True Reformation part 2: A return to truth and scriptural authority
It is quite common for ordained leaders in mainline denominations to refer to God as ineffable or beyond our ability to understand. For Tillich, “to argue that God exists is to deny him.” This kind of thinking lies somewhere between liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, ultimately denying any objective knowledge of God. In so doing, we also deny any objective truth in the arena of faith/religion, and begin to move very quickly toward pluralism.
In an article entitled “The Ecstatic Heresy“, written by Robert Sanders, and published by Christianity Today in 2004, we discover what I believe to be an important root cause to our current dilemma within evangelical churches, and one of the key places to “weed” in the beginnings of reformation. In this article Robert Sanders lists 10 principle differences between what he refers to as the ecstatic view of God and the Orthodox view of God, which I believe is very helpful. I will reflect on a few of his points:
- Ecstatic: God in himself, or in his revelation as Word and words, is never really verbal. He always transcends language.
Orthodox: God is transcendent in his essence, but God can speak to human beings who can actually understand him. Above all, God is known in the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
When we read in Jeremiah chapter 1 for instance:
The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew [a] you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” “Ah, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.
The orthodox position understands this as a personal God actually communicating with words to his prophet Jeremiah, who responds in kind. On the other hand, the “ecstatic” view reads this as some form of psychological sense experience that the prophet has, which he then interprets into words. Both Neoorthodox and liberal fall for this error, but come at it from different directions – one from a complete immanence of God, the other from a completely transcendent/other God.
- Ecstatic: Theological statements use language, but literal language refers only to objective realities. Language applied to God is always symbolic since God is ineffable.
Orthodox: Theological statements can accurately, albeit not exhaustively, describe God and his will. Theology also employs symbolic language since the spoken Word reveals God the Father, who is holy and transcendent.
Some mistakenly believe that the Orthodox view of God holds that we have understood all there is to understand about God and what he has revealed. When we speak for instance of God as triune, we do not mean that we understand all the mysteries of the trinity, but that we can affirm that this is an accurate understanding of what God reveals about himself in his infallible Word. Those who believe that the orthodox view of God somehow places God in a box somehow do not realize that they are in fact guilty of doing just that. For to claim that God does not communicate in the ways recorded in the pages of scripture, is to limit God to their own perceptions of God.
- Ecstatic: Scripture is the history of ecstatic experiences given verbal content according to the social context of the biblical peoples. We live in a different social context. Consequently, one must first hear the “Word within the biblical words” in order to sense the Divine that transcends all historical contexts. Then, once sensed, the Word within the biblical words is expressed in contemporary categories. The concept of “contemporary categories” allows experience to transform Scripture.
Orthodox: The biblical Word has verbal content in union with the specific cultural context in which the Word is spoken. There is no “Word within the biblical words,” but the biblical words—including their cultural forms—are the Word written. As such, they directly address and redeem all cultural contexts as God’s living Word. Experience lies under Scripture.
- Ecstatic: The task of theology is to reinterpret the faith as relevant to new cultural contexts. The content of faith evolves since culture evolves.
Orthodox: The task of theology is first and foremost to clarify and preserve the faith once delivered to the saints and to transfer it intact to each succeeding generation. Certain aspects of revelation never evolve.
These two principles working together are the guiding philosophies behind the issues of homosexual ordination among mainline churches. If scripture is merely an experience of God and culture by the writers, then our task is to reinterpret those texts to suit our contexts. These principles to a lesser degree undergird much of the desire of the evangelical church to be more “relevant”. It gives greater sovereignty to culture, than to God and his word.
- Ecstatic: Since personhood requires objectivity—that is, a person over against us who can speak to us—God is not personal so much as he is an energy to be experienced.
Orthodox: God is personal, revealing himself as God the Son who became objectively incarnate in the man Jesus, with whom one can have a relationship.
I have had many conversations, both in person and online with those who see absolutely no problem with viewing God as an “impersonal” being – a spiritual force or energy. The ineffability of God inevitably leads to an impersonal being, experienced in service or in emotional “breakthroughs”.
- Ecstatic: Doctrines do not literally refer to God but to feeling, the depth of reality, or the horizon of being. Therefore doctrines can be radically reinterpreted in terms of ecstatic categories, and pastoral experience can carry more weight than doctrine.
Orthodox: Doctrines teach truths about God—his moral will and his saving acts. They can be variously understood. They deal with mysteries, but they cannot be reinterpreted in categories that have no literal reference to a God who speaks.
The loss of objective truth in the arena of faith destroys the traditional role of theology. When a person can take the statement from the apostles creed “…on the third day he arose again from the dead”, to mean that while his body was still in the grave, he “arose” in a “spiritual” or “psychological” or even “an ecclesiastical” way is to destroy the plain and intended meaning of the text. Yet, that is precisely what many do regularly in mainline denominations and are doing to a lesser degree in evangelical churches. Words have meaning, and followers of Jesus must be first to hold ourselves accountable to the clear meaning of biblical texts.
- Ecstatic: Sacraments or ordinances express the identity and unity of the ongoing life of the church.
Orthodox: In liturgical traditions, sacraments are concrete means of supernatural grace by which God transforms his people. In the free churches, ordinances are the God-ordained means by which believers show their faith in God’s saving acts. Both focus on God’s action.
- Ecstatic: All religions are ultimately one since the faith of each is an expression of the Holy or Ineffable in the concrete forms of a particular culture.
Orthodox: The particulars of a religion matter, and therefore, the religions are divided by their specific content.
- Ecstatic: The ascent to God is a mystical union beyond the objective boundary of self and God. At this highest level, dialogue, give and take with God, disappears. All is bliss. Humanity has ascended to God.
Orthodox: Spirituality is an encounter with God, mediated by Word and sacrament, in which God and the person know each other as distinct selves. God truly speaks to us and listens to us. God condescends to speak to humanity on our terms.
- Ecstatic: Those who affirm a particular piety or religious preference constitute the church. Heresy is not as troublesome as schism, to claim ultimacy for one’s own verbal beliefs while denying that the differing beliefs of others are equally expressive of the Infinite.
Orthodox: Those who have been called by the incarnate Jesus Christ and conformed to that Word by the Spirit constitute the church. Schism is not as much a concern as heresy, the denial of an objectively revealed tradition.
The remedy to the ecstatic view of revelation is a return to the correspondence view of truth and a personal God who communicates to us through his infallible Word. Douglas Groothuis’ excellent article on the correspondence view of truth is very helpful, as well as his excellent book Truth Decay. A yearning for true reformation is simply not enough, but rather a surrendering of God’s people to his infallible Word and a hunger to hear once again what God is saying through that Word is vital. There is no room for the “ecstatic heresy” in the midst of reformation.
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