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Pragmatism: It Works for Me

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In this series of posts, the late James Montgomery Boice helps us avoid being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) by unpacking the 5 major “isms” that dominate the modern world.


Do What Works

The fifth “ism” that has formed contemporary culture as we know it is pragmatism, a philosophy that measures truth by its utilitarian value. It is probably safe to say that nothing is more characteristic of American thought and life than pragmatism.

This way of thinking has its roots in the philosophy of men such as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), the British economist and social theorist whose ideas exercised a formative influence over many early American thinkers; John Dewey (1859–1952), who applied pragmatic standards to education; and William James (1842–1910), who applied the same system of thought to religion.

James attended Princeton Theological Seminary as a young man but rebelled against the doctrinaire teaching he found there and later argued that the only way to determine the truth of anything is by its practical results. He is best known for his Lowell Lectures of 1906, published as Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking, and an earlier work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. (1)

The Real Culprit

However, the chief force behind the triumph of pragmatism in the West, particularly in the United States, was not philosophy but the Industrial Revolution. The goal of industrial pragmatism is efficiency leading to low cost, rather than quality, craftsmanship, or aesthetics. The goal is to find the fastest, least expensive way of producing products and getting things done.

Pragmatism has improved living standards for millions who now enjoy the benefits of home ownership, adequate clothing, indoor plumbing, prescription drugs, cars, refrigerators, washing machines, television sets, and abundant food. But this has been achieved at significant cost! Items have become cheaper and more available, but they also tend to look alike. Quantity has marginalized quality, volume has smothered craftsmanship, and affordability has sabotaged beauty.

The most prominent symbols of the modern industrial age and its pragmatism are skyscrapers, whose soaring steel and glass frames overshadow the towering spires of the cathedrals and churches that were there before them in nearly all our large cities.

Religion that Works

Pragmatism has also had a powerful influence on American religion, as Michael Horton shows in Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism, (2) a study of the unique features of American Christianity. William James taught that the only valid test of truthfulness in religion is whether religion works. “On pragmatic principles, if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true,” James argued. (3)

That is the way many evangelicals approach the Christian faith today, according to Horton. The claim “it works for me” seems to justify almost any belief, quite apart from a biblical foundation. As far as evangelism and church growth strategies are concerned, anything will be justified as long as it brings people into mass meetings or the church.

Perhaps the worst form of modern pragmatic Christianity is the approach of the faith healers who promise health, wealth, and happiness if their adherents only employ the right techniques. Pat Robertson urges Christians to employ the “laws of prosperity,” to which, he seems to claim, God is bound. “It’s a bit like tuning into a radio or television station” he says. “You get on the right frequency and you pick up the program.” (4)

Horton analyzes this rightly when he says:

While there is a great deal of mysticism among modern faith healers, they actually eliminate mystery from miracle, making healing predictable and, in fact, inevitable (naturalistic). No longer is a miracle the spontaneous and surprising work of God, but the right use of means, as predictable as any other scientific law. When God heals, it is not an interruption of natural laws. At its core, the faith healers proclaim a naturalistic faith. Salvation and healing are both human achievements. (5)

That is a strange development for fundamentalist Christianity, which is supposed to believe in the supernatural. But it is not actually so strange in light of the vast sea of cultural pragmatism in which all Americans, like fish, seem to live, move, and have their being.

Notes

(1) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Longmans, Green, 1902).
(2) Michael Scott Horton, Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1991).
(3) James, Pragmatism, 192.
(4) Pat Robertson, The Secret Kingdom: A Promise of Hope and Freedom in a World of Turmoil (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 59, 66, 67.
(5) Horton, Made in America, 47.

This excerpt was adapted from Whatever Happened to The Gospel of Grace?: Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World by James Montgomery Boice.


James Montgomery Boice was senior minister of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for thirty years and a leading spokesman for the Reformed faith until his death in 2000.

September 8, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Current Issues,Life / Doctrine,The Christian Life,Theology | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:15 am | 0 Comments »

Materialism: The Material Girl

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In this series of posts, the late James Montgomery Boice helps us avoid being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) by unpacking the 5 major “isms” that dominate the modern world.


Get Rich or Die Trying

A fourth “ism” which is part of the “pattern of this world” is materialism. This takes us back to secularism, since it is a part of what secularism is. If “the cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be,” then nothing exists but what is material or measurable, and if there is any value to be found in life, it must be in material terms. Be as healthy as you can. Live as long as you can. Get as rich as you can.

When today’s young people are asked who their heroes or heroines are, what comes out rather quickly is that they have no people they actually look up to except possibly the rich and the famous—people like Michael Jackson and Madonna. And speaking of Madonna, isn’t it interesting that she is often referred to as “the material girl”? For some fans, Madonna apparently represents the material things of this world—clothes, money, fame, and above all, pleasure. This is what today’s young people want to be like! They want to be rich and famous and to have things and enjoy them. They want to be like Madonna.

Examining Evangelicalism

Are evangelicals much different? The older ones probably would not know a Madonna song if they heard it, but they might well be equally materialistic. Are they any different from those the poet T. S. Eliot, in his poem “The Rock,” described in this devastating epitaph?

“Here were a decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.” (1)

How different is the Lord Jesus Christ! He was born into a poor family, was placed in a borrowed manger at his birth, never had a home or a bank account or a family of his own. He said of himself, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). At his trial before Pilate he said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight. . . . My kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). When he died he was laid in a borrowed tomb.

If there was ever a person who operated on the basis of values above and beyond the world in which we live, it was Jesus Christ. He was the polar opposite of “the material girl.” But at the same time no one has ever affected this world for good as much as Jesus Christ has. It is into his image that we are to be transformed rather than being forced into the mold of this world’s sinful and destructive “isms.”

Notes

(1) T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909–1962 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1963), 156.

This excerpt was adapted from Whatever Happened to The Gospel of Grace?: Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World by James Montgomery Boice.


James Montgomery Boice was senior minister of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for thirty years and a leading spokesman for the Reformed faith until his death in 2000.

September 1, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Current Issues,Life / Doctrine,The Christian Life,Theology | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:15 am | 0 Comments »

Relativism: A Moral Morass

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In this series of posts, the late James Montgomery Boice helps us avoid being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) by unpacking the 5 major “isms” that dominate the modern world.


A Common Way of Thinking

Relativism means that there is no God and therefore no absolutes in any area of life. Everything is up for grabs.

On the first page of The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom writes, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” (1)

What that book set out to prove is that education is impossible in such a climate. People can learn skills, of course. The student can learn to drive a truck, work a computer, handle financial transactions, and manage scores of other difficult things. But genuine education, which involves learning to sift through error to discover what is true rather than false, good rather than evil, and beautiful rather than ugly, is impossible, because the goals of real education—truth, goodness, and beauty—do not exist according to relativism.

Besides, even if truth, goodness, and beauty did exist in some far-off metaphysical never-never-land, it would be impossible to find them, because even the process of discovering absolutes requires a belief in absolutes—it requires belief in such absolutes as the laws of logic, for example.

A Hopeless Foundation

The solution Bloom offers in this otherwise excellent book is inadequate. He offers a return to Platonism, the classical Greek quest for absolutes, without acknowledging the need for a starting point in God and revelation. Nevertheless, Bloom is entirely right about what relativism does. It makes true education impossible and undermines even a quest for what is excellent.

Is it any wonder that, with such an underlying destructive philosophy as relativism, not to mention secularism and humanism, America is experiencing what Time magazine called “a moral morass” and “a values vacuum.” (2)

Notes

(1) Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 25.
(2) Time (May 25, 1987), 14.

This excerpt was adapted from Whatever Happened to The Gospel of Grace?: Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World by James Montgomery Boice.


James Montgomery Boice was senior minister of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for thirty years and a leading spokesman for the Reformed faith until his death in 2000.

August 25, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Current Issues,Life / Doctrine,The Christian Life,Theology | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:15 am | 0 Comments »

Humanism: You Will Be Like God

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In this series of posts, the late James Montgomery Boice helps us avoid being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) by unpacking the 5 major “isms” that dominate the modern world.


It’s All About Me

I have acknowledged that there is for Christians a proper concern for secular things, though secularism as a worldview is wrong. The same qualification holds for this next popular “ism,” humanism.

Obviously, there is a proper kind of humanism, meaning a proper concern for human beings. Humanitarianism is a better word for it. People who care for other people are humanitarians. Christians should be humanitarians. However, there is also a philosophical humanism, a way of looking at people, particularly our- selves, apart from God, which is not right but is rather wrong and harmful. Instead of looking at people as creatures made in the image of God whom we should love and for whom we should care, humanism looks at man as the center of everything, which is an essentially secular point of view. This is why we often couple the adjective to the noun and speak more fully not just of humanism but of “secular humanism.”

A Biblical Example

The best example of secular humanism is in the book of Daniel. One day Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, was on the roof of his palace looking out over his splendid hanging gardens to the prosperous city beyond. He was impressed with his handiwork and said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). It was a statement that everything he saw was “of” him, “by” him, and “for” his glory, which is what humanism is about. Humanism says that everything revolves around man and is for man’s glory.

God would not tolerate this arrogance. So he judged Nebuchadnezzar with insanity, indicating that this is an insane philosophy. Nebuchadnezzar was driven out to live with the beasts and even acted like a beast until at last he acknowledged that God alone is the true ruler of the universe and that everything exists for God’s glory and not ours. He said,

I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. “His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’ (vv. 34-35)

Humanism is opposed to God and is hostile to Christianity. This has always been so, but it is especially evident in the public statements of modern humanism: A Humanist Manifesto (1933), Humanist Manifesto II (1973), and A Secular Humanist Declaration (1980). The first of these, the 1933 document, said, “Traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to love and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith. Salvationism, based on mere affirmation, still appears as harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival.” (1)

The 1973 Humanist Manifesto II said, “We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural,” and, “There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body.” (2)

Where Does It Lead?

Where does humanism lead? It leads to a deification of self and, contrary to what it professes, to a growing disregard for other people. For if there is no God, the self must be worshiped in God’s place. In deifying self, humanism actually deifies nearly everything but God.

Several years ago Herbert Schlossberg, one of the project directors for the Fieldstead Institute, wrote a book titled Idols for Destruction in which he showed how humanism has made a god of history, money, nature, power, religion, and, of course, humanity itself. (3) As far as disregarding other people, consider the bestsellers of the 1970s. You find titles such as Winning through Intimidation and Looking Out for Number One. These books say, in a manner utterly consistent with secular humanism, “Forget about other people; look out for yourself; you are what matters.” What emerged in those years is what social critic Thomas Wolfe called “the Me Decade” (the 1970s) and later, in the 1980s, what others saw as the golden age of greed.

Concerning humanism as well as secularism, the word for Christians is “do not conform any longer.” Do not put yourself at the center. Do not worship the golden calf. Remember that the first expression of humanism was not the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 or even the arrogant words of Nebuchadnezzar, spoken about six hundred years before Christ, but the words of Satan, who told Eve in the Garden of Eden, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5).

Notes

(1) Humanist Manifestos I and II (New York: Prometheus, 1973), 13.
(2) Ibid., 16, 17.
(3) Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1990).

This excerpt was adapted from Whatever Happened to The Gospel of Grace?: Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World by James Montgomery Boice.


James Montgomery Boice was senior minister of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for thirty years and a leading spokesman for the Reformed faith until his death in 2000.

August 18, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Current Issues,Life / Doctrine,The Christian Life,Theology | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:15 am | 0 Comments »

Secularism: The Cosmos Is All That Is

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In this series of posts, the late James Montgomery Boice helps us avoid being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) by unpacking the 5 major “isms” that dominate the modern world.


The Worldview of Our Time

If there is any word that describes today’s way of thinking more than others, it is secularism. Secularism is an umbrella term that covers a number of other “isms,” such as humanism, relativism, materialism, and pragmatism. But secularism, more than any other single word, aptly describes the mental framework and value structure of the people of our time.

The word secular also comes closest to what Paul actually says when he refers to “the pattern of this world” in Romans 12. Secular is derived from the Latin word saeculum, which means “age,” and the word Paul uses in verse 2 is the exact Greek equivalent. The New International Version uses the word “world,” but the Greek actually says, “Do not be conformed to this age.” In other words, “Do not be ‘secular’ in your worldview.”

There is a right way to be secular, of course. Christians live in the world and are therefore rightly concerned about this world’s affairs. We vote in elections and have other legitimate secular interests. But secularism (note the “ism”) is more than this. It is a philosophy that does not see beyond the world but operates as if this age is all there is.

“All That Is Or Ever Was Or Ever Will Be”

The best single statement of secularism I know is something Carl Sagan said in the television series Cosmos. He was pictured standing before a spectacular view of the heavens with its many swirling galaxies, saying in a hushed, almost reverential tone, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

That is “secularism in your face.” It is a worldview bound up entirely by the limits of the material universe, by what we can see and touch and weigh and measure. If we think in terms of our existence here, it means operating within the limits of life on earth. If we are thinking of time, it means disregarding the eternal and thinking only of the “now.”

Secularism is expressed in popular advertising slogans such as “You only go around once” and the “Now Generation.” These slogans dominate our culture and express an outlook that has become increasingly harmful. If “now” is the only time that matters, why should we worry about the national debt, for example? Let our children worry about it. Or why should we study hard preparing to do meaningful work later on in life, as long as we can enjoy ourselves now? Most important, why should I worry about God or righteousness or sin or judgment or salvation, if there is no beyond and now is all that matters? R. C. Sproul says:

For secularism, all life, every human value, every human activity must be understood in light of this present time. . . . What matters is now and only now. All access to the above and the beyond is blocked. There is no exit from the confines of this present world. The secular is all that we have. We must make our decisions, live our lives, make our plans, all within the closed arena of this time—the here and now. (1)

A Familiar Outlook

Each of us should understand this viewpoint instantly, because it is the viewpoint we are surrounded with every day of our lives and in every conceivable place and circumstance. Sadly, it is also an outlook we see reflected in our churches whenever we find ourselves aiming for immediate, visible success rather than trusting God while we do things in his way and await his invisible, spiritual blessings.

This is an outlook to which we must not be conformed. Instead of being conformed to this world, as if this world is all there is, we are to see all things as relating to God and eternity. Here is the contrast as expressed by Harry Blamires:

To think secularly is to think within a frame of reference bounded by the limits of our life on earth; it is to keep one’s calculations rooted in this-worldly criteria. To think Christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God. (2)

If we are to have a modern reformation, we must learn to think Christianly.

Notes

(1) R. C. Sproul, Lifeviews: Understanding the Ideas that Shape Society Today (Old Tappan, N. J.: Revell, 1986), 35, emphasis his.
(2) Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant, 1963), 44.

This excerpt was adapted from Whatever Happened to The Gospel of Grace?: Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World by James Montgomery Boice.


James Montgomery Boice was senior minister of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for thirty years and a leading spokesman for the Reformed faith until his death in 2000.

August 11, 2014 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Culture,Current Issues,Life / Doctrine,The Christian Life,Theology | Author: Matt Tully @ 8:15 am | 0 Comments »