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Christianity and Liberalism

  • Joseph P. Braswell,
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Christian-Theism, rightly so-called, appeals to Jesus Christ as the capstone of God’s special revelation in history, viewing the redemptive-historical Christ-event as the consummate revelation-act of God in history for the establishment of that new covenant which definitively addresses the problem of sin. It makes the scandalous assertion that the Word was made flesh and assumed this enfleshed state of being in a particular historical personage, in Jesus of Nazareth. Theological liberalism demonstrates its non-Christian character by denying this particularism.

Repudiation of Uniqueness

Liberalism denies the absolute uniqueness of Jesus as the Christ in whom God, with definitive finality, revealed himself. It denies that this divine revelation in Jesus is the eschatological fullness of the Son-Word and that in this sui generis revelation-event God hapaxically acted to reconcile the world to himself. Liberalism instead opts for an adoptionist Christology in which Jesus is exclusively human and is but a teacher or sage who achieved the “Christ-consciousness” — an apprehension of divine sonship — that is in principle open to any and all (non-unique). Liberalism’s Jesus stands on par with other religious leaders (e.g., Buddha and Mohammed) in witnessing through diverse human religious traditions to the essential ethical kernel of transcendent truth. Thus, for liberalism, Christianity merely differs in degree from other religious traditions, and the Christ-event is neither uniquely revelational nor the last word, but is simply one more datum of universal human religious experience that can guide us in our personal spiritual quest if we but “demythologize” (read: allegorize) its texts and concern ourselves with the phenomenology of religion. Christianity, according to liberalism, has no privileged position, no corner on the truth; it is but a partial witness to the truth, one tradition of human interpretation among many of the ineffable first-order experience of the divine.

Opposition to Historic Christianity

church as true dogmatic statements, as enduring normative interpretations of divine revelation. In this sense liberalism does not stand in, as identified with, any meaningful apostolic succession as what can appropriately be called historic Christian Faith. Its radical reinterpretations of traditional terms express no substantive historical continuity of confessing and existentially dwelling in the apostolic tradition as its own living tradition, its own self-understanding and self-definition. It is not the self-identical church as the church that expressed its faith in the ancient creeds and councils as a Faith once for all delivered to the saints. It thus has no basis for calling itself Christian, having abandoned the normativity of anything but subjective experience — experience that cannot be judged by a canon which would discern between spirits and prove all things It is clear that liberalism does not literally accept the historic creeds of the orthodox catholic. It can make no end-run around a supposedly Hellenized catholicism (rationalistically concerned with dogma) to a more authentic New Testament faith, for it is not simply out of accord with later creeds. It is incompatible with the New Testament conception of the church as well, having no grounding in the koinonia in apostolic tradition that defined the church from its very inception.

Community and Exclusion

We may pursue this New Testament concern with koinonia by focusing on its function in Johannine theology. The Elder of the Johannine community is concerned with the koinonia of his children with one another in koinonia with him (and those who, with him, have personally heard, seen, and handled the Word of Life as firsthand, apostolic witnesses who have beheld the glory of the One and Only Son) in his koinonia with the Father and the Son (1 Jn. 1:1-7). Thus, if the children walk in the light and practice truth according to the commandment they have received, confessing that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” they have koinonia one with another in the koinonia of the Father and the Son, abiding in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit. This koinonia is expressed in love, for it is this love — agape — that is the commandment (1 Jn. 2:311; 3:11, 23- 24; 4:21; cf. Jn. 13:34-35; 14:21, 23-24; 15:1-17), realized in that oneness described in Christ’s prayer of John 17.

It is clear that the Elder thinks in terms of inclusion and exclusion, of identity and boundaries that define the in-group and a heretical out-group. There are those who “went out from us” who are not “of us” because they did not “continue with us.” It is these departing schismatics, those no longer in koinonia who “lie and do not the truth,” who are in darkness and do not walk according to the truth, who are false prophets who speak and live according to the spirit of antichrist — the spirit of error — in unrighteousness and hatred of the true brethren, who deny the Son and the Father as well by denying that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. The children must be discerning and test the spirits; they must responsibly abide in truth and be not deceived by the false prophets; they must hold fast that which they have received from the beginning as the saving truth out of which flows their koinonia. They must understand their identity and the boundaries, understanding koinonia accordingly. The community must speak in one, united voice of confession and live according to one rule, consistent with that which was delivered from the beginning: to use the language of Jude 3, “the faith that was once-for-all delivered to the saints.”

The Gnostic Heresy

The false brethren are gnostics who speak of the darkness of God. By this they probably intend the deeper, esoteric mysteries of a hidden wisdom, a special gnosis intended only for a select few pneumatic adepts who have been initiated into the mysteries and who are now guardians of these new doctrines which radically relativize and disparage the apostolic faith-tradition. These “spiritual truths” take us beyond the historical revelation of God in the Christ-event as ostensibly a fuller revelation of truth. The Elder denies this darkness, asserting that God is light. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is a full and final word, the fullness of truth, the Word of Life itself in complete self-expression. The true Light has shown forth; the revelation of glory, of Spirit and Truth, has occurred in the flesh of the historically particular life of Jesus in the days of his tabernacling in the world among us and is sealed by the witness to his words and deeds by those who from the beginning beheld his glory, saw, heard, and handled him. Because of the definitiveness of this revelation-event, there can be nothing more, nothing beyond; nothing is left in darkness by this revelation in the historical Christ-event of the Word-made-flesh who dwelt among us. God has been made known — revealed and exegeted — by him who is himself the True Light, the Word, and it is exclusively to that God-speech-act in the flesh-tabernacling of the Son-Word to which we may have recourse for all wisdom and knowledge of the truth, for it is only that which the Spirit of Truth discloses.

We need not dwell further upon the specific details of the gnostic doctrine the Elder confronts. He has provided us with far-ranging principles that we can extend and apply beyond his particular problem-context. Koinonia is integrally bound up with the flesh of Jesus, with the proclamation that narrates this Jesus-history as gospel, as saving truth. The Johannine corpus, more perhaps even emphatically than any other New Testament document, allows for no divorce of the Christ of faith/Spirit- Lord and the Jesus of history; it locates the Spirit exclusively in that existential dwelling in the Jesus-tradition — the historical event of flesh-tabernacling — as the necessary ground of all authentic experience of eternal life. Flesh must be at the root of any authentic understanding of the Christ and of the revelation of the Father and the enjoyment of the Spirit, for one approaches the Father only through this Jesus of flesh, and it is this Jesus who bestows the Spirit, whose witness is to the Jesus-history.

This story must be, in the most intimately internalized and appropriated way of collective existential self-consciousness and subjectivity, the community’s story: the basis of its self-understanding, its self-definition, its identity. It is the living tradition that is constitutive for koinonia as its center and ground, around which the confessing community is gathered and upon which it is built and in which it abides. This tradition is its very raison d’etre. The church stands in the apostolic kerygma; the communion of the Holy Spirit — koinonia — issues from this common confession of faith-remembrance, this etiological narrative.

Again, we need not be over concerned about the specific details of the gnostic heresy. The Elder makes the same point as does the Apostle Paul in Colossians (Col. 2:2-10) in calling the community to the touchstone of apostolic tradition against the pernicious spirit of error. Speculative theology and philosophical systems (the traditions of men) are to be avoided, for all truth flows out of the divinely revealed wisdom of the theologia crucis, the Deus Revelatus made known in the Christ-event of the Word-made-flesh. Those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh and do not live accordingly (i.e., in the righteousness defined by the commandment) are not part of the community and cannot partake in koinonia; they fail outside the boundaries of the covenant community as those who are not of us. We cannot recognize them and their communities as one with us; we cannot identify them as Christian. Their confession, their story, is not our confession and story, and so we do not share in common with them that which is vital and absolutely basic to our Christian self-understanding: viz., that which rests upon the witness of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. “What think ye of Christ?” is the litmus-test, the touchstone of genuine faith that is the identity-marker of the community of the Spirit and any true spirituality.

The Historic Christ Central to Christianity

It is clear that it must be regarded as absolutely basic to a Christian-Theistic understanding of revelation that the Christ-event is the centrally significant event of revelation, that all other special-redemptive revelation is to be understood as anticipating it, preparing for it, and progressing to it as telos. Jesus authenticates the Hebrew Scriptures by expecting his contemporaries to understand and interpret him in terms of those sacred writings of Israel. He claimed these Scriptures as witness to him, purporting to be the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. He understood himself and his revelational significance as part of Israel’s story, as the culmination of the history of salvation that defined Israel as people of God (the covenant people). He spoke in the universe of discourse of Israel’s sacred traditions, employing this symbolic universe — this mythos — as the meaning-context for understanding his coming and mission. This means of presentation was no mere enculturated contextualization that simply utilized for purposes of communication that which just happened to be at hand according to the pure accidents of circumstance, for he understood that symbolic system to have been given by God in preparation for his coming, to be the normative context for interpreting his person and mission. The meaning of his life and work were to be interpreted according to the Scriptures; he belonged to a story that must be understood as the Spirit speaking by the Prophets. Accordingly, as true theism presupposes the immanent Deus Revelatus, and no philosophy of revelation can be Christian-Theistic in character that is not firmly rooted and grounded in the apostolic tradition, so a truly Christian-Theistic philosophy of revelation must affirm the special-revelational character of the Bible as covenant canon for the people of God. Here, liberalism utterly fails to represent authentic Christianity and proves itself but a variation on the gnostic heresy.

  • Joseph P. Braswell

The late Joseph P. Braswell did undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest was in theology and Biblical studies. He published several articles in various journals, including the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report.

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