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Rationalism and its corresponding Protestant theology, Higher Criticism (or Historical Criticism), have created a theological and spiritual desert condemning European Protestantism to complete irrelevance.
We have only just come from an endless number of conferences and ceremonies all over the world celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. No objections there.
However, it seems to me that very little has been said about how some Protestant circles – especially in “Protestant countries” – are betraying the idea of “Only Scripture” in a most shameful way. To be clear, I am talking about those who have labelled themselves in the evangelical world as supporters of “liberal theology”.
I don’t like this label. They are liberals when it comes to interpreting Scripture, but rather rigid and inflexible when it comes to defending the pillars of their theological worldview, particularly against those who don’t share their theology. Thus, I prefer to speak of theistic rationalism. Because that is what it is.
Nothing changes overnight. At least, theological interpretation doesn’t. Sadly, in the last 200 years, a large portion of Protestantism – I am speaking of European Protestantism – has been characterised by a growing dependency on fashionable philosophies. Human reason has become the absolute principle which governs and gives value to everything. And this is the heart of the issue. Those of us who believe in the authority of the Bible and in a historical Biblical interpretation don’t disregard science, nor do we believe that a believer has to stop thinking in order to give himself body and soul to some evangelical “guru”. That idea is the typical straw man that our rationalist friends build with such enthusiasm only to then burn it to the ground. In the same way, we must continually put up with the stereotype that the Bible didn’t fall from the sky accompanied by lightning and such. Of course it didn’t. Nor have I ever met anyone that has said or taught that, and I have met a large number of groups and churches. So let’s be a little more serious in our reasoning, because one gets a little tired of this kind of simplistic argument.
Nor do I believe that one has to have a doctorate in theology, sociology and, if possible, psychology, to finally give the Church a vision where anything goes – or almost anything. They lecture us that one shouldn’t marginalise, they insist on calling sin “sexual orientation”, and universalism “the gospel of inclusion”. Of course, Jesus would do the same, they tell us. But the question remains: where did they get the idea that Jesus was tolerant of the whole world?
Sometimes one gets the impression that the Apostolic Creed has given way to a new rationalist creed: there is no god except him who respects human rights, and Rudolf Bultmann is his prophet.
A part of this “progressive theology” is thrown in our face with the idea that our belief in the verbal inspiration of Scripture reduces God to the human dimension. I would rather say that those who fall into that category are the same ones who cling to those fashionable philosophies and convert it into a measuring stick of humanist, anthropocentric and rationalist theology.
However, what was a problem before in those traditionally Protestant countries in central and northern Europe has now also taken hold of a growing theological camp in southern countries.
It is time to speak clearly and put all of our cards on the table: those who are blown about by the winds of fashion don’t defend the gospel of the apostles, rather it is those who, at times, must fight against the wind, dizzying themselves to defend the ancient and eternal gospel of “it is written”.
HIGHER CRITICISM DOMINATES EUROPE
In this context, I want to mention – at least in passing – the subject of Higher Criticism. There are many articles, beginning with Wikipedia, that serve to introduce us to the subject if we aren’t already familiar with it. This article does not suppose to explain exactly what it is in great detail, but put simply we can say that Higher Criticism tries to differentiate between what is true and historical, and what has simply been invented to “embellish” the text.
Higher Criticism (also known as Historical Criticism) – which in the case of the Old Testament, began with theologians such as Astruc and Wellhausen to name but two – has become the golden cow of this kind of theology which boasts of being “scientific”.
Under that epithet, “scientific”, state theological faculties – dominated by state officials called professors, paid with public money and enjoying a monopolistic academic power since the times of the Protestant kings Gustav Adolf of Sweden and Frederick the Great of Prussia – have kidnapped the – “scientific” – interpretation of Scripture, shattering everything that was sacred and holy to both the Reformers and to the Apostles.
Under the heading, “Higher Criticism” – the theological version of all-powerful human reason – nothing remains of the authority of Moses’ Pentateuch; the Bible is emptied of miracles and Mr Hawking’s theories appear to be more of a basis for the believer than the holy texts that Christians have believed in for centuries.
In fact, Protestant faculties in countries such as Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Sweden have now assumed the power that the Holy Inquisition had in the Middle Ages: anything that is not taught there has no value, scientifically speaking, of course. And so they hold up their degrees and doctorates in subjects that nobody is interested in and almost nobody understands.
A TAILOR-MADE JESUS
Another favourite area of theistic rationalism is the old – and already well seen – dichotomy between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the gospel of love in the New Testament. You can see the patron saint of that heresy, “Saint” Marcion waving from a historical distance. Commonly, it is often forgotten in the theological circles of these erudite theologians that the phrase, “love your neighbour as yourself”, comes from the book of Leviticus, and the one who comes in the end times to judge the living and the dead is written about in the New Testament. It was Jesus Christ, “the inclusive one”, who not only threw his righteous anger at the Pharisees, but, for a good part of his ministry, also excluded the Samaritans and pagans. He was so “inclusive” that he told the Samaritan woman that the truth came from the Jews. It’s true that he ate with sinners (and also with the Pharisees), but curiously, those sinners then repented of their sins: the Pharisees stopped being Pharisees, the Samaritans left their sectarian religion, Zacchaeus gave back even more than he had stolen, and the prostitutes stopped prostituting themselves. It’s true that he objected to the disciples making fire and brimstone fall on the Samaritans, but at the same time, he declared the total and complete destruction of Jerusalem, courtesy of the Heavenly Father and announced by his Son. And curiously he not only urged his disciples to turn the other cheek, but he also encouraged them shortly before his death to buy swords (Luke 22:35-38). And I don’t imagine they were to cut ham.
We have got to focus our eyes on Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Word of God, states the creed of theistic rationalism. Very well, I agree. But, what do we know about Jesus of Nazareth other than the testimony of the New Testament? Do we lean on a phrase by Josephus, or in the four authentic words of Jesus that Bultmann left us? We must take the testimony of the New Testament seriously, in its totality, and not only those passages that fit in with the ideology of the day and give “that” image of the sweet, inclusive and tolerant Jesus of Nazareth.
Rationalism and its corresponding Protestant theology have created a theological and spiritual desert that has condemned European Protestantism, above all the Lutheran kind, Reformed and Anglican, to total irrelevance. Protestant faculties have become nests of inbred professors – theologically speaking – that speak their politically correct language, expounding issues such as global warming, the rights of the LGBTQ (etc.) community, the peaceful heart of Islam, or the irrelevance and non-historicity of Christianity. They tell us – always in well adorned, empty language – that one must understand the resurrection in a spiritual way, and that the Bible is a very interesting book where men and women (because one must be politically correct) speak of their spiritual experiences. But let’s make it very clear: they maintain that the Bible has no historical basis, rather a hysterical one: the disciples saw things that weren’t really as they appeared and the early Church “put the words of the kerygma in Jesus’ mouth”. That any church that preaches this is becoming increasingly emptier shouldn’t surprise anyone.
It’s curious, isn’t it? From a global perspective, it is precisely these “liberal” (rationalist, politicised, ideologised) churches that are becoming more and more outdated. Who remembers the World Ecumenical Council in Geneva – once so popular among university theology circles in the 70s and 80s? Few are now interested – at least outside of Protestant faculties – in this type of liberal, a-historical theology, with its politicised and insipid words.
However, we realise that the churches which are growing on a global level are those churches with a conservative theology, in the best sense of the word, because they conserve the historical doctrines of the Church, at the same time rejecting rationalist neo-Gnosticism and the agenda of those movements that declare themselves “progressive”.
It is precisely these conservative churches that have historically made the Christian faith progress, while theological liberalism has converted churches born out of the Reformation into entities with no blood and no strength. It isn’t the theologians of the liberation that have changed the ecclesial landscape of Latin American, but rather those who, with all the failures they may possess, are willing to trust in the God of the Bible and not in those theologians who have lost direction. Of course, nobody doubts that there are black sheep among them. There always have been. But within a few decades, theological liberalism will simply be a passing anecdote, carried away on another wind. And personally, I prefer a flock with a couple of black sheep over a flock full of blackness where you may not see anything at all.
José Hutter, Pastor and Chair of the Theology Comission of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance.
José Hutter, Pastor and Chair of the Theology Comission of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance.