I recently read a sentence that represents a very popular trend in the Christian world. It is not a new trend… it began way back in the rise of liberalism during the close of the nineteenth century. Many Christians fall for it. Even many Calvinists fall for it. In my estimation, if Christian philosopher Gordon H. Clark did anything for me, it was to make me aware of the fatal flaw in this trend. The sentence was this one:
“More and more Christians are realizing that following Christ isn’t what doctrines we accept, but rather how we live and who we ARE.”
This sounds very pious. And it is so popular today. But this is a symptom of the abandonment of the Christian intellectual life. This is a symptom of a people who, as a whole, have traded Christian truth for the pragmatism of the nineteenth century. This is a form of modern day moralism. Many will point their fingers at the Arminian fundamentalists as being practically legalists. This is a true accusation. But what is almost never seen is a finger pointing at the modernists for their own pious moralism. It is more obviously apparent in the political theory of the liberal Christians. If you aren’t ready to embrace welfarism and increased taxation, you are shamed. The best way to summarize the liberal push for helping the poor out is this: guilt-manipulation. Christians ought to help the poor. But the liberal will give the impression that if you have something and someone else does not, you should be ashamed. Guilt-manipulation.
But I seriously digress. I digress because my main point is to declare that Christianity is centrally about belief. It is about what doctrines we believe. It most certainly has implications for lifestyle. But Christianity starts in the mind. We are saved by faith (which means belief, or intellectual assent –nothing more, nothing less). The gospel is a message to be preached. There is a very dangerous quote “attributed” to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” It is dangerous because it implies that the gospel is something that can be communicated without words. This is false. The gospel is a set of propositions to be believed. Words are necessary for propositions. The gospel is a doctrine and thus, the popular maxim should read like this: “Preach the Gospel at all times and use the words provided to us in the Bible.”
In 1925, conservative Christian stalwart J. Gresham Machen wrote a book defending Christianity from the liberals (our battle is no different today). The book was called What is Faith? In his own words, the purpose of the book was this: “it will be one chief purpose of the present little book to defend the primacy of the intellect.” What did he mean by that? When it comes to the nature of the human being, and the nature of belief, there have long been a variety of theories. The liberals taught that only knowledge was in the head. But religious experience, which takes place in the heart, is what chiefly counts. Knowledge has little to do with Christianity, said the liberals. What people need is faith! Not knowledge. Head knowledge is to be demoted and “heart knowledge” is to be promoted. This is the liberal message.
This is not the Christian message. Machen aimed to prove that. There is no difference between the head and the heart (in the Bible, these two terms are different ways of referring to the same thing). There is no difference between knowledge and faith. Christianity is about what goes on in the intellect. Such was the message of Machen (and Gordon Clark after him, who articulated this perhaps better than anyone). When it comes to Christianity, it is NOT about “experience,” it is chiefly about doctrine. In today’s world, we must continue to reiterate this: we live as we ought as a result of our Christianity. Our Christianity is about the mind, about the doctrines, about the things that we believe. We must get the truth right. Without truth, all of our actions are empty. The quote above pits the “how we live” against the “doctrines” forgetting that the “doctrines” will determine “how we live!”
Finally, this “who we ARE” business needs to be addressed. We are our beliefs. What we believe determines who we are. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” The “heart” refers to the inner being, the core of the man. Man, the person, is a soul. A soul that has a body. Man looks at the body. The Lord looks at the core of the man, or the soul. What is the soul? The soul, which is the very person himself, is, like his Creator, a rational thinking being. We are what we think. Our doctrine defines us. It is chiefly important for this reason.
To counter the above quote, we say this: the “doctrines we accept” is “who we are.”
This may seem a bit odd to the reader. For we are today drowning in liberalism and anti-intellectualism. I pray that the reader will be convinced by the same sound teachings of many heroes of the faith who taught these things, among them: Charles Hodge, Gresham Machen, Gordon Clark, and Carl F.H. Henry.