October 22, 2019 / Leave a Comment
I had the fine privilege of obtaining my graduate education at one of the great bastions of Neo-Evangelicalism, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I cannot say enough good about Trinity, its faculty, and it’s legacy. There I studied Hebrew Bible and theology amidst a distinguished faculty and in an environment of stalwart commitment to the Christian Scriptures. This has served as a boon to my study and preaching ever since.
Neo-Evangelicalism, if you have not heard of it, was lead by some remarkable men, like R. Fuller, Harold Ockenga, Gleason Archer, and of course Carl F. H. Henry, among others. These men gave themselves to the highest standards in scholarship and launched a movement of cultural engagement.
One aspect of the Neo-Evangelical mindset though, that I think may have been a shortcoming was the quest for legitimation, especially in the eyes of those who do not call themselves Christian. Neo Evangelicalism, part reaction to both the doubts of Modernism and the pugnaciousness of Fundamentalism, sought to create a dialogue with those within the critical study of religion, humanities, and above all the sciences. They founded great schools like Gorden-Conwell and Trinity who have influenced several generations of evangelical clergy and scholars. Yet after almost a hundred years, those aspirations remain largely unfulfilled.
Why is this?
I believe there is a fundamental reason for this—one that is fundamentally biblical in essence.
The persisting lack of credibility with the unbelieving masses at large is almost hardwired into the Gospel itself. It seems that the credibility associated with the Gospel, to some degree or another, depends on the narrative that one is operating with in the first place. The Apostles Paul himself says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1Cor. 1:18) This is to say, that without the eyes of faith, the Gospel story typically appears quite silly to the disinterested onlooker.
The Gospel is NOT foolishness. In fact, for Paul, it is the very wisdom of God. Stripping away the dance of social airs, the Gospel leads us to raw human authenticity. At the foot of the cross, nothing exists but the naked human before a God in unrestrained purity.
This idea that to understand the Gospel requires faith is not new. For the great Church Father St. Augustine, and especially Anselm of Canterbury, the Gospel is in fact unintelligible apart from the eyes of faith. Anselm put it something like this in his Proslogion:
“I do not understand in order to believe. I rather, therefore, believe in order to understand.”
To the critic, this sounds, at first blush, absurd. In reality, it is really closer to how all of life works. You do not first receive the fruit of your labor so you can convince yourself it is worth your while to pursue it. Rather you first believe that learning the skill will produce fruit. Then you work to gain the skill, execute it and then reap the harvest. So with the Gospel: We believe in order to learn the ways of Jesus and reap a Kingdom.
This is Anselm’s point. I do not understand the Gospel first in order that I might believe it. This only exists in a laboratory, and really not there either. What does a scientist first do? He always creates first a hypothesis—a premise to believe!!!—and then conducts his investigation based upon his faith that the hypothesis is worth investigating.
Paul makes the same proposition, namely that the things of faith require the eyes of faith to see them. He writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians: (1Cor. 2:14) “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” He must believe in order to understand. If he requires proof first, that very posture will cause him to miss those things.
Paul knew well the belittling glare of the wise against the childlike claims of the Gospel. Miracles, the resurrection of the dead, the end of the age, and a coming kingdom—things that any self-respecting modern man of the world man finds beneath him. This we know well. Yet God will bring this also to an end. (1Cor. 3:19) “For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
To modern man, such credulity is no virtue. Nevertheless, the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God. It is simply because God’s values are not man’s. What is foolishness to worldly minds is virtuous to God.
Jesus Calls his followers back to their childhood in order to find him. He does not call us to the academic struggle, to the apologetic fight, or a bookish life of proofs. The Gospel is not a call to sophistication but a call to childlikeness. For this reason, Jesus draws a child up upon his lap and says to his disciples:
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3)
This is beauty to God. What God seeks is a humble and contrite heart like that of a small child; he seeks the childlike and guileless. If you look up the term credulity in a dictionary, you will find these terms listed among its definitions. Other uncomplimentary definitions include gullibleness,, naiveness, blind faith, over-trustfulness, lack of sophistication, and so on. And yet all these to one degree or another describe someone who precisely the kind of person Jesus calls us to become to enter the kingdom.
God seeks the beauty of mind and heart, and it is the least coveted among all human characteristics that God finds beautiful and attractive—a childlike willingness to simply believe him at his word.