Distinctly Evangelical Sustaining and confronting culture

Like it or not, Christianity is the 800 pound gorilla in the middle of any great books sequence that is based in western history. Not simply as a sort of antiquarian curiosity or tradition that one might be affiliated with similar to a men’s club, but an honest participant at the table of ideas. Christianity, like any other system of ideas, puts forward propositions to be believed. The great creeds of Christianity make this particularly evident. They present the truths of the faith in propositional form; God is three persons, Christ is risen from the dead, Christ died for sinners on the cross. Believe it or not, the truth of the faith is contained is so many statements.

There are some who feel very uncomfortable with the notion that Christianity contains a collection of statements to be believed. They want to say that Christianity is an experience or tradition that one practices, rather than propositions to be believed. Describing Christianity as propositional seems to reduce it to an academic subject rather than acknowledging it as a dynamic living experience. Yet these positions do not need to be understood as contradictory, rather the faith includes both a propositional and experiential element.

Seeing Christianity as propositional and experiential is not a dichotomy beyond our grasp. I fully experience my wife as a living and personal relationship yet I also love her by understanding many truths about her that can be expressed as propositions. Rather than reducing Christianity to a mere tradition or system of authority that one follows as an existential practice, it is best understood in the fullness of both its propositional and experiential realities.

Evangelicalism grasps well the living reality that the faith demands while simultaneously affirming that faith involves particular truths that are believed and accepted as true. In contrast, Socrates saw truth as far beyond our understanding and so it is best found in the process of dialectical conversation and the courageous quest to continually strive to grasp a fundamentally unknowable truth.

In considering the path of Christian thought through history, C.S. Lewis observes that each age of authors “had its own outlook” and “was specially good at seeing certain truths,” but what is evident throughout is the “central...mere Christianity,” which surmounts the distinctive qualities of each age. With the scope and scale of an ancient aqueduct in mind, Lewis argues that a student of the “old books” may ascend “the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains,” and there perceive the unified force of Christian thought. Emma Perry – GBT V Essay

The Christian theologian Aquinas held faith to be propositional and affirmed the forming of particular expressions of belief that we in faith affirm. He called this a symbol of faith, from the Greek σύμβολον- meaning literally a throwing together of elements. We search the scriptures and find those truths that are given priority and then collect those together into statements that we affirm in our belief. Thus we form a symbol of the faith or as it is more commonly called, a creed or confession. Our faith is open to questioning and dialectic, but affirmation and belief is the mode, not the endless wanderings of dialectic.

Deism thought that Christianity could be purged of its miraculous elements and reduced to a group of tenets that would all be easily acceptable to human reason. This attempt reduced Christianity to a system of morals that could not get beyond what human reason itself could grasp when properly cultivating moral truth. Deism effectively gutted Christianity of its spiritual content, and left a shell of belief that was neither persuasive nor compelling.

In contrast, Roman Catholicism not only maintained but emphasized the spiritual elements of Christianity, as well as the propositional character of the truth that it presents. However, the understanding of salvation presented by the Roman Catholic Church fundamentally confused the role of our works and Christ’s sacrifice in the accomplishment of man’s salvation. By giving man’s works righteousness a role in his right standing before God, the Roman Catholic fathers put forward a system of salvation that mirrors Plato’s understanding of redemption as given in the Gorgias rather than that of Paul as presented in Galatians.

Greek orthodoxy, and its various national derivatives, finds difficulty in expressing the propositions of the Christian faith. Rather than enter into the rough and tumble of conversation that it usually takes to express such statements, orthodoxy seems to be unable to get beyond the stark fact of God’s incomprehensibility. Without the ability to unify around collections of propositional truths, Orthodoxy focuses on tradition, authority and apophatic theology. Though God and his nature are far beyond the understanding of our human intellect, we are non-the less presented with the relentless parade of truths about him given in the Scriptures showing that our minds can in fact meaningfully express truths concerning God.

It is a mystery that God is so far beyond our comprehension and can still be expressed in verbal form however, with a humility such as that found in Einstein, we might say, “The most incomprehensible thing about nature is that anything is comprehensible.” We need to fully accept the incomprehensibility of God, while continuing to firmly investigate the truth that he presents about himself in the Scriptures.

Evangelicalism is just one of many of the streams that have contributed to the formation of the Christian church; yet, it has wonderfully strong claims to be the most clear articulation of the central tenants of the Bible. Showing itself the faithful step-child of Roman Catholicism that it is, Protestantism has continued the practice of articulating and promulgating various statements of Christian belief. Though drawing from the past, it does not fall prey to the platonic understanding of salvation and clearly distinguishes between the work of Christ in salvation and the place of our own. Further, it encourages and fosters a full living of the Christian life in piety and practice so that God is not simply a proposition to be grasped but a living being whose reality is to be felt, revered and loved in a full human experience.

Sittensen, Germany

Evangelicalism is not only the tradition of the Hinrichs for 15 generations, but it upholds the love of truth that can survive the scrutiny of a mind trained in the love of inquiry, the practice of reason and the power of observation. Not only is Christianity in general the best vantage point from which to the view the vast landscape of Western intellectual history, but Evangelicalism particularly carries within it the devotion to the core truths of the faith that enliven Christianity and forms its genius. Once faith is securely hitched to the dependable cart of evangelicalism, much of the great books and the ideas that they contain become familiar as you understand them from within the Christian context.

By Zacharie Grossen - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53799895


Created with images by Joerg Sabel - "Eine Martin Luther Statue" • Jbyard - "Westminster Abbey in London, UK" • Ellie Nator - "statue von j. s. bach in leipzig" • Sergej Borzov - "Church of St. Nicholas" • caifas - "Portrait of the Protestant philosopher Martin Luther" • chrisdorney - "St. John's College in Cambridge" • Erica Guilane-Nachez - "Preaching the Reformation - 16th century" • R. Roulet - "Geneva Reformation Wall"

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