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Churchianity or Christianity part 5: The philosophical foundations of Churchianity

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Having introduced to us the idea of 'churchianity' as a problematic mindset among many modern evangelicals, Dr. Joseph Boot explores the philosophical foundations behind this phenomenon in this fifth of six articles.

Read Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.

In previous installments in this series, we saw in passing that according to scholastic theology the church institute coincides completely with the kingdom of God, giving rise to the ecclesiasticising of life ubiquitous in the medieval Roman Catholic view of reality. However, as we will see, the churchianity that persists amongst many evangelicals in our age posits an even more radical ecclesiasticising of life, where the link between creation and redemption, which scholastic thought struggled to maintain, has been all but severed. In both cases, lying beneath this dualistic perspective is actually a non-Christian philosophy of life. The scholastic tradition essentially sought to christianise the pagan Greek view of nature (composed of form and matter), in order to forge, via this synthesis, a meaningful connection between the ‘credible’ philosophical views of the ancient world (especially in the thought forms of Aristotle) and the gospel. In fact in 1263, Pope Urban IV reminded Christian scholars that a decree of Pope Gregory IX, which forbade the teaching of Aristotle as mediated by the Arabs, at the same time called on them to interpret Aristotle for the Christian faith:

"William of Moerbeke and Thomas Aquinas were summoned to the papal court to assume the task of assimilating Aristotle into the Christian world of thought. Aquinas’ purpose reflected a supreme confidence…shared by many, that an establishment of Christian truth upon the foundation of the reason of autonomous man was possible."[1]

However, in reality, the Aristotelian concept of nature and of man cannot be reconciled with the biblical view of man as God’s image-bearer and the free act of creation – the calling into being of the totality of reality from nothing – by the triune and totally sovereign God.

On the ancient Greek view, nature was the product of impersonal divine reason giving form to an uncreated matter; these two poles stood over against each other. Greek thought saw nature as composed of form – spirit or idea – and matter. In this dualism, matter was the lower realm and spirit, idea or form the higher, superior realm. Consequently, for many Greek thinkers, the body was a prison for the soul from which one ought to seek escape. Early Gnostics, and Marcionite heretics in the early church, expressed this dualism both by denigrating the body and creation – some claiming that the material world was created by a lesser god or demiurge – and by driving a wedge between the older and newer testaments, between law and gospel, creation and redemption. The one belonged to the lower realm of matter, the other to the higher realm of idea and spirit.

When certain Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas later tried to harmonise Christianity with Greek thought, on the basis of an unfallen reason, they essentially adopted the Greek view of nature as form and matter but added that in order for man to truly understand himself and his spiritual nature, in order to be truly fulfilled and saved, grace must be added. With the intellectual soul being absolute form, man’s knowledge and understanding of reality in terms of independent reason was fine as far as it went i.e. for all the ordinary stuff of life – for philosophy and education, science and art, politics and government. However, for ‘spiritual life’ and the way of salvation, that is, for the realm of faith, man needed the addition of grace – a supernatural addition. In short, on top of nature one needed a second storey to complete life. Grace must be added in order to perfect nature. In this way the scholastic tradition sought to maintain a link between the gospel of redemption in Christ, and a philosophical view of nature inherited from Greek philosophy.

This attempted synthesis of incompatible views led to the emergence of the idea of a secular and sacred realm, one ruled over by reason and natural law, the other by grace and special revelation. This gave the church institute the roles of mediator of salvation in the sacred realm (the church or kingdom of God) and ‘spiritual director’ of society when playing the role of chaplain to a secular government which went about its common tasks in terms of the dictates of reason. At times nature and grace, or emperor and pope, battled it out for supremacy in terms of who anointed whom.

However, in the fourteenth century, a Franciscan monk named William of Ockham denied there was a real point of contact between the realms of nature and grace. Aquinas had tried to tie the Greek concept of nature to the faith of the church, but Ockham denied that these could be held together. He held to the idea of a divine arbitrariness; human reason could not find out nor prove God. Belief in God was simply a matter of faith, not of knowledge. And so cutting the link between nature and grace, knowledge and faith, between creation and redemption, he rejected the idea of Christianised society, holding to the complete sovereignty of secular government. In many respects Ockham anticipates the modern period of history, shunting off the supernatural Christian life, the realm of faith and revelation, to another world and privatising Christianity to the church and individual believer. The twentieth-century Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd observes that Ockham’s criticism of the nature-grace link left two options for Christians:

"One could either return to the scriptural ground motive of the Christian religion or in line with the new motive of nature severed from the faith of the church establish a modern view of life concentrated in the religion of the human personality. The first path led to the reformation; the second path led to modern humanism."[2]

Although we rightly associate the Reformation with Martin Luther, the Lutheran and Calvinistic view of the relationship of the gospel with culture, of creation and redemption, and consequently of the mission of God’s people, developed in very different directions. Luther himself was educated in Ockham’s view of things when at the Erfurt monastery. In fact Luther openly declared, “I am of Ockham’s school,” and continued Ockham’s sharp distinction between natural life and supernatural Christian life. It is no surprise then that we do not find in Luther an intrinsic connection between the Christian faith and one’s earthly life.

We see the same dualism expressed in Luther’s strong law-gospel opposition – another persistent error in modern evangelicalism. Here the Christian has nothing to do with the law for the law is for the sin ‘nature’ and is viewed in almost antithetical relationship to grace. The law is stripped by Luther of its function and importance as creational ordinance. As Dooyeweerd has pointed out, “He did not acknowledge a single link between nature, taken with its lawful ordinances, and the grace of the gospel.”[3] Accordingly, redemption was seen as the death of nature rather than its renewal and rebirth. It is certainly the case that Luther rejected monasticism, but he is radically inconsistent;

“Luther even contrasted God’s will as the creator who places a person amidst the natural ordinances with God’s will as the redeemer who frees a person from the law.”[4]

Following the scholastic thinkers and despite famously calling ‘reason’ a whore, for Luther, ‘reason’ remained the guide for the realm of nature and there was no point of contact between this ‘reason’ and the revelation of God’s Word. In the vein of Ockham, he regarded secular government, social order and justice as belonging to the domain of reason, not revelation.  Although Luther was not thoroughly consistent and clearly saw a place for God’s commandments in society because of the context of Christendom he inhabited, nonetheless, a radical sacred-secular divide remained in Luther’s thought, with ecclesiastical life identified with the kingdom of God. What was proper to the distinctly Christian life was the realm of grace, expressed in Word and sacrament in the church, but justice, beauty and the like belonged to the realm of the sinful nature.

Like many Christians before him, Luther did not recognise that the totality of a person’s life and thinking in every area arises from a religious root. The result was that in Lutheran thought, a divide ran through the centre of reality. Worldly life belonged to the realm of nature and law and as such was troubled by an inner tension with the gospel of love that belonged to a higher supernatural realm. This tension remains entrenched in the thinking of many modern evangelicals who oppose law to grace or gospel and who regard most of ‘secular’ life as religiously neutral and governed by principles other than the Word of God. There is no intrinsic point of contact for most evangelicals today between their vocation or cultural life and the Word of God – they belong to almost sealed domains. Moreover, creation itself is consistently viewed as something to be finally escaped; at the very least it is a devalued realm destined to be destroyed and so again a tension runs through the lives of modern evangelicals between the sacred call to holiness given by the church and their life everywhere else. Creation and redemption are essentially cut off from each other.

Many modern theologians, notably Karl Barth, went on to develop a perspective that openly opposed the scriptural idea (cf. Romans 1; Acts 17) that there is no neutrality, that in fact a religious antithesis is found in all aspects of life in the world. As a result, Barth and others in his stream of thought rejected the notion of Christian politics, scholarship and education, ecclesiasticising and privatising the Christian life. Barth presses the logic of Greek dualism and argues that the Word of God is wholly other, with no point of contact between nature/creation and grace. Life in the world is then viewed exclusively in terms of the Fall. As the doctrine of creation recedes from view, knowledge of the ordinances of creation is lost and creation and redemption are separated so as to divide God’s will as creator and God’s will as redeemer. Consequently, in place of God’s law is established a vague and seemingly abstract command to ‘love.’

All this is indicative of modern evangelicalism’s denial that the totality of God’s revelation is relevant to every area of life and consequently that there is no such thing as a Christian view of education, law, art, politics, economics, scholarship etc. Most of today’s evangelicals have imprisoned the body of Christ, the organic church, and indeed kingdom of God, within the walls of the church institute – its offices and ministries. As a result the gospel itself is redacted to one small element of its full and glorious scope. This intellectual lineage reveals that well-intentioned pastors and leaders who strongly influence contemporary evangelicalism, like Mark Dever, are still in the grip of Greek thought as it has come down to them via scholasticism, Lutheranism, pietism and neo-orthodoxy.

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 6.

[1]R. J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2007), 198.

[2]Herman Dooyeweerd, Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular and Christian Options (Grand Rapids: Paideia Press, 2012), 139.

[3]Ibid., 140.

[4]Ibid., 141.