Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Alan G. Padgett

Updating the Faith?

Looking for the essence of Christianity.

At the turning point of the century, at one of the world's most prestigious universities, a brilliant theologian and historian at the height of his powers was given the honor of addressing the entire faculty and student body. He chose as his theme the essence of Christianity. His published lectures quickly became a bestseller, sparking admiration and controversy throughout the world. The century was the 19th, the university was Berlin, and the theologian was the great Adolf von Harnack.

The question of the identity or essence of Christianity is hardly a new one, nor was it so in 1899. The earliest Christian pastors, martyrs, bishops and apologists all had to work hard at explaining the central elements of their fledgling religious movement, and the key spiritual truths of the faith, both to those who publicly spoke against their religion and to converts. Just as we do in the 21st century, so the Christian fathers and mothers of the classical age lived in a multicultural world of many religions and worldviews. Europe, Africa, and Western Asia (where the Christian religion first spread) were a complex jumble of cultures, languages, and peoples: a cultural quilt of north and south, east and west. Into this world the apostolic message defined itself over against Judaism, polytheism, mystery religions, and popular philosophies. Eventually divisions within the church also required attention to the core beliefs, holy texts, and sacred practices of the faith. Creeds, a New Testament canon, and core practices of the faith were the result of centuries-long work by women and men who followed in the way of Jesus and the apostles. Together all of these things solidified the identity of Christianity. In the midst of all this, Christian teachings expressed in hymns, sermons, and liturgies played an essential role. But do they still, or are such antiquities hopelessly out of date?

What role do theology and established doctrine play in a vibrant Christian life? What place do tradition and reason have in the ongoing identity of the church and the central tasks of mission and worship? These are some of the vital questions addressed in the three fine volumes considered here. Philip Clayton, John Franke, and Alister McGrath all consider the essence of Christianity, in different ways and not always explicitly in these terms. Especially important in all of them is the theological dimension of faith. Are there proper boundaries or centers to Christian doctrine and practice? Each of these books is a readable, clear, and authoritative presentation by a seasoned scholar-teacher. All three reward careful reading and reflection, yet each voice speaks from a different location. Clayton's work falls clearly in the centuries-long tradition of liberal Protestant thought, while the other two authors represent versions of evangelical Christianity.

Harnack's Das Wesen des Christentums (translated as What Is Christianity?) remains a classic in the noble tradition of liberal theology, expressing many of its essential insights. For this movement, the essence of the Christian religion is primarily moral and spiritual. Jesus is best understood historically as a great moral teacher, promoting the "higher righteousness" of love for God and neighbor. The core of the Christian gospel, argued Harnack, is the universal Fatherhood of God, the infinite value of the soul, and the fellowship of all humankind. These great truths, when acted upon, lead us toward the Kingdom of God. Yet classic Christianity would have a very different answer. What about the creeds and confessions, what of the sacraments, the bishops, and the institutional church? In his second lecture, Harnack contrasted "the gospel" (as he saw it) with other important areas of religious life. There he considered, among other topics, "the gospel and doctrine or the question of Creed." Harnack's decisive rejection of creeds and established doctrine has continued to define modernist or progressive Christianity. To take a recent example, the president of the Claremont School of Theology, Jerry Campbell, in justifying the school's move to become a multifaith institution, rejected the core Christian practice of evangelism in the name of Christ. Campbell opposed the traditional gospel with his view of the "fundamentals" of the Christian faith: "love for God and love for your neighbor as yourself."[1] Harnack's Christianity may be two centuries old, but it is alive and well today.

Philip Clayton, who teaches at Claremont, brings this open-minded tradition of theology into conversation with the much newer emergent church movement. The main concern of his book is to keep theology relevant to a changing world. Theology must listen to the Spirit, wherever she may be speaking. This means that believers must get outside established patterns. As Kant cried for all modernity, "Dare to think for yourself," so Clayton speaks to all Christian believers: "Dare to do theology yourself!"

Of course he is right about this main point. Any thinking Christian disciple is already a theologian in the broad sense of the term, and should make the life of the mind part of her discipleship. We do need to listen to the larger culture and to what is happening in areas of great learning and arts. Theology is always open to revision just because Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, is the living Word. But these concerns should take a second or third seat to special revelation, Scripture, and the classical creeds. Clayton chooses to ignore the danger of losing any sense of the center of Christianity, its core identity, and its faithfulness to the Word of God. Scripture may be one way to test theology in this book (along with reason, experience, and tradition), but there is no sense of the primacy of Scripture and the central place of ecumenical, classical tradition (as embodied in the creeds).

Scientism and fundamentalism, Clayton writes, far from being in the ascendant, represent "the last gasps of late modernity." But he fails to see that the same judgment applies to liberalism itself. On the same page, he includes "a return to the pre-modern" as an element of modernity! Clayton's weak attempt to lump the pre-modern in with the last gasps of modernity is a telling sign of his proposal's core liberalism, a symptom of its concern for the new at the expense of the classic. In his account, apart from a few postmodern gestures, it almost seems as if the critique of liberal Protestant thought, found throughout theology in the last one hundred years, never happened. Nevertheless, this is a valuable work. Those who tend to dismiss "progressive" Christian thought without ever engaging it firsthand are especially urged to read Clayton's book.

By contrast, John Franke's proposal for the renewal of theology and Christianity comes from the evangelical stream of American Christianity, but with a twist: Franke is part of the emergent movement, which Clayton seeks to engage. Franke agrees that a new way of thinking about God, the church, theology, and truth is called for in our times. He argues that biblical faith and orthodox Christianity are diverse, open, and pluralistic. This does not (and should not) lead to relativism, however. Rather, Franke grasps the perspectival nature of all human truth. The truth is that only God knows the Truth with a capital T. The God of Trinity-in-unity calls for a diversity of texts and voices in the one Bible, and a diversity of worship, faith, and practice in the one Body of Christ.

The emphasis of Franke's book comes down powerfully on the side of diversity. (Perhaps if he were thinking about a mainline denomination, like my own, he would give a more balanced perspective?) He is right to insist that in practice, there has never been a single, unified historic Christian faith, just as there is no one, single view of God in Scripture. But he needs to go on and recognize the unity of Scripture around Jesus and the Triune God, and the unity of ecumenical, confessional Christianity over the centuries. Unity in essentials does not contradict the diversity of cultures, languages, and practices that Franke celebrates. Finding the balance, however, between the essential role of theological orthodoxy in Christian faith and practice and the radical openness and hospitality of the gospel—that is indeed a difficult task! Franke locates the unity of Christianity in a common mission and a common Lord. But is that enough to ensure the identity of the faith over time? Franke's book should help evangelicals overcome some misconceptions from our intellectual past, yet he may not quite have discovered that happy balance of unity and diversity, tradition and revision, which a vibrant biblical faith requires.

Our third author, the eminent and prolific evangelical theologian Alister McGrath, begins with the penetrating observation that our culture despises dogmatism and what is perceived to be authoritarian thought. While the church in the past may have rejected heresy and persecuted heretics, the heretic is now an intellectual hero for many folks, Christian and non-Christian alike. Today the supposedly suppressed or "lost" Christianities we used to label heretical are increasingly popular. Heretics are our heroes because they stand for free thought, free speech, and the rights of the individual over against the oppressor.

McGrath does a fine job of speaking into this situation. I enjoyed his introduction, "Our Love Affair with Heresy," as much as anything I have read on this subject in a long time. He goes so far as to ask, "Is there an essence to heresy?" (thus turning the tables on Harnack), and he provides a convincing answer. He sees that diversity should not be a threat to unity and that unity should not be a threat to diversity. He insists upon the importance for vital Christianity of biblical and theological identity over time (e.g., the creeds). But he places this argument within a careful historical and sociological study of Christian heresy, supplying a reliable and readable guide to the heresies of the classical age of Christianity.

Reading these three books together (a delightful conversation which I recommend to readers) is an enjoyable learning experience. Each writer brings strength of conviction and a distinctive angle of vision to the task. Together, may they help the church in our calling to live the truth as it is in Jesus Christ.

1. Robin Russell, "Claremont's Religious Diversity," The United Methodist Reporter, July 2, 2010; umportal.org/article.asp?id=6914.

Alan G. Padgett teaches theology at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he lives with his wife, Sally Bruyneel. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including most recently As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission (Baker Academic).

Books discussed in this essay:

Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society Fortress Press, 2010).

Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (HarperCollins, 2009).

John R. Franke, Manifold Witnesss: The Plurality of Truth (Abingdon, 2010).

Most ReadMost Shared