Cliff Notes from the Xchange

Recently I spent a few days in Escondido, California, basking in the mid-teen temperatures (sorry, folks, I still think Celsius when it comes to temperatures), enjoying the sunshine… and taking part in the TruthXchange 2011 Think Tank. The theme of the conference was One-ism: A Poison Pill for the Church?

Building on the messages from The Exchange Conference in 2010, the Think Tank addressed issues of the gospel, social justice, environmentalism, spirituality, missiology, gender, worship, education, eschatology, literature and epistemology (that is, thinking). While my full notes would be too intense (I’ve got something like 12,000 words worth), I wanted to share some highlights from the sessions I most appreciated.

The One-ist Gospel

Brian Mattson spoke on the One-ist gospel by examining Brian McLaren’s most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, asking two key questions:

Is McLaren’s Christianity new—and is it really Christian at all?

The answer to both of these questions, says Mattson is no. McLaren’s new kind of Christianity is nothing more than classical Enlightenment liberalism. Mattson’s analysis suggests that the gospel put forth in this book (and by many like-minded thinkers within the Emergent stream of evangelicalism), is actually Universalism, which is necessarily Gnostic, not Christian.

In the Gnostic gospels, you’d run across a motif that runs through all of them; it’s not enough for the Gnostics to claim that the “violent, tribal deity” is a lesser God—they call Yahweh, the God of the Bible an ignorant God; “the bastard child deity of a screw-up.”

The explanation is elegant and simple. The God revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures claims to be the only God. He actually says “I am the only God and there is no other.” His ignorance is manifest in his claim of exclusivity.

On the one hand there’s a God who claims to be the only God, to whom all allegiance is owed. On the other, there’s a group of people saying, “no, this cannot be true because divine love is universal.”

The question is, how do they know?

They know because they are “Gnostic.” He can claim that he is the only God to whom all allegiance is owed, but they know better.

All claims to Universalism are claims to have access to spiritual knowledge beyond bounds of God’s revelation. It goes all the way back to the first temptation in the garden; his “new kind of Christianity” is actually the oldest kind of heresy.

One-ist Environmentalism

“We find ourselves in the grips of this wild environmentalist delusion,” opened James Wanliss in his provocative address. And the big question at it’s heart is: What does it take to be a good person?

The answer: “Be veg, go green, and save the planet.”

Environmentalism proposes a radically different view of life—every part of the environment has rights, and the right to flourish. And in this view, humanity has no right to any sort of special status among the rest of creation.

“A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” says PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk.

The radical environmental movement seeks to reshape Christianity by connecting religious energies to secular environmental philosophy and ecological activism.

And the first attack is on God’s word. This is the same attack that began in Eden, the undermining of the rational authority of Scripture.

The truth is, though, that “Jesus did not come to die for cows, but for people. People are not glorified animals, not a cancer, not pollution as we have been called by the environmental movement.” And despite the protests of the environmental movement (which says that Christianity is destroying the world), Christianity offers the only hope for creation—and it’s not in a Utopian vision, it’s in a new creation.

We have here like a nest of spitting snakes, a pagan one-ism that is assaulting biblical two-ism. In the name of Christ, we uphold the word of God… Christians must resist overtures to be allured into believing and propagating pagan heresies. It is good to save the world, but greens are not saving the world. Christians are.

One-ist Social Justice

Pastor Ted Hamilton spoke on social justice, making the observation that the question is not whether or not Christians should be pursuing justice, “but that they should not pursue it at the expense of the gospel. It should be an outworking of our commitment to the gospel.”

So why is social justice such a powerful rallying point for those who would promote the agenda of One-ism and undermine biblical Christianity? And are the proponents of a Christian social justice movement justified in using the Sermon on the Mount for their rationale?

Calls to social action are a no brainer for Christians because the Bible calls us to those concerns. Secondly, they’re appealing due to simple pragmatics. Everyone, regardless of religion, wants to end hunger and obliterate racism. Thirdly, it falls back on what we know intuitively. It’s natural law. At the end though, it leads to a creed of “deeds, not creeds,” which is really just another way of saying “law, not gospel;” another list of rules is not good news.

But this approach leaves us open to the Lie.

“The lie has always gone down easy, because it has always existed in the realm of sight, not faith,” says Hamilton. “It allows us to think about how we’re a part of some redemptive action, but without the redemptive work of Christ.”

The radical social justice agenda is pragmatically and theologically potent, but we must insist that it’s spiritually dangerous.

Are the proponents of a Christian social justice movement justified in using the Sermon on the Mount for their rationale?

No one is justified in using Jesus’ words for rationalizing a spiritually dangerous tacit. But over and over again, this is the tactic taken. And one of the first things they do is try to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul. Paul is characterized as the one who came later, who had a divisive doctrine, who took Jesus’ simple message and made it all about justification. But Jesus’ message, they argue, is not about justification, it’s about the kingdom—Jesus is all about what we should be doing right now on planet earth, they say, to bring about God’s kingdom, God’s justice, God’s equity.

And they keep going back to the Sermon on the Mount because, they rightly say, that’s where Jesus illustrates most clearly how we are to live in this world.

Hamilton sums up his point as follows: Those who try to use the Sermon on the Mount haven’t really read it with intellectual honesty. “If you read it carefully, in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, it reveals that while it is undeniably ethical, it’s also undeniably Messianic. It unmistakably drives you to the One preaching it.”

And this is always missing in the writing and speaking of those push the social justice agenda.

You cannot separate the Sermon on the Mount from its Preacher. It’s not intellectually honest to try. If you’re going to base a call to social justice on it, ti’s first and foremost a call to bow to Jesus as LORD and then to go out from there in response to His lordship…

It’s impossible to water down the Sermon on the Mount, to get people on a social agenda that downplays the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we stand alongside Paul who wrote, “In Him and through Him and to Him belong all things.”

One-ist Epistemology

Pastor Jeff Locke ended the conference with a message on thinking by reading Luke 6:43-45:

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil…

The point? “You do, what you are,” said Locke. “If you are good, you do good. If you are evil, you do evil.” And this includes our thinking.

If our presuppositions are good, they’ll produce good thinking. If our presuppositions are wrong, the truth we encounter will be misdirected. So what sort of epistemological tree do we have? If it’s a good one, it will bear good fruit. If it’s a bad one, we’ll be able to tell by the bad theology and fruit it bears.

One-ist epistemology is subtle, according to Locke, because many of us fail to consider the question of what we know and how we know it through the lens of the creature/Creator distinction. “When we fail to understand this, we will fail to see how one-ist thinking has infected and wiggled it’s way into our theology.”

Because we are situated beings, we approach this question from a specific time and place. “What we know must necessarily play a role in any and all discussions of human knowledge.”

Descartes answered the question of how and what we know in his famous saying, “I think, therefore I am,” placing humans as the ultimate authority in reason, placing it on par with Divine reason.

This is epistemological one-ism.

When Eve was approached by the serpent, she was confronted by two understandings of being… The serpent said that she could be neutral; but she made a negation with regard to God’s being. She essentially affirmed that she is in authority.

Pagan assumptions must lead to pagan conclusions. So, rather than accept God’s authority, we rebelliously try to assert our own ethical independence. It’s the act of pagan rebellion from which all others flow. “From the modern project’s hubris, to Eve in the Garden, any thinking that refuses to conform to God’s revelation is sin.”

This point, then, turned us to the subject of hermeneutics. Postmodernism, says Locke, actually helps us to undermine one-ist hermeneutics.

Modernity’s error was assuming its epistemology to prove it’s ontology. In English, that means it assumes our method of knowing in order to prove what we know. In Modernity’s case, this assumption was that we can only know what is observable and measurable through scientific method. Therefore, there can be no revelation from outside creation.

Emergent Christians fall into a similar trap and place themselves above the Scriptures as authority. They ignore the question of what they know in favor of how they know. Thus, the idea that Scripture can only be read and interpreted within the context of your community, but doesn’t carry any universal meaning.

Rather than finding their place in the biblical narrative, they succumb to the narrative of progress that has driven capitalism. Emergents assume that acknowledging the problem is enough to escape it. They don’t go further than then sins of modernity (war, genocide, murder), but ignore the pagan thinking.

In the end, it’s just another articulation of that which they rail so hard against: Modern, Enlightenment-influenced Christianity.

Rather than read the Word as the Word, they read it through the assumptions through the lens of modern high criticism. Thus they deconstruct its authority and stand over it. They read through Scripture instead of coming under it… We are dependent interpreters in a world already interpreted by the Lord. Emergents ignore this, and thus they allow one-ist thinking to wither the tree and the fruit to spoil.

“As Christians we must seek to come under God’s Word, and allow it to interpret us, even as we seek to interpret it,” Locke concluded. “Faithfulness is not a fruit we will produce otherwise.”

Final Thoughts

I really appreciated going to this Think Tank, especially as I consider what to do with what I’ve learned. One of the big ideas that  kept coming up through every session was the question of biblical authority. If you remove the Bible, you can undermine everything. As Christians we are to be people who submit to the Scriptures, who as Locke said, “allow them to interpret us, even as we seek to interpret them.”

Could it be that what we so desperately need within Evangelicalism is not to be consumed with creating experiences, or trying to craft “timely, relevant” messages, but instead to return to our first love, which is the Word of God?

  • http://www.truthxchange.com Mary Eady

    Aaron, I really appreciate your final thoughts on the think tank, “Could it be that what we so desperately need within Evangelicalism is not to be consumed with creating experiences, or trying to craft “timely, relevant” messages, but instead to return to our first love, which is the Word of God?” Amen and amen.

  • Mason Slater

    ‘divine love is universal.’ The question is, how do they know? They know because they are “Gnostic.” He can claim that he is the only God to whom all allegiance is owed, but they know better.

    Thought provoking post Aaron. Quick question for you. Isn’t it possible that the statement “divine love is universal” is coming not from a claim to secret knowledge but echoing the pages of Scripture?
    How that works in tension with other issues is of course another debate altogether. But doesn’t the message of Jesus and of Paul speak to love in a way that is incredibly central?

  • http://www.newwaystheology.blogspot.com/ Mason

    That posted before I intended. Meant to finish with this.

    Certainly we want our faith to lead us to be more loving, and I worry that attacking people for emphasizing ‘love’ too much might be throwing out the principle because of perceived abuses.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Hey Mason, great question – absolutely the message of Scripture speaks of love in such a way that it’s incredibly central. A great example is 1 John 4:10-11:

      In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

      So the way that love here is defined is that God’s extravagant love is shown to guilty children of wrath (Eph.2:3) by Christ dying on the cross to pay for our sins. God’s love is always within the context of His holiness.

      Love as expressed by McLaren, for example, attempts to separate God’s love from His holiness, which is where ideas like Jesus dying on the cross for our sins being “divine child abuse” stem from, and why His demands for exclusive worship are so offensive.

  • Dario Thompson-Vellen

    Dear friend,

    Thanks for the writings it actually help a lot reading through it more. Adding with what I have. Great work.

    Dario

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks Dario; looking forward to sharing the full notes with you.

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