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Posts Tagged ‘Scholasticism’

Salvation By Works In American Evangelicalism

The Protestant Reformation demanded many changes in the theology of the Church. Perhaps one of the biggest theological shifts was the idea that one’s salvation could not be earned by any human work: penance, alms giving, purchasing indulgences, baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper (i.e. the Eucharist or Communion).  Admittedly, these last two regained prominence and authority in some Protestant branches.

American evangelicalism developed in the later 18th century and matured in the 19th century. Influenced by Puritanism, then Scottish Presbyterianism, and later a Methodism with a uniquely American flavor, American evangelicalism gained astounding influence well into the 20th century despite Liberal theology’s attack on its basic tenets and Fundamentalism’s failure against scholasticism.  Perhaps its hold upon the American psyche was so strong because it appealed for a “heart-felt religion” vis-a-vis a rational Christianity built mainly upon propositional truths and tenets.  American evangelicalism aimed for a change of mind through the heart.

This is not to suggest that American evangelicalism threw out belief tenets and systematic theologies. Rather, these came to confirm what one felt was true.  Thus, Mormonism would appeal to the “burning in the bosom” and the material evidence that something was true or not.  It was only following the primary appeal of American evangelicalism at the popular level.  Later much of Pentecostalism and then the Charismatic Movement of the late 20th century would make the same appeals for one’s faith.

Maintaining its Protestant Reformation roots, American evangelicalism still claims the truths recovered for the Church: the priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia.  Nevertheless, it seems to be a natural propensity for the Church in whatever form to religionize in order to control.  This is true within American evangelicalism too.  Perhaps no greater example within evangelicalism is the very thing that gave it mass appeal – “the heart felt” faith or religion by experience.

I am not advocating a hyper-rationalism. God made his human creation emotional beings.  Tying head and heart together is a frequent theme throughout Scripture.  However, it becomes dangerous when one’s salvation is determined by whether or not one has had a particular religious or emotional experience.

Flowered Crown, July 2010

Flowered Crown, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Recently reading about the life of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), I was struck by his experience within American Presbyterianism of the 19th century. Not only was one’s salvation in constant question so as to attempt to make sure (though one never really could) that he or she was a part of God’s elect, but it seemed that only a particular religious or emotional experience could really confirm to the seeker whether this was attained – assurance of salvation.  Without such an experience, one was left with the demoralizing thought that he or she was numbered among God’s predestined damned with no possible relief.

This was the conclusion that Samuel Clemens was to arrive at in his life after attempting all he knew how to guarantee his salvation. Albeit, he did so as to gain favor with the object of his affections, Olivia Langdon, and her family, particularly her mother.  This was long after his younger years when he and his brother, Orion, seriously considered entering ministry!  No doubt his upbringing with his devout mother played an important part in his life.  Nevertheless, Clemens seemed to forever feel that God had “elected” him for salvation.  So, he went on his merry way with his life.

This same drive to experience religion at the emotional level later came to define much of Pentecostalism. Rather than become the mark of one’s salvation, it marked one as being Spirit baptized and empowered, even Spirit-filled in some circles.  I have often remarked that it became the Pentecostal version of Confirmation; once one had the emotionally religious experience of speaking in tongues, then one had arrived spiritually; nothing further was needed really.  Those who for some reason never gained access to this emotional experience, no matter how hard they attempted it, were left to feel like second class citizens in God’s kingdom.

As a leader in Assemblies of God churches, I have been dismayed at the emphasis or desire to have some type of emotional release at a church altar or in a revival meeting without real life transformation. Like its spiritual roots in American evangelicalism, the goal has become the experience rather than the desired effect – life change.  The emotional assurance that one is at peace with God or experiencing God’s presence takes precedence over obedience to God.  In worship, emotional engagement becomes more important than whether worship engages believers to change their ways in the light of God’s grace and greatness.

It has caused me as a former church leader to consider whether American evangelicalism’s emphasis or focus upon an emotional experience or response is just another “salvation by works” trap. It would seem so if that experience becomes the litmus test of whether one is saved or, in the case of Pentecostalism, Spirit-baptized.  If it is truly a work of faith through grace (ala Reformation theology) that is available to the priesthood of all believers according to the Scriptures, then why attempt to push it through the sieve of emotionalism?

Probably no one thought through this better than Jonathan Edwards who preached and pastored at the birth of American evangelicalism during the First Great Awakening (1703-1758). His short writing, “Religious Affections,” does bring balance to the extreme intellectualism of his age and the emotional exuberance the Great Awakening revival was stirring in many people.  He still helps us today distinguish between what are reliable and unreliable emotionally spiritual experiences.

Both the human mind and heart are unreliable measurements for true spirituality in the way of Jesus. This is probably why Jesus used word pictures like “fruit” and “harvest” as the true indicators of spiritual knowledge and experience.  The Apostle Paul picks up on this also and emphasizes to the Corinthians and the Galatians that experiences are not an indicator of spiritual maturity, let alone authenticity.  Rather, a life changed that exhibits it in behavior and attitudes is the real indicator.  The Apostle John made the indicator even more simple by saying, “It’s how you love others.”

We probably prefer an emotional spiritual experience to indicate our salvation rather than how we really live and get along with others. It makes us feel better about our selves because there is a touch of self-justification about it all.  However, God’s judgment and measurement of our lives is not going to be determined by whether we wept at an altar, spoke in tongues, was slayed-in-the-spirit, got teary-eyed during a song, laughed uncontrollably, had visions, prophesied, or felt a burning in the bosom.

No.  I think the good Lord is going to only want to know one thing about our spiritual journeys while we were here on earth, “Did you unconditionally love and serve others in my name?”  Answering, “No.  But I had a really good time!” is not going to cut it, I think.  Neither is defaulting to, “No.  I never felt that you were with me.”  To either response, God will hold up his son, Jesus, given for us and only want to know, “Did you believe him and so follow him?”  Then our lives will speak for themselves.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, (2010)

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God Surprises 3

There is a great debate among modern evangelicals as to whether faith is its own spiritual substance. Does faith cause miracles to happen?  Or, in a more benign manner, does it cause God to move, act or show up on our behalf?  On the other side, others argue that faith causes nothing, that God is sovereign and moves or acts according to his own will and that all that is necessary is for faith to believe and trust that God is present.

For my part, 6 years of Bible College and 3 years of seminary have left the question open ended for me. I have come to believe that faith and God are mysterious things.  The scholastic rationalism that came out of the enlightenment would eviscerate our faith by attempting to dissect our knowledge of God into its smallest parts.  Parts of God keep jumping off the table of knowledge, however, and escaping our reason.

So, the answer must lie somewhere in between what we know and the shroud of mystery surrounding the Holy One. In my life, there have been times when God has seemed to work in accordance with my expectations.  Then, there are those times when God seems to have worked outside my expectations or despite my expectations.  These are the times that God surprises me.

Shortly after our oldest son was born, we moved to Quilcene, Washington. I had accepted a small Assembly of God church’s invitation to pastor.  We found an old single-wide mobile home to live in and settled into a life on the rural Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.  Logging was the main stay of the economy besides a few Oyster farms around Quilcene and Dabob bays.  The church was newly built and most of the people who attended fairly new Christians.

My parents visited us one weekend. So, early on a Saturday morning, we were sitting around the breakfast table finishing breakfast and enjoying coffee.  I had just finished making a fresh pot of coffee and poured hot, steaming mugs for everyone.  Our son was walking by then and toddling around the kitchen between grandparents and parents.

Suddenly, faster than anyone could react, my son grabbed his grandfather’s coffee mug and pulled it on to himself. He instantly started screaming.  I got up to get to him.  My wife, Kelly, was already taking off his one piece sleeper that he was still in to get the hot liquid it had soaked up away from him.

I looked him over and noticed that his left forearm was already starting to blister with a big ugly red bubble. So, I picked him up and rushed him over to the kitchen sink, turned on the cold water and ran his arm under the tap.  He was still screaming as Kelly checked the rest of him over.  It seemed that his left arm, the one he reached for the coffee mug with, was affected the worst.

I continued to run cold water over his arm for many minutes and watched as the blister on his arm grew. I knew from personal experience that this was painful.  A few years before I had opened the cap on a radiator of a car and steamed my right arm.  I had one blister from my arm-pit to my wrist for many weeks.  It took a long time to heal.  The pain for the first week was excruciating.

As my son’s cries turned to sobs, he started to wiggle in my arms. I took this as a sign that he was done with the cold water.  So, I placed him on the kitchen floor and we looked him over again.  There was nothing else that seemed to have burned.  Only his left arm still had a big blister.

My dad suggested, “Let’s pray for him.”

So, as a family we gathered around the bewildered little boy and prayed. My dad led in prayer that his arm would heal and that Jesus would take the pain away.  Amen.  It was as short and brief as just that.  Nothing melodramatic.  Just a simple prayer.

I remembered that I still had some bandages and burn cream ointment left over from my burn experience. So, Kelly dug it out of the bathroom.  We applied a little cream, bandaged the bright red wound with its water-bubbly blister and watched as our son went to the living room to play with toys.  Soon, he was lost in his own little world playing and chattering to himself.

Stones in Beckler River, Washington, July 2010

Stones in Beckler River, Washington, July 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Later that day in the early afternoon, we were all outside. Our young son was running around the front yard.  He seemed oblivious to the earlier morning events.

Well, he doesn’t seemed bothered by the burn,” Kelly noted.  “His bandage is coming loose, though, I should adjust it before it falls off and he gets it dirty.”

I went over to him and picked him up to take him to his mother.

He watched as his mother unraveled the bandage so that she could re-wrap his arm again. When she got down to the wound, the blister was gone.  In fact, there was only a small red spot where it had been before.  We looked at each other amazed.  Then we called my parents over to look.  We were all surprised.

Kelly took the bandage off the rest of the way, cleaned off the burn ointment that was still on his arm and let our son continue to play. We all stood amazed as we watched him chase a ball around the yard as each of us took turns rolling it to him.  It seemed like such a small thing and yet such a surprising thing.

So, was it our faith displayed that caused God to surprise us with his grace? Or, was it simply that God enjoys surprising us with his goodness?  Maybe both.  Either way, we are always surprised.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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As humankind continues its exploration of earth and the universe it becomes more and more evident that our knowledge is infinitesimal compared to what actually lays before us.  Put in more simple terms, the more knowledge we acquire about the physical universe the more we realize what we do not know.  Our discovers, as wonderful and brilliant as they are, do not bring us any closer to an end of knowledge but only open the doors to other vast horizons of the unknown.

As we look out into space and get a clearer picture of distant galaxies, suns and their planets the more we realize that we really know nothing about what lies out there.  At the same time, the smaller we break down our physical world from atomic to sub-atomic particles the more we realize that we know nothing of what lies beyond our limits of present knowledge.  What lies beyond our human learning and knowledge is all mystery.  It is discoverable but it is still mystery.  It is the mystery of it all that attracts our desire to learn more about it all.

What scientists used to label as “simple cell” life forms is now recognized as highly complex organisms.  Looking inside their inner-working has revealed a whole world of biological machines within biological machines.  What scientists used to label as absolute and universal “laws of the universe” are now suspended in light of discovering places, times and mechanism in which those “laws” do not apply at all.  Science and math in recent years has taken us to places beyond human knowledge and understanding and left us with only theoretical questions marks instead of factual periods or exclamation points.  The more we learn, the more we learn what we do not know.

This becomes a problem for those who depend upon a world view that can be weighed, measured and calculated.  Scientific materialists (those who believe that all that exists – reality – is only physical material and that there is no metaphysical reality – a reality beyond the physical) either have to suspend their belief in an understandable material universe or they have to admit that human discovery will always be a finite enterprise.  As such, they dismiss mystery – the metaphysical – in their world as anomalies and focus, instead, upon what they do know and what they can explain.  There is no “mystery” in their universe, only the unexplained.  If this is the case, then they will always and forever have to live with the realm of the “unexplained.”

I really enjoy learning and reading about all the human discoveries.  I always find it fascinating.  I celebrate the discoveries that humanity has made about the universe and the world in which we live.  The journey of human discovery and the explosion of human knowledge in the last century have truly been mind-boggling.  The flexibility of humans to adjust and learn based upon new discoveries truly is amazing.  We are always learning and relearning.

At the same time, I celebrate the mysteries of the world in which we live and the universe in which it is set.  These mysteries point me to a metaphysical reality that will always be beyond human knowledge and discovery.  The complexity and the order of creation in its vastness and in its minuteness point me to something or a Someone that is larger and far more complex than what our human minds can understand.  I believe that mystery will always be a part of our human existence – however you want to discuss it or label it.

At the beginning of the Renaissance, philosophers then were coming to grips with the advancement of human knowledge and understanding about creation.  Ideas and theories about the make up of the earth, the universe, the human body and the relationship of all these things together were quickly changing.  Even then, some were beginning to realize that human knowledge and discovery would always have its limits.

Olympic National Wilderness Area - Ozette Camp Area

Olympic National Wilderness Area - Ozette Camp Area ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Nicholas of Cusa was one such famous philosopher during his time.  He is largely unknown today except in schools dedicated to his body of work or students of philosophy.  He was born in Kues, Germany (thus his name) in 1401 and died in 1464.  He played an important part in Christian philosophy and was an important historical figure of the church.  He was also well known for his contributions to theology, mathematics, science, and the arts thus making him a true “Renaissance man.”

After all of his astronomical learning, voracious reading and deep thoughts on every then known subject, he came to the conclusion of what he called “learned ignorance” or docta ignorantia.  This is the notion that the purpose of knowledge is to learn how inadequate all learning is when seeking to explain the unexplainable or the mysterious and so, God.  (His writings are still available today and prove to be some pretty thick reading.)  In other words, he came to the conclusion that greater knowledge will only lead to an understanding of how great one’s ignorance really is in face of the vast unknown.

In fact, in his view God was “the coincidence of opposites” or coincidentia oppositorum.  God is the ultimate Maximum and ultimate Minimum all at the same time; He embraces everything all at once.  From the smallest fabric of the physical universe to its utter outer reaches, God is in, over and above it all.  He is the mysteria that places before the human search for knowledge and understanding what is paradox and unexplainable.  Thus, the only way to explain “God” is in ultimate negative terms = in-finite and in-comprehensible and in-effable.  Thus, just as God is an infinite potential, so the universe is an infinite potential too.

Nicholas of Cusa’s philosophy has been picked up and celebrated by a diverse range of world views from Buddhists to Animists to post-modernists.  Nicholas’ rejection of scholasticism as the “end all” for human knowledge and discovery is one reason.  This leads to a rejection of scientific materialism as well.  Another reason for their embracement of Nicholas is the affinity they have with his explanation and allowance for mystery or the divine in creation.  In fact, most of the world would be more in line with Nicholas of Cusa’s thinking than otherwise.

I make no claims to be a “renaissance man.”  However, I do read very widely and follow my studies wherever they lead me at a time. My curiosity has led me on many interesting paths of thinking and questioning.  Likewise, my undergraduate and graduate degrees with a heavy emphasis in theology and philosophy have caused me to focus on the big questions of life and existence.  As such, while I don’t agree with everything Nicholas of Cusa wrote, I cannot but help appreciate his view.  I find that it is not too dissimilar from one of the smartest men who ever lived, King Solomon.  Solomon pretty much came to the same conclusion that Nicholas did several thousand years ahead of time.

As humankind continues its search of knowledge and understanding, I do not believe we will ever come to the end of learning.  It is as infinite as God is infinite.  As such, it is also discoverable in the same way God is discoverable.  There is a place where the rational ends.  What is needed is the supra-rational.  Like Nicholas of Cusa, we may learn more today if we would be willing to move away from the Aristotelian-Scholasticism that has captured academic inquiry and human knowledge for the past 300 years and embrace a more Platonic approach which better allows for and explains the metaphysical realities we seem to struggle with and want to deny.

In all of our human learning and research, it may be time to admit to docta ignorantia – the science of ignorance.  It just may be that until we are ready and willing to admit that what we have learned so far has only highlighted our ignorance that we will not be able to lock the secrets of the universe around us.  Either way, the truth remains that there is so much more “out there” and there is something or Someone out there that defies explanation.  Whether humankind plumbs the depths of the sea and tiniest organisms or reaches to the farthest heavens, one thing remains certain: all we’ll learn is how ignorant we really are.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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