Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mere Spirituality or Mere Theology?

Recently I was listening to a pastor talk about the great problem of universalism and liberalism within modern Christianity, especially among the youth. At one moment in his sermon he made the point that people today value spiritual feelings over basic theology. I was thinking on that later, and realized that truly, that is perhaps one of the greater problems facing the Church today: importance is put on mere spiritual feelings rather than true Christian orthodox theology. Before we continue, let's define these two terms.

When I say true Christian orthodox theology, I refer to the basic beliefs that designate Christianity from everything else. That is: salvation through Christ alone (John 14:6); salvation by grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8); the traditional morals as taught in scripture, and commands of God given to mankind (Ten Commandments); and so on and so forth. The entire written word can therefore fit into this mindset, and anything that goes against the written word must be considered heresy and acting against the word of God, given to us first by the God-breathed words of the prophets and then the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. The entirety of scripture and its teachings is therefore the "mere theology" we speak of.

When I say mere spiritual feelings, I refer to what many call the "spiritual high" coming from religious beliefs, and in particular during worship. The people who experience this or seek after it fall into various camps: (1) they get the previously mentioned "spiritual high" going to church, either through dance, song, the "gifts of the spirit," or a powerful sermon, but it has no long-standing effects, and therefore amounts to something like a drug high; (2) they go to church for social or traditional reasons (ie., their family goes, or they grew up in this particular denomination); (3) they go because they believe that this will somehow make them better than others - a very works-minded interpretation of worship. While any of these can lead to high emotions or feelings of closeness to God, they are superficial at best and temporary in the least. The emphasis is on the basic feeling received from worship, not the entirety of the worship itself. It is, at it's core, "mere spirituality."

It must be noted that spirituality in and of itself is not bad, but to isolate spirituality from instructions of the Church is to in essence nullify the word of God into a superficial and inconsistent emotion. It raises the emotion of worship above the limit it is meant to reach, and replaces it with the extreme version of emotionalism. From this stems our theology, because by this we live our worship. God endowed man with a thinking mind and a reacting heart, but the one who follows a mere spirituality not only does away with the mind, but the God who endowed both mind and heart as well. The commands of God are downplayed to the slavery of this emotionalism, and anything that contradicts this man-made theology is either thrown away, ignored, or twisted.

This is especially true in many Charismatic churches. People are so driven by the emotionalism of their worship that they begin to forsake sound doctrine not only as taught within their individual church or much larger denomination but within the entirety of scripture and orthodoxy itself. Subjective experience is placed above sound reason. This was best exemplified by an incident recounted by John MacArthur:
A woman wrote to me, seething. "You resort to Greek translations and fancy words to explain away what the Holy Spirit is doing in the church today. Let me give you a piece of advice that might just save you from the wrath of almighty God: put away your Bible and your books and stop studying. Ask the Holy Ghost to come upon you and give you the gift of tongues. You have no right to question something you have never experienced." [Charismatic Chaos, pg. 25, 1992; emphasis in original]
I can relate to this from personal experience. A woman at a church I used to attend defended the Trinity Broadcast Network regular Benny Hinn. Despite the fact that his "healing services" have been proven fraudulent by almost every news network in the western world and various heretical teachings have been identified and verified with recordings and video...she still defended him on the basis that: "You don't know what it's like to be under the Holy Spirit." This was her basis of orthodoxy - not the words of scripture which Hinn so often contradicted, not the recorded and documented instances of lies and distortions and deceiving, but rather the defense that a person who had never been "under the Holy Spirit" could not judge someone who supposedly had. Upon what basis is there for this kind of thinking in scripture!

Although this could unwittingly turn into an anti-Charismatic post, it would only be consistent to turn to other instances of this "mere spirituality" elsewhere, such as in liberal Churches. Spirituality is seen as a superficial thing, and mere belief (the kind of belief the apostle James identified as the belief of demons in James 2:19) is enough to win salvation. If we want, we can perform good works and from this we will earn our salvation (something Paul criticizes in Romans 4:4-5 and identifies the opposite as being true in Romans 3:27-28 and Ephesians 2:8-9). Many from this circle fall into universalism or "cafeteria Christianity," and no longer is orthodoxy adhered to but rather the personal philosophies and sentiments of the believers placed on the pulpit. Truly, how many times have we heard someone call themselves "Christian," when what they really meant was: "I have my personal beliefs and I stick Jesus in there somewhere." God is thrown down from His throne - He has no place there, these people say. Man, with his flawed sentiments, shall take over, for in his depraved state he knows much more than a righteous God. The realities presented by our Lord are done away with for the revisionist history of the post-modern church, which seeks to throw out all that came before, even if the baby Jesus is in that bathwater.

One would think that we should then introduce orthodoxy, but to the words "dogma" and "theology" many become reactionaries. Images of inquisitions and theocratic tyrannies are conjured up and used to scare people away. "People are not won by dogmas or theological treatises," some say, "you have to strike at emotions and how they feel." Isn't it ironic, then, that the apostle Paul - the greatest preacher to ever live - spent so many of his epistles dealing with theology and orthodox thought? His epistle to the Romans is, in essence, a giant theological manual. Entire sections of Colossians and Ephesians deal with theological matters and orthodox thought. Galatians was written to condemn believers going astray and to call them back to sound thinking. Why, then, are so many modern Christians scared of the words "dogma" and "theology"? Due to their abuse of certain historical powers? Yet we cannot say that "love" was never abused, if not by powers then by individuals, yet we would not cast "love" away. So therefore there is just as much a place for theology in the Church as there is for love.

That is truly the great marriage found in our spirituality - a true spirituality, given by God as a gift for the believer. It is not the memorization of a text, but the fulfillment of what that text means in our life. It is not the memorization of rules, but an understanding of by what spirit those rules came. The historical confessions - Nicaea, Westminster, London Baptist - never saved anyone, because they were by themselves not salvific. It was not what they said that saved, but from whence they taught that rendered them usable for men - that is, the word of God. By themselves they are but cold words on paper like those worshiped by the Pharisees, but in practice and with acknowledgment of their source they are spiritual food for the religious young and old alike.

Emotionalism is by contrast a cancer that destroys a believer by allowing the deceitful heart (cf. Jer 17:9) to rule the conscious intended to serve God's will and no one else's. From this harlot comes the children of universalism, spiritualism, and liberal theology, all within the family of heresy. The mission of these falsehoods is to deceive the believer into a false sense of individualism and easy believing, so that in seeking freedom they might become slaves. The cloak shrouded in these falsehoods is that product of emotionalism in which the person thinks that they are righteous by mere emotion alone. Theology has no place in their system because the minute they introduce true theology their man-made system falls apart. This is why such superficial standards as "You have to experience the Holy Spirit first" are devised. Paul did not condemn the false teachers of Galatia because they did not experience the Holy Spirit; he condemned them because they taught false doctrine contrary to that given by Christ. Yes, he condemned their theology.

Theology is the center of our worship. From our understanding of God and how He works comes our understanding of worship, of love, of grace, of mercy and the works of the spirit. It is by this theology that we love our neighbor, our enemy, and turn to repentance. This is where, as stated before, there is a great connection between our spirituality and our theology, because theology without the grace of God is simply dead religious thought. Yet our theology comes from a living God and a risen Savior, and it is this theology which we defend from all who would wish to assail or adulterate her. This theology keeps us from error and from false doctrine, and from its fountain, the word of God, we find the water of eternal life - Jesus Christ.

5 comments:

  1. It is not the memorization of a text, but the fulfillment of what that text means in our life. It is not the memorization of rules, but an understanding of by what spirit those rules came. The historical confessions - Nicaea, Westminster, London Baptist - never saved anyone, because they were by themselves not salvific. It was not what they said that saved, but from whence they taught that rendered them usable for men - that is, the word of God. By themselves they are but cold words on paper like those worshiped by the Pharisees, but in practice and with acknowledgment of their source they are spiritual food for the religious young and old alike.

    That is an absolute true statement. One of the things I harp on when people begin to talk about creeds is that they are useful for outlining ones beliefs, but are not in and of themselves Scripture. People talk about these things saying, "Such and such a confession ist the best because it is rooted in Scripture."

    But the reality is, every confession will have Scripture as their basis, otherwise it would not be a true confession. It is how well we live by the Scripture presneted, not as "proof" texts of our confession, but as revealed in the Word of God.

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  2. Excellent article and one that the Christian world needs to hear. I recently read a post on a religious forum regarding salvation, in which a woman said in order to "be saved" one must first have an "emotional experience." Sadly, this is a very popular view, and it is far from orthodox Christianity. There is no Scriptural basis for the necessity of an "emotional experience" for salvation.

    Also, many years ago, I attended one of Benny Hinn's services. In my opinion, he is a fraud, who is fooling many.
    Anna Scott

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  3. Anna - It sounds like that person is confusing the concept of a "heart change" with "feelgood conversion." We should feel something in our conversion, but the mere experience is not what guarantees salvation. This is precisely what Mormon missionaries tell people: just pray, and if you feel a burning in the heart, then God is telling you Mormonism is true. You should never put your basis of religion on a mere feeling.

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  4. Tony, you are so right. We should feel something in our conversion, but the misguided "feel good" idea of salvation is so prominent these days. I think much of the confusion comes from the pulpits. And don't get me started on less than honest Evangelists who play upon the viewers' emotion to keep the dollars rolling in.
    Anna

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  5. In the early days of America, when you joined a church (especially a Congregationalist church) you usually had to prove somehow you had been converted. The modern day idea of walking into a building and saying, "Yup, I'm a Christian," or coming up with conversion "fish tales," with nothing to show that conversion resulted in a true change of heart, wouldn't fly back then.

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