Chapter 4: The Liberation of Thought, Humanist Style
By Leif L.
“But if Theology be thus abandoned, or rather if (to ease the transition) it be made merely the symbolic expression of religious experience, what shall be put in its place? …
In particular, those who discard theology in the interests of experience are inclined to make use of a personal way of talking and thinking about God in a way that they have no right.” – J. Gresham Machen
Creeds in Christianity
Creeds or statements of faith have been commonplace among Christians for many centuries. There are ancient creeds (examples are the Apostles Creed and the Nicene creed, which date to the 4th century), the Waldensian Confession of 1655, and various other creeds which originated in the Reformation to confirm the differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
Some basic doctrinal statements, proto-creeds, as it were, can be found in the Scriptures. Deuteronomy 6:4 is expressed as a creed of Israel.
Changing Attitude Toward Creeds in Early America
Here we briefly look at the anti-creed ideas that were forming in early America. As America had broken from the Old World, there was the desire to relinquish the forms that tied them to Europe, with the hope of starting afresh.
Built on the new humanist principles of liberty and individualism, there was a desire, whether consciously or unconsciously, to be free of the creeds of Christendom to make the way to create or discover a more correct doctrinal understanding. The motto was “No creed but the Bible”.
This motto, in fact, was not new. The Baptists in America, had roots that drew from two sources. They were a blend of the Anabaptists and Protestant Reformation; and combined the strengths of each movement.
Whereas Anabaptists had not embraced the teachings of justification by faith, which is a core teaching of Paul and Jesus which was “rediscovered” during the Reformation, much of the Protestant Reformation, encumbered with the social views of the age, did not understand the place of freedom of conscience.
The Baptists have a large place in history, both European and American, of spreading the idea of freedom of religion. They have historically objected to adopting a creed, rather preferring to express their statement of faith simply, to define their particular understanding of Biblical truth. Even within the Baptist churches today, there is room given for individual understandings of Scripture.
However, as a movement, they did not reject the platform of belief that was distinctly Orthodox and Protestant. They were able to build upon what had been inherited from the movements of God in the past, and not lose their theological equilibrium and abandon solid understandings for new ideas, as many other movements did that arose in the culture of Americanism in the Second Great Awakening.
Unpopularity of Creeds in Early America
Already during the First Great Awakening, there were parties who were interested in reducing the importance of the creeds within the churches.
“During the 1720s Presbyterianism was torn by controversy over the issue of whether or not all candidates for the ministry should subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Scottish and Scotch-Irish clergy, who were largely centered in Philadelphia, were greatly concerned that the ministers should hold correct doctrine, and stressed the necessity of subscription to the Confession. … [Other Presbyterians and Puritans] felt that subscription should be to the Word of God itself, not to any interpretation of it.- A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada, Chapter, Era of the Great Awakenings in Colonial America, by Robert T. Handy, page 80
By the time that the Second Great Awakening came about, the Restoration movement was a religious force, with obvious ties to the American culture of change and repudiation of the past. The sweeping political changes and new liberties enjoyed by Americans were now ready to be applied to religion.
The quest for political liberty has the inherent danger of creating a new form of tyranny. This is shown by the Russian revolution in the early 1900s, and with France after the French Revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror. Sometimes, as a result of the vigour with which a certain goal is pursued, the end is does not represent the intended goal, but quite the opposite. It can be so with the establishment of a new form of religion. In the effort to rid the Christian church of creeds and meaningless liturgy, there was the emergence of something else to replace it.
In the place of the historic Protestant creeds, beliefs were set up which were founded on humanist rationalism and speculation. The Protestant creeds were never intended to be infallible statements of truth, but to help safeguard future generations from the pitfalls of human nature in respect to interpreting Scripture, and to form somewhat of a foundation to understand Biblical truth. They were originally put in place for the express purpose of avoiding those pitfalls.
The intent of relinquishing creeds was to bring about greater Christian unity, and yet in the Protestant creeds, imperfect as they may be, were found the wisdom of the ages; of Christians that had fought for the faith and given their lives to and for the spread of the gospel throughout the earth. They were formed over centuries, as conflicts arose and controversies ensued, there was wisdom gained by wise leaders in the Church.
And, whereas the early Protestant movement was accompanied, at times, by great intolerance, yet out of the movement inevitably came the liberty of conscience that has spread throughout the whole world. Protestants do allow sectarian movements to exist. But, when individualism and liberty of thought are held as ideals which are used to establish rationalism and undermine certain basic truths of Christianity, one can only ask whether the road followed has yielded the intended result.
As an extreme example, if the virgin birth, the resurrection, or the miracles of our Lord are denied, the whole system of Christianity falls; though there are many who wish to be called Christians who deny these basic truths, they can not really be considered Christians in the true sense of the word. Christianity has doctrine unavoidably and necessarily at its foundation, and this teaching is crucial to properly grasping and receiving the gospel message.
I could not recommend highly enough the book Christianity and Liberalism, written by J. Gresham Machen in the 1920s. This book critiques the movement which has been afoot for many years to redefine Christianity, by denying the basic fundamental truths that have lay at its foundation. And, at the root is the idea that man’s reasoning is more solid than the word of God.
The New Creedalism
The complete abandonment of statements of faith brought about a confusion of mind; every person was “liberated” to search for his own “truth”, which in the end only brought about the need for a new creed, based on the idea of a single man, or of a small group if men. Thus was born the new sectarianism, many times starting with a “cult of one”.
In the natural course of things, the desire arose to recruit more believers to these particular set of new doctrines, and at a certain point, if they were to survive, the very means of control which they set out to vanquish, were necessary tools to use to promulgate and perpetuate these new sects. What was at one time seen as evil was adopted and pushed to further limits, and all others who did not adhere to precise formulas of doctrine were labelled as “Babylon”.
The spreading of the gospel was no longer the preaching of the universal truths known by Christians everywhere, and at all times, but calling people away from Christianity to a set of beliefs that were incompatible with the teaching of the Bible, held and proclaimed by these great men.
Their message is not mainly one of calling people to Christ, but teaching that to accept their particular teaching, a new gospel, is necessary to be saved; that they have a “new truth” that God has not revealed in ages past. Indeed, many of these movements and their offshoots, finding the true gospel unappealing, thrive on abandoning one “new truth” and embracing the next one. “New truth” becomes an idol, and replaces Jesus as the supreme treasure of human affection.
We can see that as this path was followed, the appreciation for the distinctive truths of the gospel were not only lost, but these truths were at worst held in derision, and at best the adherents of these movements were simply unable to comprehend or appreciate the truth because of they had been indoctrinated against it.
Many times certain doctrines are represented in a very disfigured manner to create a “straw man”, and this used as the object lesson to train people against biblical, historic Christianity. This misrepresentation is universal among all sectarian movements, to create propaganda with which to use against Christianity.
An example of this would be the Seventh-day Adventist belief that Evangelical Christians are eagerly awaiting to pass a Sunday law, so that they can persecute and perhaps even kill “God’s remnant people”. Not only is this delusional, it is destructive to the extreme.
That whole line of reasoning is largely responsible for the sad state of Adventists who grow disillusioned with either the leadership or the teachings of their system, and leave it. Rarely will they seek other Christian fellowship, but sink into a spiritual paralysis of cynicism and agnosticism, which is almost impossible to overcome. The forest has been burned by bad doctrine and lies that are held as distinctive truths, and there is little left in the scorched landscape to sustain a flame or ignite any spark of truth that the Holy Spirit may send their way.
On the other end of the spectrum is the fate of those that leave those systems only to create their own cult of confusion and (self) deception, thinking that God has revealed his truth to them alone. The fate of these is probably worse than the former, for these people appear as a great forest of trees, but this forest is, as it were, composed of lifeless and inflammable material. The spark of truth fares no better here than on the burned-out ground. But, because the scorched earth is evidently black, barren, and lifeless, there resides the hope of regeneration beneath the charred and ruined surface; the fireproof forest, however, gives the impression that there is a thriving ecosystem, whilst in reality it is a stifling, abiotic environment.
To be continued …