Essay / Theology

Refuse to Choose

Are you a heart Christian or a head Christian? Do you think the essence of Christianity is in holding to the right doctrines, or in feeling the right affections? Should we devote ourselves to defending the truth, or to reaching an experience of God’s presence that requires language of mysticism to describe?

What’s more important, personal conversion or social transformation? And while you’re choosing, is it more important that a church emphasize biblical preaching, or the freedom of the Spirit’s moving through the congregation? And by the way, is it spiritual formation you’re after, or doctrinal instruction?

Again and again, modern Christians are asked to choose between two goods which shouldn’t be pitched against each other. We seem to have fallen into a state of decadence, a situation in which things that belong together are instead experienced as irreconcilable opposites. The clearest way to see this is to read old books by Christians from previous times. Look at Calvin’s definition of faith, and see if you can convict him of being overly intellectual or overly emotional: “Faith,” he says, is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Certain knowledge revealed to our minds: Is that rationalism? God’s benevolence in a promise sealed upon our hearts: is that pietism? It’s neither. Calvin speaks from a place where mind and heart haven’t learned the bad habit of separating.

You could go back further into church history, of course, to find a reminder that man should not put asunder these things that God has joined. But you don’t even have to reach as far back as the sixteenth century to tap into this primal unity. There is nothing so disarming as to read a nineteenth century evangelical —just a hundred years ago!— effortlessly assuming that mind and heart and Word and Spirit and evangelism and social change all belong together. The don’t even argue for it, they simply assume it. The bedeviling polarities aren’t even present to their minds.

Somewhere around the beginning of the twentieth century, the ship of conservative Christianity struck some kind of submerged rock, and split into multiple vessels. The social-justice people went one direction, and the truth-and-Bible people went another direction. And then a fatal trend toward exclusive specialization took hold. The louder the truth-and-Bible people were about their particular topic, the more the social-justice people decided they would mind their own business and let the truth-and-Bible people mind theirs. And the truth-and-Bible people quickly learned to get out of the social-justice business, since that would apparently lead to neglect of truth-and-Bible. There were many serious issues debated during the great fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century, and I don’t mean to reduce the conflict to a kind of mutual pouting. But as the years rolled along, the result was the formation of congregations that were mirrored opposites of each other on a range of issues.

The pattern repeated itself in a number of ways in the early twentieth century. The pentecostal movement made so much noise about the Holy Spirit that all the other churches were constantly tempted to under-emphasize his work. Before long, when you moved to a new town you had to choose between attending the Holy Spirit Brand church or the other Brand. By mid-century, half the churches were blinded by tradition, and the other half were stone deaf to the voice of the Christian past. And the more one side emphasized their exclusive specialty, the more the other groups drew back and let them corner the market.

The apostle Paul had to correct the fractious spirit of the Corinthian church which was apparently dividing itself into a Paul group, a Peter group, an Apollos group, and a super-spiritual Jesus group. In I Cor. 3:21 he laid the principle that “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come, all things are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”

Why are all these teachers our proper possession? The reason given is that we are the proper possession of Christ, and Christ is God’s. Paul does not stop at putting us in Christ; he goes further to underline Christ’s belonging to the Father. There is a clue here to some kind of trinitarian warrant for the oneness of believers, and specifically for the common possession of all the bits of truth taught as specialties.

Early in this century (1915), the great missionary theologian Samuel Zwemer preached a sermon on this text, entitled “The Hinterland of the Soul.” His title metaphor compares the great Christian heritage to the vast interior territory of a continent, and Zwemer laments that we are all too easily trapped in the port cities of our faith, without ever seeing the vast country stretching out behind us. Zwemer’s “Hinterland,” available as chapter five of a book online here, is a brilliant meditation on imperialism by this evangelist to Muslims. Zwemer fearlessly steals from the age of imperialism the metaphor of settling an entire continent: “This hinterland of the soul is the little-known, untravelled land of spiritual experience; it is the vast and undeveloped territory which Christ has gained for us by His death and resurrection and which is our common spiritual heritage. Like the hinterlands in the history of imperialism, they await pioneers … to pour their hidden wealth down to the coast.” He goes on:

I want to show how hard it is for you and me, for a Salvation Army officer, or a Bishop of the Church of England, or a narrow, proud Presbyterian, to be freed from all those things that bind us, and to enter into the boundless heritage of Christianity.

Zwemer is not using this language as a passive-agressive way of proselytizing people into joining his denomination. He was speaking to an interdenominational coalition at Keswick, and had no denominational axe to grind. He wanted his listeners to hear what Paul was saying about the vast resources that stand behind us, no matter how small our own Christian community’s experience or historical range may be. Following out his metaphor, Zwemer said that we may all share the same beaches, but some Christians exude an awareness of just how big a continent they have behind them, while others act as if the beach is all there is:

Again and again we meet in every walk of life, and in our friendly circles, men and women who have no better coast-lines than we have, and yet who seem to have far greater reserves, and larger horizons, and much ampler resources of power. If you have shake hands with Moody, as I have, and if you have looked into his eyes, you know you have seen a man of spiritual resources. The same was true of Chrles Spurgeon, or to speak of living men, John R. Mott and Robert E. Speer. There is a largeness and a wideness of horizon about their spiritual life that become the envy of those of us who are following afar off.

Note the appeal to the vigorous Christianity of the nineteenth century. Zwemer goes on, effortlessly ranging around the world and across the centuries:

These men and women have brought unoccupied territory into cultivation. They have sunk hidden shafts, and found new lodes of wealth. Perchance Dr. Jowett gave them the vocabulary of pure spiritual English. Dr. Alexander Whyte taught them the exceeding sinfulness of sin. Bishop Phillips Brooks led them to a new discovery of the sheer beauty of holiness. Toyohika Kagawa was their teacher in the school of sacrifice for Christ. And Bishop Lancelot Andrewes taught them how to pray.

“All things are yours,” says Paul, referring first of all to Christian teachers who bring the gospel in a variety of expressions. Zwemer paraphrases and expands Paul’s sense to:

All true Christian teachers of every name —Paul and Apollos and Cephas and Wesley and Phillips Brooks and Cardinal Newman and Barth and Brunner and Pascal and Papini and Spurgeon and William Booth — we do not belong to them; no, they belong to us. Every faithful minister profits the whole church.

Zwemer’s sermon, delivered at the Keswick convention in 1915, is a summons to “enter into the boundless heritage of Christianity.” He doesn’t just mean to read old books or sing old hymns, though that is obviously a good place to start. He also isn’t just asserting that every modern Christian has the right to loot, pillage, and lay claim to whatever they find in anybody’s church. The great tradition of Christian teaching and experience is ours, not because we are postmodern bricoleurs or consumers with a credit line that extends to the past, but because of our real union with Christ and his with the Father. Without this real union, all of us are just squatting on the territory of others, or decorating our houses with antiques to make ourselves feel more authentic. But all things really are ours, and we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. The “all things” of the great Christian hinterland must become our homeland if we are to be in the company of the saints where our fellowship is with the Father and the Son in the Spirit.

Are you a head Christian or a heart Christian? Is it the true word of God or the power of the Holy Spirit you want? Personal salvation or public witness? Send the false antitheses back where they came from. Refuse to choose. All things are yours.

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