Good Old Fashioned Subjectivist Goo

In the 1920’s, J. Gresham Machen diagnosed not only the intellectual and theological drift of his day but of that which would continue to develop over the next 90 years. He wrote,

The depreciation of the intellect, with the exaltation in the place of it of the feelings or of the will, is, we think, a basic fact in modern life, which is rapidly leading to a condition in which men neither know anything nor care anything about the doctrinal content of the Christian religion, and in which there is in general a lamentable intellectual decline. (What is Faith?, p.28)

The drift away from theology, i.e. the events of the redemptive-historical drama in the Bible and their meaning (doctrine), created a vacuum that has been gradually filled with other things. And one of the main results has been the rise of both the relational and the experiential as pillars of many expressions of American Christianity.

The Aquarius age of the sixties ushered in the full-blown relational era. All you need is love, the Beatles sang. I remember as a young Christian in the early 1970’s hearing the oft prescribed formula for gospel acceptance by the world… they will know you’re my disciples by your love for one another. It was no coincidence that Body-life became all the rage. In fact, a popular book came out at that time with that very title by Ray Stedman, who summed up his model for the church this way,

The church is a living organism. In the physical body, the hand moves when the brain says to. So too the members of Jesus’ spiritual body takes direction from Him as our Head. Jesus gives each member gifts and talents, making himself alive within his church. He equips his people to love one another, and to serve in unity his kingdom. This is Body Life.

The relational-conduit led to experiential reality. In one church that I was a part of for a number of years in the seventies, sharing one’s “experience of Christ” in the worship meeting was the very cutting edge of body life. What was needed was not “dead doctrine,” but life supplied from the members of the body of Christ (grace and heavenly blessing given via the horizontal-relational). And of course this accelerated the already established trend of democratizing truth by elevating the greatest common denominator among believers, a person’s subjective experience. Everyone had one! Everyone could share it. Truth filtered through my lens, my experience to the church.

To paraphrase the words of Traffic’s hit song from that same time period, a new old fashioned experiential goo was replacing the Word-based proclamation of Christ, i.e his death and resurrection for unworthy sinners in both Word and Sacrament (doctrine from above). To be built up in Christ now had more to do with being touched by someone’s testimony of their experience, accompanied by their own unique interpretation of the Spirit’s work in their life. And of course, it was incumbent upon those listening to be appropriately and relationally supportive with “amens” and “praise the Lords.” Interestingly, that’s not all too different from what one finds in any number of different support groups. The means of grace in Word and Sacrament by which sinner/saint is comforted and strengthened in faith was gradually replaced with shared testimonies of subjective experiences and mystical worship moments to attain a corporate sense of “God’s Spirit.”

Now certainly there’s nothing wrong at all with a corporate sense of God’s Spirit. But one needs to look critically at what was happening. Scriptural doctrine fell off the radar screen of that church as an ancient and unnecessary means of direction. No matter how true, doctrine was simply “dead-head knowledge,” an impediment to the Spirit’s working. Faith no longer was fed by hearing, understanding, and receiving the gospel truths. What the church needed was Life which came through the direct operation of the Spirit found in one’s personal/mystical experience of God.

Faith, no longer pointed to nor rooted in the redemptive-historical objectivity of the gospel, was redirected toward the ever-elusive subjective. So, once again Machen’s words from the twenties presciently described what came about,

But if theology be thus abandoned, or if rather (to ease the transition) it be made merely the symbolic expression of religious experience, what is to be put into its place?… Mysticism unquestionably is the natural result of the anti-intellectual tendency which now prevails; for mysticism is the consistent exaltation of experience at the expense of thought. (p.35)

The identifying mark of much of today’s evangelical church is the subjective/experiential elevated above the objective/declarative of the Word. And it is this modern means of grace which is deemed spiritually authentic. Speak of doctrine or objective biblical truth and eyes begin roll in boredom. Share your experience of a God-moment and heaven has come to earth.

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  • Jack Miller
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    Jack has been married to Barbara, his partner in the faith, since 1973. They have three daughters and sons-in-law who have blessed them with eleven grandchildren. A Ruling Elder formerly at El Camino OPC , he currently resides as a member of Christ Church Plano (ACNA). Jack has been writing on Reformation and Reformed topics at The World’s Ruined blog since 2010. He is a graduate of the University of California Santa Barbara (1974) and holds a Master’s degree in Biblical Counseling from Grace Theological Seminary (1983).

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31 comments

  1. Richard Muller—”Use of the language of personal relationship with Jesus often indicates a qualitative loss of the traditional Reformation language of being justified by grace alone through faith in Christ and being, therefore, adopted as children of God in and through our graciously given union with Christ. Personal relationships come about through mutual interaction and thrive because of common interests. They are never or virtually never grounded on a forensic act such as that indicated in the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works – in fact personal relationships rest on a reciprocity of works or acts. The problem here is not the language itself: The problem is the way in which it can lead those who emphasize it to ignore the Reformation insight into the nature of justification and the character of believer’s relationship with God in Christ.

    Such language of personal relationship all too easily lends itself to an Arminian view of salvation as something accomplished largely by the believer in cooperation with God. A personal relationship is, of its very nature, a mutual relation, dependent on the activity – the works – of both parties. In addition, the use of this Arminian, affective language tends to obscure the fact that the Reformed tradition has its own indigenous relational and affective language and piety; a language and piety, moreover, that are bound closely to the Reformation principle of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. The Heidelberg Catechism provides us with a language of our “only comfort in life and in death” – that “I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (q. 1). “Belonging to Christ,” a phrase filled with piety and affect, retains the confession of grace alone through faith alone, particularly when its larger context in the other language of the catechism is taken to heart.

    (“How Many Points?” Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 28 (1993): 425-33 Riddelblog)

  2. I’ve been learning much from this blog recently since a friend and PCA minister turned me onto it, but this article seems way off balance to me. Yes, we need a greater emphasis on the confessional and intellectual side of Christianity – the objective, declarative truth of Christianity.

    But you seem to be wanting us to hold the pendulum on the side of the intellect rather than strike a balance. Ray Stedman contributed much good to the modern church and certainly shared no part in dumbing down the gospel. And if there is a weakness among theological conservatives (like me) it is that we often fail to value the personal, experiential nature of our walk with God.

    Balance. Balance must be key.

  3. For me, this section pretty much says it all. It has been my experience here in the U.S. I can look at this from the perspective of an “outsider.”

    “Faith, no longer pointed to nor rooted in the redemptive-historical objectivity of the gospel, was redirected toward the ever-elusive subjective. So, once again Machen’s words from the twenties presciently described what came about,

    But if theology be thus abandoned, or if rather (to ease the transition) it be made merely the symbolic expression of religious experience, what is to be put into its place?… Mysticism unquestionably is the natural result of the anti-intellectual tendency which now prevails; for mysticism is the consistent exaltation of experience at the expense of thought. (p.35)

    The identifying mark of much of today’s evangelical church is the subjective/experiential elevated above the objective/declarative of the Word. And it is this modern means of grace which is deemed spiritually authentic. Speak of doctrine or objective biblical truth and eyes begin roll in boredom. Share your experience of a God-moment and heaven has come to earth.”

  4. I forgot to add, “You are always at the mercy of the person with an experience!”

  5. Dr. Clark, thanks for the lecture on “piety.” Not a personal attack on Brandon Cox and what he is trying to communicate, but when someone uses the word balance, my eyes roll to the back of head. “Balance”, from my perspective, is a call to compromise, declension, and false doctrine.

    • Ouch. I appreciate you being careful not to attack, and I recognize that. I agree with you that balance is thrown a bit frivolously. My viewpoint, however, is that in creation, we were made in God’s image which involved intellect, emotions, and will. Throughout the Scripture, God seems to involve all three in the process of regeneration. We believe, we confess, we feel.

      By “balance” I mean that there is a perception about Reformed believers that they are non-emotive, passionless, heady and perhaps even intellectually arrogant at times – the portion of Christianity that feels better and smarter than the rest.

      I’m not insinuating that here. I’m simply saying perhaps we shouldn’t throw the baby (intellect + emotions + will) with the bathwater (overly emotive and subjective).

    • Hi Brandon,
      I appreciate your comments here. Indeed, being made in the image of God entails our whole being. The question isn’t are we using all our faculties in worship (btw, is the visible absence of certain kinds of outward emotions mean there is no emotional engagement by the believer?), but what means has God given by which salvation and all its benefits are to be received? And what means has He given to the church for the His worship? Well, as a start one can say that we certainly receive by faith, and faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.

      My point in the post is how that Scriptural emphasis, in much of evangelical worship, has shifted, i.e. away from the proclamation and hearing of objective biblical truth to subjective/personal experience redefined as truth. Therein is the problem. It only becomes “real” if I experience it. So the Christian life and worship becomes not walking by faith but walking by experience (sight). This was the corporate worship phenomenon that became prevalent in the late sixties and has since grown. I’m sure you’ll agree that the subjective is an inherently unreliable guide to truth and it is also an unreliable guide for worship that is to be both Christ centered and pleasing to God. See Scott’s Recovering The Reformed Confession

      cheers…

    • Jack, that makes perfect sense. And yes, I completely agree. It was the mention of Stedman that threw me just a bit. In my earlier years, I learned a great deal from teachers such as Stedman, Wiersbe, and others in the Bible church movement and I still have much appreciation for them. I think had the post quoted someone who gave less emphasis to inerrancy and biblical authority I probably wouldn’t have blinked. But I’m researching, so thanks!

  6. If we intellectually understand and assent to the elements of the Christian faith then our hearts will naturally gravitate to the balance of a biblical piety.

  7. Great article.

    Brandon, I think you missed Jack’s point. He’s looking for a balance with an emphasis on truth not subjectivity, which is biblical.

    Balance can mean different things, depending on the context.

    I’m sticking with head knowledge over heart knowledge with the head leading the heart in response.

    I meet a lot of Christians with vigor but they couldn’t give a cogent answer on justification, sanctification, the trinity and much more. And these people have been Christians for decades!

  8. Jack wrote:
    “My point in the post is how that Scriptural emphasis, in much of evangelical worship, has shifted, i.e. away from the proclamation and hearing of objective biblical truth to subjective/personal experience redefined as truth. Therein is the problem. It only becomes “real” if I experience it.”

    I asked this question (below) from a White Horse Inn episode that their producer asked to Christians at a book selling event or something. I asked people in my church and others elsewhere.

    Here’s the question:
    “Agree or Disagree- The best way to explain that Christianity is true is to tell how others it has worked for you.”

    The overwhelming answer was “Agree”. I find that unfortunate and unsettling. They’re pointing to themselves instead of Christ and what he did.

    • I remember that WHI episode. Indeed, the evidence of how well it’s “worked” (whatever that means) in my life certainly isn’t the good news – just catch me on a bad day… Which is why the gospel – that Christ came to save sinners – is very, very good news.

    • I should say though, that when some of them realized it, they changed their answer to Disagree.

  9. Preaching and teaching the Objective Word passionately? Worshiping God through the psalms is such an objectively emotional one. Engaging the mind and losing the heart? Just had one of my students come into my office. As I heard his heart and his challenges of living the faith in the midst of a dysfunctional family, and amidst a materialistic culture, it was with emphatic ethos that the objective message of Christ’s justifying work was shared with him, with all humility and brokenness. This young lad was tearing during prayer, and visibly touched with a phenomenological moment because of the absolute reality of God’s Word which is forever settled in the heavens. Oh, I’m sorry…what was the discussion all about here?

  10. When I read this post, I thought of Mormonism, the Emergent ‘churches’, RC and liberalism. I’m thinking that the folks who would most benefit from this post (and Dr. Clark’s book cited above) probably already don’t care about QIRC and QIRE and likely not think there is anything wrong with the above-referenced movements and ‘faiths’.

    • And much of non-Reformed evangelicalism such as Wesleyans, Nazarenes, Calvary Chapel and other non-denom denominations and similar ilk.

  11. If you read bag sound Reformed writers pre-20th century you’ll find their work and their sermons filled with the experiencing as well as the doctrinal. They didn’t see the two- properly understood and Biblically discerned- as mutually exclusive. Mr. Clark has referenced Boston a few times on fibs blog but I’m surprised he has any time for Boston. His fourfold state is all doctrine and all experience.

    If you’re taking about all the nonsense one hears about being given a prophesy or wacky visions then obviously these things are dubious. But who in the American-reformed churches are promoting these things? Faith is more than intellectual assent. Anyone can agree with the propositions of the Bible. Doesn’t mean they are regenerate. Many a man has gone to a lost eternity believing the propositions of the Bible.

  12. If you’re taking about all the nonsense one hears about being given a prophesy or wacky visions then obviously these things are dubious.

    Alexander, you just very nonchalantly used four highly subjective categories. Where can one purchase a nonsense-wacky-obvious-dubious detector? But it might be easier not to distinguish between good subjectivism and bad subjectivism and just go with orthodox doctrine and moral life versus unorthodox doctrine and immoral life.

  13. But when people point out the immoral lives of professing Christians they’re accused of being legalists! Since sanctification is being denied everywhere this day then this seems a bit of a non-starter.

    What one could do is distinguish between the charismatic silliness and the marks of grace and experiences of the Christian laid down in Scripture. Or do you deny that there are marks of grace present in the soul of the believer? If so what does it mean to examine oneself? What does it mean to have Christ in us? Is the Gospel of John subjectivist goo?

    • Belgic Confession

      Article 29: The Marks of the True Church
      We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church– for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.”

      We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there. But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

      The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.

      As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

      Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

      As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

      These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.

    • Alexander, no, when some believers impugn others over things indifferent (e.g. literature, films, substance use) is when the former are being legalists. “Sanctification is being denied everywhere.” Hyperventilate much?

      But part of the point is to wonder why some get to call the experientialism of others silly but their own oh so pious. From a confessionalist pov, it looks a lot like wiping a dirty nose with a greasy rag, which turns out looking pretty silly.

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