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Confrontational Theology

By P. Andrew Sandlin
December 01, 1998

It is the sign of an emasculated and effete church that it refuses to confront difficult theological issues, combat pernicious doctrinal heresies, and insists, rather, on attempting to synthesize contrary theological viewpoints. An obvious example is the so-called "two"- or "three"-point Calvinists. This is the illogic which attempts to create theological harmony between two competing systems. The fact is that if one affirms the first of five points of Calvinism, total depravity, he will be "irresistibly pushed to affirm all five points.

An even more pervasive and significant example is the question of heresy and other theological perversion within the bosom of a church or denomination. The notion of "peaceful coexistence" between theological modernists and Bible believers within a single denomination is a Pollyanna faith. As Machen demonstrated so powerfully in Christianity and Liberalism, the latter is a different religion altogether from Christianity. It operates on entirely different premises and leads to entirely different conclusions. Within a church or denomination, therefore, these two rival faiths, if consistently practiced, will work relentlessly to supplant each other. Unfortunately, late last century and early this century, the modernists were more epistemologically self-conscious than the Bible believers, and thus were able to purge most major Protestant denominations of orthodoxy. In more recent years, the Bible believers of both the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention have grasped the implications of the irreconcilability of these two separate premises and have, by and large, purged their respective denominations of heresy and unbelief.

Their success presupposes confrontational theology. All too frequently what passes for conservative theology these days is little more than abstract, ivory-tower exercise by newsletter or Internet warriors interested only in erudite theological speculation. They often fail to understand—or else refuse to grant—that theological perspectives cannot but produce certain practical consequences. Arminian theology, for example, produces a different sort of individual and different sort of church than Calvinist theology. Karl Marx argued that the governing factor in men's lives from which all their actions spring is economics—the relation between economic classes. This is flatly erroneous. The fundamental issue in human society because it issues from the very core of man's being is religious, and therefore theological. Men act as they do because they possess certain theological convictions. The Protestant conception of the church, for example, is quite different from the Roman Catholic conception of the church, just as the Reformed conception of the church is different from the Lutheran conception of the church. This is because each conception of the church originates from a different theology. And what is true about conceptions of the church is equally true about conceptions of theology proper, soteriology, Christology, and on down the theological line.

The modern—even conservative—temper inclines to the view that it can create an ecumenical unity by overlooking mutually incompatible theological systems. This was the nonsense espoused in the World Council of Churches and that led, not surprisingly, to a complete repudiation of orthodox Christianity and adoption of a new orthodoxy—socialism, goddess religion and relativism. The history of the World Council of Churches testifies that orthodox Christianity is an exclusive religion. To say that we are orthodox, Biblical Christians, is to say, among other things, that those who have not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and as a result have not placed faith in Christ's redemptive work are outside the pale of salvation. This is not an impolite, acrimonious claim; it is simply a statement of fact. This exclusiveness inherent in Christianity runs counter to the ecumenical program whose ultimate goal is unity, and not truth. It has things backward. Biblically, unity is grounded in truth, not vice versa.

I will never forget an episode that occurred while I was pastoring in northeast Ohio which graphically demonstrated this truth. The organizers for our county's annual Day of Prayer asked me to serve on the steering committee. One of the first items of business was deciding whom we should ask to pray at the public gathering. I responded, "Well, first of all, we need to establish some sort of theological criteria for anyone we would consider." I mentioned as a basic standard the Apostles ' Creed. One of the other ministers on the steering committee (it was a she) argued, "Well, we don't want to exclude anybody that is a Christian."

I responded, "Lady, if someone cannot publicly affirm the bare orthodoxy of the Apostles' Creed, he is not fit to pray at a local National Day of Prayer meeting."

In the modern world, the creeds are often perceived as divisive. Of course, the creeds are divisive. They were devised initially to divide those who embraced and taught right doctrine from those who embraced and taught wrong doctrine. Not only the Biblical writers, but also the patristic fathers, were dedicated to just such confrontational theology.

Until we recover a theology of confrontation, we can expect the prevalence of heresy and other theological deviation within the church. Of course, I distinguish between confrontational theology and acerbic theology. Two points here are worth considering. The first is that a theology of confrontation is not equivalent to a theology of acrimony. We are called to speak the truth in love; and when our defense of the Faith degenerates into rancor, talebearing, and slander, it has become manifestly sinful.

Second, we must distinguish between cardinal elements of the Faith and important but secondary doctrines. This is the function of the ecumenical creeds. We do not fight over the gifts of the Spirit, the mode of baptism, and the precise details of eschatology with the same vehemence with which we defend the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, the deity of Christ, his second Advent, and so forth. A prime reason that modern fundamentalists, for example, continually splinter churches and denominations is that they place issues of skirt length, Bible translation, and theater attendance virtually on a par with issues of creedal orthodoxy. Theirs frequently is not a confrontational theology, but an ill-informed theology.

We must never, however, permit the errors of acrimonious and ill-informed theology to force us to abandon confrontational theology. Unfortunately, most of the modern church has in fact abandoned confrontational theology. It will not recover confrontational theology until it recovers a sense of the centrality of truth and the vitality of orthodoxy.

The fundamental feature of Christian religion is that it corresponds to God-created reality. It does not exist as a postulate of the experience of man. In other words, Christianity is an objective fact. Until the modern church recognizes that this, at the core, is what Christianity really is, it will dismiss confrontational theology.

In addition, confrontational theology will lie dormant as long as concern for orthodoxy lies dormant. The modern church is rife with existentialism, the concern with the existential moment, and not the claims of historic Christianity. But God has decreed that Christianity has come down to us in certain historical forms, primarily Christian orthodoxy. We do not mean by this, of course, that tradition is a coordinate source of revelation or that Christianity is merely an historical religion. It is the religion created by the living, Triune God. However, this religion comes to us in particular historical circumstances, and since God shapes history according to his predestinating decree, we can be certain that he has led his church in affirming the truth of the outlines of the Faith. This point Charles Hodge argued masterfully in his Systematic Theology. The accurate summary of foundational Christian truth is hammered out in the ecumenical creeds; the Faith is more fully fleshed out in the later Reformation confessions. To a church that is interested in entertainment and experience rather than doctrine and history, nonetheless, these creeds are stale relics of a past best forgotten. We must recover, therefore, not only a sense of the objective truth-claims of Christianity, but also the objective truth-claims of historic orthodoxy. Then we will be in a position to recover a confrontational theology, since we will have a standard by which to judge the competing religions within the cacophony of voices in the modern world.

It is only when theology again becomes confrontational that the church and Christianity will again become relevant. Theology will become confrontational only when theology is taken seriously; and when theology is taken seriously, Christianity and Christian civilization will be taken seriously.


Topics: Reformed Thought, Theology, Church, The

P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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