truth in the form of a creed need not in principle undermine the authority of God’s Word, contradict the sufficiency of Scripture, or infringe upon liberty of conscience.”

I highly recommend reading this brief but thorough series, and I hope I have whet your appetite to do so. Together with what Jeff has written on our blog, I think you will be well prepared to defend the necessity of the appropriate use of confessions by the churches even in – or perhaps especially in – our pluralistic and relativistic age.

Update 05 October 2011

Bob has added another post in the series:

4) The Validity & Value of Confessions: Their Usefulness

In this post Bob offers three primary reasons for the usefulness of confessions: 1. “A Confession Provides a Standard for Intra- and Inter-Church Fellowship.” 2. “A Confession Provides a Standard for Church Discipline and for Defending the Faith.” 3. “A Confession Provides a Summary of Biblical Doctrine for Evangelism and Education.”

Countering Anti-confessionalism – Part 2

Part 1, which dealt with the nature of mysticism and its introduction into Christianity, was posted last week here. This post concludes the two part series.

The Introduction of Existentialism into Christianity

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the Father of Modern Liberal Theology, sought to reconcile postmodernism (the ineffable nature of ultimate reality) with Christianity. Schleiermacher reasoned that if knowledge of ultimate reality (God) is locked behind a transcendental wall, then the Bible could not have had a divine or supernatural origin. Consequently, Schleiermacher denied the supernatural elements of the Scriptures. Once he removed the inspiration of Scripture, Schleiermacher did away with the miracles as well. According to Schleiermacher, because the Bible is uninspired, it is fallible. In the process, Schleiermacher became one of the major contributors of Higher Criticism, which flowed out of Germany in his day.

The Higher Criticism of Schleiermacher greatly influenced the Lutheran Church throughout Europe to such a degree that Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was outraged at the spiritual lifelessness of the Danish National Church. Danish citizens were Lutherans by birth, and thus they saw no need for a personal and subjective knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. But Kierkegaard knew that Christianity was to be more than just a name; it was to be a relationship. It was not the objective facts that were important, but the subjective reality. Objectively it may be impossible to prove Christianity, but, even if it could be proven, this would not establish a subjective relationship with the Lord. According to Kierkegaard, what was important was the new birth. People needed to experience Jesus Christ experientially. How would this existential experience come? By faith, he determined. According to Kierkegaard, faith transcends reason and sense perception and provides an existential experience for the believer. Kierkegaard adopted the confession of Tertullian, “credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it is absurd). In this creed, Kierkegaard meant that the gospel message is neither rational nor supported by empiricism, yet faith does not need a reason or proof to believe. Faith is its own proof. In fact, according to Kierkegaard, this is the very nature of faith – a leap into the darkness. Faith leaps the believer over the transcendental wall, which separates finite man from the true knowledge of God.

Karl Barth (1886-1968) also reacted against the liberal theology of Schleiermacher, but sadly accepted the claims of Higher Criticism in his Neo-Orthodoxy. Barth, along with Brunner, Bultmann and Tillich, sought to save Christianity from the theology of liberalism while accepting the foundation of liberalism – Higher Criticism. The solution, according to these German theologians, was found in the philosophical writings of Kierkegaard – existentialism. Existentialism allows spiritual truth to be ascertained independently of an infallible book.

According to Barth, God’s revelation is His Word and His Word is not the Bible, but the person of Jesus Christ. To understand God’s revelation is to understand the Lord Jesus. Without an experiential knowledge of Jesus, there is no real apprehension of the revelation of God.

What about the Bible? Emil Brunner (1889-1966) claimed that just as a record has all kinds of noises and static along with the sound of a voice, the Bible has all kinds of sounds (errors) along with the voice of God. That is, the Bible contains God’s Word, but is not God’s Word. The key is to listen to the voice of the Lord and not to the static.

Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) was even more consistent with his postmodern form of Christianity. He agreed with Barth and Brunner that the main concern in Christianity is faith in Christ, yet belief in the historical Jesus was optional. In his demythology Bultmann sought to remove the apparent myths from within pages of Scriptures. It is the spiritual truth behind the story that matters, not the historicity of the story. The story of the resurrection, for instance, is not a historical fact as much as it is a symbolic story capturing the new life and hope believers have in Christ.

If the Bible is a fallible book that contains the voice of the Lord, how is the reader able to discern the voice of the Lord from all the errors and myths? According to Paul Tillich (1886–1965), truth is ascertained through a dialectic hermeneutic (a three tier method of interpretation). Like Hegel’s dialectics of thesis, antithesis and then synthesis, Tillich claimed that spiritual truth is discovered through the Bible, culture and church history. Throughout church history, doctrine has been formed, shaped and reshaped by various cultural concerns and controversies, and as new cultural concerns and controversies arise, new conclusions will be drawn. And since history is not fixed, doctrine will always be fluid and changing.

The Emergent Church

Brian McLaren (1956-current), one of the more prominent leaders in the Emergent Church, has adopted this postmodern view of Biblical interpretation and has consequently brought postmodernism, existentialism and neo-orthodoxy to their natural conclusion – a Christianity with no absolutes that embraces all religious faiths, a type of pluralism.

McLaren argues in his book, A New Kind of Christian, that the problem with traditional Christianity is its antithetical view of truth – where truth is viewed as existing as a point on a horizontal line. This method of interpretation, McLaren claims, divides Christians (Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Arminians, etc…). For instance, Catholics argue that their interpretation is right on justification, while Protestants claim the same. According to McLaren, the problem with one side being right and the other side being wrong is that it is impossible for either side to have an infallible interpretation of Scripture. The reason both interpretations are fallible is that every interpretation is bound to the limitations of culture, history and language. Man can never rise above his own finiteness and limitations. According to McLaren, since no single interpretation (Catholic, Protestant, Calvinist, Arminian, etc…) is infallible, none can be authoritative. The only authoritative position is God’s position.

But, does not the Bible reveal God’s position? According to McLaren, not necessarily; but even if it did, finite man would still be unable to discern it. Absolute truth is stuck behind a transcendental wall that even those who read the Bible are unable to scale.

If authority always remains behind an impregnable wall, what use is the Bible? According to McLaren, the Bible was never meant to communicate absolute truth, but it does provide a reference point to help steer believers in the right direction. Rather than faith being like a building – having a single reference point or a single foundation, faith has multiple anchor points like a spider-web. The Bible (at least an interpretation of the Bible), church history, culture and spiritual experience all influence a person’s faith. Since there are multiple and even conflicting anchor points, truth will always remain relative.

Furthermore, according to McLaren, doctrinal absolutes are not even important. “I believe people are saved not by objective truth, but by Jesus. Their faith isn’t in their knowledge, but in God.”[1] Relativism opens the doors to all types of religious beliefs, doors which McLaren is not afraid to open. In his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren asserts:

I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts … rather than resolving the paradox via pronouncements on the eternal destiny of people more convinced by or loyal to other religions than ours, we simply move on … To help Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and everyone else experience life to the full in the way of Jesus (while learning it better myself), I would gladly become one of them (whoever they are), to whatever degree I can, to embrace them, to join them, to enter into their world without judgment but with saving love as mine has been entered by the Lord.[2]

In An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, Barry Taylor confirms McLaren’s position: “We live in a post-Nietzschean world of faith and spirituality. Nietzsche’s declaration that God is dead still holds true, since interest in all things spiritual does not necessarily translate to a belief in a metaphysical God or the tenets and dogmas of a particular faith.”[3]

The Influence of Mysticism

The Emergent Church is nothing more than a form of mysticism and existentialism – an attempt to find meaning without absolutes. To think that the rest of Christianity has remained uninfluenced by postmodernism and existentialism is naïve. Churches across the globe have turned away from experience rooted in doctrine to experience rooted in mysticism. Sermons have shifted away from theology (how to know and love God) to motivational speeches (how to have your best life now). When theological terms are used, they remain vague and subject to diverse interpretations. Music has taken priority over preaching. The rich and doctrinal lyrics of the old hymns, which focused upon the work of Christ, have been replaced with a few superficial and repetitious words that focus upon the emotions of the worshiper. Contemporary worship has turned into individuals marinating in their own affections and love towards a vague God, rather than the church corporately praising the God of the Bible for His love as manifested in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The reason mysticism is so popular in churches is not necessarily because it offers meaning and hope in a postmodern climate of meaninglessness and despair, but because it is able to make unspiritual people feel spiritual. These mystical experiences are real for the worshiper and are easily created by the worship team. Dim the lights, get people excited by the beat and rhythm of the music, throw in a few religious terms, turn the focus to the emotions of the worshiper, and then presto – people feel spiritual. Another reason mysticism is effective is because man is religious by nature and has an innate desire to worship. Create the right atmosphere and then give Pagans an idol or give Americans a cool Jesus, and they will worship. To see this superficial worship, all you have to do is follow your unconverted friends to church and watch them raise their hands as they lose themselves in the “act of worship.” This is not to say that the true Christian in the same aisle is not worshiping the real Lord Jesus. But his neighbor’s false worship can be created simply by manipulating the atmosphere. Hold back theology and give people emotionalism, and people will enjoy a mystical experience that feels spiritual.

The Corrective to Mysticism

Of course, there are some parallels between mystical theology and biblical Christianity. A saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ includes more than a cognitive understanding of the biblical truth declarations (James 2:19). By faith, people experience a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus (Eph 3:14-19). This saving knowledge brings about inexpressible love, joy and peace. In addition, this experiential knowledge of Christ Jesus comes only by spiritual illumination. Thus, a personal knowledge of the Lord is incommunicable – for it impossible to share our experiential knowledge of Christ Jesus with others.

With this said, biblical Christianity is not mysticism or even a form of mysticism. The fundamental difference is that saving faith and an experiential knowledge of Christ Jesus do not come from an existential experience that transcends cognitive and rational thought. There is no leap of faith into the darkness, but rather a leap of faith into the light of God’s Word. Saving faith comes only by hearing and hearing comes only by the articulated Word of God being clearly proclaimed (Rom 10:17). To know Christ initially, and to grow in the knowledge of the Lord, requires knowledge of the Scriptures (John 17:17). Doctrine, even deep doctrine, is vital to the Christian life (2 Th 2:13). Therefore, if the church really wants to help aid people in worship and spiritual growth, then they will place the focus upon God’s written Word.

The error of mysticism and existentialism is that they are founded upon the false presupposition that God is ineffable (unknowable). Yes, we are bound to our own finiteness, but this does not rule out the possibility of divine communication between God and man. First, man has been created in the image of God, which provides common ground between an infinite God and finite man. Because of this common ground, not only is man able to communicate with God, God is able to communicate with man. Second, God has communicated to man in natural and special revelation (Ps 19:1-6). Therefore, God is not unknowable.

Furthermore, divine revelation is universally understandable, leaving all without excuse (Rom 1:20). What about the noetic effects of the fall (the results of depravity upon the mind)? Does not Scripture say that the natural man is unable to discern spiritual truth (1 Cor 2:14)? Yes, fallen man has been alienated from the life of God and has no personal knowledge of Him. Consequently, due to the depravity of his heart, man will remain incapable and unwilling to place his faith and confidence in God. But this does not mean that fallen man cannot rationally understand the truth-claims of Scriptures. The Bible is neither irrational nor contrary to sense perception. In fact, the biblical worldview is the only worldview that makes sense of reality as perceived by the empirical senses. Further, it is the only worldview that is rationally consistent with itself. The problem with fallen man is not a lack of evidence or a lack of understanding of the truth, but a lack of appreciation and love for the truth. The light has come into the world, and the Bible says that man loved darkness rather than the light (John 3:19). The problem with man’s thinking lies in his lack of submission, not in a lack of proof. Man loves himself. Man loves his perceived notion of autonomy. Man loves his sin. Therefore, man would rather believe a lie or accept an inconsistent worldview, than to submit to a holy God (2 Th 2:10-11). Man is bound to his depraved heart. This unsubmissiveness is the problem, which is why the Lord said that even if a person were raised from the dead it would not convince a sinner to repent (Luke 16:31). The point is that divine revelation is effective in communicating truth to fallen man even if he does not accept it. Man’s knowledge of and rejection of the truth will be the very thing that condemns him in the Day of Judgment.

A Case for Confessions

The remedy for mysticism is not to eliminate emotions and experiences from the Christian faith. This would lead to dead orthodoxy indeed. Emotions are vital to the Christian faith, and there is no salvation without an experiential knowledge of Christ. The answer is to make sure that our experiences and emotions are rooted in biblical truth. This is because God has chosen to change the heart by the truth. Perhaps if there were ever a time when the church needed to stand strong upon the truth, especially the gospel, it is now. The church needs to know what she believes and be ready to confess and defend her faith before the world.

In conclusion, even though everything in the universe is in flux, God is constant, for the great I AM never changes. God is the ultimate reference point, and the absolute and unchanging God has broken through the transcendental wall that separates the infinite from the finite and has clearly spoken to us in His Word. Being made in the likeness of God, we are proper recipients of this communication. Yet because of the fall, we are also capable of misreading it as well. Because the Bible can be both understood and misunderstood, truth is not relative as McLaren supposes. Rather, truth and error are antithetical, and an interpretation of Scripture is either right or wrong. Either people understand the intended meaning of Scripture correctly or they don’t.

Because truth is knowable and absolute, confessions of faith are all the more important. If it was impossible to understand the Bible, or if it was impossible to misunderstand, then no confession of faith would be needed. But, seeing that there are both correct and incorrect interpretations, it is essential to know what a church believes in order to compare their confession with the Word of God. Every church member or potential church member has the right to know how the church interprets the Scriptures. It is not sufficient, with all the false teaching floating around, for churches just to say they believe the “Bible” or simply “love Jesus.” That kind of generic confession says little. It is the truth which saves, and it is the truth which sanctifies. It is time for the local church to stop hiding behind vague generalities and undefined religious terms for the sake of unfounded mystical experiences, and it is time to start clearly stating what they believe.

Notes:

[1] http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/000221.html

[2] A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 260, 262, 264.

[3] Taylor, Barry, “Converting Christianity” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, edited by Doug Pagitt& Tony Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 165.

Countering Anti-confessionalism – Part 1

Much of contemporary Christianity has forsaken its roots and has become overtly non-confessional. Churches are no longer Baptist, Presbyterian, or Methodist, but rather they have become non-denominational and even inter-denominational. First Baptist Church has changed its name to The Journey, and the Bible Church has become the New Life Church. The Church on the Rock came out of the Assembly of God, but who is to know? Churches are afraid to define themselves and tell people what they believe. Doctrinal ambiguity has replaced the old confessions of faith, and contemporary Christianity seems quite content with identifying itself with only vague generalities. The goal is to experience “Jesus,” and find personal meaning and purpose without any clear definitions. This exchange of confessions for concessions is the new mystical theology of today’s Christianity.

There seems to be several reasons why contemporary Christianity has replaced their doctrinal confessions with vague and loose generalities: (1.) indifference, (2.) ignorance, (3.) pragmatism, and (4.) mysticism. Of these four reasons, mysticism is the one we want to expose in these posts. It is not as if the other three reasons are not relevant, but it appears that mysticism is the real root behind the other three reasons. Before we jump into mysticism, let us quickly highlight the first three reasons confessions have dropped from contemporary Christianity.

1. Indifference

Some Christians do not see any value in confessions of faith. It is not as if these believers are against confessions, they just haven’t given them much thought. The thinking goes like this: doctrine is not all that important, as long as people love Jesus. When looking for a new church to join, those in this group are not concerned about the doctrinal standards of the church, as much as they are learning about the church’s children’s programs and musical style of worship. What marks a good church is not its beliefs, but their attractive programs.

2. Ignorance

Generally, this group consists of those who pride themselves in making the “Bible” their preferred confession of faith. “No creed but the Bible” is their creed. Those who pride themselves in this type of anti-creedal position generally think a creed or confession suppliants the Word of God as the ultimate authority of faith and practice. This viewpoint may come from a well-intentioned heart, but it also stems from an uninformed mind. As B. H. Carroll explained, “There never was a man in the world without a creed. What is a creed? A creed is what you believe. What is a confession? It is a declaration of what you believe. That declaration may be oral or it may be committed to writing, but the creed is there either expressed or implied.”[1] Carroll’s point is that it is impossible not to have a creed or a confession. Just because a church refuses to adopt a confession or put their beliefs in writing does not mean that they are not still creedal because they still have their own interpretation of Scripture. To say, “I have no creed but the Bible,” is like saying my only creed is my understanding of the Bible, yet refusing to actually elaborate upon your understanding of the Bible.

3. Pragmatism

Another reason that churches do not want to define themselves doctrinally is because public confessions are thought to be too restrictive. Confessions get stored in the attic because the goal is to grow! Thus, the more inclusive the church is the better. To accommodate today’s objective the church’s creed is now: “Open Minds, Open Hearts and Open Doors.” This creed is inclusive and shuts no religious person out. This type of ecumenical openness comes from a refusal to make a public stand for the truth. For a church to say they have an “open mind” is to say that they have not come to any conclusions as of yet. All visitors with their diverse opinions and diverse lifestyles are welcome to join in the ongoing discussion. To confirm and expose the depravity of man, for instance, may offend seekers and prevent them from coming to church and experiencing “Jesus” in worship. Thus, it is best to minimize doctrinal truth and keep “love” (a subjective emotion) and a wishier-washier Jesus as the focal point. These pragmatic ends, then, are the best way to grow the church and connect people with the love of Jesus.

4. Mysticism

One of the main problems, if not the main problem, behind today’s anti-confessional Christianity is mysticism. Mysticism is an attempt to find meaning without definitions. It seeks an existential experience for self-validation or a personal experience “that speaks to me” outside of Scripture. Because of a desire for something new or directly personal, doctrine only gets in the way. For churches to help bring people (sinners included) into a worshipful experience, the focus must not be based upon articulated truth, but upon the emotions of the worshiper. There need not be any doctrinal foundation behind the emotions as long as the emotions are authentic. When words are used, it is not their objective meaning that is important, but rather their subjective connotations. Vague religious terms, such as god, spirit, Jesus, and even the word gospel are fine as long as they are not clearly defined. It is better to allow the worshiper to attach his own meaning to these religious terms; and as long they remain vague, they can convey something that is transcendental and supernatural. And again, the more spiritual, transcendental, mystical and vague the worship lyrics and the sermon are, the more likely it is to stimulate an emotional and ineffable experience for the worshiper. The goal starts out as wanting to have a spiritual connection with God, but the experience itself is sought out more than God Himself. “Here I Am to Worship,” as the song goes, could lead to this type of self-focus. It is this drive and desire for a mystical experience today that acts as a thick, dark cloud seeping into the cracks of the contemporary church with the advertisement to bring about authentic worship. For mysticism to work, clear doctrinal teaching must be left as a thing of the past.

The Nature of Mysticism

Mysticism may sound like a mysterious and difficult subject to get a handle on, but in reality, the basic tenets of mysticism are straightforward. In all the various forms of mysticism, there are three basic ideas. (1.) Ultimate reality (ontology) is ineffable or unknowable (transcending human language and rational thought). (2.) The only way to know (epistemology) this ultimate reality is by some form of existential experience (by existential experience I mean an experience that transcends the rational process of cognitive thought). (3.) Once Mystics/worshipers have experienced the ultimate reality, it is impossible for them to communicate or share this experience with others—for it remains ineffable and thus mysterious. Different types of mysticism have different labels for this “ultimate reality” and various methods of achieving this existential experience, but they all seek some form of connection with the ultimate reality that transcends the cognitive thought process. The bottom line is that mysticism allows the worshiper or religious seeker to have an experience without having to back it up objectively from Scripture.

The Introduction of Mysticism into Christianity

Christian Mysticism is rooted in the notion that the real nature of God is ineffable or indefinable. That is, God is so utterly different, separate and transcendent, that the slightest knowledge of God is completely unattainable. God’s knowledge of Himself and our knowledge of God are equivocal (entirely different).

Plato was one who believed that the essence of God could not be explained: “Now to discover the Maker and the Father of this Universe were a task indeed; and having discovered him, to declare him to all men were a thing impossible.”[2] Prior to Plato, Xenophanes likewise claimed, “There never was, nor ever will be, any man who knows with certainty the things about the gods and about all things which I tell of. For even if he does happen to get most things right, still he himself does not know it. But mere opinions all may have.”[3]

For the Church Fathers, there seemed to be something noble in this line of reasoning. What is more glorifying to God than to exalt Him to the highest extent? God is not like man; He is absolute, eternal and transcendent. God is infinite; man is finite. Is this not the teaching of Scripture? Because of these presuppositions, many early theologians went on to teach that God’s essential being was utterly unknowable. Gregory of Nazianzus believed, “It is difficult to conceive of God, but to define Him in words is an impossibility.”[4] Justin Martyr viewed the names of God, such as ‘Father,’ ‘God,’ and ‘Lord’ as only vague shadows, “derived from his good deeds and functions,”[5] rather than a true depiction of the real nature of God. Athanasius agreed, “He is exalted above all being and above human thought.” Origen, Eusebius, and many others followed suit with this way of thinking, culminating with the greatest of all the early Church Fathers – Augustine. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Augustine speculated: “For who can declare the Truth as it actually is? I venture to say, my brothers, perhaps John himself has not declared it as it actually is, but, even he, only according to his powers. For he was a man speaking about God – one inspired, indeed, by God but still a man.”[6]

This foundation of ineffability established by the Patristic Fathers drove mystical theology into the dark ages. If God is unknowable, and if Scripture fails in communicating His nature, then there must be another, more mystical way of ascertaining the real knowledge of the Divine. Pseudo-Dionysius (4th to 5th cen.) is considered to be the Father of Christian Mysticism, followed by Bernard of Clarivaux (1090-1153), Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), Bonaventure (1221-1274), and Meister Eckhart (1260-1328). Even Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) developed a mystical theology that required the seeker to lay down the Scriptures and close off the mental faculties in order to enter into a mystical experience with the Divine. For instance, Bonaventure speaks for all these Medieval Mystics when he remarked:

Do thou, O friend, push on boldly to the mystic vision, abandon the work of the senses and the operations of the reasoning faculty, leave aside all things visible and invisible, being and nonbeing, and cleave as far as possible, and imperceptibly, the unity of Him who transcends all essences and all knowledge.[7]

Existentialism

Mysticism may have laid low slightly during the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment, but it has come back to life and regained popularity and academic clout by revamping itself under the name of existentialism. Existentialism is not a belief system or an ideology that encompasses any one particular set of core beliefs. Existentialists can be atheists, theists, deists, pantheists, materialists, hedonists, or a proponent of any other philosophical system of reality. This is because existentialism is not bound to any particular ontological system, but rather is a method of epistemology or the doctrine of knowledge.

Epistemology is concerned with how finite individuals can ascertain universal truth. The other two major methods of epistemology are rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism says that truth is ascertained by the use of reason and the laws of logic. Empiricism says that truth is ascertained by the use of sense perception and personal experience.

Postmodernism

It is impossible to understand existentialism without understanding what has also led to postmodernism. This is not just because existentialism originated out of the same environment as postmodernism, but also because it is within postmodernism that existentialism flourishes today. Technically speaking, Postmodernism is considered a condition or assessment of society. It has followed on the heels of the age of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. Supposedly, for the last quarter century we have been living in the Postmodernism Period. Yet, if we define postmodernism as a philosophical rubric of thought that denies the possibility of knowing ultimate truth, then the foundations of postmodernism reaches back into the Modern Period was man become increasing skeptical. In this sense, I use the term postmodernism not to identify a period of time, but as an epistemological framework that denies the possibility of man ascertaining absolute truth. Accordingly, postmodernism is fallen man giving up on absolute truth while still holding onto a false notion of personal and individual autonomy when man started denying knowability of absolute truth. Postmodernism is at least honest with itself; if there is no divine revelation, then there is not universal truth and no ultimate purpose and meaning in life. In short, postmodernism is a presupposition that ultimate reality (God) is ineffable and any attempt to ascertain unto this knowledge is futile. Man is bound to his own finiteness, which leads to meaninglessness and hopelessness. Postmodernism is basically despair. And this despair is the nature result of humanism – man’s attempt to anchor his knowledge of how he knows what he knows in himself.

The Death of Rationalism

During the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, man felt confident that every bit of truth could be ascertained by use of reason and the empirical senses. Knowledge would increase until there was literally nothing else to learn.

The quintessential rationalist was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). By the reasoning process alone, Descartes believed man was able to prove the existence of the ultimate reality – God. Descartes started by doubting the existence of everything, even his own existence. Yet, in doubting, he could not doubt his own existence, or otherwise he would not be able to doubt. Thus, he claimed, “cogito ergo sum” – I think (I doubt), therefore I am. Secondly, seeing that doubt is uncertainty and uncertainty is an imperfection, he concluded that he was imperfect. Yet, since it is illogical for something greater to come from something lesser, he concluded that the idea of the perfect and ultimate being – God – could not have arisen from himself, seeing that he was imperfect and a lesser being. In short, by the use of reason alone, Descartes attempted to establish universal truth without the aid of sensory perception.[8]

John Locke (1632-1704), the great empiricist, took a dagger to the very heart of rationalism by claiming that deductive reasoning is impossible without ideas and ideas are impossible without sense perception. According to Locke, ideas are not preprogrammed (a priori) in the mind, but rather they are gained by experience and sense perception. People are born with a tabula rasa (blank tablet) and ideas are collected only by experience. Deductive reasoning may process those ideas into knowledge, but again not until those ideas have been ascertained by the five senses. This means, according to Locke, that man’s knowledge is limited to what the five senses are able to discern. That which transcends the sensory perception (e.g., God) will always remain unknowable.

The Death of Empiricism

David Hume (1711-1776) claimed that it is empirically impossible to determine any universal truth because it is impossible to observe causality. Science is based upon the relationship between cause and effect. Yet, science cannot prove causality by observation. By examination, we may notice that “A” takes place before “B,” but this does not prove that “A” is the cause of “B.” Even if we observe that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius every time, that does not mean that heat was the cause of the water boiling. Who is to say with one hundred percent certainty that the next time water boils, it may do so without heat? Europeans used to think that doves where all white, that is until they learned that in Australia black doves existed. To know anything truly, we must know it exhaustively. Without universal knowledge to begin with, which finite man can never obtain from his limited reference point, universal truth will always remain unknowable.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was even more influential in placing the knowledge of ultimate reality out of reach. In his book The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant reasoned that there are two limitations on what we can know. The first is the totality of what exists and the second is the totality of what we are able to apprehend. According to Kant, if something does not exist, it is unknowable. More importantly, even if something does exist (e.g., God) and if we are unable to apprehend it, it remains unknowable. Kant divided existence into two spheres, the noumena – the world as it actually is, and the phenomena – the world as it appears to us. According to Kant, we can never know the world as it truly is, but only the phenomena world of appearance. Eyes are able to perceive visual images of reality, ears are able to apprehend various sounds of realty, and the other three senses are able to discern more information, but only according to their abilities. Who is to know if there are other dimensions of reality that remain hidden? In essence, Kant established a transcendental wall that prevents man from ever truly knowing reality – that is, reality as it truly exists.

The Death of Absolutes

Throughout history, people have thought antithetically – if something is true, the opposite is false. This is basic logic 101. Georg Hegel (1770-1830), however, turned everything upside down with his dialectic method of reasoning. According to Hegel, as with Kant, it is impossible to know reality as it truly exists. The only knowledge we can hope for is knowledge of the world as it appears, and the world of appearance is a world of constant change. There is nothing in the universe that is fixed and permanent – everything is in flux. If everything is changing, then man’s concept of reality must always be changing as well. According to Hegel, man learns by contrast and comparison, and then drawing a conclusion. Yet, once that conclusion is made, it will be contrasted again with new information that leads to a new conclusion, with a progression that never ends. Thus, what use to be black and white, is now relative – depending upon where you stand in progressive history.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) gave scientific support to Hegel’s dialectics with his theory of general relativity. Hegel changed reasoning from a straight-line of thesis and antithesis to a pyramid adding a third point – synthesis. In the same way, Einstein saw a third point existing in the universe. In addition to time and space, Einstein added a space-time continuum. Before Einstein, scientists considered the speed of light as traveling in a one-dimensional straight line through space and time. In the theory of general relativity, Einstein claimed that due to the graviton of large bodies, light curves as it travels through space and time. Because of the curvature, the speed of light is faster at the edge of the universe. What once seemed to be a constant speed of 186,282 miles per second now turns out not to be as fixed (absolute) as scientists once supposed.

How fast does a .30-06 caliber bullet travel? 2,950 feet per second may be the answer. It depends on the reference point at which the speed is calculated. Are we standing on the surface of the sun and with the speed of the earth calculated into the equation, or should we calculate the speed from a neighboring solar system? Since nothing is fixed and there is no ultimate reference point, everything is relative. Just because this might be the way you see the world, does not mean that this is how Johnny sees it, and who is to know how the world actually even exists?

The Death of God

Because of this transcendental wall hindering finite man from seeing ultimate reality as it is in itself, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) concluded, “God is dead.” By this statement, he did not mean that God did not exist, but that we being finite have no way of knowing. We are bound to our finiteness in a world that is ever changing with no ultimate reference point. Thus, we are bound to a fragmented knowledge based upon our individual perception of reality.

The Death of Meaning

If there is no ultimate truth, then there is not ultimate meaning or purpose behind anything. In the end, postmodernism leads to nihilism. For instance, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) claimed that “existence precedes essence,” and this rules out any ground for meaning. Nihilists believe that each individual is randomly “thrown” into an unresponsive and meaningless universe without any hope of knowing why.

The Birth of Existentialism

Nevertheless, man, even the philosopher, cannot live without meaning or purpose. To live consistently with the conclusions of postmodernism is an impossibility. Those who have attempted to do so have often ended their lives in despair or suicide. If there is no meaning in life, and if man cannot live without meaning, what is man to do? The answer is to create meaning. Thus Nietzsche, after claiming that God was dead, went on to say that we are now forced to create our own god. Sartre, likewise, concluded that since life is meaningless, we must choose to construct our own meaning. Some existentialists have chosen hedonism (Onfray), others pragmatism (Dewey), power (Nietzsche), pantheism (Jaspers) or theism (Kierkegaard).To prove to others that their version of meaning is truly meaningful is impossible and unimportant. The main drive for existentialists is to individually discover personal identity and meaning for themselves. This is existentialism – establishing meaning in a world without meaning with the knowledge that there is no rational or empirical foundation for that meaning.

Part 2 will focus how Existentialism was introduced into Christianity, the appearance of the Emergent Church, the influence of mysticism and, finally, the corrective to mysticism and the case for confessions.

Notes:

[1] B. H. Carroll, “Creeds and Confessions of Faith,” in Baptists and their Doctrines, eds. Timothy and Denise George (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 81.

[2] Plato, “Timaeus,” in The Dialogues of Plato, Translated by B. Jowett. (New York, NY: Random House, 1937), 12.

[3] As cited in Frame, John. The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002), 107.

[4] Gregory of Nazianzus “Oration 28” New Advent.Web. March, 2011

[5] Bavinck, Herman ,The Doctrine of God (Edinburgh, GB: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 21.

[6] Augustine, “Com. on St. John,” Tr. I. 1., cited in Rolt, C. E. ed. Dionysius the Areopagite on the Divine Names and The Mystical Theology (Berwick, MA: Ibis Press, 2004), 40.

[7] Ibid., 140-141.

[8] See Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, Cambridge: 1993).